Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pay the Least & Get the Most

Joe O’Connell is a journalist, an award-winning author and a teacher. He writes about the Texas film industry for The Austin Chronicle and Dallas Morning News. His novel Evacuation Plan about life in a residential hospice was released in 2007. It was a finalist for the Violet Crown Book Award and received the North Texas Book Festival Award. Joe and Evacuation Plan were featured at the Pulpwood Queens Book Club annual convention. With those kinds of credentials, it’s no surprise that he teaches writing to undergrads at Austin Community College and to graduate students at St. Edward’s University.

You may remember about two weeks ago, here on Straight From Hel, we did a series on preparing for, attending, and following up on conferences. Joe is here today to teach us how to benefit from a writing conference without paying the registration fee. He’s even showing us how he did it!

Welcome Joe O’Connell.

Not long ago on Straight from Hel, Helen Ginger’s blog readers were bemoaning the cost of attending writing conferences with the goal of hooking up with an agent. My advice was simple: volunteer. And that’s exactly what I did recently at the Writers League of Texas’ annual Agents Conference.

First off, here’s what I didn’t do at the conference: I didn’t attend sessions where agents and published authors talked over the ins and outs of the depressed publishing industry. I didn’t eat a hearty lunch while listening to keynote speaker and agent Mike Murphy talk about the dismal future of said industry. I didn’t pay $300 to $400 to be there. Oh, and I didn’t sit down a lot either. I was too busy a floor above the main conference.

What I was doing up there? Guiding those who did pay to hear Murphy talk into their allotted 10-minute meeting with an agent of their choice, with hopes of getting the golden ticket—a request to see either a partial or full manuscript.

Like the attendees I got my choice of agents; in my case, three different agents for whom I would act as gatekeeper, water-bringer and timer during Saturday and part of Sunday. In the process I got to hear a lot of pitches as they were practiced before the agents heard them. If I was polite about it, I could also duck in and do a pitch of my own or perhaps chat up a waiting agent in the hallway.

I learned a few things this weekend. For one, the agents want to talk to you at these sorts of events. For them, conferences are about finding a product they can sell and perhaps be proud of in the process. After my first morning slate of time-keeping for agent/attorney Paul Levine, I asked him which pitch was the most successful. The winner was a mystery by a veterinarian that deals with agri-terrorism. Why? It’s something different and it’s timely. Those are the cold, hard facts, folks.

Oh, and I chose to work with Levine for a particular reason. He specializes in selling film rights, and I’ve got a published novel titled Evacuation Plan that has won one award and was a finalist for the Writers League of Texas’ own Violet Crown Book Award. I’ll be sending him a copy of my book. I also pitched him my complete mystery. Too Texas for his taste, and—in his opinion—not a good sell to New York editors. (I disagree, but that’s another story and I doubt I could change his mind.)

I didn’t pitch my other two chosen agents. They were either too busy or were whisked away by other more assertive writers. No matter. I can drop them a nice pitch through the mail noting that I was their timer during the conference.

But here’s why volunteering works, both as a nice way of giving back to the community of writers, and as a means of gaining access, because—face it—that’s why writers go to events like this. Remember Murphy, the keynote speaker offering pearls of wisdom to a crowd dining on lukewarm chicken? When he was done with his sessions on Sunday we sat down and chatted in-depth for a lot longer than 10 minutes. I can tell you he doesn’t normally handle mysteries (he didn’t used to consider fiction at all), but that’s recently changed. And he’s expecting to read some pages from me soon.

So I’ve got feelers out for movie rights for my published book and some interest in my mystery. What does that leave? The answer is my biggest lesson of the day, and this goes for the folks who paid for the conference as well as volunteers. At least two agents were left twiddling their thumbs during scheduled pitch sessions. Either the pitches didn’t show or there weren’t enough to fill the agents’ schedules. The timer for one of those agents ushered me into the room, where I discovered the agent didn’t handle fiction. “Let me tell you about my mother…” I proceeded to pitch her a book I’m just beginning to work on about my mother, who died in November at age 81. It’s a story that includes murder, poverty, abuse, a marriage to a Catholic priest and a spiritual journey that took her to India. I laid it all out and left with a request for a book proposal. I also paid back the favor by getting at least one other attendee in to see my last agent of the conference. It’s all about sharing the wealth.

Will anything more come out of my weekend of volunteering? I’ll let you know.

Thank you, Joe.

Really great information. You stepped up and made the most out of a volunteer situation. I hope other authors will follow your example. And I can't wait to hear follow-up news.

After you’ve left a message for Joe, visit his website to find out about Evacuation Plan, and hop over to his blog, too.
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  1. Great idea, Joe. I didn't think about the possibility of volunteering at these events. It sounds like you got just as much out of it as the attendees, but for free.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  3. This is such a great example of giving back and receiving as well. Thanks Helen and Joe for showing us a way to make the most out of writing conferences without shelling out a great deal of money.

  4. Great suggestion, to volunteer. It almost seems that you've gotten more out of the conference than the attendees, having a different angle with which to talk to and approach agents. It's all about making connections, isn't it, and this seems a really valid way as well.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience from the other side of the conference. It's wonderful that you were able to make great contacts. I found the agents to be very approachable.

    And, THANKS for volunteering. This was my first conference and it was very informative. It was a nice lunch, too.

  6. Sometimes it seems we approach something head-on and forget there are other ways to tackle it, like coming in the side door the way Joe did.

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  8. This makes such good sense I kind of wanted to hit myself on the forehead and go, "Duh, why didn't I think of that!"

  9. What Anonymous said. LOL

    Seriously, makes a lot of sense, Joe, and I applaud your resourcefulness.

    The Old Silly

  10. Wow. Feelers out for a movie deal. Best wishes on that. Oh, and ditto on what Anonymous said. I couldn't have said it any better. No, really, I couldn't. Can you?

    Steve Tremp

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  12. Now why didn't I think of that? Great idea, Joe. :)


  13. Great post, Joe. We often forget that giving of ourselves usually pays off.

  14. Great information, Joe, and I hope a lot of writers take it to heart. I was involved for years with the Greater Dallas Writers Association and we supported Craft of Writing Conference in Dallas. During the conferences a number of writers in our organization would connect with agents and most of them got published as a result.

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  16. Not only can you as a volunteer greatly benefit, the organization putting on the conference benefits. You have to have a lot of volunteers to pull off a conference.

  17. Great ideas, Joe. I saw a television interview with an author whose name I can't remember, who found her agent when she volunteered to meet the agent at the airport and drive her to the conference.

  18. Mark, A friend of mine, Laurie Lynn Drummond, got a two-book deal through asn agent she volunteered to pick up at the airport. That's a great way to go, too.

    Thanks to all of you for reading. Oh, and a quick extra plug. I was just alerted to this link to me reading a brief excerpt from my novel:

    Take care--Joe

  19. Most of our Chicago-North RWA chapter members volunteer at our Spring Fling Conference, but we don't get any money off for doing so. There are ones who pick up the editors and agents at the airport. They have great opportunities. Too bad I'm a lousy driver. (g)

    Morgan Mandel

  20. Very interesting! Thanks for planting a seed in my writer's brain.

  21. Hi Morgan. Do they get to go to the mixers or anything that might give them an opportunity to mingle with the agents or network with other writers? That can be valuable.

  22. When I tried to volunteer at an upcoming conference, the organizers said, "No, thanks. We've got enough already."

    Lesson: volunteer EARLY

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