This President’s Day Weekend will be the first I’ve spent at home in well over a decade. After attending the San Francisco Writers Conference annually like clockwork since I was an agency intern volunteering to gain valuable industry experience, the event is taking a gap year due to COVID, and travel restrictions have me stuck in place, anyway.
So, what to do when physical events are being shut down? Attend more events! Thankfully, the publishing industry continues to evolve, and many conferences are shifting to a virtual model that gives you increased access and flexibility from the comfort of your own home.
If you’re one of the many feeling a financial pinch due to the pandemic, you don’t necessarily have to write these events off as luxury items that you can’t afford. In-person conferences can carry a pretty hefty price tag, especially if you’re paying for a hotel room for the weekend, dining out every meal, or even flying in from out of town. Virtual events eliminate all of that, and due to lower overhead and increased capacity, they’re often able to reduce the price of admission significantly. Often enough, you can find online events that are free or donation-based, offer scholarship programs, or allow you to just purchase the sessions you wish to attend. I really like this because it makes events more accessible to the public, rather than the privileged few.
These events also tend to demand less of your schedule. If you aren’t in a position to take an entire weekend out or even travel back and forth each day, you may be able to find an hour or so out of your home life to sit in front of your computer. Some take this flexibility even further and offer stream-on-demand services so you can view a presentation about crafting the perfect query letter on your own time days after the event has finished.
In my experience, the breadth of sessions available has not taken a hit from the transition to digital. Standard lectures and keynotes are a natural fit for the format, but things can get interactive as well. I’ve even seen sessions that act as a virtual roundtable in which samples are read and feedback is given by an agent in a group setting. Likewise, I’ve seen local writing clubs, critique groups, and book clubs go online via Zoom and other videoconference environments. Don’t ignore those smaller, more community-focused events, either. These low-pressure, often free gatherings of peers can be greatly beneficial, especially to new authors, and are no longer as bound to specific locations as they used to be.
Even within the industry, we’re seeing increased access to more traditionally exclusive events. Book Expo in New York is being replaced by a virtual event put on by Publishers Weekly. And Publishers Lunch has been hosting online panels in which a select group of acquisitions editors discuss their most buzzworthy forthcoming books. Now you don’t necessarily have to be an agent with a trade show laminate to hear about the next batch of award winners before they hit shelves.
But as an agent, I’m especially excited about connecting online with aspiring authors in virtual pitch sessions. Agents need authors, and having the chance to talk 1-on-1 can prove useful as we seek new talent. I’ll be taking pitches at a pair of Writing Day Workshops in the coming months, as will Karly Dizon and Carlisle Webber. That’s the event where I met Amber Cowie, whose third book, LOSS LAKE, just came out from Lake Union.
If you haven’t had an online pitch session (or if you think it might be weird), here are some thoughts and tips beyond “Practice your pitch,” “Know your comps,” and all that usual advice. First, in my experience, online pitches are a lot easier to regulate than in-person pitches, which eliminates some stress. Whereas you might agonize over precious seconds lost if the writer in front of you remains seated at the agent’s table after the bell has rung, Zoom pitches tend to be controlled by the organizer, who can start and end each session on time. If you’re nervous, you don’t have to worry about things like greeting with a firm (dry) handshake or making eye contact as you pitch. Eye contact is near impossible via Zoom, anyway, and if rapt attention from an industry professional throws you off, you can cover the agent’s face with a Post-It note, and we’ll never know. Likewise, you won’t have to feel like you should apologize if you bring notes to the pitch. You can have them off camera, and we’ll never see them. Basically, when pitching virtually, you get to adapt the environment to your own comfort. You can sit in your most comfortable chair, wear your fuzziest slippers, and drink your favorite tea in your favorite mug just how you like it instead of relying on burnt hotel coffee. And unlike an in-person pitch session, you have 100% control over how cold the room is.
In short, no need to avoid the writing community when we’re all avoiding human contact. Even the San Francisco Writers Conference hasn’t shut down in their gap year. Rather than their flagship in-person event, they’ve pivoted to open up their smaller event, Writing for Change, to a worldwide audience online. You can meet founding partner of Fuse and SFWC Director, Laurie McLean, there this September. And you don’t need to travel to San Francisco.