I’ve been speaking at writers conferences since 2001. Most years I travel to more than a dozen, and I’ve seen it all, from the biggest events to the smallest. (Scroll to the bottom of my speaking page and you’ll find a running list.)
Here’s what I’ve learned over the past 20 years about making the most of any event, whether you’re an attendee or a speaker.
How to Choose the Best Writers Conference for You
Before you select a conference (or get seduced by its advertising or speaker list), first identify your primary goal in attending one. Most goals fit into one of three areas: improving your craft, networking with others, and pitching agents/editors.
Few conferences can prioritize these goals equally; most market to one goal. For example, the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City, hosted at a Midtown hotel, offers a pitch slam that features dozens of agents and editors who are there to hear your pitch. Sure, you’ll do some socializing and networking, but it’s a large event with attendees staying all over the city—and thus harder to experience a feeling of community.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana, on the campus of Ball State University, has to cap registration at less than 300 writers. Agents and editors attend, but most of the conference is focused on improving one’s craft and building a supportive community. Intimacy of the environment contributes to that goal.
Once you can articulate your motivation for attending a conference, it’ll be easier to choose one. Here are factors to consider.
- Your genre. The vast majority of writing conferences offer programming that’s generally inclusive of all genres, which is not a bad thing, but it can quickly affect the quality of your experience if you need genre-specific guidance. In fact, you can get steered in the wrong direction quickly by a generalist who doesn’t know the special needs or demands of your genre. That’s why children’s writers should strongly consider SCBWI events, if only because more of the programming is tailored to your needs and focused on your genre’s market considerations.
- Faculty and speakers. Look for speakers who write in your genre or have accomplished goals that look similar to what you’d like to achieve. Keynote speakers can be entertaining, inspiring, and drive publicity, but the real learning tends to come in the breakout sessions, master classes, or sessions with the speakers who may not be big names. Avoid committing to a conference before the speakers and sessions are announced, assuming your goal is to deepen your mastery of the craft or business. Good rule of thumb: If a keynote speaker failed to show up, would the conference still be attractive to you?
- One-on-one feedback or critique. Some writers conferences offer consulting and critique appointments with editors, agents, and other professionals. These can be a cost effective way to receive either editorial or business guidance, but be careful. Agents and editors may be seeing dozens of writers during the conference and may not spend much time on advance preparation, even if you pay to send materials in advance. Conversations can be rushed. The onus is often on the writer to make the appointment useful and direct the conversation in a way that’s beneficial. I’ve seen such meetings offer significant insights and advantages, but for some they can be terribly damaging. Don’t forget that agents and editors are fallible—these appointments shouldn’t be the final word on you or your work.
- Agent and editor pitches. Similarly, these can be fun, anxiety-inducing, and soul crushing. I comment at length in a separate post.
Venue. A majority of writers conferences take place at hotels. If they’re not at a hotel, they’re likely to be at a university. It’s almost always to your benefit to stay at the conference hotel if there is one—it will reduce stress, save valuable time, and increase networking opportunities. If you cringe at the thought of networking, or don’t have the vaguest idea of how to do it, here’s great guidance: Schmoozing for Introverts.
- Location. To save on costs, you may want to stick close to home, but there’s also another big benefit. If you meet other writers at the event, they’re more likely to be from your area, too—making it easier to form relationships and collaborate over long periods of time, as your careers grow alongside one another. If you go to a big-city or nationally known conference, attendees are more likely to be from all over the country. That might be to your benefit if you’ve tapped out your local and regional connections and want to expand your network to a national level.
- Size. If you want a small, intimate experience, without the feeling of getting “lost,” look for conferences that cap registration around 200-300, or that simply don’t draw more than that number. A small conference is not an indicator of its quality or potential to further your career; evaluate the faculty and programming to help answer that question. Large conferences, where attendance exceeds 600 or so, can feel overwhelming for new writers especially, but may offer more diverse program selection. When attending a large-scale event, look for pre- and post-conference master classes with more intimate gatherings. That can give you the best of both worlds, if you can afford it. Side note: Small, retreat-style events can help you with a deep dive on a manuscript or offer intensive study on a specific topic. In such cases, you may be working with only one teacher, so be confident it’s someone you respect or trust. An application process in these situations is a good sign, to ensure a good experience for everyone. Ask past attendees about the environment and overall vibe if you can.
- Cost. I’ve seen no correlation between the cost of a conference and its value. Usually, price is driven by the cost of living in the conference city and how chic the venue is. (Airport hotels often get used by writers conferences for a reason—it’s cheaper to run an event at one.)
