How to meet an agent and not look like a nitwit

Dear Miss Snark,

Bouchercon is coming up in a couple of weeks. I plan to be there, and I'm sure plenty of agents will be there as well.
I'm an author with three novels in hardback, two of which have gone to trade paper. My publisher is a well-known, though small, traditional publisher. I also have a separate contract (very modest) for a mass-market series to be published by one of the bigger houses. Oh, and I've won some awards for my writing, too.
Here's the thing: I am unagented, and always have been. Helpful contacts and good luck have brought me this far.
I've heard, over and over again, about how schmoozing agents at conferences makes all the difference - how chatting agents up can get your submission read. As far as I've heard, there are no pitch sessions scheduled for Bouchercon.
But - how does one introduce oneself successfully?
I know that I detest dealing with telemarketers on the phone, and the moment I discover a telemarketer has fooled me -via Caller ID- into picking up, I can't get off the line fast enough. I thank them (none-too-sweetly) and hang up.
If I approach an agent at a conference, I feel like I'm one of those despised telemarketers. And yet, everywhere you go you hear that schmoozing is the answer.
I can't even imagine how to approach an agent in a way that won't garner me a "Get away from me, you pesky fly" look.
Any hints?

"Hello, how are you? I'm laying wagers on when McNulty falls off the wagon. Would you care to place a bet? Oh, you don't watch the Wire? I'm sorry, never mind, I don't need to speak to you ever again."

"Hello, how are you? Wouldn't you agree Alan Furst is one of the best novelists writing in the espionage field? You don't? Ok, never mind."

"Hello, how are you? Don't you think Out of Sight starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez is an overlooked masterpiece and sadly deprived of an Oscar? You don't appreciate Mr. Clooney? Excuse me, I need to shun you for life."

"Hello, how are you, nice to meet you. What do you think of the plan to raise taxi farres in New York? You are chauffered whereever you go? Ok, never mind."

"Hello, how are you? Don't you think it's time for the revitalization of private eye novels?
Me too. Let's have lunch."

Knowing you are whipcrack smart I know I don't need to tell you what I've just shown you. But, never being one not to grind a point into the pavement let me just say this: you're attending a convention of people who like to read. Talk to them about what they like to read. You'll get a big list of ideas, make some friends, and come off sounding elegant and professional. You don't need to mention you're published. Most likely we can figure that out by looking at your name. Most of us will probably know it. To quote a very very good writer "Be Cool".


Matt Shields said...

good advice, sure.

but it takes a natural talent as well. some kind of ability to disassociate yourself from your material personally & champion it at the same time.

in the fire service i was able to command a few intense situations, but when ever i'm asked to "sell" my story in ten seconds or less i just stare.

probably cause i don't have an axe with me

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This is something I've often wondered about. "Hi, you're an agent? I'm an author. I've written X, Y, and Z. How do you like the conference so far?" sounds to much like the social etiquette books for young people that my mother wished I would read.

Anonymous said...

Out of Sight so totally deserved an Oscar!

Anonymous said...

Another thought besides Miss Snark's excellent advice would be to mention to your editor at your mass market house that you are currently searching for an agent. Ask her if she can recommend any to you. (And what better way to discover just who your editor likes working with!)

This is exactly what I did many Bouchercons ago, because like you, I was published but had no agent.

Now mind you I had heard such things that it's bad juju to talk "agents" to your editor, like you're trying to gouge them for more money when you were agentless beforehand. Not so! Editors understand the necessity. Really, they do.

So ask your NY editor from the major house. But before you do, know what you are looking for in an agent (the question my editor posed to me: what do you want in an agent? I told her what I was looking for, several qualities, in fact, and she gave me a list of agents to query.)

In fact, you may even call him or her tomorrow and find out a few names, determine if those agents will be at Bouchercon, then contact them and set up an interview if they have time on such short notice. I interviewed four agents at Bcon, and I liked them all, would easily go with any of them, but had to make a choice. My agent and I are a great fit, my income has increased, and I have my editor to thank.

