Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Making Your Conference a Success

I’ve done similar posts before, but I suppose it never hurts to have some repetition.

I have attended so many writers conferences that it’s a little scary. I’ve been to Oklahoma, Florida, Texas more times than I can count, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Vermont, West Virginia, Colorado, California, Washington . . . You get the point.

And after attending all of those conferences I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned from an agent’s perspective what works and what doesn’t. So here it is. My list of those things I’ve seen and those things I can recommend.

  • Two-hour appointments max. No agent should have to spend more than two hours in any given weekend listening to pitch appointments. It’s not good for her and it’s not good for the authors. By the time that third hour comes around we are much too tired to listen.

  • Social receptions that are nothing but social. Not every event needs to be an “event.” Authors can learn more and network best when they’re given the chance to do so. Therefore, offer cocktail parties and meals where networking is the name of the game. There’s no speaker, no raffle, no microphone of any kind. Most attendees are adults and should be able to entertain themselves.

  • Free time. This isn’t a joke. This is my weekend and the least you can do is give me enough free time to really explore the area, sit on the beach, climb a mountain, or just hide in my room.

  • Meals. If you can’t provide all or most meals for your attendees then try to make meals available for agents and editors at the least. Encourage attendees to treat agents or editors to a meal or ask someone to host a small gathering off-site that of course the agents and editors will be driven to.

  • Airport pickup. I just don’t understand why this isn’t an easy one. Who wouldn’t want 20+ minutes alone with an agent? As I’ve said in other posts, it’s a great way to make yourself remarkable (especially with some of the driving I’ve experienced).

  • Hosted tables. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of your featured guests (agents and editors) if you require that they “host” a table at meals. In other words, instead of allowing them to sneak off and all sit together in a corner, put their names in the center of the tables and give your attendees a chance to sit with those people they really want to get to know. This will also guarantee that they actually come to the meal.

  • Allowing the agents to determine their schedules. I like doing workshops and I’ve enjoyed critiques. It’s really disappointing to me when I am flown halfway across the country and I don’t get to speak to the group. I know appointments and panels are a necessary evil, but why not use agents and editors to their fullest if they’re willing. If I’m willing to do workshops, why wouldn’t you have me do workshops?
And here are some special bonuses that conferences have done that I’ve really enjoyed:

  • Critique sessions. I was surprised by this myself, but I really liked doing group critiques. My favorite was at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference. Each agent had roughly two hours to critique the work of eight people. I had received the first ten pages, along with a one-page synopsis of each author’s work ahead of time. The other attendees received the same material. When we sat down to talk I was able to give my critique and then open the floor for others to give their opinions. Now of course not all agents like these.

  • Author/editor lunch. One conference did a special lunch just for the authors and editors. NO one else. That means we actually had time to get to know each other, catch up, and talk and kvetch about the business. It was really fun.

  • Planned, but not required, trip outside of the hotel. One of my all-time favorites was to the Tabasco sauce factory on Avery Island, LA. I LOVED it!

  • Appointments outside, in the sun, by the beach. Okay, you probably can’t do that in Seattle, but I really loved it.

  • Regional introductions. The worst part of conferences is that they are all the same. Every single one serves chicken in a hotel ballroom. Embrace your region and introduce it to those who’ve traveled so far to see it. Feed us something special—grits for breakfast or Chicago-style pizza for lunch. Offer us a local beer or a book with regional flair. In other words, make us feel like we’ve actually left NYC.
And I think that’s it for me this time. What about the attendees? What have you loved about conferences you’ve attended and what have you hated? What do you wish agents and editors would do more or less of?



Kim Kasch said...

At the SCBWI fall retreat in Oregon, the group gives the guests a bag of local goodies, which includes things like: Oregon Wine, smoked salmon, a pocket-size umbrella, Tillamook cheese, and a small vial of Mt. St. Helens ash or Portland liquid sunshine (also known as rain). Some were nice/some were silly. I thought this was a lot of fun, just hearing what the agents/editors got in their bags.

