Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Are Conferences Really About

It’s conference season. At least for me it is. For the next few weeks I’m going to be very busy literally jetting around the country attending and speaking at various writers conferences, which, along with a reader’s question, has me thinking about the way we think of conferences.

Why do we go to conferences? I would bet that nearly all of you answered that question by saying that you go to meet editors and agents. Wrong! We go to conferences to network, and editors and agents are just a small sampling of the people we can network with. Do you know that networking with other writers can be just as important as networking with agents?

A reader recently wrote in to tell me that he is planning to attend two conferences this spring and wants to know whether or not he should hold off on querying until after the conference. Why? His feeling is that if he gets an agent before his conferences then he would feel like he wasted his money.

Really? You have an agent. Who cares when it happens? Isn’t getting an agent your goal, or is it feeling like you didn’t waste money? Listen, there are roughly 400 conference attendees trying to get the attention of, maybe, four exhausted, overworked and chatted-out agents. Out in the big cold query world there are hundreds of agents all snug at their desks looking for a talented writer with a great book. So what if you get an agent before you go to the conference? Then doesn’t that take the pressure off? Now you’re allowed to relax, sit back, enjoy yourself and network with other authors because, frankly, you’re going to need them. You’re going to need them when your editor asks if you know of anyone who might be able to give you a quote. You’re going to need them when your editor or agent sends back painful revisions. You’re going to need them when you’re the featured speaker at a conference and just want to see a familiar face. You’re going to need that reviewer you shared a drink with and that bookseller you chatted with at breakfast.

Conferences are all about networking, they are not about getting an agent. Sure, getting an agent at or through a conference would be thrilling and certainly it would make life easier, but you can’t go into it thinking that’s your plan. You need to go into the conference with a more global career outlook. You need to build contacts—agents, editors, other writers, bookstore owners, reviewers, and those who plan future conferences. You need to look at the conference as a path, not one stepping-stone.



Anonymous said...

Good morning Jessica!
I attended my first conference last year, RWA in San Francisco. I had planned on attending before signing with my agent and had indeed booked a few slots with agents and editors. I signed with my agent a month before. I never considered not going. I was able to meet her in person, hook up with my crit partners, attended some very informative (and not so informative!) workshops, and met some authors who I've admired for years. I can't wait to go to Washington this year, for more of the same.

LorelieLong said...

I went to the RWA National covention last year. I had one meeting with an editor that lasted all of about five minutes and briefly met two agents at the bar. It was nice, but to be honest I felt like the real value was everyone else I met, particularly the other writers.

I've already registered for this year. :D

Traci said...

I hope this isn't a dumb question, but I am new to all of this. Where can you look to find information abtout conferences?

Kimber Li said...

With all the ranting about conferences on the Internet, it's difficult to figure out which ones are worth attending. Most of the ranters make it seem like aspiring authors are there to grovel and throw money and be treated like irritating little idiots with very little or no return on their investment of time, money, and energy. So, what are the good ones? And how are they more beneficial to aspiring authors than networking over the Internet?

Mark Terry said...

I'm even less of a "go-to-network" kind of guy. I think you should go to conferences because you want to go to conferences. If you're published and you think it'll help you to sell your book, it's a pretty earth-shattering experience to have--like I did--your book signing scheduled at the same time as Alexander McCall Smith's. (On the other hand, one of my fellow writers consoled me by saying she'd had one scheduled opposite Mary Higgins Clark, and even someone as well-known as Lawrence Block once wrote about having a signing scheduled opposite Stephen King).

Go to a con and get whatever out of it you can, but the lower your expectations the happier you'll probably be.

Kate Douglas said...

You've nailed it. I'm writing this from a Starbucks in Manhattan--just arrived this morning for the PASIC conference and will be here until Sunday, seeing my agent (Hi, Jessica!) and my editor, but also meeting with lots of other authors, learning about current trends, talking to people in all different publishing fields. I started going to conferences long before I was published, and I doubt I would be published if not for what I learned and the people I met. They're an amazing source of information, networking, and just soaking up as much of the business of writing as you possibly can.

kris said...

If you're looking for a great conference, I highly recommend those done by RWA - either a local or the big kahuna, National. It's very well organized and offers plenty of opportunities to network with both publishing professionals and fellow writers, be they published to aspiring. In addition, after five years on the workshop committee, I can assure you that National offers a mind-boggling assortment of workshops aimed at writers of all levels.

Even if you don't write romance you can still benefit from the many sessions on creating characters, world building, dealing with the press, and assessing agents and career paths, to name just a few. Many of our sessions feature either an editor, an agent, or both. (Jessica is taking part in at least two workshops.) We take pride in offering a top-notch slate of informative sessions so everyone can benefit from the conference.

You don't have to be a member of RWA to attend National, though members do get a cheaper rate on registration. As Juliana and LorieLong mentioned, this year it will be in DC. Next year is Nashville (I can't wait!), and after that, New York. You can find all the info you need at

Michele Dunaway said...

