Clay Stafford, founder Killer Nashville, publisher of Killer Nashville Magazine, and CEO of American Blackguard Inc., is regularly asked a range questions from writing techniques to publishing to marketing. And, they’re always good questions, he says. But often he feels he is unable to fully answer due to time constraints. Writing as a business is important stuff and demands reflection. In our “Ask Clay” column, he will share more than 30 years of experience in what he knows about the writing and entertainment businesses.
Making the Most of Writers’ Conferences
Question: I am an unpublished writer and coming to Killer Nashville to get discovered. How can I make sure I take advantage of all my opportunities?
First of all, I’m glad you are coming to Killer Nashville. By your proactive attendance alone, you are already saying you are ready to get down to business. Killer Nashville (and other conferences) are a wonderful way to get out of the slush pile. That’s a huge reason why Killer Nashville was created. Frankly, it was my way of giving back to all the people who have helped me over the years. The people who present at Killer Nashville feel the same way. We’ve been given opportunities. This is our way to give back. By coming to the conference, we know that you are a professional. You’ve laid down the money. You’ve made the effort. You’ve made the commitment. And you’re willing to put yourself out in front of people.
Publishing is a long-odds profession. You can lessen those odds by meeting face-to-face with people, rather than simply being another letter in the mail. How many books are published each year? How about 8,000 per day in various forms. Holy cow! How do you compete against those odds? You make friends. You don’t come to conferences to sell books, you come to conferences to make friends. You put a face with the name, a face with the story, a face with the manuscript. It is this that propels you above those who would rather sit at home and send out query letters.
You said something interesting in your question: you are coming to get discovered. Not a great way to look at it. Fact: no one is going to discover you. You have to make your presence known and in a way that is truly positive. We have people who come to Killer Nashville and those who have rubbed elbows with them certainly leave with an impression; but not one that the person probably wanted. The conference is a way to give a great impression to someone face-to-face and create a long-standing positive relationship.
I thought about your question and came up with things I’ve seen work over the past 9 years at Killer Nashville. We have a wonderful success rate of getting people published: from the information and networking that comes from the conference itself, to our agent/editor roundtables, to our social mixers, to our Killer Nashville Claymore Award. Standing out at a writers’ conference requires effort on your part. They are simple things, but they go a long way in making you look professional.
1. Let people know you are coming.
Let people know you are coming (on your social media, retweeting posts from conference itself, alerting those in your social circle that you are coming). Blog on your own site and become a guest blogger on others. Talk about your journey. Write a guest article or do a book review for Killer Nashville Magazine. Conference organizers read those posts and know who the hungry authors are. Agents and editors who are coming read those posts. Both conference organizers and attendees know who is retweeting or sharing their posts. Look at the attendee list of the conference and friend or follow those people, developing a supportive relationship before you ever get to the conference (and be sure you follow back if someone follows you). Knowing people socially before the event will let everyone get a feeling for you even before they meet you. It’s like the old advertising adage of putting the product in front of people in numerous ways. Here, you let people know the product is coming and they better be ready because you are excited and ready to go! Follow the agents and editors who will be attending via their social media and make comments, including how excited you are that they are attending the conference where you are going.
2. Start building a platform now.
Unfortunately, it is not enough to have a great manuscript. You need to let people know the whole package: how you are also positioned to sell it. That is your platform. Create your website and social media platforms. If you are not good at technology, hire someone else to do it. It is worth the money. A bad impression is worse than no impression at all. Start speaking to groups. Tweet and post about your research. Build up excitement for your project – and build in a following (which could translate in the agent or editor’s eyes as potential sales) before you ever get to the conference. For an unflattering, but perfect example of how building a platform can sometimes trump great writing, read this months article on “Celebrity Fiction” by Killer Nashville Magazine British correspondent C.J. Daugherty. Factor great writing into celebrity and you are unstoppable.
3. Research everyone who is attending.
Research the agents, editors, publishers, and even other attendees who will be at the conference with you. None of us like being numbers. It’s nice when someone knows us, including people we’ve never met. Each year, I have attendees I’ve never met come up and introduce themselves. I’d say probably 10% of attendees. We talk. They already know me because they’ve taken the time to wander about the website. In most cases, I know them because I do the same thing. Because they seem genuine and professional, I’m drawn to them. I want to learn more about them. I want to hear their stories – not the ones they’ve written – the stories of their journey to this point. And then – what do I do? – I take them and hand-introduce them to the people I think could help them, individuals I think match their personality. Then they scream after the manuscript is requested from the top of the escalator, hug my neck, and it makes my day. Another 10% will ask who I am. I tell them my name. They ask if I’m a writer. I tell them I try. We get off the elevator and I go down the hall shaking my head. And then about 80% walk by and never say a word. I’ve talked with agents, editors, publishers who attend, and they all have the same experiences I have. If you are in that 10%, you are really going to outshine the other 90%. Researching who is going to be there in advance will save you the learning curve when you get there.
