This is the fourth workshop I have attended in Tucson. The last one I went to had many more speakers who were published authors, talking about their process. I wrote about it here. This year, there seemed to be an emphasis on literary agents discussing how to write a good query letter and how to choose the right agent for you.
What I found the most interesting about the agent speeches was their discomfort with the idea that they were "gatekeepers", although they obviously are. They admitted they're more likely to get their writers from referrals and urged people to include any personal connection at the very beginning of a query letter, perhaps even the subject line of the email.
"We're really more like matchmakers," one agent insisted, ignoring that she is in the position to choose who gets matched (and who doesn't) based on criteria that's meaningful to her. I don't begrudge her this position, but that's what it means to be a gatekeeper. It seems silly to pretend otherwise.
The consensus seemed to be that a literary agent gets hundreds of queries a week, makes dozens of manuscript requests and may take on two new clients in a year.
Two. In a year.
As sobering as that was, I did not get the impression that I got from speakers at the Tucson Book Festival that publishing is dead. None of these agents suggested a writer should hire their own editors or PR firms in order to secure representation.
Maybe the most useful aspect of this conference is the chance to have your work evaluated by one of the professionals speaking at the event. I'd recommend submitting work for a consultation if you think you're ready to start the query process.
The reiteration of how few writers agents take on each year makes it easy to understand why so many writers are self-publishing.