The good ones are the ones that don't leave you feeling sucked dry and that writing is hopeless by the time you reach home. Seriously. I've attended conferences and come home so bummed out by the news or overall tone that it takes me at least four weeks before I can write anything again.

Conferences can be a lot like being in high school, as silly as that sounds.

If you do attend conferences and are a bit overwhelmed by it, I suggest you make a specific plan of action and really decide what two or three things you are there for. Is it to pitch a book? Is it to attend as many sessions as possible? Is it to catch up with friends you only see once a year and hang out with them? Is it to attend every party? Is it to network?

Not that you can't do it all, but you have to set your priorities or you can immediately lose sight of why you are there and get lost in the fun (or overwhelming nature) of it all.

As for finding conferences, joining RWA (for romance writers) will get you the magazine which lists all the various national and local chapter conferences. There are some big chapter conferences out there that don't require muscling through the 2,000+ people at RWA national, like the one in Seattle, Atlanta, and New Jersey.

I don't know about the mystery or other genres, so maybe someone will chime in on how to find those.

And one last thought, if in this economy you can't afford to attend conferences (for RWA you have to budget at least $2,000 when thinking clothes, registration, hotel, food and transport), it's okay not to be there. There are plenty of stories of people who sell and keep selling without ever attending one, and those stories are true.

Anita said...

Litgirl: I'll be covering the Pikes Peaks Writers Conference for my local newspaper in April. At the end of the whole shebang, I'll be blogging about the experience, if you want to know more about that particular conference.

Richard Mabry said...

Wise words. The networking I've done at conferences has stood me in good stead along my road to writing. Lightning may not strike while you're attending, but your time and money are well spent if you learn, meet, grow while you're there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jessica! That stepping stone to a path analogy is spot on!

Sometimes, as hopeful authors, we develop a sort of tunnel vision about all things writing ... where we can see nothing but the prize--getting an agent and getting published. We forget to enjoy the journey.

There are so many rewarding facets to conferences--most importantly, as you pointed out, it's a way to make connections. Not just professional but personal.

It's like a Star Trek convention ... without the costumes. Heh. We are all "trekies" of a literary sort. A conference is the one place where we are free to be ourselves and chatter all we want about our craft and its ups and downs without people looking at us like we're nuts. No one understands a writer's neurotic tendencies and erratic mood swings better than another writer. :-)

Thanks again. This really puts things in perspective!

Traci said...

Thanks so much to all of you who offered information! :-) I'll be sure to check it all out. Not sure that $2,000 is in my budget, but I would like to attend a conference at some point. I REALLY love networking with other writers. It's just nice to be around people with similar interests.

Carolyn V. said...

So true, so true. Networking is the best part of the conferences. Plus I always feel rejuvenated and ready for more writing when it's over.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Jessica, Sometimes it seems you are reading my mind. I just registered for the Backspace Conf. in May. I was thinking the same thing: what if I get an agent before then? Would that be a waste of my time and money? Um, NO it wouldn't! This business, like you say, is all about networking. I attended the Algonkian Pitch and Shop conference in NYC last September. Although, I have misgivings about the format and time wasted while speed-dating w/agents, the women writers who were in my group were exceptional people and talented writers. Six months later, I'm still in communication with many of them. In fact, one just got an offer from an agent two weeks ago, and I couldn't be happier for her! Cheering each other on and picking each other up is priceless. After reading this post, I'm looking forward to the Backspace Conf. even more. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

If you're going to spend the money to attend a conference, you probably should have more than one goal in mind. While author networking is important, so is getting to meet face to face w/editors and agents. Of course, authors sell books w/out attending conferences. But, a smart author takes advantage of every opportunity available.

I go to RWA national conference almost every year. I've made wonderful friends I love to see there. And some of the workshops are great. But it is expensive, and because of the sheer size, it's not necessarily the best for an unpublished author to make agent/editor contacts. The pitch sessions are very rigid compared to smaller, regional conferences. Well-run regional conferences can be much better places for networking with publishing professionals and other authors.

Jessica Nelson said...

I'm glad you posted this. I've been hemming and hawwing. I really want to go but the money thing is tough for my greedy little hands to handle. I want to be able to justify it, but if it's about networking, hey, I can totally justify that. LOL Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy the workshops and the panels. One conference I attended had a "publisher and agent panel" that was interesting and informative. I learned so much!

Anonymous said...

I've been to one small conference and found it really helpful, especially for networking.

This year I'm going to one, and hoping to go to at least one other. I'm still very much a conference newbie, but I know that it's a great experience, especially on the networking front.

Robena Grant said...

Great advice, thank you Jessica.
I've gone to RWA National every year for the past six years. And various other smaller chapter conferences.

One thing I learned very quickly was not to sit at every luncheon with my chapter mates. It was really cool to just walk up to a table of strangers and ask if an empty seat was taken. I've met a lot of wonderful people that way.

