There has to be a first time for everything. We like to think we get ‘wiser’ along with our ‘older’, but when it was time for my first kid lit conference, that didn’t stop nerves rampaging around my belly like a trapped rhino. Turning up to a conference on a subject that’s dear to me, but to which I’m still very new, was a tad daunting. I mean all these people are experts, right? And here I am, not knowing a soul and trying hard not to feel like a fraud. The fact I was also pitching to publishers was enough to send my nerves into overdrive.
But here’s the thing: there was nothing to be daunted about! It was my own crazy assumptions that were out to derail me. If you find yourself heading to a kid lit conference or if you’re meeting publishers for the first time, I hope this blog will help put your mind at ease.
The annual CYA (Children and Young Adults) writing conference is held in July in Brisbane, and I took the opportunity to book a couple of sessions with publishers to get feedback on my work. It seemed like a good way of bypassing the slush pile, though of course you have to pay for the privilege. Although CYA is aimed at both authors and illustrators, my focus for this post is as a writer only (alas, I was apparently sleeping when the illustrator genes were handed out).
Here’s some of the crazy assumptions I made, and what I later discovered to be the real deal (in my limited experience).
Assumption #1: Everyone there will know everyone else
Reality: Sure, plenty of people knew each other – it goes with the territory and many there had been networking for a long time. But kid lit people are a warm, friendly and inclusive bunch. Not once did I feel like a wallflower wondering how I could fit in. And more importantly, I didn’t feel like a fraud, either. There were plenty of people that were there for the first time, just like me. The program was so full, that there wasn’t a great deal of down time. Morning tea and lunch were the biggest opportunities to network, but even then, the time raced away by the time you grabbed food and found a seat. Kid lit people are definitely NOT SCARY!
Assumption #2: There’ll be an obvious divide between those published, and those not
Reality: This couldn’t be further from the truth. I remember hearing somewhere a long time ago that people at a writers’ event had different coloured tags to denote ‘published’ or ‘unpublished’. If this story were ever true, it certainly didn’t apply here. Everyone was at a different stage of their journey, and I think that’s how every person viewed it. Even published authors who (in my mind) had ‘made it’ were just as nervous about pitching to publishers as I was — maybe even more so. There were authors who had over 200 publications to their name, and others who were just dabbling and starting out. But one thing bound us all — a passion for children’s literature. And that was enough.
Assumption #3: Publishers are another breed that sit in ivory towers dishing out condescending judgement
Reality: They’re people too, of course! Long before they are publishers, they are people. And the ones I met were certainly lovely. A publisher once said they found conferences like this exhilarating but draining. Many publishers are introverts (just like many writers — me included), so days like this are no walk in the park for them either. Publishers WANT you to be the next big thing. But they do have a business to run and still need to onsell your work to their bosses and convince everyone that it’s worth investing in. No wonder they need to be just as invested in your work as you are. My 15 minutes spent in a one-to-one interview with an industry professional turned out to be gold, and provided valuable insights that might otherwise have taken years to glean.
Assumption #4: Successes can be made overnight at conferences
Reality: This was made clear from many people — success in the writing business takes time. Years in fact. I’ve heard ten years and eight years bandied around, though of course there is no magic number. I don’t want to dishearten anyone, but I think it’s important to have realistic expectations. Personally, I’m more likely to persist and less likely to give up by knowing this. It means I haven’t failed if I haven’t been published yet. It just means I’m still on the road towards it, and that it’s okay to enjoy the journey. If you love what you’re doing, you’ll pursue it anyway, simply because it’s so much fun! Networking and mixing with like-minded people who also love what they do is such a pleasure. And although winning or gaining attention at a conference is something to celebrate, it doesn’t guarantee success. It’s still just a step in a journey, and you still have to do the work and put in the effort. No one’s going to do it for you — you need to be your own champion.
Assumption #5: If I don’t sell myself well enough, they won’t be interested
I believe publishers are interested in two things in these sessions: Your work (first and foremost of course), and your personality (that you’d be someone they could work with). I doubt there’s anything you can say in your interview that would convince them to take your work on if they’d already decided not to. But there’s probably plenty of things you could say that would seal the deal for them not taking you on. And one of those things would be arguing with them! Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But there were plenty of horror stories floating around of new writers doing just that.
So what did I learn out of all this? Here’s my top take-homes from this experience (both the publisher sessions and the actual conference):
- Go with an open mind. Park your ego and don’t be precious about your work.
- Listen carefully to feedback from publishers and take it gracefully — this is the true value of the sessions you book.
- There’s so much to take in — take notes! Reading back over them, you’ll be surprised how much has probably gone straight to long-term storage.
- Allow time to digest everything and to mull over the advice and your notes. You’ll probably be doing this for days afterwards.
- If you’ve had a knockback, or your dreams were crushed (despite lowering expectations), give yourself time to breathe. Then dust yourself off, stand up and keep going!
One thing was abundantly clear from everyone who had achieved some measure of success:
DON’T. EVER. GIVE. UP.
Now, to take my own advice…