Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Tracy Marchini on the Conference Etiquette Dating Game

Hello Nathanites! My name is Tracy Marchini, I’ve been with Curtis Brown for over two years, and I have the honor of being one of your guest bloggers today. (Does anybody else feel like they’re on a game show? No? Well let’s fix that…)

Host: “It’s time to play, The Conference Attendee Dating Game. Today we have three aspiring writers hoping to wow an agent at our conference. Agent, tell us a little bit about what brought you here today.”

Agent: “Well, conferences are a great way for agents who are trying to grow a list to meet new, talented writers. Also, they’re a good way to network with editors and agents from other houses.”

Host: “Ah, I see. Well then, let’s get right into it. Agent, ask your first question.”

Agent: “Gladly. Contestant number 1, I like my manuscript pitches to be short and sweet. Tell me, what pitch would you sell me?”

Contestant 1: “Well my book is about this guy who goes into the mountains. I actually used to live near the mountains. Have you ever read that book HEIDI where she lives in the mountains? Well, actually, my book is not at all like that. It’s like THE DA VINCI CODE, but set in the mountains.

Agent: “Contestant number 2? Perhaps you could be a little more precise?”

Contestant 2: “My book is about Madison, a high school girl who goes mute after her father’s mysterious death. Only her widowed next door neighbor can draw Madison out of her self-imposed exile. Ultimately, this is a coming of age story of loss and acceptance.”

Agent: “Interesting. Contestant 3, how would you approach me during the conference lunch?”

Contestant 3: “I would tap you on the shoulder until I got your attention. Then I would hand you my manuscript and ask you to read it.”

Agent: “Contestant number 2?”

Contestant 2: “I would wait until you were done eating your lunch before approaching you. I would never presume to bring an entire copy of the manuscript that I could hand you, rather I would ask you whether you were open to submissions, give you my pitch and ask if I could send it to your office.”

Agent: “Would you wait for me to finish my dessert too?”

Contestant 2: “I would even bring you dessert*.”

(*Hey, contestants on The Dating Show always exaggerated about how great a date they would be. I’m just trying to keep it real.)

Agent: “Contestant number 1, if we had a one-on-one critique, what would you do?”

Contestant 1: “First I would ask you why you didn’t come with a contract. That is a major mistake. I mean, honestly, I haven’t read THE DA VINCI MOUNTAIN CODE in a while, so I wouldn’t really have any questions other than why you won’t buy it. Maybe I’d ask you for a list of your colleagues to see if maybe they want to buy it. Also, I would bring the sequel, THE DA VINCI MOUNTAIN CODE 2: THE ONE WITH HAIRY POTTER, and ask you to read and comment on that one while I stare at you. Also, did I tell you about the third book, DA VINCI MOUNTAIN TWILIGHT?”

Agent: “Hm, I’m not quite sure that’s my cup of tea. Contestant 2?”

Contestant 2: “After rereading my manuscript, I would come with a list of questions that pertained to that manuscript in particular, and my strengths and weaknesses as a writer in general. I would listen silently as you gave me criticism on my work, and then ask my questions. If I felt that the reader didn’t “get” what I was trying to do, I would ask what I could do to make my intended purpose clearer to the reader. After my session is over, I would thank the agent/editor for their time and then ask if they had a business card.”

Host: “Agent, our time is almost up. Are you ready to make your decision?”

Agent: “Well contestants, after listening to your responses, I think I’ve made my choice.”


Agent: “My choice is – contestant number 2! They are courteous, professional, and seem to be thinking critically about their work.”

Host: “Congratulations contestant number 2! You win a manuscript request by our agent and a trip to Tahiti. That’s all for this edition of the Conference Attendee Dating Game. Good night, and good querying.”


Kimber An said...

Hilarious and informative! Thanks.

Now, as an aspiring contestant, uh, author, I only hope agents and editors will refrain from treating ALL of us like we're Contestant #1, even before we walk in the door as #2. I know you all get exhasperated with all the 1#s, but I think we each deserve a fair chance.

jnantz said...

I dunno, that DA VINCI MOUNTAIN HAIRY CODE sounded indescribably, unbelievably, incredibly, adverbialy unique....

Anonymous said...