Diana said...

Wow. What a great post! If I volunteer to help organize a conference, I will keep your list safety-pinned to my shirt at all times.

Some of my favorite things:

- When there is at least a half-hour between sessions. I've been to conferences (not writing conferences, but still) where they only allowed 10 minutes between sessions, which doesn't give you time to use the bathroom, much less talk with anyone, find your next room, run to your hotel room to grab something, etc.

- When speakers (editors, agents, writers, etc.) are able to attend the entire conference, so I can approach them at some point and say hello or ask a question. (I know that's not always possible.)

- Like Jessica, I really appreciate social events that allow me to meet other writers as well as the speakers!

My least favorite things:

- Panels. Not because I think panels are bad, but because almost every panel I've ever attended involved a lot of silence, or "that one guy in the audience" who wouldn't let anyone else get a word in.

- Speakers who come up to the front of the room and open with, "So what do you want to talk about?"

Kim, by the way, was an awesome speaker at the Ozark Creative Writers Conference in 2006.

Sean McLachlan said...

I don't like too much mucking about at a conference. I'm there primarily to sit down with editors and agents. Seeing the local area is fun, but as a travel writer I get around enough. Regional food is a good idea, something the World Fantasy Convention tends to do well, and you can still network over the local cuisine and microbrew.

As for panels, I usually enjoy them, although I may not always learn much. I've gotten some good professional contacts and speaking invitations from being on panels, so I highly recommend sitting on the other side of the table if you can swing it.

Chris Redding said...

If a conference offers a panel, then they need a strong moderator. One, to get the discussion moving and two, to make sure no one either on the panel or the audience dominates.
I think the agent/editor sponsored table is a great idea.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm glad you posted this.

I've already admitted the thought of talking to agents is more than a little daunting. It's good to see how conferences are viewed from the other side of the looking glass.

Social receptions are definitely a good idea. Everyone needs a chance to unwind. That being said, I have visions of agents, wearing large crucifixes and necklaces of garlic and maybe even a few Supersoakers filled with holy water to ward off aspiring authors.

I would love a chance to explore the area a bit. I love history, so I always try to find a historical site to visit, when I travel. Finding an antique store with a bit of local history would be heaven.

Yes, I know it's a working conference, but a chance to renew the mind and spirit is good also.

I've thought about volunteering at conferences, but driving probably wouldn't be a good idea for me. I tend to get lost. I can see an agent with flashes of Misery going through their mind as I make a wrong turn. It just wouldn't be pretty.

The hosted table sound wonderful.

Workshops are a major reason for me to attend a conference. I'm glad not all agents dread them.

I've been pondering the Rocky Mountain conference as well as the Surrey one.

"At the SCBWI fall retreat in Oregon, the group gives the guests a bag of local goodies,"

This sounds like fun. A rodeo organization my oldest son belonged to always put together gift bags for the cowboys and cowgirls. You would think winning saddles and trophy buckles would be all anyone was interested in, but we always looked forward to those neat little bags, too.

Thanks again for posting this, Jessica.

superwench83 said...

The Columbus Writers Conference in Columbus, OH was a fantastic one. Unfortunately, they're not having it this year. Don't know if it's a temporary thing or not. I hope so. Anybody know of good conferences within a 4 or so hour drive from Cincinnati?

My favorite part of the conference was what they called an agent/editor chat. They put one editor and one agent in a little room, and you got to pick which one you wanted to attend. There were maybe 8 people in the room I was in, and the session lasted an hour. So there was ample time to ask questions. It was great. It was also a really nice chance to see that agents and editors are people, too, just like the rest of us. Sometimes it's easy to forget that as a writer, easy to get nervous about them. But that chat session helped with that. Talking so casually one-on-one, it was easier to relax.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "Anybody know of good conferences within a 4 or so hour drive from Cincinnati?"

