Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Making the Most of Conferences with Cat Urbigkit

Reflections On Conferences (Part 1)
by Cat Urbigkit

You register for a writing conference, polish that work in progress, pack your bags, and off you go. Writers and illustrators spend much of their time alone in the creative process, so attending a conference requires a mental change - you are about to be in the midst of a crowd of hundreds, or in my case, more than 1,200 conference attendees from 20 countries. I write this post from the balcony of the Los Angeles hotel in which I have spent the last week, taking a few moments to reflect at the closing of the Society Of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators 2014 conference.

Besides the time-tested advice of wearing comfortable shoes and keeping hydrated, I've another addition: Be professional. I attended several sessions instructed by agent Steven Malk of Writers House Literary Agency. At times in an understated way, and other times explicitly, Malk repeatedly returned to this theme as he answered questions from those aspiring to be published. It doesn't matter whether you are prepublished or have 10 books in your publishing stable, if you are serious about tending to your creative career – and I'm assuming that if you have registered for a conference, you are indeed serious – be professional in how you present yourself: in person; in your art portfolio; in social media; and in your written correspondence.

Dress appropriately for conferences – make sure you won't regret your wardrobe choice if you do happen to end up sharing an elevator with an editor, agent, or author that you admire. In your creative submission, or in a chance personal meeting, you have no second chance to make a good first impression, as Malk reminded attendees at this year's conference.

We may dream of making a connection with an agent or editor at a conference. It happens for some, but this shouldn't be the sole criterion for conference success. It didn't happen for me at this conference, and I'm okay with that. I watched multitudes of eager conference attendees surge forward to meet the speakers after each presentation and decided not to participate. The urge was not there for me. I watched one panelist (who shall remain unnamed) as she struggled to keep her eyes open, clearly suffering from the exhaustion of the grueling conference schedule, as she was engulfed by a sea of faces eager to make that contact with her. I suspected what she needed was a break, perhaps a moment outside in the California sunshine - but she graciously tried to smile as she greeted each new face.

All is not lost by foregoing that face-to-face with publishing pros at a conference. By watching and listening to the editors and agents, you will observe how they conduct themselves professionally (their own "branding"), learn what kinds of projects they adore and abhor, and even glean insights to their more personal tastes. Tidbits I learned from this conference included:

  • one editor has loved horses since childhood;
  • one agent doubts that certain classic children's books would do well in today's market; and 
  • a second agent reads classics for personal pleasure, and seeks fresh versions for today's marketplace.

These were completely different viewpoints on items that aren't included on their websites or revealed in interviews, but will be an important factor as I consider potential submissions in the future.

While attending a conference, remember that you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by a group of people who share your interests. I recommend a return to playground rules.

  • Be friendly. Say hello to the person sitting next to you, strike up conversations with those standing in line behind you - ask them what they are working on, what sessions they attended. 
  • Be kind, even helpful. Hold the elevator for someone, or decline from getting on one that's already packed.
  • Smile. It's always nice to see a friendly face.
  • Be courteous and respectful, whether you are dealing with a publishing professional, or your neighbor.
  • Play nice. We're all in this together.

Check back on Friday for part 2.

Cat Urbigkit is a full-time author, photographer, and sheep herder in western Wyoming. She writes nonfiction books for children and adults. Her 10th book, When Man Becomes Prey, was released this month by Lyons Press.


  1. so my manure-covered boots might not impress?...but they are SO authentic!

    1. Well.... I think they might make an impression of some sort. ;-)

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. LadderRanch, I know you clean up well, and you can charm the masses with your cowboy poetry. Just leave the stinky part of your authenticity at the ranch!

  3. Great advice! I have so violated the wardrobe rule though... No manure-covered boots, but my own personal "Cheyenne casual" thing that I refuse to change no matter what the occasion. I might have to grow up and change that someday.


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