Networking: The Writers' Conference Edge

By Ellen J. List

Unless you already have a book published, your chances of breaking into the market on your own are slim. With fewer publishing houses accepting unsolicited manuscripts, one word is vital: networking.

A network is a system of contacts or connections. For the writer, networking is the process of connecting or getting to know not only other writers, but also publishing house editors and agents. To the author who lives in the remote world of ideas and word processors, the thought of networking with other writers may sound refreshing, even inspiring. But for some, especially the novice, meeting with published authors, editors, or agents can be scary. An understanding of the whole process, however, can ease unnecessary apprehension.

The Need for Networking

As competition becomes stiffer, publishing houses are eyeing cost and time constraints associated with unsolicited manuscripts.

"Even though we do not publish fiction, children's literature, or devotionals," said Dave Zimmerman of InterVarsity Press, "the majority of our unsolicited submissions were in those genres. Eight years ago, in order to free our editors to oversee projects that fit into our publishing goals, we stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts." Steve Laube, then senior editor at Bethany House said they no longer accept unsolicited submissions because slush piles were costing them almost $70,000 a year.

Does this mean that publishing houses are closing their doors to new writers? Not according to Dr. Dennis E. Hensley, author and director of the professional writing major at Taylor University, Fort Wayne (Ind.). "As a writing teacher, I bring editors to my classes," he said. "Just as major league baseball scouts go to the minor leagues to find their next star athletes, editors of large publications are hoping to discover new talented writers."

Does this happen at writers' conferences? Are publishing house editors like scouts pursuing new talent? Freelance writer and conference teacher Bob Hostetler said that on his library shelves lay evidence that they are: ten books written by ten previously unpublished conferees, all former students in Bob's classes. "Nine of those books were sold as a direct result of meeting an editor at a writers' conference," he said.

"One editor said that if she had two manuscripts, equally good and both publishable," said author and conference teacher Jack Cavanaugh, "one having been mailed in, the other picked up at a writers' conference where she met the author, she'd publish the conference author over the person she hadn't met." Why? "Because after making gut decisions, publishers invest upwards of $30,000 on the project before it ever hits the bookstore."

At a 2002 writers' conference, Cec Murphey, author of 86 books, asked Moody's then-managing editor, Andy Scheer, if he was finding any good material. "With tears in his eyes, Andy said, ‘I have just read one of the best articles that has ever come my way.' Andy would never have met this woman if he hadn't come to this conference. That's why these editors come; they are looking for gold. And every once in a while, they strike it."

Networking Like a Professional

According to author Tim Riter, the key to successful networking is hard work and organization prior to a conference. By using networking strategies, Tim took seven book proposals to one conference in 2002 and met with 11 editors. By the end of the week, he had 47 requests for proposals. Within two months, he had been offered six contracts. These editors had found gold.

"If you are a first-time conferee," said Cec, "and scared to meet with the editors, do it anyway. Say to them, ‘This is my first conference; I don't know what I'm doing, but can I talk to you?' you will find out that they are human, and they remember what it was like." However, he also warned that networking can have a negative effect.

When it comes to networking, it is tempting to develop a plan and push until it produces a product. In the fact of that temptation, it is imperative to remember that the best networking occurs naturally and, although it can be organized, it cannot be forced.

In the end, networking is a series of connections orchestrated by God to accomplish His will in the tangled, but not so scary, labyrinth of publishing.

Cec once said, "I think the most valuable networking is the networking you don't know is happening." For example, years ago, having just arrived at a seminar, he happened by a large woman who was struggling to drag an even larger suitcase up a hill. "I asked her if I could help," he said. But while he had noticed a woman in distress, what he hadn't noticed was an editor standing in the distance, watching.

Later, that editor told Cec that he had seen several other writers ignore the woman. Without a word spoken, that first impression started a professional relationship that developed over the years. Since then, he has done several books for that editor's publishing house. "I only did it," he said, "because it was the right thing to do."

Ellen J. List is a conference teacher as well as an award-winning author with her by-line appearing in both Christian and general publications including: The Christian Communicator, The Evangelical Christian Publishers' Association's Website, Penned from the Heart (a yearly devotional book), Alberta Ferret Society (Canada), Porsche Club of America, and daily newspapers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado. She has expanded this article into a class which she teaches at writers conferences and for writers groups. Ellen can be reached at:

See more of Ellen's articles at: Six Ways Not to Network and Networking Before and After a Conference.