How far is Detroit from Cincinnati...maybe it's 5 or 6 hours, not sure...May 20th 2008 (a Tuesday) Jessica will be speaking, though it's a meeting not a conference - not sure if I should go...I'm more women's fiction or even literary fiction (I think) - the RWA website lists "novels with Strong Romantic Elements -
A work of fiction in which a romance plays a significant part in the story, but other themes or elements take the plot beyond the traditional romance boundaries."

I mean if you stretch and pull on that definition, and tug on it, my current "WIP" (WAFP - Work Almost Fully Progressed) fits in that category!

Still, the Greater Detroit RWA is right up (or down) the road from me...networking...other women novelists...you can come to meeting as a guest...

Here's info from Greater Detroit RWA website:

Agents and Author Relationships with Jessica Faust

The relationship between author and agent is one of the most important relationship an author has, certainly it’s the most long-standing. Jessica plans to discuss how an author can best make that relationship work for her, how to know she’s choosing the right agent and what to do when the relationship seems to be souring.

After working as an editor with both Berkley Publishing and Macmillan, Jessica Faust cofounded BookEnds in 1999 and knows that one of the most important relationships an author can have in her career is with her agent. Before signing with an agency Jessica always encourages authors to interview every agent interested and make sure that the one she chooses is truly the best for her and what she wants to achieve with her writing career. Jessica is an agent who appreciates honesty and is always looking for an exciting new book. She represents romance in all genres including historical, contemporary, paranormal and fantasy, erotica, and romantic suspense. She is also looking for women’s fiction, mysteries, thrillers, suspense and nonfiction. More about Jessica and BookEnds can be found at www.bookends-inc.com.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Okay, I'll just throw this "on a tangent" comment out: Re: Women's fiction - two examples that come to mind are "Crow Lake" by Mary Lawson and the more recent "The Great Man" by Kate Christensen.

Publisher Weekly wrote about Crow Lake: "The combination of orphan protagonists and effortless prose makes this an irresistible first effort. Foreign rights have already been sold in nine countries, and similar enthusiasm should be expected in the U.S."

And then "The Great Man" won the 2008 Pen/Faulkner award.

Both these books seem like women's fiction to me - but are a bit different than the entries in the women's fiction contest here at Bookends...?? So I guess women's fiction is a pretty broad-catch all?

Sorry for tangential question - just popped into my head, would be great to attend a women's fic conference (whatever that is).

Kate Douglas said...

I've been to a lot of conferences as well, and the most memorable events were the informal chats with agents and editors. The problem is, not all agents and editors are good public speakers! Workshops and panels where "uhm" is the most popular word sort of make me nuts, but the informal chances to ask questions and get a real "feel" for the person are the most valuable.

Taylor K. said...

I may be revealing my green skin a bit here, but I have a bit of trouble actually finding out where and when conferences are going to be. Usually when i find out it's because I happened to be at the right place at the right time. Is there a good website to find this stuff out at? Everytime I search I always come across bad sites. Anyone got any advice on this?

Aside from that, I think all agents at Writer's Conference should have to dress up as a different fictional character. Will be able to detect suck ups more easily if they're talking about how ravishing an agent is in that clingon makeup. ;)

Kate H said...

1) The best venue for a conference is a small college campus in the summertime, with the cafeteria open. Everything is close but you still get a little walk between events and meals, and they're usually good for getting some local flavor. Also lots cheaper than hotel rooms and independent meals.

2) I like having a critique session with one or more agents rather than five- or ten-minute pitch appointments. In the latter the agents seem so blitzed they can't give proper attention. The joint critique sessions you described, Jessica, sound great, though I've never experienced one.

3) I also love the hosted-table concept. It gives authors a chance to find out that agents and editors are people too, but for us bashful ones it's easier than just walking up to someone during a cocktail hour.

4) And oh, yes, I am definitely in favor of free time! Most conferences are so packed that you have no time to process anything, and by the end you're so exhausted you can't even think.

Anonymous said...

This is the perfect place to ask this question, and for comments from the peanut gallery.

