That Conference Appointment

You snagged one of those valuable 15-minute appointments with an agent or an editor at a writers conference. Now what? What do you say? How do you say it? And what does that scowling person on the other side of the table want? You’ve heard the reputation of that agent as being rough and gruff. What if you blow it?

What advice would you give to a beginning writer about attending a writers conference and meeting with an editor or an agent?

Go in with realistic expectations. The biggest mistake is thinking that this is the guaranteed method for getting a book contract and that you have one chance to make or break your entire writing dream. Modify those expectations. Instead, see it as a learning experience and a place to listen and absorb the sights and sounds around you. It can, in some ways, be a safe place to fail.

Over the years it is estimated that you’ve conducted more than 2,000 of these appointments. What are you looking for in a new author or client? Is there an element in a pitch that you look for?

This a VERY difficult question. Reading anything is an extremely subjective experience. If I like the pitch I may not like the writing. And sometimes the pitch is weak, but the writing is great. And furthermore, what gets me excited may cause another agent’s eyes to glaze over.

In the appointment I’m looking at the person as much as the pitch and the writing. It is the connection made with their personality and their passion and their overall presentation of themselves. That is as much a part of the pitch as the actual words in the manuscript. It is one of the reasons why agents and editors go to a conference: to see firsthand that “snap” or “spark” which makes that person stand out. Hopefully, the execution of the writing delivers as well.

Understand that I’m not saying that someone has to be a “bigger-than-life” personality. That would be a rather shallow perspective. Instead, it is reading the person behind the page. It is hard to explain and impossible to teach to someone else. But those of us on this side of the table know what I mean. The successful agents and editors have the ability to pick those few from the crowd..

So, please understand I’m not talking about a song-and-dance routine. But instead, I’m talking of the internal fire, that God-given spark that says, “Steve? Pay attention.”

What is the one thing that drives you crazy about people when they pitch. What is the one thing you wish they would do?

On the one hand is the person who tries to tell their entire novel or book idea with excruciating detail. That is either a case of nerves or a case of failing to practice ahead of time.

On the other hand is the person who is so precise that they sit down, smile, and hit me with their 25-word blurb. Then they close their mouth and expectantly wait for my august pronouncement, as if that is considered a conversation. That “interview” has lasted for all of two minutes at that point, and the silence is rather awkward. (Realize I haven’t read anything yet.)

The key is a strong balance between being over eager and talkative and the sterile precision of a practiced speaker. Remember, this is a conversation. I am not only listening to your pitch, I’m also listening to you. I am also meeting you. 

But if I say, “No. This doesn’t work for me,” that doesn’t mean I don’t like you. It is like the sidewalk vendor who shows me their turquoise jewelry and I say, “No thanks. Not today.” I am declining a business proposition, not crushing your soul.

Is there any sort of unwritten protocol to which you can clue us in?

Use your common sense. The jokes about slipping a proposal under a bathroom stall door are based in fact. Imagine my surprise while standing in the bathroom doing my business when a fellow comes up to me and starts pitching his book idea. I turned my head and sternly had to say, “Not now! Do you really want me to associate your book idea with this experience?”

At one conference a woman followed me into the men’s room while making her pitch. I had to ask her if she would mind waiting outside for a moment.

I’ll never forget another lady who came up to the appointment table, stood over me, and shook a finger saying, “Now you be nice to me!” And then gestured aggressively at another editor in the room and said, “Because that man over there made me cry.” I timidly asked her to take a seat.

Once a writer was so nervous about the appointment that the moment she sat down she burst into tears.

My advice to every writer is to r-e-l-a-x. Be yourself. The editor/agent is not necessarily an ogre. (However, after watching me at a writers conference a few years ago, Thomas Umstattd gave me the title “The Harbinger of Grim Reality” or “ogre” for short. Gee, thanks Thomas.)

If you run into an editor/agent in the hall or the elevator, it’s okay to talk to them! We are not rock-star celebrities, for goodness sake. We have come to the conference with the goal to find new talent and to nurture relationships.

Try not to argue with the editor/agent. It’s okay to disagree and state your case; but if you let it devolve into a snit, you need to apologize–and so does the editor/agent. Civility should reign. If I make a statement regarding the receptivity of the market to your book idea, I’m not asking for a debate. (“But mine is so much better than Harry Potter!”) I’m merely expressing my observations about the marketplace.