Damn. Now I'm going to have to change my name from Contestant #1. Luckily I have this great book I'm going to pitch to agents and it's sure to be a blockbuster because it's sort of like if James Patterson wrote The Shack, only with a haunted car in it named Carrie. So with all that money I'll be able to afford the legal costs of a name change.

Shelli said...

so crazy. I think I posted about Agent #1 today :)
Contestant #2 (Alias Shelli)

M Clement Hall said...

I'm curious to know whether agents have any kind of obligation to the organization that arranges these face-to-faces?
Are they expected to request a certain mumber of partials to justify the invitation?
What percentage of these partials ever mature into representation?
One agent (nameless by her choice) blogged she had never found a client from such an affair, and only went for her own social reasons. said...


I smell another winner! ;)

Yat-Yee said...

Thank you for your valuable insight. Now I know: always bring them desserts. With chocolate or no?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but this article really bothered me. I'm sure you meant it to be helpful, and probably other agents would have found it to be amusing, but I felt patronized and judged - and frankly insulted - by the way that you wrote it. If your intention was to help writers be more courteous, professional and respectful, you would have done better to role model that, rather than 'make fun' of people who aren't as well-versed in the 'game' as you are. I think that sometimes agents need to remember that their jobs depend upon the writers. Writers, however, can find ways to do without agents. This will become more and more true with on-line publishing. Amazon has completely taken agents out of the loop with their kindle. You may want to re-think your attitude toward the people who support your livelihood. said...


I didn't mean to offend you (or anyone) at all. I have a great respect for authors trying to break into the business. In fact, I am an unpublished writer myself, and know exactly what it feels like on the other side of the box.

Though I disagree that Amazon has taken agents out of the loop, I do absolutely agree the electronic publishing is changing the game. I don't think agents will become obsolete, but I do think authors will have more options when it comes to marketing and publishing their material.

Again, I have a great respect for writers trying to break in. I have my own collection of form rejections, personalized rejections, and close-but-not-quite rejections. It's a heartbreaking process. But you've just got to keep going.

Anonymous said...

M Clement Hall said:

"... One agent (nameless by her choice) blogged she had never found a client from such an affair, and only went for her own social reasons..."

I second this comment. I've read agents' own blogs that stated (proudly for some odd reason) that they haven't signed anyone at a conference for 5 years. They seemed to approach conferences as some sort of paid weekend get-away.

Meanwhile, conference attendees pay big bucks to get to pitch and attend. They have no idea the agent isn't interested in new clients at all, no matter how good the pitch, no matter how well-researched the agent match. That's a shame really -- or is that a sham?

I attended a writers conference that also had a number of screenwriting agents. I spent (my only allowed) pitch appointment talking with the Hollywood exec during which he asked me to send my script to him. I did. Never heard back. It turns out he quit the business the week after the conference. He was there to screw his empoyer for one last company paid for weekend, apparently. Wish I'd have known that so I wouldn't have wasted my (pre-paid) pitch on that nutjob.

terri said...

Tracy - I thought the post was hilarious and didn't feel patronized at all. Just chagrined if I have ever shown the tiniest bit of #1.

I'm a public defense lawyer and I make it clear to my clients up front that the squeaky obnoxious wheel gets their 14 phone calls inside of 4 hours returned LAST. It is the client who is attentive, respectful, involved, realistic, and just plain polite that gets the bulk of my attention and a lot more likely to get more of my effort.

Funny break on an obnoxious client day.

Anonymous said...

Very good advice, shown in a funny format. Thanks for putting three examples up, so us writers know what to do and what not to do at pitch appointments in detail. It helped a lot.

Robert A Meacham said...

What ever the situation, you, me by my own admition just keeps swinging.The man , or woman with the most homeruns, strike out the most. I am not published my a mainstream publisher, heck ,I can't even get an agent interested in my work yet I plunder own, refusing to give up on myself. I guess I need to write a better query letter that knocks the socks off somebody.

Kiersten said...

Wait--if I had known I was going to be winning trips to Tahiti, I would have signed up for more agent sessions at conferences! Or actually any agent sessions at all. Except that might make my actual agent feel bad, and I love her. Too bad--I would really like to go to Tahiti.

And Tracy, clearly the bad example was hyperbole. No worries.

