I’m in the throes of a major deadline, my friends, so I’m trapped inside, despite the fact that this is the kind of glorious midsummer day that those of us in the Pacific Northwest spend all November fantasizing about in nearly pornographic levels of detail. Oh, the writer’s life is glamorous!
So, in keeping with the spirit of the summer vacation I really ought to be taking right now, out seeing everyone’s knees poking out below Bermuda shorts and sunburns on beaches everywhere, I’m going to take a breather before attacking the formal pitch to tackle a fun topic today: what you should wear to a conference in the dead middle of summer.
This is a serious issue, you know. It may be 90 degrees outside, but conference centers are often air-conditioned to the point that ice will not melt in your latte. And a bathing suit with a fur coat thrown over it seems as though it MIGHT send the wrong message about your professionalism.
Although I would dearly love to hear the pitch for the book where that particular outfit would enhance the author’s credibility.
You should be thinking about your credibility as you gaze into your closet in the days before a conference. In many ways, these conferences are job interviews — at least the pitching part. You will want to look professional, not as though you have just stepped off the aforementioned beach.
Does this mean you should wear a suit? No, not unless you will be pitching a book about business skills, or another sort of NF book where your credibility as an expert in a tradition-bound field is a strong element of your platform. If not, overdressing can come across as insecurity, rather than professionalism, especially to a NYC-based agent or editor.
Why? Well, just as being naturally good-looking makes a BIG difference in first impressions on this coast (come on, admit it), being well and appropriately dressed is important in making good first impressions on Manhattanites. One way that people identify others like themselves on that fair isle is by dress — if you work at a fashion magazine, you dress one way; if you work in a brokerage firm, you dress another.
So to an NYC-based agent, if you wear a suit, depending on the designer’s label within it, he might identify you as a high-powered attorney, a minor official at a state agency, a spy, or a shoe salesman.
So while in theory, this means that you could conceivably skip the makeup, don your jammies, and wear your glasses to your meeting (because that’s what writers look like while they’re working, right?), this is not the time to be shabby. Neatness counts.
So the short answer to what to wear is this: nice pants or a skirt (but not a super-short one, unless you are pitching erotica — and even then, don’t make the world your gynocologist), avoid showing too much cleavage or chest hair, and go light on the cologne.
Unless you are pitching a book about mountaineering, I would avoid much-worn jeans or hiking boots, but to a West Coast conference, you could get away with newish jeans quite happily.
No need for women to wear heels or nylons, though. (That great tumult of joyous noise you just heard, gentlemen, was the female readership of this blog rejoicing.) Unless you are attending a conference in the South, that is, where the nice ladies are more put together than we Westerners in general.
(Things I have been offered the loan of, kindly, at writers’ conferences in the South by well-dressed relative strangers: nylons, a hair dryer, hot rollers, shoe polish, nail polish, and spectator pumps.)
Generally speaking, though, don’t dress up as if you were attending an afternoon wedding — a corsage would be a BIT much, unless you are pitching a book on prom etiquette — but don’t show up in shorts and a T-shirt, either.
Leave the tube top at home, I tell you. Ditto with the Hawaiian shirt with the eye-searing pattern of chartreuse pineapples on a field of rampant pink flamingos — unless you are pitching the definitive Don Ho bio, of course.
Oh, sorry — I didn’t mean to make your brain start humming Tiny Bubbles on a continuous loop. (RIP, bubblemaster.)
Stand back, for I am about to make a prophecy: those of you attending the upcoming PNWA conference will remember this advice vividly when you walk into the conference, because there you will see many, many people there in jeans and T-shirts proclaiming their favorite bands, 5K runs for charity, or membership in the Don Ho fan club. The Pacific Northwest is a pretty casual place.
How casual, you ask? Well, let’s just say that I’ve seen a LOT of knees over the years, and no one is going to offer to loan you spectator pumps.
However, at the risk of sounding like your mother: do as I say, not as they do. Even if EVERYONE else is dressed down, you will still make a better impression if you are appropriately dressed than if you are not.
And besides, if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you?
Basically, you should wear what you might to the first major reading of your book in a bookstore. This is a terrific rule of thumb anytime you will be meeting with anyone in the industry, actually, because you will be demonstrating to an agent who is considering taking you on as a client, or an editor who is thinking about acquiring your book, that you have enough social sensitivity that they don’t have to worry about you showing up to future interviews or signings in your pajamas — or that Hawaiian shirt I mentioned.
Believe it or not, the ability to dress appropriately is equally helpful whether you write gardening advice or cyberpunk. People in the industry want to work with authors whom they can send into a variety of promotional environments.
If you doubt this, pay attention to what the presenting writers, agents, and editors are wearing at the next conference you attend. You’re not going to see a while lot of prints on the women, for instance; I’ve never been to a writers’ conference where at least one of the publishing professionals WASN’T wearing a plain, clean-lined pantsuit. I’ve seen entire editors’ panels swathed in subdued Ann Taylor crêpe.
As the immortal Laurie Partridge showed us all in my childhood, you can’t go wrong with a nice pantsuit.
Because the publishing industry does tend toward quieter fashions, this is not the best place to trot out the big floral prints (you’ll think about that, too, when you see how many people show up in them), or clothing bearing the insignia of a business or sports team. I don’t want to see your knees at all, under any circumstances, so just don’t pack the shorts or flip-flops with your conference gear.
Trust me on this one. The meeting rooms will be air-conditioned, anyway, sometimes to pneumonia-inducing levels of chill. You’re not going to want to wear anything that bares thigh, lest you die of exposure.
I hear some of you out there grumbling, and rightly so: for most of the conference, you will be sitting around on folding chairs, listening to speakers. So wouldn’t it make MORE sense to wear something comfortable, rather than fussy nice clothes?
In a word, yes — to the parts of the conference where you can reasonably expect to be sitting around on a folding chair, listening to speakers. But for your meetings, no. Would you stroll into an interview for a job you wanted in a halter top and ripped Daisy Dukes?
Okay, would you walk into an interview anywhere but Hooters wearing that?
There’s no law, however, that says you can’t leave your nicely-pressed shirt on a hanger in your car, or in the closet of your hotel room, to change into an hour before your appointment. In fact, re-robing just before your formal pitch meeting can be a good preparation ritual.
Two caveats about the preceding. First, if you plan on taking the brave route of approached agents to pitch at them in the hallways, do plan on being dressed up a bit the whole time, so you are always ready to make a good impression. The Flashdance look may be charming on you, especially the legwarmers, but you don’t want to have to think twice about accosting that agent next to you in the hotel elevator, lest your apparel suggest that you are proposing something different than you actually are.
You’ll understand that last sentence when you’re older, children.
Second — and this may seem a trifle frivolous, but it is nevertheless true — the lighting in virtually every conference center in North America makes everyone look positively ghastly. Red tones tend to do better in that light than yellows. And if you’re like me, and pale, you might want to spring for a little rouge or lipstick, so you don’t look as though you have spent the last year typing away on your opus in an unusually depressing crypt.
Unless, of course, you write about vampires, in which case you may feel free to look a trifle Goth. Other than that, stock up on the vitamin C, and smile.
Speaking of which, I now need to lock myself in my crypt and get back to work. Enjoy high summer, everybody, and keep up the good work!