- Years in operation. The longer a conference has been running, generally the better quality you can expect. The staff or host organization learns over time what works or doesn’t work for their audience and their venue, and they’ve incorporated feedback from attendees into their programming. Beware of attending a conference in its first or second year, especially an expensive one. You may have a great time, but the staff is likely still working out the kinks.
Pre-Conference Prep for Attendees and Speakers
If one of your conference goals is to network and develop better community relationships, then pre-conference prep is critical. If you’re not on social media, now is the time to establish at least one account. The big writing conferences have ongoing Twitter conversations months before the actual event. This is your opportunity to warm up the networking fires and make your conference time all the more valuable.
- Find out the conference hashtag. Ask the organizers what the hashtag is if it’s not clear from their website or social media accounts. (Usually it will be mentioned on Twitter.) If they don’t have a conference hashtag, ask them to assign one and publicize it. You’re doing them a favor.
- Research the speakers—especially those you hope to meet in person. At minimum, read their bios. (This actually makes you more prepared than the majority in attendance.) Remembering even a small detail about someone’s publishing history or background is invaluable if you stand in line next to this person at the bar or sit with them at a meal. A benefit of conference-going is making connections you wouldn’t otherwise have. Speakers will be flattered and an instant friend if you know a little something about their work, especially if they’re not a conference headliner. And while you’re at it, read up on the conference organizers, too. They put in a ton of work behind the scenes, and if you show you’re paying attention, you have a lifelong friend.
- On social media: Post that you’re going to the event and use the conference hashtag. Sometimes you may want to tag the conference too (for smaller events), assuming they have a social media account. On occasion, post what you’re looking forward to or how you’re preparing, and tag the presenters if appropriate—on Twitter especially this can be rewarding. You’ll likely identify and start conversations with people who could be conference buddies when you get there (helpful if you’re attending solo). As the event draws closer, more people will be using or searching the hashtag and they will find your posts.
- Pick your first choice and backup workshops. I suggest you make selections before you enter the hectic energy of the event. Almost every conference posts the full schedule at their website.
Pre-conference prep for speakers
- One of the reasons people speak at writing conferences—which can pay little and sometimes nothing—is to network and get face time with others in the industry. Far in advance, study the bios, websites, and social presence of the speakers and look for what you have in common. Can you envision future collaborations with any? Opportunities for you both? Just like I described for attendees, post on social media prior to the event. Start building connections early. That way, a conversation has already been established once you arrive on the scene.
- If you’re on a panel, collect the social handles (Twitter and Instagram, usually) of your other panelists. Start promoting the panel in advance and tag your panelists. Use the conference hashtag.
- For a big conference, where there’s lots of advance social chatter, you can ask attendees what they’re hoping to learn. You can even work attendees or other speakers into your presentation if appropriate (in a constructive way!); this makes people feel extra special that you’ve gone the extra mile to customize your talk for them. (This advice is stolen from Rand Fishkin, see tip #13.)
- Take note of influencers in attendance who might be important to you or your community. Meeting them in person can be like rocket fuel if, in the future, you ever pitch that person a guest post, ask if you can be on their podcast, etc. (Do not pressure them at the conference if you’ve never met. Build the relationship first. Be a human first.)
- Check and double-check the A/V situation and room setup. Ask what tech will be available in the room. Ask about the projector if you have a slide presentation, VGA vs. HDMI adapters, screen size, screen aspect ratio (4:3 or 16:9?), etc. Ask even if you don’t need to know, because the responses will give you an idea of the conference’s sophistication and if it’s ready to handle your needs. Prepared conferences will have you complete a form about microphone preferences, room setup, and A/V requirements—and also warn you if certain things aren’t available (like wifi).
A cautionary note about panels
They can be terrible for everyone involved—moderators, the panelists, and the audience. They are hard to do well and get overused by conference programmers.
The best use for a panel (IMHO) is when the topic demands diverse viewpoints or the whole point is to get as many voices as possible on an issue. A panel is needed, for example, when you’re trying to give writers a sense of market trends or how agents or publishers want to acquire different things. Pitch panels are popular and a great use of the format.
A panel is a terrible idea if you’re trying to teach the fundamentals of something, like how to perfect your first pages or build a good author website—lots of conflicting opinions can just confuse the audience and leave them with no idea how to proceed.
