Agent Quest: How to Research, Approach, and Impress Literary Agents at Conferences

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By Lynne Kelly

Texas: Houston ARA

At my first SCBWI conference in 2008, I met my agent. No, she didn’t sign me that day! She wasn’t even an agent yet, for one, and also agents aren’t going to acquire new clients right then and there. That’s a relationship that takes more time (and a completed manuscript, which I didn’t have). But that meeting was the first step in our journey to the working relationship we have now. I had the opportunity to chat with Molly O’Neill (a HarperCollins editor at the time) and other faculty between presentations, though I can’t even remember what we talked about—probably books they’d recommended in their presentations, but also other things you’d talk about with anyone you just met. I was nervous about my first manuscript critique, but when it came time for my session with Molly, I was a little more at ease since we’d already chatted. 

Even though a conference isn’t where you’ll sign a publishing contract or hand an agent your full novel manuscript, it’s a place to learn more about the publishing industry, improve your craft, and connect with people who love children’s literature. Knowing a bit about the agents you’ll meet will be helpful in striking up a conversation The conference website which agents are attending the conference. From there, you can research them to find out what they’re interested in and what they represent. Check out their social media pages, and see if they have a profile on Manuscript Wish List. Some of my favorite sites for researching agents are Literary Rambles, AgentQuery, and Publishers Marketplace. You can also check the acknowledgements section of books you loved—the agent will be one of the people the author thanks. 

And of course, a great way to learn more about an agent is by hearing their presentations at the conference! You can find out about the books they’ve worked on, what they’re looking for, and how they work with their clients. 

Remember, everyone is at the conference because they love children’s literature, so you have that in common with anyone there, whether they’re faculty or another attendee. You can always start a conversation by asking what they’re reading, working on, or what books they have coming up that they’re excited about. Talk to agents like you would talk to anyone else—like they’re people!

I’m so happy I talked to Molly that day during my first conference all those years ago, both for the enjoyable conversation and the information about writing and publishing. We kept up with each other on social media, and in 2015—seven years after we met—when I was querying agents for the second time in my writing career, Molly announced that she was switching from the editorial side of publishing to the agenting side. I knew I’d love working with her, and a few months later, she was officially my agent! 

For more tips, see this post by Debbie Ridpath Ohi, which is helpful for first-timers and/or introverts attending conferences. 

See you at the conference!