Anonymous said...

Unlike Anon 8:57, I didn't take offense to the post.

BUT, I do understand his/her frustration. In fact, I think the real problem belongs with the way writer conferences are set up. By having a parade of agents that are not looking for clients, you do have to wonder why the agents are there. It's not for the information. You can get just as good information on blogs like this and others. Lots of editor/agent panals offer Q and A. But in reality, the panal often ends up talking about their own clients' books, and (I'm not kidding) one mentioned at least 5 times that the book was for salw right across the hall in the conference bookstore. Those also seem to be the agents/editors that are not looking for clients or who invite conference attendees to submit without ever replying to those submissions.

If only agents that were actively trying to build client lists were invited to attend conferences they wouldn't view talking to authors as such a dang burden all the time.

There was one blog that stated when you go to a conference you shouldn't talk to the agent/editor about your book, but talk about shoes, or the last movie you saw.


Totally unrealistic. A writer that shells out money they don't have to talk to an agent face to face isn't going to talk about shoes. They're going to talk about the book they've been working on for the 365 days of their life.

Anonymous said...

Tracy - thanks for your response. And clearly not everyone had the same reaction that I had, so that's good. And again, I'm sure your intention was to be helpful. And, to be fair, I did find your information to be helpful, even if I did have trouble with the presentation of it.

I just think that there's a piece missing here. Which one of the contestants was the better writer? It may not have been the one who was the best at playing the game.

I'm not finding the process heartbreaking. I'm a fairly new writer, so I see the process with new eyes. And mostly what I see is how badly writers are treated in the business. There is definitely an attitude of 'you are damn lucky to be allowed to kiss my feet' in the industry as a whole. It upsets me that I frequently see the people with the creative talent abasing themselves before the people with the talent for making money.

I don't mind playing the game abit - goodness knows I've had to do that just to get jobs. But there's a limit.

I truly hope the on-line explosion allows writers to feel their power again.

Scott said...

Funny, Tracy, and thanks for the info.

Conventions and "paid pitch meetings" have always reminded me of a high school dance. As a frosh, you're going to get sweaty and probably make a fool of yourself just by being there. You'll say all the wrong things, wear all the wrong clothes, and the chances of getting a dance with a nice girl are about the same as polyester coming back in style (this is not autobiographical, btw).

Then, as you pass into higher grades, you're better known, and have learned from your mistakes. And if you're really lucky, you know how to dance a little. If you were born into the era of Break Dancing, you're likely to break something but you'll still draw some positive attention (again, not talking about me here).

The thing is, you can't spend all your time and money attending four or five conventions a year just so you'll become known or comfortable with every situation. But you can condition your market by sending good queries to a select list of agents, and then following them to whatever convention they end up attending. That gives you something to talk about, even if they haven't read it or even if they passed.

But I would draw the line at stalking them if they are clearly not interested in your style, you or your clothes. If they call you "brace face", I would also take that as a huge hint (again, I'm...bah, never mind).


Anonymous said...

Love this post about the Dating Game. Reminds me of the time I hooked up with an agent during a weekend conference...not because I wanted representation either. I already had (and have) a good agent.

Ha! Good times; great conference :)

Excellent post, too.

Kristan said...

Tahiti?! Hawt!

(Also, Tracy, I wouldn't worry too much about the anonymous people who get upset. There's a reason they make themselves anonymous...)

Gottawrite Girl said...

Seems like courtesy and preparation will go a long way? I try and tell myself that, at least. : )

number 34 said...

Very funny:)

Margaret Yang said...

Tracy, thank you for guest blogging. But I didn't know we were called "Nathanites."

I thought we were called Bran Fans.

Maybe Nathan needs to do a "Can I get a ruling?" post when he gets back.

Elyssa Papa said...

Such a funny post . . . I was definitely laughing. I mean, all of us have at one time been contestants 1, 2, or 3 (even if we haven't pitched to an agent) but in real life. I can still remember an interview I had last summer where the group asked me what my weakness was for teaching and I answered them very honestly. Needless to say, I did not get the job. LOL.

Tracy, I'm curious since you work at Curtis Brown and are also a writer . . . have you learned more about the business from the "inside" so to speak?