4. Have your manuscript ready to go.
It amazes me the number of people who pitch and don’t have a completed manuscript ready. When opportunity knocks, you need to be ready to take advantage. You know the conference is coming. Get that manuscript into shape. Have numerous people critique it. Research proper format. And when someone loves your idea, you – without sweat – can produce the goods.
5. Bring plenty of paper and pens for notes.
Come to the conference to learn. Don’t spend valuable time in the classroom raising your hand to instruct the professionals on the panel on the industry. They know the industry better than you. Instead of coming to the conference with opinions, come to the conference to listen and learn. By all means, share something if you have it to share. That makes the sessions dynamic. Just don’t hog the microphone. You know the difference. Use the system. Learn how it works. Listen to what the professionals are saying, really saying, through fresh eyes. See an opening. And then strategically make your move. Sometimes if you already have an idea (usually negative) of the odds that are against you, you do not see the actual positive opportunities that are presented. And at conferences like Killer Nashville, they are all around you. When you leave, you’ll be mind-boggled at where to begin to harvest from the field you planted.
6. Have your pitch ready.
Create a TV schedule encapsulation of your story. Two sentences. Thirty seconds. Something that makes someone want to request your manuscript. Believe it or not, that same pitch (for better or worse) will tag along with your manuscript for the rest of its life: from you to agent, from agent to editor, from editor to publisher board meetings, from editor to marketing, from marketing to publicity, from publicity to reviewers, from reviewers to book buyers, from marketing to sales, from sales to bookstore owners or managers, from bookstore owners to employees, from hand-selling employees to customers, from customer (and now reader) to a word-of-mouth recommendation to a friend. Plan your two-sentence pitch well. You might even feel you spent more time on it than you did in writing the book! But the time spent is more than worth it from start to finish.
7. Bring business cards.
Authors are poor marketers. One of the most basic things you need are business cards. Nothing fancy, just well-thought-out. It needs to be clear, professional, and strategically you. Like your website, it needs to look professional. Who wants to work with a sloppy writer? When the person leaves the conference, they need to pull out your business card and remember YOU. How do you do that? By having a business card, for one. Seeing 500 people over the course of three days can be taxing to anyone’s mind. No wonder they don’t remember you. A business card will help you stand out. Next month, I will go into detail regarding the 15+ items that should be a consideration on everyone’s business card. Don’t worry; you have enough time before the Killer Nashville conference to get that together. Just be sure to check back with this column next month.
8. Sign up for everything.
Wherever anyone looks, you are there. That includes the breakout sessions. Guest of Honor and Awards Dinner. Social gatherings sponsored by Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and others. Visit the bookstores. Get critiques of your work (critiques are not just for getting critiques; they are also for getting you in front of those who might be able or interested in helping you later). Don’t stand or sit at a table. Walk around. Mingle. Introduce yourself. Remember people’s names. Take cards. Give cards. When other attendees interest you or you share a common interest, maybe go to dinner or lunch with them. (We’ve had at least 3 couples who met during Killer Nashville and have either gotten married or are dating long term, believe it or not.) You never know whom you might find. Network.
9. Forget the gimmicks.
You don’t need gimmicks. Leave the boxed presents, candy, and cookies at home. You want agents, editors, and publishers to like you, not be freaked out that you are some crazed stalker bearing gifts. You need three things to make a positive impact. You need professionalism, a good manuscript, and a happy, welcoming demeanor.
10. Enter your work in awards contests.
If you are coming to Killer Nashville and have the first 50 pages of your manuscript ready, enter it in the Claymore Award. If you’ve already published a book, enter it in the Silver Falchion. Placing in either of these gets your name out. And who reads and judges these entries? Many times it is the same group of individuals who will be at the conference also looking to represent you. If they read your great 50 pages before they ever arrive, when they finally meet you, they already know you can deliver the goods.
11. Dress for success.
Dress as though you are there for a casual business interview. Because you are. Killer Nashville is not a coat-and-tie event (except maybe for the Guest of Honor Dinner), but you do need to appear as though you would know how to dress if Good Morning America wanted to do an interview with you.
12. Don’t hype or undersell.
Be realistic and honest about where you are. If you’re starting out, you’re starting out. If you’ve been orphaned (your publisher or agent has dropped you), there’s no need to apologize for that. But no matter where you are, you are a writer with a manuscript. That puts you in the club. Don’t be intimidated. There is not a person at the conference who is either not in your same position, or hasn’t been in your same position. It’s like people looking at you in a restaurant when your children are throwing a fit – for those of you who are parents. You feel embarrassed, but next time, really look. Most of the people are smiling slightly. Why? Because they remember (and are probably thankful that their kids are now a little older). You are not the first person to walk this path. If you let people, they will share their experiences and help you along because they have been there previously themselves just as long as you present yourself as you are. Leave the hype at home. And – for a little humor – read the things you should NOT say in agent Deni Dietz’s article this month, Mind Your Ps and Qs: An Editor’s Perspective on the Art of Manuscript Submission.