Inez said...

Viva Out of Sight!
Go Miss Snark!
Oh, sorry, I guess that's kind
of off topic.

The Troubleshooter said...

If this writer is this well published, why don't they just query a few agents via paper or email and not worry about pitching?

Linda M Au said...

The whole schmoozing thing gives me the willies. I tend to get the stutters (from childhood) or a very trembling voice when I'm nervous, and if it feels like a performance, I really go all deer-in-the-headlights.

Part of the reason I'm a writer and not an actress is that I adore being behind the scenes. And yet I have to "sell" myself in person in ways I've never been comfortable with.


Gerb said...

Go the conference to meet PEOPLE. Schmooze with everyone. Treat the agents like you would treat anyone else in your social circle. Don't pitch unless invited to do so. The idea is to make contacts. If you feel like you have really connected with a person, then it's OK to follow up with a note telling them how lovely it was to meet them at such and such a place and that you believe you would like to work with them (because...)

I can't remember if it was Anna Genoise or Agent Kristin or who, but I do remember a blog wherein an editor or agent expressed their dislike of people who treated them like a "score" instead of a person. Good thing to remember.

Bella Stander said...

You: (look at agent's nametag) Hi, Joe. Nice to meet you. Sure was an interesting panel just now, don't you think?

Agent: Sure was, though I disagree with what Jane Author said about serial scrubbers.

You: Me too! I couldn't BELIEVE she said that. And that bit about Rabbitania--please!

Agent: Oh, I know. Rabbitania is so over in this genre.

You: Yeah, I'm sick of reading about it. What do you think is the next thing?

Agent: Well, one of my authors, FX Blow, has a new book coming out next spring, which is going to usher in a whole new era.

You: FX Blow? I just LOVE his books! CAPTAIN RAIDER inspired me to write my first novel.

Agent: Oh really? etc., etc. [Leads to a nice long chat, exchanging business cards, maybe even a drink together & conversation with others who come by.]

Anonymous said...

Know what I like about this blog? You leave out the parts I skip over.

Anonymous said...

Some poeple do have a gift for that kind of talk. If you don't, and try it because it's the thing to do, you end up looking (and feeling!) a nitwit. If you don't know how to schmooze, don't try it!

Anonymous said...

I can't get over that stupid word: "hardback". There's no such thing. It's either paperback or hardcover; not some mix of the two.

If you want to get an agent at a conference, whatever you do, do not start talking about yourself or your book. Start with some conversation the agent will enjoy and try to find out what they like to read. Only ask them if you can pitch them something very late in the conversation. They won't mind it as long as they had a blast talking to you.

Mind you, agents are usually busy at conferences, so you don't want to hog their time either.

Anonymous said...

Really? Agents know who's small-press published by looking at our name tags? Sorry, Miss S, I rarely take issue but given the sheer breadth of the small press market, and the incomparable invisibility of most of us who sell to them, this seems like a feat of memory unequalled in human history.

If, however, you have KY in your satchel, whispering small press pubbed authors' names in your ear...


Anonymous said...

I echo what someone else said about remembering that agents are people--real, living people with likes and feelings. I went to a conference not long ago and found that talking to agents wasn't half as hard as I thought it would be. I did a post about it on my blog, if you want to read it. It's called "The Gods of New York." If you click on my name, it should take you there, but just in case, my blog address is superwench83.livejournal.com.

Have fun at your conference!

Miss Snark said...

Termagant...at Bouchercon it's mystery writers. I know and follow (even if I haven't read) as much of that industry as I can. Agents who attend B'con are devotees of the field. I like to keep my eye on what those clever folks at HardCase Crime, Bleak House, Momento Mori, Pleasure Boat Studio and others are doing.

Carter said...

And to quote (or possible mis-quote) a well-known and highly respected editor: "Act like an adult."

Word verification: oyvefi -- Jewish wireless networking malfuntion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the sage advice. RB - extra thanks - I didn't think to mention this to the editor. She and I have had minimal contact thus far, but I expect to meet her face-to-face at the cocktail reception Friday night. Looking forward to that (and yes, I understand not to rush at her with the request first thing!)