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

Very funny and reassuring for those who hope they might have passed Contestant #1 stage. But I know I went through it to get here. Some lucky (smart) few, may have bypassed it.

I still, however, find it interesting when reading articles on writers' pitching, reactions to receiving standard rejection letters and conferences, that expectations seem to be different from other industries. If you go to most conferences, it is about learning 'in class' to some good and some less good presenters, and socializing outside it, rather than business talk. And when you go for a job interview, we don't expect to be handled with kid gloves if the interviewer gets the impression we have not done our research or are not qualified for the position. And I would never expect to receive a personalised rejection letter why I didn't get the job. Hopefully I could learn from it and move on to the next opportunity.

Writing just seems so much more personal I suppose, and it is therefore easy to take negative reactions too personally.

I think it helps to have these 'tougher' or less serious inside views, to remind us, it's a business, like any other. And it's not always nice out there. (But so cosy and helpful here.)

Ulysses said...

Mavelous stuff, thanks.
I'd like a copy of the home game.

(IMO (sorry, I have difficulty doing humble), anyone who takes offense at this article is likely to have difficult facing the slings and arrows of the publishing world).

Madison said...

Number Two's MC has my name! Cool!

(Yes, I'm a dork impressed by small things....)

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:32 wrote -- I think the real problem belongs with the way writer conferences are set up. By having a parade of agents that are not looking for clients, you do have to wonder why the agents are there.

I was in the bathroom once during a conference break with three other agents and they didn't know I was in the other stall. They were laughing about how much of a waste of time pitch sessions were, and how they'd never found clients from conferences. I never went to a conference again. Instead, I honed my query, pitched, and was published that way.

Anonymous said...

Tracy, this post was hilarious! It was also full of great advice. To the people who are complaining about not getting a fair chance, I don't think that is an unreal expectation that you be able to offer a coherent summary of your book. Meeting with an agent is serious business. You want to be signed, therefore you put your best foot forward.

Anonymous said...

Anon said, "I was in the bathroom once during a conference break with three other agents and they didn't know I was in the other stall. They were laughing about how much of a waste of time pitch sessions were, and how they'd never found clients from conferences. I never went to a conference again. Instead, I honed my query, pitched, and was published that way."

OMG!! said...

Bran fans, I like that too! Nathan, perhaps it's time to go to and make up some t-shirts. :-P

Elyssa, I think that working inside the industry has definitely changed the way that I think about my own work. I've definitely started to think about how I would pitch and market it earlier. And sometimes in my head I hear an editor's comment ("So and so would say that that line is...") while I'm writing.

But that doesn't mean I still don't check my gmail incessantly when I have something out there. You can know it's a slow business, and still wish it wasn't so!

Sad to hear so many bad conference experiences though. I feel that most of my publishing/agenting colleagues are in it for the love of the word and the thrill of finding a great book!

Vancouver Dame said...

A humorous take on what is important to writers (our books) is bound to receive various responses. I noticed in reading all the comments that some people forget that a blog is where we can hear all kinds of comments - positive and negative. We need to hear about negative experiences as well, to determine the value of attending these conferences. Writers need to be treated with respect as much the agents do. Conferences are expensive, and must bring money to the published authors who present workshops, but are they set up to benefit the publishers, the agents or the writers? I'm wondering if perhaps the conferences are there to turn some of the neophytes into non-writers? (a way of culling the masses?)

BTW - 'Nathanites' sounds a little too biblical for my taste. Perhaps a vote could determine this as Margaret suggested.

Thanks, Tracy for posting while Nathan's away - it gives us another agent's perspective.

sally apokedak said...

"...and ask you to read and comment on that one while I stare at you."

heh heh heh

Loved that line.

As for the ones who are unhappy with the conferences...I always look around at conferences and I see 500 to a 1000 people. Guess what? Most of them can't write. Most of them will never be published.

But agents and editors sure do make offers at conferences. I've seen it happen at every conference I've been to. It's a simple matter having a great manuscript and connecting with the agent or editor who has the same taste in literature as you have.

Pay the extra money for the critiques, enter contests, meet other writers, and enjoy the journey.

Scott said...

My entry for "followers of Nathanism" could be Nathan's "Blogdogs", although I may be lifting that from somewhere else.