The success of a panel often depends on its moderator. A good moderator knows the differing viewpoints and strengths of the panelists, and understands the questions and priorities of the audience. They know how to frame issues, offer context, and illuminate areas of disagreement in a way that’s insightful rather than confusing.
Too many moderators wing it and let the panelists moderate themselves—or even let the panelists come up with the questions. Bad idea. If you’re in a position to moderate, never put the burden on the panelists to drive the conversation. This will result in the most vocal or opinionated panelists taking over.
Setting up meals and other informal get togethers
- Advice for attendees: Most speakers don’t have time for one-on-one meetings or appointments outside of what the conference provides for. Avoid requesting such meetings in advance unless you know for sure the speaker is open to them. If you’d like to try and get some informal chat time, conference mealtime is your best opportunity: maneuver your way to a seat at their table. However, see section below on home-turf advantage for other ideas on what you can do.
- Advice for speaker-to-speaker invites: Other colleagues may be open to meeting up, especially if they would recognize your name; just be aware that conference commitments may limit everyone’s free time and some speakers travel with family. If the conference doesn’t provide all meals or you notice large blocks of down time in the schedule, it might be useful and a welcome gesture to coordinate a group outing with speakers free and available to join. It also avoids the pressure of a one-on-one if you don’t know each other well.
- For both attendees and speakers: If you have conference downtime that you’d like to use for networking or socializing (and especially if the conference has open schedule gaps of 2+ hours), put out a call on social media with the conference hashtag. For example, let people know you’re going to visit the local independent bookstore at 4 p.m. before dinner, and invite anyone who’d like to come along.
If you have home-turf advantage
If there’s a conference in your town, then you have home-turf advantage. That means you don’t even have to be an attendee of that conference to potentially benefit from the out-of-town talent that’s coming your way. You can potentially invite a speaker out to a meal or for some other type of break from the conference. (But it has to be a real and desirable break—not a sneaky way to get a free consultation.)
Big red flashing light warning: It’s impossible to know the speaker’s existing commitments, travel schedule, or how much free time they have. You should never presume they’re able to get away from the conference, even for a couple hours. And they may treasure the few moments they have to themselves. Still, the further they are from home—and if it’s their first time in a city they don’t know—the more likely they might appreciate an outing with a local, whether you’re a conference attendee or not.
If you plan to approach a speaker with such an idea, your chances of getting a “yes” increase a thousandfold if you’ve already had a series of positive interactions, even if it’s just online through social or email. Invites from total strangers get ignored.
Sometimes it’s better to avoid a direct invite, in fact. You could open up a conversation by offering tips about the neighborhood they’re staying in—like what restaurants are good within a quick walk or cab ride. You could offer to help with any transportation needs they might have. And so on. Then see where the conversation goes.
The other (easier) option is to arrange a group outing or meal for multiple people (speakers, attendees, or a mix), and you act as host. Group outings take the pressure off as long as no one feels “stuck” somewhere. Make it easy for people to retreat back to the hotel or conference venue if needed.
Some of my favorite conference memories involve meeting authors in person I’ve mainly known from online interactions, such as Janie Chang in Vancouver, Alison Williams in Dubai, and Vicki Stiefel in Los Angeles. Each of these lovely people emailed me and suggested an outing to which I agreed.
Attendees: What to Take to a Conference
- Business cards. It seems old fashioned, but these remain useful. Include your name, website, and social handles. I like to put the cover image of my book on one side of the card (full bleed).
- A note card with your elevator pitch. Even if you’re not pitching, it helps to work on a distilled version of what your book is about—then memorize it. Keep it handy on a note card if you get nervous. You’ll get asked a lot about what you’re working on, and you need a strong answer. You want people to remember you for this.
- Something for note taking. Paper journal or laptop, whatever you like.
- A selection for a reading. Many conferences have attendee readings. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared if you’re into that sort of thing.
- A book (print). Print is important here so that people can see who or what you’re reading. Few things are better for striking up a conversation at a writers conference.
- Some other conversation starter. If you’re a shy person, consider if there is something you can wear (a shirt, a pair of socks, a piece of jewelry) that can help draw like-minded people to you.
Speakers: What to Take to a Conference
- Books for sale. The conference organizers should provide you with information on how their conference bookstore works—whether you bring your own stock or if it will be ordered and sold by a bookseller.
- Your introduction. Even if the conference asks you to provide an introductory bio prior to the event, also bring your own copy to the event in hard copy form. You never know if the person introducing you will be prepared; if not, hand them your bio. This also allows you to customize the intro based on the event and topic.
