books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Writer’s Conferences—Are They Relevant in the Internet Age?

The summer writers’ conference season is upon us, and wordsmiths everywhere are packing up laptops, manuscripts, and literary dreams to head for those idyllic retreats where they can polish their craft, learn the latest publishing trends, and hang with successful authors, agents and publishers—for a hefty fee.

At some of the bigger conferences they’ll even get a chance to book a personal pitch session with an agent—for yet another fee.

But are expensive conferences a shortcut to publishing success? Are they still relevant? What role does the writers’ conference have in this fast-changing publishing world?  

Most agents and editors do recommend them. Many suggest attending a conference or two before even sending a query. However, most also admit they don’t discover many new clients through conferences.

Especially when the pitch comes from the next stall in the ladies’ room. Don’t do this. There’s a hilarious video on how not to pitch at a conference on Janet Reid’s blog this week.

Besides, a lot of writers are bypassing the endless, frustrating agent-hunt system these days and going indie—either with small presses (once called indie) or self-e-publishing (the new definition of indie.) They’re totally over pitching to agents.

So is a conference worth your time and money in the electronic age?

Yes and no. As Sherrie Petersen said on her blog yesterday, all the information you can get at a conference is available in the blogosphere. I agree with her that if money is tight, you should save your money, read blogs, and spend your time finishing that manuscript.

On the other hand, I love going to conferences and I always learn a lot. As a veteran of over a dozen, I can say each one was worthwhile for me—but not because they helped me land an agent or publisher.

What I did get was solid instruction in how the industry works. I also received some painful reality checks and a couple of ego boosts. But for me, the major benefit was networking with fellow writers. We scriveners are solitary animals, so connecting with other members of our species in the real world helps keep us healthy.

But a word of warning: if you’re thinking about attending a conference, choose carefully. Writers’ Conferences come in all shapes and sizes—and one size does not fit all. 

Here are the basic categories you’ll have to choose from:

1) Scenic-Destination Literary Retreats

These can last a week or two and are the Maseratis of conferences. Held in lush resorts and exotic locales, they offer workshops from literary superstars and MFA professors. The emphasis is on Literature with a capital “L”, and applicants can be screened with Ivy League selectiveness.  

But some turn out to be more like fantasy camps for Scott and Zelda wannabes than training grounds for professional writers. I’ve heard it’s cleaned up its act, but the oldest and most revered of the “selective” conferences, Vermont’s Bread Loaf—which rejects 78% of applicants—is also known as “Bed Loaf” for a reason. In a famous 2001 article for the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead said, “The triple compulsions of Bread Loaf have, traditionally, been getting published, getting drunk, and getting laid.”

These big, luxurious conferences seem to be dying out in our belt-tightening age. The grand old Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference—where I got to stroll on gorgeous beaches between lectures by the likes of Charles Schultz and Ray Bradbury—is no more.

If you ever have a chance to go one of these, and money is no object, you’ll probably have a memorable time. I’ve heard the one in San Miguel de Allende is great. (And they promise hardly anybody gets beheaded by drug cartels.)

But will these fabulous vacations help you get a book published? Probably not.

2) National Genre Organization Conferences

These usually run three to five days and serve as the annual meetings of national organizations for writers of genre fiction like Mystery, SciFi/Fantasy, Christian, Children’s, Romance, etc. With professional organizations like RWA, MWA, SCBWI, SFWA you have to become a member of the organization to attend. Others, like Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime are for readers and fans as well as writers. Some are moveable feasts that set up camp in a different large city each year and others, like Washington D.C.’s Malice Domestic, have a permanent home.  

These aren’t cheap, especially if you don’t happen to live in the city where they’re held, but they often provide a crash course in the publishing business in your particular area of the market. You’ll also have a chance to meet agents who are specifically looking for books in your genre.

One of the most important aspects of these national conferences is the awards. Being a finalist for an Anthony, Agatha, Nebula, or RITA award can make a career.

3) The Intensive Big-City Weekend Conference

More and more conferences are of this type—equally emphasizing “craft, commerce, and community” as the San Francisco Writer’s Conference advertises. Like the genre conferences, these are usually held in big city hotels.

The conferences themselves will probably cost between $500-$800, but on top of that you may have pitch-session and extra-workshop fees—and of course, your hotel bill. (And the tab from the bar from the night you tried to schmooze that agent.)

These can be exhausting and stressful—agent Betsy Lerner says she usually walks away from a conference “quasi-suicidal”—but you’ll meet fascinating people, learn a lot about the business, and the agent you treated to all those shots of single malt may remember you when you send your query.

