In a perfect world, every good book would find a print home, and every stupid book would die a horrible death. Obviously this isn’t how the system works, and I’m often asked by young writers what they can do to break into print. I usually begin with the three most obvious things:
- Read extensively.
- Write every day.
- Build credibility by submitting articles and short stories to small publications.
But although these things are true, they usually miss the point. The real question young writers are asking is, “How do I get my manuscript read?”
It’s very difficult. The competition is fierce, not because there are so many great writers in our culture, but because there are so many mediocre submissions. Editors and agents don’t have time to wade through the tide of incoming paper.
Forty years ago if you submitted a decent manuscript to any major publisher you stood a reasonably good chance of having it thoughtfully considered. Even if it was rejected, someone would have taken the time to read your cover letter and opening pages. Today the publishing houses that accept unsolicited manuscripts are increasingly rare. In most cases a good novel will not even be read. Many publishers have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with a slush pile. Submissions are either discarded or returned unopened (and this only if you provide them with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, or SASE).
This is why I consider conferences essential to getting noticed. If you really want to break into print as a novelist, you will help yourself immensely by going to at least one conference per year, preferably one that focuses on your genre.
But even though I frequently tell young writers to start going to conferences, few take my advice. Perhaps they’re too poor to afford hotels, gas money, admission fees, etc., but maybe they just don’t understand the benefits. So here are three good reasons to attend a conference:
1. You will make contacts.
Although attending a conference isn’t a guarantee you’ll meet anyone famous or influential, you will almost certainly rub elbows with people who know more about writing than you do. If you are teachable, you will probably learn a lot outside of the scheduled sessions. Hanging out with writers, editors and agents can be an education. At the very least you will discover that industry professionals are real people, not rock stars.
2. Appointments are your best chance of getting a manuscript read
Some conferences offer agent / editor appointments. These are short, private conversations with an industry professional. The point is to give you a chance to pitch your novel in a one-on-one environment.
This is great because it bypasses the slush-pile, the months of waiting for a response, the cold and unhelpful reality of a form rejection letter. Because some publishers (and many agents) will not read unsolicited manuscripts, a conference slot may be your only chance to get your book read.
An editor is more likely to request your work while meeting with you in person. It’s just harder to say no to someone when they are sitting in front of you. Also, having met you in person, the editor can gauge whether or not you are likely to wind up being a huge pain in her neck. Are you respectful? Polite? Knowledgable? Fifteen minutes in a room may not be a reliable way to tell if someone will be easy to work with, but it is better than what they can learn in your one-page cover letter.
3. You will learn something
Some of what you need to know as a writer will be covered in the scheduled sessions. Beginning writers tend to make the same mistakes, and conferences spend a lot of class time trying to correct these unfortunate tendencies. Some conferences even offer mentor appointments and critique sessions. Feedback from an experienced writer can save you months of frustration.
Nothing about writing conferences is guaranteed, except the fact that you decrease your chances of getting noticed if you don’t go.
I was surprised to see two young men in their late teens at the ACFW conference a few weeks ago. I stopped Christian Miles and J.R. Parker in the hallway after a session to ask them what they thought about the conference. Both were enthusiastic.
“I found an editor who wants my first 50 pages,” Christian told me.
J.R. nodded. “And I have a request for my complete manuscript.”
Such an outcome would be unlikely in the traditional submission process.