- Business cards. Make sure it includes your email and key social media accounts. Book cover images on one side are ideal.
- Giveaway. If you want to build your email newsletter list, bring a giveaway item for your session (your book or others’ books, blank journals, a nice pen, etc). It could also be digital, like a code to download a free ebook. At the beginning of the session, have people put their name and email address on a slip of paper then draw a name at the end of the session. Let people know they don’t have to include their email address if they don’t want to.
- A copy of your book(s), plus a display stand. Prop this up during your session or panel so everyone can see the book cover clearly. Alternatively, you can pass out a promo item that has your most recent book cover on it. This could include business cards, bookmarks, postcards, or handouts. Don’t let anyone leave your session without seeing your book cover!
- A/V solutions and backup solutions (h/t Carol Saller). If you have a slide presentation, bring it with you (on your laptop and/or thumb drive) and also have it saved in the cloud. Bring VGA and HDMI adapters if you’re using your own laptop. Think through worst-case scenarios: What if there’s no projector or screen in the room? What if there are no handouts? Etc. It never hurts to email the conference one last time to check on tech if it’s critical to you.
During the Conference
- Live tweet or write and post about the conference on social; tag or link to speakers as appropriate. Most speakers are delighted to get the free publicity if you tweet about their session, but keep your ears open for anyone who says “No tweeting” or similar. (And of course be judicious about what you share; the speaker shouldn’t feel that you’re weirdly profiting from sharing their advice online.)
- Immediately after a session—for speakers whom you admire or would like to build a connection—go up and briefly introduce yourself. Thank them for the talk and mention anything valuable you took away from the session. If it was an incredible session, say so, but there’s no need to flatter. Remember: this exchange has to be brief if you want to remain charming and if lots of other people are waiting. After the conference, the speaker is much more likely to engage with you and remember you if you introduce yourself after their talk.
- Take selfies of yourself and others at the conference—both other attendees and speakers. Post using the conference hashtag.
- Attend the mixers, social hours, etc, as much as your energy allows. Don’t be afraid to take your book with you if going alone. It will help you strike up a conversation with others.
- Right away, follow on social those you meet; it helps you not forget them and stay in touch.
Reminders for speakers
- Use the microphone, use the microphone, use the microphone—even if you think you don’t need to, for accessibility reasons.
- Make handouts or slide presentations available for download. This provides good value and helps with accessibility.
- Follow up with anyone you’d like to stay in touch with, but not immediately. Wait at least a week, even more; people need time to catch up after being away.
- Send friend requests or make other social media connections if you haven’t already. You don’t want to forget about the people you met and this makes it easier to get together in the future.
- If you have a blog or a podcast, consider doing a summary of the best advice or tips you took away from the event. However, be respectful: if you’re sharing a large amount of information from a single person, it’s best to ask permission to share it widely. The best time to do that is immediately after the presentation—approach the speaker and ask if they’re comfortable with the sharing you have in mind.
- Just for yourself, summarize a few important takeaways from the conference or concrete next steps you’ll want to take, while the conference is still fresh in your mind. Give yourself specific deadlines or hold yourself accountable for acting on what you’ve learned.
Don’t Be That Person
- Pitch only during appointments or opportunities reserved for pitching. Agents and editors do not want to be pitched outside of those times. If you’re chatting with an agent or editor at the bar or during a meal, talk about what you’ve read lately, what you’ve learned at the conference, or ask them for their perspective on a publishing industry issue. Do not pitch them unless they explicitly ask about your book. Even then, keep it brief. Make them ask questions if they want to learn more. You’ll impress them far more that way.
- Avoid complaining loudly about rejections, past pitch experiences, any unfavorable interactions with agents and editors, etc. You never know who is listening at a conference, and the writing and publishing community is very small indeed. Save the complaining for the people you know well or can trust to offer advice or sympathy. (That said, if something happens to you at a conference that ought to be addressed by the conference organizers—instances of negligence, abuse, or discrimination—tell them.)
- When you ask questions at a session, don’t deliver a long soliloquy that’s not really a question. Try to keep the question brief and also general enough that everyone in the room might benefit from the answer.
- Agents, editors, and other speakers may politely accept your book or manuscript if you hand it to them at a conference, but this is rarely a good use of your resources or precious copies. (I do wonder how many books like this end up with housekeepers and janitorial staff.) If you feel certain someone should have a copy of your book, follow up after the conference via email and ask if they prefer a print copy or digital copy.
Do you have advice for making the most of a writers conference? Let everyone know in the comments.