4) Marketing Seminars

You’re not going to find any get-in-touch-with-your-muse writing workshops here. It's all about selling.

a) Agent pitch-a-thons. New York’s Backspace Agent-Author Seminar is the pioneer in this cut-to-the-chase style conference, where you get “two full days of small-group workshops and panels with ONLY literary agents on the program.” At $500+, it’s a little pricey for just two days, but if you’re shopping for an agent, this is the place to meet them up close and personal.

b) Indie publishers’ conferences. New conferences that address the marketing needs of self-publishers are now springing up. The Brave New Trail Conference in San Diego is a two-day conference aimed exclusively at helping e-book self-publishers learn the basics of internet marketing. I expect a lot more of these conferences to be sprouting all over the country. They look like great places to network with other indies to swap reviews and get notice for your e-books.

c) “Boot Camp” sales-motivation talks. Some marketing conferences are mostly marathon sales pitches by direct marketers. These may have “boot camp” or “university” or “summit” in their name. They tend to be less like writers’ workshops and more like Amway Conventions or “Become a Real Estate Zillionaire with No Money Down” lectures. Their websites are often flashy and loud—and their approach is hard-core/hard-sell.

             BEWARE. I recommend staying away from the "c" type.

             Humor writer DC Stanfa said this about one of the “publicity summits” she attended, “After a night of pep talks with other wannabees…I added an M.B.S.A. to my resume: A Masters in Bullshit Administration: tuition price $6,000.” That’s right: $6000. In her hilarious piece in the Erma Bombeck Conference newsletter Ms. Stanfa listed some other things she learned at the “summit”:

  • The money is in your email list (database).
  • We have some really good lists you can buy.
  • There is a proven formula to become a bestseller on Amazon.
  • We can sign you up for the program, at a nice discount. 
  • When it comes to pitching, it helps if you have some balls.
  • We have some to spare (for an additional cost).
 If a conference charges more than a few hundred dollars a day—outside of room and board—run. These people give ridiculous expectations of how much money can be made selling books. They promise to teach how to hook agents, editors, and readers—but surprise: the fish on the line here is YOU.

6) The Literary Agency-sponsored Conference

Some agencies are now conducting their own conferences, like the Unicorn Conference in Connecticut, sponsored by Black Hawk Literary Agency, and the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshops, run by the Andrea Brown Agency. They are usually only a day or so in length and can be valuable in helping you polish your manuscript and query. Because they’re short, they can give you a lot of bang for your buck and may give you an “in” with that agency.

7) The Regional Weekend Conference

These are often held at colleges during vacation breaks. Most are friendlier to beginners than the big city conferences. There may be a few New York agents or editors in attendance, but most of the faculty will come from closer to home

These can be genre-specific, like the Erma Bombeck conference I mentioned above. It’s a three-day conference for humor writers held at Dayton University in Ohio. RWA, SCBWI, Sisters in Crime, and many other professional organizations also hold local conferences,

These shorter, less intense conferences are usually cheaper (especially if they’re close enough to home for you to commute.) They’re also smaller and less stressful.

Only a handful of agents and editors may attend, but you’ll only be competing with a couple of hundred other writers for their attention, so your odds will be about the same for meeting faculty as a big city conference.

I have a fondness for these, because I’ve been attending our local Central Coast Writers’ Conference—held at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo—for ten or so years. This year I’m on the faculty, teaching “social media for the anti-social.” Yes, that’s a live link, and so is this. A little shameless self-promotion.

This year’s CCWC offers a balance between traditional workshops for developing craft, and up-to-the-minute info on the big changes happening in our industry. Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords will be there, as well as acquisitions editors from several small presses, agent Laurie McLean, plus novelists, screenwriters, playwrights & poets. Also, a number of us will be teaching social networking skills and Internet marketing. At under $140 for earlybirds, it happens to be an especially good deal, and it meshes with the free Central Coast Book and Author Festival the next day.

But I’m not telling you all to fly out to California to hear me. Look around your home state and you’ll probably find a dozen or so similar conferences that might be well worth your while. They’ll only cost a couple of hundred bucks or less and you’ll come away with renewed energy, industry savvy, and a few more friends in your address book.

So should you choose a big name writer’s conference or a local one?

Blogger Nina Badzin offered some great advice after attending the prestigious Muse and the Marketplace Conference in Boston this year:

 “I could get some of the same instructional experiences out of a local conference with the added benefit of making new connections closer to home. I’m so happy I went to The Muse, but any conferences in the near future will have to be local for reasons of budget and practicality.”

For a full rundown on writer’s conferences, check the Shaw Guides for a comprehensive list.

What about you, scriveners? Have you attended any writers’ conferences? Do you feel you got your money’s worth? Anybody feel “quasi-suicidal” afterward?
***********
I’m guesting today on the Mark Williams International blog: How Blogging Turned my Career Around, Improved my Life and Left my Hair Bouncy and Shiny. (OK, I’m lying about the hair.)

Coming Next Week: Elizabeth S. Craig , social media guru and author of the Riley Adams mysteries is going to guest here on June 12th. Her blog “Mystery Writing is Murder” has been voted one of Writer’s Digest’s top 101 sites for two years. She’ll give a lot of really great tips on successful blogging.