It’s been said that some editors and agents request everything pitched to them at a conference. What is your take on this, and how often do you make requests?

There can be the problem of the “false positive” at a conference. By “false positive” I mean the editor/agent says, “Send it to me,” only to later send a stock rejection letter. It is a problem of which there is no real solution. Editors/agents cannot fully evaluate a project in a 15-minute meeting, or walking down a hallway, or over a group dinner table. Back in the office they can weigh your project against the others they are considering. But at least you are being considered! If you had not gone to the conference, you would not have had that chance. I can name numerous times in my past where I contracted someone after reading the proposal in the office. Of course, the majority receive the “no thank you” letter. Just because the faculty member says, “send it” doesn’t carry with it a guarantee of a sale.

It is especially difficult with fiction because the reading is more of an experience than an evaluation. I’m not afraid to say, “This needs work” to any writer; and many of you reading this blog have heard those words from me. But at the same time, our agency’s door is always open. We are always in the hunt for the “next best.” I can’t know if that is the “next” unless I get it reviewed and read it myself in a different context outside the conference.

Have you ever signed an author after meeting with them at a conference?

Many, many times. Both as an agent and back when I was an editor at Bethany House. It does happen. I can safely say that every editor or agent would agree that if they find one (only one) new talent from a conference, it is considered a success.

I’ve had many times where nothing specific came out of that conference, but years later it bore fruit. For example, Paul Robertson attended a conference where I spoke in the late 90s. He said he sent something afterward that I rejected. Eight years later he sent me a proposal that was published (The Heir) with Bethany House. So while I didn’t necessarily see anything at the time, it had results nearly 10 years later.

Have you ever rejected someone who later became a successful author?

Of course! Ask any editor/agent about the “one they let get away.” They’ll be “happy” to tell you their story.

Ask any number of established authors, and they will all tell their stories of rejection by agents and editors.

A lot of writers deserve their initial rejections! Often they start out with a half-baked pitch or with an idea that just landed on the bestseller list written by another author.

Jack Cavanaugh went to writers conferences for ten years before he sold the first of his 25+ novels. During those years he learned the craft, he learned the industry, and he became friends with editors. And when the time was right, his novel was accepted and a career was born.


[An earlier version of this articled was posted in 2010.]

33 Responses to That Conference Appointment

  1. C. F. Pagels September 12, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    What a nice common sense post. Maybe they should make all the writers with appointments read this first! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Rick Barry September 12, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

    This is a terrific post. The sometimes conflicting advice writers receive from various sources can become a kaleidoscope of confusion if we try to embrace each nugget of everyone’s advice. That alone might be the source of some authors’ nervousness. So the word “relax” is excellent advice. Our lives are in God’s hands, not in an editor’s or agent’s.

    And failure? Back in the 1980s when I was just beginning Russian studies, the professor held our graded exams and said, “Before I return these, let me say a word about failure….” I aced the exam, but I still recall her advice to use any degree of failure as a learning opportunity.

    Thanks, Steve.

  3. Ellie Kay September 12, 2010 at 9:32 pm #

    What a great post, Steve! I’ve seen you in action at writer’s conferences and even heard you tell some of the stories you allude to in this blog. I’m going to direct other writers to read this before they attend their next writer’s conference. There’s a lot they can glean in order to be more prepared as they take advantage of that 15 minute meeting. I suppose I’m one of those rare people that Steve Laube “accepted.” You’ve been involved either as an editor or agent in all 14 of my books. You’ve also “rejected” plenty ideas since then, but since “it’s just business, nothing personal” it makes for good feedback! THX!

  4. Karen Robbins September 13, 2010 at 3:57 am #

    I was once rejected by Steve Laube (a few years ago). Guess there is still hope for me. Great post! Steve, you along with several other agents are a great encouragement to all writers. You are appreciated.

  5. Ed Cyzewski September 13, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    One former editor told me to start the appointment by asking the editor questions about what he/she is looking for. That really helped get the conversation going.

  6. Patti Hanan September 13, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to give succinct advice to writers aspiring to get published. I have been to writer’s conferences and been on the other side of the desk for those precious 15 minute consultations. I know persistence and hard work will pay off one day.
    Thank you for giving writers like me hope. I hope you will have the time to take a look at my blog.
    Thank you for providing a service to Christian writers.