Another conference that I find very helpful (to give me a different writing perspective) is the San Diego State University conference. Its focus is not romance and has a good mix of agents and editors looking for literary, non-fiction, YA and childrens books. It's much smaller, somewhere around 350 people I think. Usually held in Jan or Feb and it is very well run. The good thing about this one is you can pay a little extra and have the agent/editor read and comment on your first ten pages.

Then there is the very expensive Maui Writers Conference and Retreat, (labor day weekend) which I've unfortunately never been able to afford.

For those looking for information on contests, Writer's Digest lists conferences in the back of the magazine.

Also there is a website for general writers conferences and retreats:

Julie Weathers said...

I didn't even plan on querying before I went to Surrey for a few reasons. Mainly, I felt I would learn how to write a better query letter and I would pick up some ideas on how to polish the work better.

I didn't even plan on pitching, but KC asked me what I had to lose. I agreed, just to pick the brain of agents and editors if nothing else.

My editor pitch was interesting. He allowed me to stumble through my canned hook and then asked me how long it was. I told him 165,000 words, but I hoped to get it down to 135,000. He said I was going in the right direction. We got into the research aspect of it and I prattled on about Celtic and Sarmation women warriors and their grave mounds and other crap no one in their right mind would talk about in a pitch. He handed me his card and told me to send 50 pages and synopsis.

I also left the conference with two agent invitations. One asked me to send the full, the other asked for a partial.

I had no intentions of looking for an agent whatsoever.

My advice, go to a conference that has interesting workshops. Be yourself and have fun. Some of the most interesting times were at night in the bar, discussing workshops and writing and the lunches.

Elevator discussions were fun also.

For anyone who can make it, The Surrey IWC is awesome. It's relaxed, fun, informative and has a stellar cast of presenters.

Kristan said...

"Isn’t getting an agent your goal, or is it feeling like you didn’t waste money?"

LOVE THAT. I know for a lot of us who are anxiously monitoring our bank accounts weekly or daily, it's hard to keep that in mind, but you're right: we need to think about our goals and our priorities and remember that our money is worthless unless it helps us achieve them.

L.C. Gant said...

Wow, really great post today! Very insightful. I'm not in a position to attend conferences right now, but I'm hopeful that I will be in the near future. It's great to know the benefits of attending go far beyond the search for an agent.

Annette said...

I feel a need to jump in here and give a plug for the upcoming Pennwriters Conference to be held in Pittsburgh May 15-17. We have Lisa Scottoline coming in as our keynote speaker and have agents and editors from almost all genres attending. There are workshops catering to everyone from the beginner to the published author. Networking is the name of the game, but it happens in may forms.

I should confess, I am the 2009 Pennwriters Conference coordinator, so I'm a bit biased. But I also met my agent at this conference a few years ago, so I strongly believe in it. First and foremost, though, I hope everyone who comes has a great time. For info, check out and click on the conference tab.

Sookie said...

I've found the spicket of opportunity wide open at conferences.

After attending two significant ones over the last twelve months--one from RWA, and the other Mark Victor Hansen's Mega Books, I'm hooked. Even though Mega Books was predominately for non-fiction, I learned a lot from the seminars and made several good connections. The RWA one as well, even though I've decided not to write romance.

Next on my agenda is the Pacific Northwest Writer's Conference this summer. I'm also looking to attend a mystery conference this year. I've read about a couple, but haven't decided. Can anyone recommend one they enjoyed and benefited from?

Confucius says; ignorance is the night of mind, but a night without moon and stars.

Annette said...

Oops. Typo alert. The website is Sorry.

Wes said...

Excellent advice! Since I've spent many years in sales in past lives, I have always thought it a waste of time, energy, and angst to try to sell to an agent at a conference.

JohnO said...

Good post, buuut ...

The *other* good thing about chatting up agents at conferences is that you know real quick what they're like -- you can learn more in one minute that you'd find out in hours of internet research.

Probably true the other way, too!

Kimbra Kasch said...

I love going to conferences - and I have an agent. Maybe I just like to talk...too much.

But I've met lots of friends at conferences. And who can commiserate better with a writer than someone who knows?

And I've gone to conferences that were $35.00 to $395.00. Never had to pay $2,000. WOW!!! For that price I hope you get a printing press...or something amazing.

Julie Weathers said...

Wes, I wish you would go to Surrey. You would love it.

Michele Dunaway said...

Let me clarify--RWA's fee is not $2,000. But its registration fee is $425. For me, airfare to DC is another $300-400. You have at least 4 nights hotel room, Wednesday through Sunday. Depending on how you share, budget another $400-500 (don't know this year's prices off the top of my head as I'm not going). Then there are the clothes and the shoes, for you can't forget that you need to dress up for certain things, and be professional looking.

Then you have cab fees and food and drink (especially if you don't have an editor or agent taking you out at least once) and all the books you buy at RWA's literacy signing. There's also sightseeing. I never budget less than $2,000 for the entire event.