I volunteered, for an upcoming conference, to act as the point of contact for one of the guests. I want to be helpful (and since I don't have a project to pitch the person, it'll be a lot less stressful; there's nothing at stake), but I want to strike a balance between being available to help and stalking (aka "being too helpful").

Can anyone give any advice on this? If you've been a guest, what did you like about being helped and what didn't you like? What kind of information should I have at my fingertips (I would guess good restaurants off-site, and maybe optional entertainment)?

Anonymous said...

To those of you who asked about conferences, Pennwriters is holding one May 16-18 in Lancaster, the heart of Amish country. Joyce Carol Oates will be speaking.

Cindy Procter-King said...

This is a great list. Several excellent ideas I wouldn't mind seeing implemented.

Picks By Pat said...

I attended the "Love is Murder" conference in Chicago in February and loved it..the ideal conference. Close to the airport, plenty of useful panels, editor and agent pitches, and a well stocked bar! The writers I met were great, very helpful with advice and friendly.

The only things I think they could improve on, perhaps,

1) add a little time in between panels (ten minutes) so people aren't rushed

2) Perhaps a panel from the attending agents/editors on how to query, and

3) Do something about that Chicago weather (won't hold my breathe on this one).

Anonymous said...

Here you go, taylor k.!


Also, if you're involved in a writers group, like Sisters in Crime or RWA, you can find out about the "good" ones from fellow members.

superwench83 said...

Thanks so much for the conference recommendations! That one in Lancaster PA sounds especially perfect. It's ten or twelve hours from me, but only an hour from my grandparents, who I haven't seen in a long time. Maybe I'll have to pay them a visit and hit that conference as well.

Anonymous said...

Let's see--Pay my way to the conference, pick me up at the airport, provide all my meals, don't expect me to meet with writers for more than two hours, and give me plenty of free time to climb mountains and visit hot sauce factories. So what if it's your money? It's my weekend.

Makes me wonder why everyone doesn't jump at the chance to do the months and months of preparation (as in blood, sweat AND tears) to provide a conference at which they won't get to hear a workshop, they'll lose sleep and, almost certainly, won't make a penny.


Anonymous said...

As a Conference Coordinator, I have to agree with the last post. No conference is going to pay for any agent or publisher to fly down, stay at a hotel, feed them the entire weekend and not have the agent/ publisher participate in pitches, panels and presentations.

The conference is there for the attendees that pay your way! This is an educational weekend for the writers not a free weekend to the locale of your choosing.

Rest assured if that is how you expect a conference to go I will not be inviting you to mine. I'm amazed that you would get any new clients, which should be your purpose to attend a conference as a faculty member.

Conference Coordinator

Aimless Writer said...

Random question maybe you could answer sometime.
I'm ready to send my completed manuscript out and looking at agent websites for what they represent and how they want it sent.
I find a lot of agents who represent thrillers among other genres. So, I look at their authors to get a better look at what kind of stuff they like. My question is if an agent has a lot of authors in their stable writing thrillers do they really need/want another one? If they represent mostly romance wouldn't that mean they'd be more apt to want a thriller?

Chumplet said...

You've got the little wheels in my brain turning. I'm thinking I should approach our publisher (Regional media group - newspapers and such) and see if he's interested in having a writer's conference.

So far, we've been successful with job fairs, home shows and wedding shows. Ontario has a lot of writers!

Mind you, he'd probably turn to me and say, "Great idea. You run it."


Julie Weathers said...

Wow. To those anons complaining.

Probably shooting myself in the foot here, but I guess I saw it from a different angle.

Two hour pitch sessions at a time seems reasonable. Personally, I don't want to pitch to an agent who is exhausted and trying to force themself to pay attention to me. I would prefer they be a bit fresher. It doesn't mean they only do one pitch session during the conference, it just means they take a break from it after two hours.