Phaidra - I have queried agents via snail and e-mail. Apparently I need to work on my query letters. So far, no bites.

(or should I say, "no score"?) ;-)

I have no problem standing up and talking in front of people, but I do get nervous starting casual conversations. I assume there's always someone else people would prefer to talk to, so I don't monopolize. Maybe that's the problem....I am so *not* a squeaky wheel.

Thanks, Katie, for the link to your blog. I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

HNTBAN, don't forget to network with your fellow authors as well. When my first agent retired from the business, I found my second (and I hope last!) from talking with friends and acquaintances.

People who love their agents almost always love recommending them. You might not get Lee Child to suggest you email Darley Anderson, but chances are good another mid-lister will drag you over to the bar and introduce you to her agent.

CAVEAT for other of Miss Snark's readers: sadly, this applies only to writers who already have a few published works under their belt. Generally speaking, the most a would-be-professional is going to get from an author is an endorsement of the agent, and a suggestion that his or her contact information is readily available in the Guide to Literary Agents.

Anonymous said...

Salty, your comment made me howl with laughter.

Maybe you should take your axe next time, and I'll carry my sword - think it'll help?

MG said...

You are so right about "Out Of Sight". I watched it the other day and was blown away with how much better it was than I remembered. Ah, Mr. Clooney. It's a good job I'm already married, Miss Snark, or it might have come to pistols at dawn for thee and me.

Mike Vecchio said...

Since the topic is talking to agents, the most fascinating story for me occurred when a newspaper reporter friend of mine asked me to help him at a writer's conference. Because I was his assistant I sat at the speaker table for lunch. Who does he sit me down next to but Bill Thompson, an agent who was John Grisham's editor for a Time To Kill. Bill greets me, than asks was I working on anything?

This demonstrates a few things.
1)Develop an elevator pitch and be ready to relate it casually at all times.
2)Don't treat an informal inquiry with a formal attitude. The agent is just one of the workers as are you. You just have different jobs.
3)Be ready to meet anyone, any time, especially at a convention writing or otherwise that can help you with your work.
4)Anyone can and will show up at the right time.

So, meeting an agent is about looking for opportunities that are organic. Certainly, what Bella Stander says is right on the money.

In fact, if there was any point of contention in a panel discussion and you bump into agent Joe as you are leaving the discussion, you could start a conversation any number of ways. If his name tag has the Agency - you could notice that and say *I notice you're from Alpha and Omega, did you agree with ... about ... * Or just make eye contact, and especially with a genuine question in mind, you can begin to ask. When you are done, apologize for not introducing yourself and say *Oh, I noticed you're from agency Alpha and Omega and I thought you'd have an opinion. I'm really interested. He will get your interest if it is genuine.

This is totally legitimate because in order to come to terms (notice I didn't say understand) this industry questions like you were about to ask can help you see things as they relate to your work.

If your express purpose is to snare the agent and make your pitch that will come across and be awkward. Once you start a conversation, if you and that agent are destined to do business it will happen. As Bella points out, one point of conversation will lead to another and it will become clear.

As per my story above, I find people in this industry very helpful, both if you already have developed talent, or are developing your talent. What is important is your sincerity of purpose. If you truly have something to say and want to say it, that comes across.

Miss Snark is but one shining example of people committed to assisting. As is Kristin Nelson, Rachel Vater and many, many more.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark, I second you on Alan Furst.

Naf said...

A 'Wire' fan? You've earned my respect now.

Anonymous said...

I have a metting with a literary agent this week and I'm totally unsure of WHAT to do. The book had eben signed by an agent who ended up stating I needed a ghostwriter-which he was unable to find for me-and so my year co ntract with a big agent/agency ended. I called another well known agent, who based on my last agent's name alone gave me a few moments on the phone and a meeting. What do I do? Am I s imp ly being myself or am I "selling" my project/book?
Please help and thanks much!