Let me tell you a little story about small working communities:
Two summers ago, I went to a panel where an editor named Katie was speaking. She brought some books that she’d worked on to hand out and I snagged a book that had been on my list for a few months, then read it a few weeks later. Come fall, I was in a class with a different editor named John who asked us to find authors who fit a specific theme for an upcoming project. I suggested the author of the book I’d gotten from Katie. Only to find out that John’s wife is the author’s agent, and that Katie would actually be coming to speak to the class the next week.
This experience fed into my fear that publishing is run by, like, fifteen people. It’s not, of course, but there are a lot of industries with scenes like this—they have a handful of key players who all seem to run in the same circles. This social setup can make networking extra challenging—not unlike vying for a seat at the “popular” table in a movie high school’s cafeteria. So here are some tips on how to get in with a crowd that feels “invite only."
Go to events…
Show up to stuff—seriously, it does actually matter that you go to real events, with real people, and speak to them face-to-face. I once missed out on meeting the Meryl Streep because I was too lazy to go to a reading. If I’d gone out instead of staying home to play video games, maybe I’d be in the upcoming Little Women movie instead of Saoirse Ronan. Okay, probably not. But it just goes to show you the kind of stuff that you can miss out on if you don’t make an appearance at events you know you should be going to. You might miss a chance to head out to drinks with some important contacts or you may not hear the latest buzz around the biz. I’m not advocating FOMO paranoia, but missing industry events and social outings can be tantamount to missing career advancement opportunities.
…or work at them
Y’all, I have been to so many cool literary parties (they were lit—get it?). And I was at approximately 70 percent of them as volunteer labor. Whether I was checking people in, selling raffle tickets, pouring drinks, or, in one particularly fun stint, being a “dare judge” for a night of grown-up truth-or-dare, you know what I was also doing? Talking to people. Constantly. It wasn’t always a smooth process (writers and editors are, by and large, introverted—some of us spook easy around strangers), but it gave me something to reference whenever I’ve reached out to someone afterwards. One thing to remember, however, is to respect the boundaries that come with working at a party. You may end up having access to someone’s personal information. Do not—repeat, do not—take someone’s email, phone number, etc. off the sign-in sheet or other materials. Either get the person’s info straight from them or from a mutual acquaintance. Taking personal information without permission is weird and creepy, and no one will ask you to work their next shindig if they know you’re essentially stalking their guests in an attempt to network.
Find a buddy
It can be tough to connect with someone on a professional level—but not as tough as it is to connect with an entire group. Luckily, the group’s camaraderie can work to your advantage if you can find one person to bring you into the fold. Surely there’s one person in this group whom you click with—this is your go-to guy or gal, and they can introduce you around when you’re just starting to meet people. Hang around them at events (in a normal, non-clingy way—the first trick of networking is not to be weird, see above about stalking), and I guarantee that you’ll end up in conversation groups with people you might not have felt comfortable approaching otherwise. So buddy up, and use group mentality to your advantage.
It’s all well and good to meet a bunch of people at parties and panels. But there’s a huge divide between being able to name-drop someone (I’ve seen Mohsin Hamid and Ta-Nehisi Coates at discrete occasions, and I’m pretty sure I had none-too-discreet heart attacks) and actually forging a connection (I have never spoken to either Mr. Hamid or Mr. Coates—I got nervous, don’t judge me.). So make sure that when you talk to someone you’re interested in getting to know better, you ask for their contact info and follow up with them a few days later. If you were talking about your respective projects, shoot them an email and ask if they’d like to get together for coffee or drinks and chat more. Ask if they’re going to the next event—maybe you two can meet up for dinner beforehand. Whatever you think would be the best way to continue forging your relationship with this person, the first thing you have to do is reach out. Don’t be nervous—the worst thing they can say is that they’re too busy right now. Which means you’ll just have to reach out again after the next time you see them.
The key to infiltrating close-knit groups within your industry is really the same as establishing yourself in any industry. You show up, you make a good impression, and you keep reaching out and making those connections. Sooner or later, people will take notice. Even the “popular table.”