For 26 years, Gotham Writers Workshop has empowered students in person and online with creative writing classes and public lectures. In October 2019, it’s launching a writers’ conference held at the Ace Hotel in mid-town Manhattan.
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Director of Conferences and Contests Josh Sippie has attended numerous writers’ conferences. He longed to break away from the traditional model in which writers meet literary agents to pitch a project in a 10-minute forced conversation – a model he says many agents would like to eliminate as well.
Instead, Gotham welcomes anyone to attend the first day of the conference, which will be filled with presentations about authors’ journeys from rejection to publication. The second day will be devoted to agent roundtable presentations and discussions by invitation only, based on an application and writing sample.
“This fits with the Gotham philosophy,” Sippie explains. “We don’t want to take your money if you’re not ready for something. We want to see your query and pages first, to make sure you understand what you have. We don’t want to waste your time or the agents’ time.”
What you’ll learn
The first day of the conference begins with a panel of authors talking about how they’ve written and published a book, moderated by novelist and editor Joe Okonkwo. Memoirist and fiction writer Kim Liao, whose essay “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year” went viral among writers on LitHub (6/28/16), will talk about the importance of rejection as an inevitable precursor to success, while author Weike Wang will talk about how she wrote and sold her award-winning debut novel, Chemistry.
Writers attending the first day of Gotham Writers Conference will learn how agents select their clients in an afternoon session titled “The Agent’s View: What We Talk about When We Talk about You.” The day concludes with a happy hour and “The Agent Game Show,” during which agent Jeff Kleinman will ask a panel of three agents fun and light-hearted questions, such as “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in a query letter?”
“He then lets all three agents answer, and he chooses the best answer,” Sippie explains. “The winner gets a goofy prize for each question they get right. Then at the end, he anoints an overall winner, which I am just giddy to see.”
Writers applying for the second day of the writing conference must submit a query letter and the first 10 pages of a manuscript before Sept. 24, or until seats are filled. Two agents representing each genre – nonfiction, mainstream literary, genre fiction, and middle grade/young adult – sit at a round table with up to nine participants.
“Each writer talks about their query and first pages, and then the agent gives feedback,” Sippie explains. “They’re there to teach, to share their wisdom with prospective writers.”
The agents at Gotham Writers Conference look for serious writers, people who are ready to have an agent tomorrow. The nonfiction table includes Jeff Kleinman from Folio Literary Management and J.L. Stermer of New Leaf Literary & Media. Suzie Townsend of New Leaf heads the roundtable devoted to middle-grade and young adult literature, along with Jim McCarthy of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret.
As of press time, two tables are devoted to mainstream/literary fiction, with insights from agents Kerry D’Agostino of Curtis Brown, Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency, Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown, and Mitchell Waters of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents.
Kurestin Armada of P.S. Literary and Alec Shane of Writers House head the genre fiction table. “We asked for two agents per table so they could bounce ideas off each other,” Sippie explains. “They’re always interacting on social media; they already know each other, so that’s going to make for a good time.”
Advice for first-time attendees
While Sippie would love for people to attend and pitch a manuscript and sign with an agent, he asks writers to attend the conference without that expectation but with a mind open to absorbing information about both their preferred genre and the business of publishing. “We want to give people a learning experience and a community feeling rather than just this hope that they’ll attend this conference, and their life will change,” he explains.
During round-table discussions, participants will be able to take notes on what agents have to say about query letters and sample pages from writers working in the same genre. Sippie urges attendees to have fun with the agents and treat interactions with them like a regular conversation. “They’re people, too. We’re all supporting each other,” he says. “At the conference, we’re hoping to inspire a genuine connection between writers and agents that will last for years.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019. Twitter/Instagram @WildMelissaHart.