Ask Tania: How do I make the most out of writing festivals and conferences?

Friday, 10 March 2017

Dear Tania
I'm so excited to be going to the KidLit Conference in Melbourne this May, but I'm also nervous. I'm having a manuscript assessment with a publisher, too. How can I make the most out of the conference, and do you have any tips when dealing with the publisher?

Hi, Stace,

So exciting you're off to KidLit this year; I'll be there, too! It's going to be wonderful, and can I just say what a brilliant decision it was for you to book in for this. Attending conferences and festivals will really fast-track any creator's career, so this is great news.

Festivals and conferences can be overwhelming. Combine stacks of passionate people with creative ideas and passion on tap, bundle it up with a barrel full of nerves, especially when it comes to meeting publishers, and it can all become a little fraught.

Thankfully, kids' book industry folk are warm, inclusive, fabulous people (and if you meet the rare braggart who is not, smile politely and find someone else to talk to!) and you'll have the most gorgeous time chatting with people you've either met online, know of or meet for the first time.

Here are my tips for a really productive and successful time as a festival or conference delegate. I'll follow this up with tips on meeting publishers.

Have a great time, and see you there!


1. TALK TO PEOPLE. Don’t stick with who you know—stretch yourself and meet new people. You never know where it will lead professionally—and you might just make a new friend or begin an exciting collaboration.

2. CARRY COLLATERAL. Festivals are a priceless opportunity to make contacts. Take everyone’s business card and offer your own (I keep mine in the back of the festival pass which hangs around your neck). Take your books or works with you but only haul them out if appropriate. Show and tell is fun, is it not?

3. STALKING + ENGAGING. Don’t stalk or pester people, and be really wary of monopolising their time or making demands, especially when it comes to publishers or other people you feel might provide opportunity for you. Everyone likes to be asked about their role or work, so do that instead. If you form an easy conversation, you may then have the opportunity to talk of your work, or even submit it, but never openly pursue the latter--allow it to unfold. More on this (in regard to publishers) below.

Whatever you do, don’t offer someone a copy of your book or ask them to read your manuscript or assess artwork. This comes with too great an expectation and a conference is not an appropriate platform for this. All it does is make people uncomfortable. Instead, engage people briefly about your work if the opportunity arises, then let go. If they find you or your ideas engaging, they may ask to see something.

4. ASK QUESTIONS. There is no greater bore than someone who makes an entire conversation about themselves and doesn’t ask a single question of others. Ask people about their work and let them speak. You might just learn something interesting or make a new connection.

5. DURING SESSIONS. Take notes. Take photos of screens with great points on them. Think about questions you could ask and don't be afraid to ask them. If you miss out on asking a question, ask the person/publisher during breaks, if the opportunity arises. This could be a great ice-breaker, too.

6. MULTI-SESSIONS. If there is more than one session you’d love to attend at one time, ask others if they’re taking notes (that you can later snaffle a copy of). Or just chat with them about it afterwards, to glean any interesting points.

7. BE INCLUSIVE. A lot of festival delegates are either on their own or know few people. Whether this person is you or not, look out for that ‘lost soul’ who knows no one and chat with them or invite them to join you for breakfast. Step back and give them a place in your circle. Introduce them to others. Ask them about themselves. Be kind, not excluding.

8. SUPPORT OTHERS. If you can, drop into the sessions of friends or colleagues. Not only is it supportive, it’s important to remember that your greatest industry ally is your colleague.

9. TAKE BREAKS. Festivals can be and exhausting, as you're constantly listening, constantly chatting and constantly ‘on’. Take breaks away from it all when you can. Go back to your hotel or find a quiet corner or go for a walk. If someone is cornering you or taking up too much of your time (to the point where you may miss a session), be forceful. If they’re incapable of reading your cues, politely interrupt and excuse yourself. Don’t miss anything for anyone!

10. RELAX AND HAVE FUN. Try not to ‘expect’ too much at festivals and conferences. They are nonstop busy, and many people are operating way outside their comfort zones. Relax and take it easy, absorb as much as you can, mingle and take notes. Be sure to do a blog post afterwards or post on social media about your experience. It will bring you a lot of hits.

11. SHARE. Share your knowledge, experience and contacts. There is absolutely enough to go around and no one is going to 'steal your idea' if you talk openly and enthusiastically about your work, or pass on resources or tips or opportunities. When we share in this way, it does come back to us, and it makes our community a wonderfully inclusive place to be. Don't operate on 'lack' because it will attract lack. Operate on generosity, because guess what it will attract...

12. GIVE THE CONFERENCE FEEDBACK. They do appreciate it.

Tips for Dealing with Publishers 

1. First and foremost, remember that publishers are people, too. While many creators view them high up in the clouds on a shiny pedestal surrounded by choral angels, their work (and workload) is as earthy as it comes, and ergo, most publishers are down-to-earth, fun, gorgeous, passionate people, who adore the creative process as much as you do. In fact, publishers ARE creators (and indeed, many also write books) so you actually have a lot in common with them!

