Writers (and fan) conferences provide unpublished writers with a great opportunity to approach and talk about their work with agents. Recently there have been a few email threads on MWA as well as Sisters in Crime about how writers should go about approaching the whole 'agents at conferences' thing, and I thought I'd lay down what I think are some of the basic ground rules.
1. You need to do your homework.
Obvious, I know...but all too often this doesn't get done. I've been at conferences where writers have pitched an idea for a western/science fiction cross-over novel to an agent that only moments before announced that they do not represent either of those genres. It is a waste of everyone's time and energy to pitch your work to an agent who is clearly not interested in representing the kind of work you do. Almost every agent has a website or an entry in publishers' marketplace so do yourself a favor - check before you pitch. Don't rock up at a conference and pitch to every agent you meet - target your approach - check the attendance lists, research which agents represent the kind of writing you do (and the writers you admire) and make sure you know who you should pitch to (and by extension who you should not).
2. Your manuscript must be perfect (and finished).
I remember chatting to a writer at a SinC meeting once, and she told me she had met an agent at a conference who had requested to see her work - only problem was, it wasn't ready to be sent out. The writer asked me whether I thought it would be okay for her to send the manuscript out now (some 12 months later)...My answer - good luck with that! The agent probably has no idea who you are by now. The moral of this story is obvious - you need to be ready to send the complete manuscript before you pitch your work which also leads to ground rule number three...
3. Send exactly what the agent requests (no more, no less).
If an agent at a conference tells you to send a formal query letter abide by that request, if they ask for the first 5o pages send just the first 50 pages (don't send them your entire manuscript). Do what they ask you to do. I'm sure it frustrates the heck out of agents to have writers send them material they did not ask to see.
4. Be professional at all times.
A professional pitch at a conference is totally acceptable, shoving you manuscript under a bathroom stall is not. Make sure you appear confident (and sane) which means no stalking the agent...They are (remember) just human beings. Most agents I've met are approachable and kind. They will tell you if they are interested and will let you down gently if they are not - so just be yourself and act like a professional (you want to be treated like one, after all).
5. Have your pitch ready. Memorize it. Practice it. Perfect it.
You need to be able to tell an agent with confidence exactly what your manuscript is about in under 3 minutes (no agent is going to listen for half an hour as you outline every chapter in the book!). I'm more than happy to listen to someone's pitch and give feedback and I'm sure lots of other writers are too - the more feedback and practice you get, the more confident you'll be when you finally get the chance to speak to the agent of your dreams. As I rough guide I think you should have a high level 1-2 minute concept (the elevator pitch) and then have a more detailed synopsis you can tell, should the agent ask you for more details. I also find a one-page written synopsis is handy - because you can hand this to an agent if they express an interest - just be sure to have your name and email address on this just in case the agent wants to contact you about it (hey, you can dream can't you!).
Many conferences have specific sessions in which writers get to pitch their work to agents and editors. At the first writers' conference I ever attended I participated in a 'speed dating for agents' session and, although horrific and stressful, it gave me experience pitching my manuscript and interacting with agents about my work. Even when there aren't such sessions available, however, conferences provide a great opportunity for writers looking for an agent. As these ground rules show all you need to be is prepared.
So what about you all - do you have any other 'ground rules' or advice on approaching agents at conferences?