  7. Sheila Deeth September 13, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    I guess I only made it to one conference–still dreaming I might be able to afford another one one day. But I really enjoyed this post. Now, if I could just meet someone in Safeway and trap them by the frozen peas…

  8. Steve September 13, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    Ed brings up a good point/question. Actually I don’t like to have a writer ask me “what are you looking for?” I’m looking for a great book idea with great writing…so what do you have for me?

    Better to say something along the lines of “I’ve prepared my proposal and some sample chapters. May I practice my pitch on you?” !! Okay, maybe not the most confident sounding thing, but you get the drift? This is about you, not about me. I want to hear what you have to say. I’ve already bored myself with my own opinions of myself… LOL.


  9. Ed Cyzewski September 13, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    Thanks for the reminder Steve that not all editors/agents are the same. I should have added that after the initial question, my editor-friend told me to launch into my pitch for my book ideas, however I did so with a better idea of where my ideas may fit into an editor’s plans and which project to pitch in particular. So I suppose it is a matter of personal preference, since I know some editors have appreciated that approach but others such as yourself would not.

  10. Michael K. Reynolds September 13, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    The truth is that you guys are rock stars Steve! But that’s part of the fun. What’s better than when Eric Clapton tells you that you play a mean guitar. It just carries a little more weight than when Mom says it.

    This is a superb article and will be one for the archives. Well done.

  11. Jessica September 13, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    Hahaaa! I think I was at that conference and it was hilarious!
    Thanks for this post. Last year I vowed not to get nervous at my appts….but I did. Next year I’m hoping to do better and be more myself rather than a stiff, nervous, awkward silence type of girl.
    And you’ve rejected me too. 🙂 I’m still waiting for that key to success though. *grin*

    Thanks for the encouraging post!

  12. Steve September 13, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    Thank you all for your comments and compliments.

    Ellie? Stop reading my blog and get me that next proposal!

    Ed. You make a good point. It is impossible to guess which way the editor/agent wants to go. So instead, just “relax” and make it your time. I often begin by saying, “What can I help you with today?”

    Michael. Very funny Clapton vs. Mom comment. I may have to use that one.

    Jessica. Sorry you’ve been yet another infamous recipient. Someday you’ll get to wave your new book under my nose and say, “Neener, neener, neener. Look what you turned down!”

  13. Lenore Buth September 16, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Thanks for injecting a note of sommon sense into the ever-churning mass of information and advice we all feed on.

    I choose to take this beyond the conference experience. For instance, when reading the list of must-haves before we dare to send something in, it sometimes sounds as if our writing will come second to how well we perform the “song and dance routine.”

    It’s encouraging to hear you say when you look for writers you’re “talking of the internal fire, that God given spark that says, “Steve? Pay attention.”

    You remind us all Who’s really in charge.

    Reading your words confirmed what I already know of you, Steve, from hearing you and speaking with you years ago and also from reading your blog over time.

    Thanks and God bless.

  14. Taffy September 16, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    Thank you!
    Thank you!
    Thank you!

    My reasoning for not talking to an editor/agent is I don’t want to come across a stalker or someone who just wants to talk to them about my book. So now that I know your all human, I’ll just treat you like a new friend 🙂

    Now I’ll get back to writing!

  15. Larie September 20, 2010 at 6:07 am #

    This is just the advice I need to give it another try. I had the opportunity to meet with a publisher at a writer’s conference last year and my nerves took over. I found myself rambling but didn’t want to stop and endure that “awkward silence.” It was a learning experience.

  16. Delia Latham July 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Steve, thanks so much for this wonderful, informative post! I’ll be attending my first ACFW Conference this year, and I’ve been so nervous about the conference as a whole, but also about my editor and agent appointments. Your post has helped settle my nerves…at least for the moment. 🙂 Thank you!

    • Steve Laube July 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

      Glad to know this was helpful and relevant! You will do just fine.


  17. Carol McClain August 19, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    Steve, thank you for the insight. I’ve been that inexperienced author who told my story in excruciating detail–but I’ve learned. I’ve never been a quiet one.

    In an agent, I need someone who believes in me and with whom I connect. In theory, if I need to wait a long time for that one being–so be it. In reality–why wasn’t it last year???

    I am hoping for an appointment with you at ACFW in St. Louis, so your post is quite opportune.