"Allowing the agents to determine their schedules. I like doing workshops and I’ve enjoyed critiques. It’s really disappointing to me when I am flown halfway across the country and I don’t get to speak to the group. I know appointments and panels are a necessary evil, but why not use agents and editors to their fullest if they’re willing. If I’m willing to do workshops, why wouldn’t you have me do workshops?"

Seems to me like she is suggesting MORE ways to be useful, not fishing for a free vacation.

As for the tabasco tour? Yeah, count me in. Seeing agents and editors as people might actually give me a chance to relax and get to know them.

It's definitely a working weekend, but I don't want to be on such an overload I don't take anything home. Give me some breaks in between so I can reset my mind. I'm fairly certain even agents get tired and need to refresh.

I'll settle for a few less intense workshops if it means I can actually interact with some people instead of zombies.

Anonymous said...

Having been scheduled at the end of an agent's three hours of appointments, I know how discouraging it is to pitch when the person across the table is worn out.

I've been to several conferences where agents and editors have a hectic schedule, not to mention significant travel time just to get to and from the event. And some of the hotels are marginal at best. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect to be hosted, shown around a bit and treated like a VIP. The host may just establish enough rapport with the agent to get a full request and a friendly consideration. It happened to me.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

From an author's perspective, the single most important thing is having a good moderator - or even "a" moderator - for every panel. It seems like a simple thing but it's not; I've been to far too many conferences where, at the last minute, a panicked coordinator has run up and thrust a microphone in my hand (or the hand of one of the other authors on the panel) and said, "Here. You moderate."

Or those conferences where an author was picked to moderate and who ended up using all the time to talk about her book, not giving the panelists any time at all. Or just someone who has no concept of how to manage time so that everyone, audience and panelists, get to say what they want.

I really can count on one hand the number of panels I've appeared on which have been moderated by someone who has actually read our books, emailed us in advance to discuss topics of conversation, and who just basically knew what to do. It's just such an important ingredient (a good moderator) for both the audience and the panelists. Yet so often it seems like an afterthought.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently planning a conference.

Did it occur to the agent in question that part of the reason why chicken is served at conferences is because it may be a bit more affordable for the conference organizers? We'd love to offer the most gourmet foods as well, but considering the fact that even a plated chicken dinner is over $40 a person now at a hotel, sometimes we sacrifice the perfect for the good.

Conference organizers spend thousands out of their budget to bring agents and editors to town, feed, house and transport them. Conference organizers (volunteers, I might add,) also spend the better part of a year working to bring the best conference they possibly can, and they spend little or no time at all enjoying the result of their hard work. We'd love to go and sit on the beach or hold appointments off-site, too, but this would cost additional money and time. Both are at a premium during that weekend.

Our authors want workshops. They're at the conference to learn. There is networking and social time, but we have two days to cram it all in. If we scheduled less workshops and more unstructured "social time", we'd get complaints.

I understand that we ask agents and editors to give up their weekend in order to come to our conference. At the same time, to be reminded that our best just isn't good enough is a fairly bitter pill to swallow.

BookEnds, LLC said...

The funny thing about this is that I don't even eat chicken.

I want to clarify that I think anyone who takes on the job of organizing a conference is a saint. I just returned from one yesterday, Desert Dreams in Chandler, AZ and was wildly impressed. **Note, this post was done in advance since I was going to be traveling** They did a fabulous job and trust me, I can tell when a conference is well-organized. They worked me hard, but everything went smoothly and everyone I talked to was great, extremely helpful and really nice.

This is not a list of those things you have to do to make a successful conference and this is not meant as a tirade against conference organizers. If I didn't think they were well-organized I wouldn't bother going. What this post is meant to be is a list of those things that I really think conference organizers can consider--ideas for actually utilizing agents and editors in the best way possible as well as those things that act as bonus incentive to agents and editors if you have the means.

As a reminder to organizers, agents and editors talk too and I've seen many turn down conference invitations because they've heard that it's an event that works their speakers to death, leaving no time for fun. We certainly don't go to conferences thinking we're going to spend the day on the beach or get a free vacation, but we need the balance as much as you do and anything you can do to make it feel like fun, even when it's work, helps you.