13. Expect positive results.
Be positive. No one needs to know the bad experiences you’ve had with your previous agent. In fact, your previous agent (whom you are slamming) may be a friend of the new editor you are talking with. No one likes to be a downer. We all know the publishing industry is hard and harsh at times. Who wants more of that? Who wants to hang with people who want to bash rather than build? Don’t put yourself in that position. We only want to work with positive people. There are, honestly, people who are better off NOT coming to Killer Nashville simply because it is such a positive place. Negative people are quickly shunned.
14. Listen to critiques.
Don’t argue with the person giving you a critique. Really listen politely to all critiques and weigh them. Few really want to know why you did what. Just listen. And once you get the critique, don’t just blindly apply it. It may be really poor advice. But weigh that decision on your own. Privately. People will value you for actually (if only in appearances) wanting to know their thoughts.
15. Have 1 physical copy of your manuscript ready.
You probably won’t use it, but you’ll have it. Some people even advise against bringing a copy of the manuscript. If someone wants it, the common view is that they will request you mail or email it to them (or a portion thereof). I’ve seen exceptions, though. Once at Killer Nashville an editor was so excited about a manuscript (and wanted to make an offer before the others) that they wanted a copy of the manuscript to read on the plane back to New York. The author didn’t bring a copy.
16. Bring several copies of your query packet.
Have at least 10 copies of your query packet with you (minus the cover letter). If someone is interested in your work, be prepared to give them your “sales packet.” Don’t miss that opportunity. In April’s issue of Killer Nashville Magazine, we will address what should be in this package.
17. Talk with people outside of the sessions.
Your book deals – believe me – are going to be made outside the pitching environment. Use those opportunities. Talk with everyone. We have buyers (agents, editors, publishers) who are not on the program. They are walking around looking for writers. Make your presence known.
18. Realize agents, editors, and publishers are there looking for talent.
Along with your ego, leave your jitters at the door. The people at Killer Nashville are there either to help you or to work with you. If you’ve been to Killer Nashville before, you know the warm family environment that runs from Day 1 through Day 4, and years thereafter. That’s why we have so many repeat attendees at Killer Nashville – and not just beginning authors! New York Times bestsellers come back year after year because of the environment. Agents and editors are searching for new talent. You can be the solution to their problem. Who can’t love someone who is going to step in and solve their problem? Be that person. And part of doing that is to let your personality and your gifts flow freely so everyone can see them. Cut the jitters. They put the stop-plug on who you are. See the people who are there – no matter how powerful – as approachable. And see yourself as the solution to the problem they need. They want good writers who will compliment their current stable.
19. Focus on the long-term goals.
Some say writer’s conferences are about getting your book published. They are not. That’s short-term thinking. Sure, that may be the eventual endgame for all your efforts, but the main thing to gain at a conference is relationships and information. That’s the mission statement of Killer Nashville: connect writers with other writers, connect writers with industry professionals, connect writers with new fans, and connect writers with information. Focusing on selling your book is a byproduct of the bigger picture. Instead, look at the people you meet as people you want to develop a relationship with for the next 50 years. That’s a more accurate view. And – as a byproduct – you will sell your book.
20. Don’t worry about the other writers also seeking representation or publication.
Sure there are those who might view you as competition, but that’s crazy thinking. No two writers with a genuine voice are the same. Publishers and editors know that. Support each other. Introduce each other to people you meet. There is room for everyone. Agents and editors will leave Killer Nashville with the names of dozens of possible clients. You and your new friends are there to support each other; not be concerned about one upstaging the other. Value the support and take it with you long after the conference is over.
21. Focus on having fun.
Killer Nashville is all about fun. All four days are set up so people not only learn, but they can play in a non-threatening setting so that their true personalities are able to emerge. Have fun. Encourage others to have fun. People like to hang out with those who have fun, including agents, editors, and publishers. (Sometimes we might forget, but they are people, too.)
22. Stay in touch after the conference is over.
Friend people you meet on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. If someone sends you a friend request or follows you, follow back. Always. Connect with other writers you meet via phone, text, and email. And for those who can or have helped your career: send hand-written thank you notes (physical ones). You will be surprised what a difference these make in your unfolding future.
Employ these techniques, bring the marketable goods, be pleasant and appealing, and there is no way that you can’t make the most of Killer Nashville this year. And possibly, just possibly, this may be your year. Looking forward to seeing you there.
Having worked in film, television, radio, and publishing as both a buyer and a seller, Clay Stafford is happy to take your questions regarding the publishing / entertainment industry.
Clay Stafford has had an eclectic career. Not only did he found Killer Nashville in 2006 and Killer Nashville Magazine in 2015, but he has also been an industry executive (PBS, Universal Studios, others), author (over 1.5 million copies of his books in print), a filmmaker (work in 14 languages), university professor (several universities including University of Miami and University of Tennessee), and a much-sought-after public speaker (U.S. Department of Defense, Miami International Press Club, more).
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