  18. Angela Breidenbach September 15, 2011 at 8:05 am #

    I remember sitting down with you and being the first author that didn’t cry!
    You actually asked me why I didn’t because it was so unusual. So for those who worry they might, I’ll offer the same answer. I made an effort to meet or learn enough about the agents and editors I would talk to so they would become regular people to me. I also go to those appts looking for a way to bless that person rather than be blessed by them. I’ve found they usually are tired, thirsty, and maybe even hungry. So I offer to give a bottle of water or a protein bar or even just a smile. They’ve had a long day already. No one likes rejection, not even the person in the position of rejecting. It hurts.
    If we take it well, you never know what might happen in the future.
    I am a writer rejected by Steve. But I didn’t take offense. I took it to prayer. And a few years later, my agent and I comfortably find ourselves part of the Steve Laube Agency. What would have happened if I couldn’t accept that rejection professionally? Luckily, we’ll never know.

    You’ve had good advice for me that’s helped me progress in platform and it’s been fun seeing it all play out over the years 🙂 Now we do have the contract and some great opportunities.
    I had a lot of great opportunity because rejection is just part of the process and not something to fixate on.
    Angie breidenbach

    • Bob Hostetler April 8, 2019 at 11:36 am #

      Steve STILL makes me cry. Almost daily.

  19. Gin Fox March 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    Thanks so much for the great info. I would like to someday meet you at one of your conferences.

  20. Janine Rosche April 8, 2019 at 4:50 am #

    Appointments are also good opportunities to see who you’d like to work with. I’ve had several appointments where I walked away thinking “that person/publisher is not a good fit for me.”

    They can provide the most valuable feedback on you and your manuscript. These folks know A LOT! Be teachable.

    They can provide you with more allies. Yes, publishing is a business, but everyone wants to see high quality books do well because it’s a ministry to people and it strengthens the market. I have no doubts that the agents/editors I’ve met with will celebrate any success I have.

  21. Seralynn Lewis April 8, 2019 at 5:53 am #

    Such great information and advice. Thank you for posting.

  22. Katie Powner April 8, 2019 at 7:25 am #

    I’ve had several agent/editor appointments over the past couple years and have learned something from each one, which means they were all successful. And posts like this have been indispensable for preparing me for conferences and appointments. Without them, I’m pretty positive I would’ve floundered!

  23. Ginny Graham April 8, 2019 at 8:30 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for your thoughtful Q&A. It was a pleasure to meet you last year at the Northwestern Conference and I hear your voice in all of your blogs!

  24. Richard Hartzer April 8, 2019 at 8:42 am #

    This is great advice. Too bad I read it after I spent all morning compiling a list of Steve’s 2019 conferences and researching his typical restroom visit schedule. Back to the drawing board.

  25. Maco Stewart April 8, 2019 at 8:50 am #

    Excellent and timely advice. I’m going to the BRMCWC and hope to meet you in person there, and I’ll share this with my writing group. Many of us are now “doing” conferences.

    Thanks, Steve.

  26. Melissa Henderson April 8, 2019 at 10:07 am #

    Thank you. This message is very encouraging. One of the best pieces of advice I have received recently is “Relax. Editors are people, too.” 🙂

  27. Julie Sunne April 8, 2019 at 11:04 am #

    I hope every aspiring author reads this post. The pressure (i.e., expectations) we place on ourselves (and the editor) is foolish. Editor/agent appointments should simply be deemed fertile ground for learning. Every one is valuable, whether they bear the fruit of a contract or fruit of a different variety. Thanks for reposting this, Steve.

    I’ll try to garner up enough courage to approach you (“The Harbinger of Grim Reality”) at a conference in the near future (I assure you, not in the men’s room). 🙂

  28. Ashley Schaller April 8, 2019 at 12:08 pm #

    Such a great post! Thanks for sharing!

  29. Shirlee Abbott April 8, 2019 at 12:25 pm #

    The agents and editors I’ve met at conferences have been unfailingly kind. They said, “not yet ready for prime time” in the nicest ways.

  30. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D April 8, 2019 at 1:01 pm #

    Ten years? Oh,my. That means I have eight more times to turn 32 before I get a break!
    Thanks, once again, for the wisdom, Steve.

  31. Andy Sheehan April 19, 2019 at 12:27 am #

    Thanks for the primer, Steve. It’s one of many I’ll review again before That Conference Appointment this summer at Realm Makers. I look forward to meeting you again and trying not to appear nervous during the pitch. I can get that out of my system now, right?

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