Oh, and by the way, the Tabasco tour was optional but done at 7:30 am before the event started. It certainly didn't take away from the time spent with paying attendees.

Julie Weathers said...

RE the reasons for serving chicken. I understand conference organizers have to try to maintain a budget. I don't think anyone suggested gourmet meals are expected.

I've been to a lot of awards banquets and some of them were really unique and interesting, while sticking to a fairly strict budget.

I'm sure conference organizers have a genuine headache for months, trying to pull these off.

I just took the comments as tossing out ideas that might be of interest, not a flame towards organizers.

Anyway, I know I am looking for conferences that have some kind of balance. I want to get my money's worth, but I also don't want to be so tired I can't comprehend what's going on. I looked up one conference that had a publisher I am very interested in as a panelist. After looking at the schedule, I was reminded of a real estate conference with one technical class right after another. I was tired just reading the schedule.

I'm sure there will be a lot of writers who flock to it and get their money's worth.

I'll keep looking for the balance.

C.L. Wilson said...

Excellent post and some fabulous ideas to make any conference both enjoyable and worthwhile.

Stacee said...

I am the Conference Coordinator for the Las Vegas Writers Conference. I have tried to make our conference a small intimate gathering with no more than 140 attendees, 16 faculty members and a few volunteers. Meals are varied dishes (not gourmet). We ask the faculty to do a 50 min presentation and/or a 1 hour and 20 min workshop. Pitch sessions are 15 min each with a break after 45 min. Breakfast lunch and dinner are provided for the main two days of the conference. Though the conference runs from 8am- 8pm Fri and Sat, after hours are their own to go and grab a show or gamble, whatever.

We do ask that the faculty members that attend specify what days they will take pitches and stick with that. We have had occasions in the past where a member of the faculty came down on our dime and only contributed for 1 day and didn't take one new client on. Most times there is no problem negotiating time schedules, no one wants to make a conference uncomfortable for the attendees or the faculty.

Lady Heidi, Duchess of Kneale said...

Aimless Writer asked:

My question is if an agent has a lot of authors in their stable writing thrillers do they really need/want another one?

Well, yes, actually. Generally, agents are open to finding saleable projects. If they are not, they will mention on their website/blog/wherever that they "are not accepting queries at this time".

If thrillers are what they sell best, then you'd do well to pitch a thriller to an agent that has a good track record of selling thrillers. It's their specialty, one could say.

If they represent mostly romance wouldn't that mean they'd be more apt to want a thriller?

No, not necessarily. If an agent reps mostly romance, that means it's because they know romance, know how to sell it, know who wants it and generally are very successful in placing it.

Don't make the assumption that just because an agent's list is full of romance, that they are sick of the stuff.

In fact, don't assume anything about anything unless the agent comes right out and says it.

If an agent thinks she's got enough romance on her list and she wants to expand her genre base, she will put out a request for more SFF or more thrillers or more whatever.

Agents are generally very good about mentioning on their listings what they are or aren't looking for. And for those few who are rather vague, at least they'll mention whether or not they rep fiction or non-fiction.

In the end, it never hurts to drop the agent an email asking for clarification: "Hello, you mention in N listing that you represent X, Y and Z. Does this also include thrillers?"

If you show you've done your research, they'll respect you more.

Their response should give you an idea as to whether you will want to query them with your thriller.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments about conferences.

I think we can all take something aways from them, the main point being that you're an invited guest who is a critical component of a successful conference -- and a little extra attention to detail (not necessarily costing money) goes a long way....

Joy said...

Jessica. Are you planning on attending the National Convention in San Francisco in August of this year? If so, please accept my offer to pick you up at the airport when you arrive. (And shuttle you back at the end.) Our Chapter, Silicon Valley RWA is planning a special tour of San Francisco for all the agents who read for us in the Gotcha! contest. Perhaps you would like to join us?
Joy Baxter
Co coordinator of the Gotcha! contest.