Anonymous said...

Anon 3:29 said...

"... I was in the bathroom once during a conference break with three other agents and they didn't know I was in the other stall. They were laughing about how much of a waste of time pitch sessions were, and how they'd never found clients from conferences. I never went to a conference again. Instead, I honed my query, pitched, and was published that way..."

UGH!! This is why I largely do not trust the whole conference environment. I think a lot of editors/agents just want to (understandably) get away from their from their piles of queries or client reading, and use "educating writers" as a sophisticated excuse.

I remember sitting in one packed conference session where two editors and two agents were on a Q&A panal -- when pressed by an audience question, all of them stated they weren't actively looking for new writers. The electricity of the room turned to stone. The woman next to me, under her breath, said... "why the &%%$ did you come here, then?" Yikes.But who could blame her? She'd paid money she couldn't afford specifically FOR a pitch appointment for an agent she'd researched extensively.

My writer fantasy: I'd like to have fifteen offers on a book and then look at an EDITOR'S resume of edited books, and say, sorry, the books on your list are too mediocre for my taste. NEXT! :)

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Ms. Marchini... if we had a one to one, I'd take us both out for lunch and we'd get flat-assed drunk!

Thus dispensing with the social affectations of pomposity, arrogance, pretentiousness and sycophancy, we'd speak honestly with each other.

(then we'd discuss Miss G and Mendocino CA, oh so long ago... She was Marvelous)!

Haste yee back ;-)

Ardin Lalui said...

I've never been to a conference but geez, I didn't know you could actually get a date out of it. That's something I've spent far more energy on than finding an agent, and please God I hope it stays that way!

Steppe said...

Agent's culture seems a little bit psycho to me.

Sorry but that's a personal truth.
Writing is an artform.
Publishing is a business.

Writing a snappy query letter is like
trying to write a number one pop song.

Its a silly silly silly goal.
If I was an agent I would only hire the
strange and unusual who had a bit of talent. Then crack the whip to keep them
walking the line between the can-do's and the no can do's... pushing the envelope.

I read Nathans blog so I can use him as a character study in my stories. The youngblood that the old timers toss into the lions den to keep from getting eaten themselves... Does he survive and conquer or does the lion eat him or do they make a deal. I've learned a lot from reading Nathans material. I hope he didn't get eaten. If he shows up at some other agency I'll send him a real query letter next time.


Thats what flight attendants used to be
before the airline business went broke
from a bad attitude and poor service.
The agent business is stuck in the same quagmire as other parts of the business culture and pop culture at large.

Extreme lack of imagination.
Inability to perform quality control and intuitive discernment processes.

In a world of relentless empty advertisement meant to deceive the truth is bitter medicine. I've only queried agents twice just so I could get rejected.

One was Nathan and he was polite so I have an interest in how his "Story" character develops.

Writers sell ideas.
Agents sell writers.

Its really that simple.
If someone was a close associate and told me they paid to go to a writers conference instead of so many other inspiring things to do with the money
I would probably not be able stop from spitting out my coffee.

I like to write so much I found a way to get away with it and don't need anyones
money to continue. Thats freedom.

Nathans a good sport though.
If he got fired he'll find a new spot
somewhere better.
I write because I believe in the artform.
I began writing poetry thirty years ago knowing no one would ever ever read it.

Knowing that set me free to write.
Not caring if the world wanted to read the story but instead caring about the story.

I comment just to participate.
I don't try to offend I just do.
In the old days that was considered:

"Quality Work" ...gettting a reaction.

If I ever get published it shall be a total fluke. I have sold songs though.
That was a total flakey fluke mystery.

I take everything I learn about the publishing business and use it as fodder describing other cooperative work type ventures an adventures in my storylines..

486 words hmm...

Rev. Scribe
First Church of The Reformed Nathanite.

nancorbett said...

Agent: Your writing is solid, but the setting didn't quite work for me. It might work if you placed it somewhere dry. Maybe try resetting it in the Mojave Desert, maybe Needles, California in a truck stop under a bill board for grape crush.

Writer: B-but it's a surfing story.

Agent: Right. Keep the sand. The sand works.

sylvia said...

I laughed aloud - this is a fun lesson ;)

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