2. While the book industry is a creative one, publishers are first and foremost a business. They want their authors and books to do well, to sell well, and to take a market slice that allows them to create more books, and keep their company afloat. Yes, they look for great concepts and excellent writing and illustrating, but they also look for what sells, and this is why even brilliant concepts and writing and illustrating may not be contracted. When it comes down to it, books need to sell, they need to have market appeal, and this is yet another reason we can't take rejection personally.

3. At conferences and festivals, publishers are always vastly outnumbered. This means the demand on their time and energy is enormous. Commonly, they're required to present, speak and do assessments, so their time is cut even shorter. This is why it's strongly advised to invest in an assessment session so you can have quality, unbroken time with one. If you miss out on an assessment, you can absolutely approach and chat to publishers if the opportunity arises, but make it brief and social and watch for cues if they need to move on.

4. If you have the opportunity to chat to a publisher socially, relax. Be yourself. Laugh. Ask about them, talk about their books, their list. Try not to use this opportunity for a spiel. You're not a used car salesperson. You're a creator. Talk books. If they ask about you and/or your work, say something light and succinct that you've prepared beforehand, but don't make it formulaic or 'pitchy'. Practice how you would introduce yourself as a creator and then follow it with one or two lines about your latest work (only if appropriate).

5. When rehearsing your mini bio and work-in-progress pitch, be clear and focused. If you say 'I'm a children's author' or 'I write picture books', then join the club of millions. This is not enough to attract anyone's attention, let alone an overworked publisher. You need to stand out and you can do this by focusing. Instead say something like 'I write picture books... about inspiring women from Australian history... featuring multicultural children working and living together inclusively... on STEM topics but with infographic illustrations to make comprehension easier for those struggling at school'. When mentioning your WIP, again, bring clarity and focus, and make sure you speak succinctly. When nervous, many of us chatter away, so just stop yourself short. There's nothing wrong with an awkward silence (why are we so afraid of them??) and your new publisher friend may just fill it with a wonderful question.

6. Like wild animals, publishers can smell desperation a mile away. Don't panic, don't be pushy. Be open, warm and confident in your ability as a fine creator. Because you are. Although it often doesn't seem like it, there is enough space in this industry to go around. It's those who stick with it and endlessly hone their craft who end up earning a spot. Ditto meeting and interacting with publishers--stick with it, go to many conferences and festivals, not just one. If you miss out chatting directly to a publisher this time, try again another time.

7. If you are having an assessment, fabulous! If you're nervous, remember the publisher is the expert here, and they will take the lead. Take lots of lovely deep breaths and respond honestly and openly to questions and feedback. If there is something you are confused by, don't understand or need to clarify, don't hesitate to speak out. Ask lots of questions, too. It's a grand opportunity. You could absolutely prepare those questions, but remember not to take away too much time from the actual work you've presented.

8. What you absolutely CANNOT do when having an assessment is take criticism personally, argue or become defensive. Publishing is a full-on, stressful business, and unless you're mega famous and have a billion dollar book deal, you will need to be easy to work with. Publishers don't want to work with divas or whiners or complicators, and you simply cannot be difficult or demanding. On top of that, you cannot be indignant or offended by feedback. Publishers are subjective, too, and three publishers could well say something completely different about your work. I've had feedback on a middle grade manuscript from four publishers (via email, not at a conference) and each one said something vastly different. Four subjective opinions. So remember this.

Also, feedback is designed to get you thinking, not to tell you what to do, or--God forbid--intimate you are talentless. Remember, all the praise in the world is useless when it comes to improving your work, and this is often why feedback focuses on what's going wrong and how you can improve it, not on what's already working well (though good feedback will mention that, too). We are all sensitive about our work, but you need to step back and look at things objectively, take what works for you, and then let the rest go.

9. Be sure you've covered all you want to during your assessment (which is why prepared notes are good... and take notes during the assessment, too). Taking notes shows you are tenacious and willing to work hard and improve, which publishers love. This business is all about tenacity! At the end, ask if it's okay to be in touch to ask another question or two by email (be sure to get their business card and hand them yours, too) or if it's okay to submit revisions to them down the track.

10. Be courageous. If you feel a social publisher interaction is going really well and she's clearly interested in you or your work, ask if you could submit directly to her at some stage. Just do it. What have you got to lose!?

11. Be patient. You'll come home on a high after a conference and/or assessment, and will be desperate for news or progression of the relationship. I know it's said over and over but it's true--publishers are chronically overworked and swamped. You need to practice the patience of a saint post-event. Hang in there, and give it a decent amount of time before making contact again. If it's been months, you should absolutely send a gentle reminder or query email.

12. BE YOU!!


I am Zoë said...

Excellent advice, thank you Tania! I am really looking forward to this one.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Tania!
These tips, as always, are incredible and I appreciate the time you've taken to provide them....ESPECIALLY with your unbelievable workload.
I'm really looking forward to putting them to good use and saying "hi" at KidLit ; )

Zoe Collins said...

Hallo again, I have a question re collateral -- I'm about to hit print on some postcard-sized business cards, but am wondering how many to print?! 50? 100? MORRRRE? I'm thinking specifically for KidLitVic. Whaddya reckon? Thanks again. Zoe.

Tania McCartney said...

Hey Zoe! I printed 50 but if it's economical to print more, you can always hang onto them for the next conference! And they're good to hand out at other events/have on hand.

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