Are Writers Conferences Worth the Money & Time?

Thank you to everyone who has sent me emails. I enjoy hearing from readers and fellow writers. The questions you’ve sent me for my meetings with my various photo subjects, have been great, and I really appreciate your nominations of people I should consider photographing for The Wordsmiths Project. Please keep them coming.

One reader asked if I feel that writers conferences are often worth the money and time. The short answer is… yes.

In fact, I am currently at LunaCon, a science fiction conference of writers and readers in Rye, NY, where I am speaking on a few panels about the business of writing (Understanding Publishing Contracts, What Happens When Your Book Is Bought by a Publisher, and others.). I enjoy the networking with fellow writers, editors and readers that such conferences offer. It gives me a chance for what I call creative cross-fertilization. Invariably, I come home energized with new ideas – often about marketing my work, sometimes new ways of thinking about plot and character, and usually new perspectives about projects I had been too close to. In other words, every time I speak at a conference, I easily learn as much as I teach.

But the trick is to find the right conference for your interests, and to be sure your expectations are reasonable.

Many writers make the mistake of pinning their hopes on connecting with just the right agent and/or editor at a conference. You know that dream — finding the one person who will love what you have to say so much that he or she is ready to help you push your work to the next level with sales to your dream magazine or a six-figure advance for your book. Yes, sometimes that happens, albeit very rarely. (In fact, I’m told that Jean Auel, the best selling author of “Clan of the Cave Bear” was discovered by her agent Jean Naggar at a writers conference.) But if that is your entire focus when attending a conference, you’ll miss out on some great opportunities.

Conferences are designed as great learning experiences, where lectures and panel discussions can help your career, business sense and/or creativity. However, for me, the biggest reason to go to these things are the people I can meet and get to know. For instance, when you attend a panel on which your dream editor is speaking, yes, of course, listen to her carefully, take notes on what she wants and how she likes to be contacted. But don’t forget to also talk to the person sitting next to you. That fellow writer may have insights and experiences that can help you, and you might be able to help him. Believe it or not, helping another writer can also be useful, if only to get you to tap into your own knowledge in new ways. Besides, just talking with others who have the same concerns and interests as you do can be the best part of any conference.

The other side of the equation is finding the right conference for your interests, needs and budget. For nonfiction writers, the one that I have found to be invaluable is ASJA’s (American Society of Journalists Authors) annual conference in New York City, which will be April 21-22 this year (with Member’s Day on April 20th). Alas, this will be the first ASJA conference Daniel and I will be missing since joining ASJA, because we have other obligations. Another conference that I respect is the Philadelphia Writers Conference. Of course, there are genre conferences, for writers of mysteries, romance, science fiction and so forth, as well as for those who cover travel, health and other nonfiction specialities.

To help you understand what I look for in a good conference, I’ll describe ASJA’s, which has a good balance between learning and networking opportunities, plus out-and-out fun. For members only, it schedules brief one-on-one meetings with editors and agents (what Daniel calls speed-dating for writers). But everyone can go to panels that provide advice about managing your business, opening up new markets, finding great story sources, breaking into new magazines, finding the right agent, etc. Then, there are the cocktail parties, lunches, and hallway discussions, as well as the hang-out room for relaxing and getting to know your fellow attendees. Another useful activity is the mentoring meetings that match you with a fellow writer who has experience in the area you are trying to break into.

When considering a conference, look over its schedule and roster of speakers carefully. Make sure it will address your personal and professional concerns, and that the speakers are people who actually make a living at what they do, rather than just wannabes. What’s more, the speakers should represent the kind of market you want to break into, and the attendees should be at least on your own professional level or higher. Look over the panel and seminar topics; do you think they will answer questions you have or help you move your writing career forward? Is it run by a for-profit organization, or one that exists primarily to assist writers? I tend to have more respect for the events put on by the latter

If you want more workshops for discussing your own writing than panels about the business of writing, be sure to pick one that emphasizes that focus. (You might be better off finding a dedicated workshop as opposed to a conference.) Then, there are the programs that mix readers with writers – such as the science fiction “Cons.” For writers, it is invaluable to mingle with readers, to get to know what they love, as well as for them to get to meet you and perhaps become one of your fans.

One final recommendation. Don’t bring your manuscript to the conference, unless you have a mentoring appointment or are signed up for a critique workshop. It is considered one of the great faux pas (and the mark of an amateur) to hand a manuscript or proposal to an editor or agent at these events. Instead, get their business cards, find out what their preferences are in terms of the kinds of material they are seeking, how they like to be queried and whether you should send it via email or snail mail. Then, after the conference, customize your letter, proposal and manuscript according to what you learned. It will increase your chances considerably of making that sale or getting that advance. (See my journal entry “How to Lose Agents & Infuriate Editors” for other suggestions about querying.)

And if you happen to be at a conference where I’ll be, please do say hi.

2 Responses to 'Are Writers Conferences Worth the Money & Time?'

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  1. pauline said,

    on January 29th, 2009 at 12:42 pm EST

    Dear Sally,

    Thank you for the tips on selecting a writers conference and about approaching editors/publishers. I plan to read your journal entry as soon as I finish writing this note.

    I need some advice and would appreaciate any help (leads) you could provide. I have written and self-published a set of 2 books (guide and workbook) dealing with grieving and healing after a life-altering loss. The books are formatted in a personal and easy-to-use style. They contain helpful guidelines and information pertaining to the various stages of healing as well as prompts, inspirational quotes and adequate space for the reader to write down their thoughts and feelings. The farewell page is followed by additional sections that encourage the reader to live in the present while discovering their passion and planning for the future.

    A local bookstore is carrying them in their inventory and I am scheduled to do a book signing in a few days and workshops in the near future. My request for advice is the following, I’m interested in marketing my books to a wider audience and wondered if you had any suggestions. I would also like to submit copies of the books to editors/publishers/agents but am not sure how to go about it. Since the books have been published is the protocol different than it is for an unplubished manuscript?

    Thank you very much for you time and interest. I would greatly appreciate a reply at your convenience.


  2. Sally said,

    on February 2nd, 2009 at 8:33 am EST


    Thank you for your comment.

    A few self-published books sometimes get picked up by traditional publishers, if they have a proven market. The first step would be to get an agent interested in your work. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

    To narrow your search of agents, find ones that specialize in self-help books. Then, read their guidelines for submissions, check out what other books they handle (to see if your style and approach might fit their list), and then send a letter (with a self-addressed stamped envelop) describing your book and asking if they would like to see it.

    It is very possible that you would also benefit from a good writers conference, to give you a clearer view of the publishing world and perhaps meet some agents.

    Good luck, Sally

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