40 comments:

  1. PS--to anybody who's having trouble making a comment: you are not alone! Blogger is still buggy and weird.

    It may help to sign out and sign in again. Or post as "anonymous" and sign your name. And when they say the comment didn't go through & "please try again," believe them and click again. The second time almost always works. No idea why the hoop-jumping.

    Or sent me your comment at annerallen.allen@gmail.com and I'll post it with your name.

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  2. I've attended a couple of conferences. The biggest was the Harriette Austin Writers Conference at the University of Georgia. I loved it. I learned a lot and made some good contacts. Of course, I also came home with pneumonia but that's another story.

    To be honest, my favourite conference is the Muse Online Writers Conference. It's free, though they accept donations, and includes topics to cover almost any interest. And you can "attend" in your pajamas and bedroom slippers.

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  3. I've never attended a writer's conference. Saw a few online conferences that interested me though, like the one Mary Ann mentions above.

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  4. I've attended one writer's conference and left feeling like I could have saved my money. I've gotten more information taking online classes and made more contacts networking online.

    That said, I do plan to try again. This time, I'm going to one where I "know" some people I've met in the online writing community.

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  5. I love my local Pennwriters' conference held each May in PA(of course). Each year they alternate which end of the state it is held in so every other year it is local for me. I meet friends and every year I'm met new ones. I concentrate on the marketing sessions. It's a very reasonable price when I don't have to stay in a hotel.

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  6. Gee, Anne, thanks for helping me feel better about rationalizing non-attendance. I know, you didn't absolutely pan conferences, but you did make me think about how much I now get from the internet that I would have formerly gotten from a conference. Who knows? I may still attend a conference or two. But only when I have finally finished my (!*!) work-in-progress novel.

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  7. I'm so sorry so many of you can't comment. I have no idea what to do, since if I change from Blogger, I'll lose all my followers.

    This is from my favorite New York blogger, Florence (Fois in the City)

    "Tried three times and could not leave my comment ... Here she is:

    Haven't had the pleasure of attending a conference, but I love the way you broke it down for the future. Although you can probably get the same info on the web, the in-person, in-your-face meeting of people is much more desirable. With agents it is still a good way to get an instant connection.

    Love Nina's blog and got good info from her review of her last conference. Look forward to reading Elizabeth here. Her blog and tweets are among the best.

    Again, another informative Sunday."

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  8. Mary Ann--Your Georgia regional conference sounds like the kind I think is most effective. And thanks so much for telling us about the Muse Online.

    Alex--If you visit the Muse Online, do blog about it. I learn so much on your blog.

    catierhodes--Nina said that what she liked most about her conference experience was meeting online friends in real life. Thanks for letting us know about your not-too-wonderful experience. Going where you already know a few people might be the key.

    Susan-That Pennwriters conference sounds like another regional winner!

    Judith--I think you probably do get more out of a conference when you've got at least one novel finished.

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  9. great post, Anne - insightful and funny :) worth sharing.

    I've attended a type 2) conference, which due to the size of country happened to be type 3) and type 7) at the same time (Romnce Writers' of New Zealand weekend) and I LOVED it. To the point that I changed from 'I don't read romance' into 'I enjoy reading romance and I want to write romance novels'.
    THe conference was well organised, packed with useful workshops on all aspects of writing from creativity, to cratf secrets, to market and marketing. I've learnt a lot and I'm going again this year.

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  10. Hey Anne. Great post. I'm attending my first conference in the fall. Looking forward to it. Nothing huge though, more local. Is better. :)

    Blogger comments:
    Someone gave this great advice and it works (!), when you sign into Blogger with email and password do NOT check the "stay signed in" box. Then you should be able to comment as usual.

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  11. Central California Book and Author Festival? I can hop in the car and head down Highway 101! I registered for the RWA conference in NYC then decided I'm better off spending time working on book two. I'll miss out on meeting people I only know through the Internet, but there's always next year.

    Personally, a writer's retreat with a smaller group is more my speed. A wonderful post...as usual!
    Thanks,
    Jen

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  12. I think the only reason I would attend a conference was to meet up with the people I know online. I can learn everything about the industry right here online in my pj's.

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  13. Anne,

    Regarding the commenting issue, I found that sometimes if the recipient has settings that allow for the comments pop-up window, it solves the problem. Go to your dashboard, settings, comments, comment form placement, and choose pop-up window. I hope it helps.

    Judy

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  14. Kate--I read your blogpost about your fantastic New Zealand RW conference with envy. Sounded like such fun.

    LR--Enjoy your conference. The regional, less-stress conference is usually a great time.

    Jen--let me know if you're coming to the Authorfest or the Writers Conference. I'd love to meet you!

    Anne--The PJ conference is good too. We're so lucky to have so much info here in the blogophere.

    Judith--THANKS! I've now changed the settings and I'm typing in the pop-up window for the first time.

    If anybody is still having problems, let me know via email--please!

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  15. I'm pro conference if you can afford them. I got the breakthrough idea moment at a conference, met and signed with my agent at one. (the same the following year actually) They're great learning experiences.

    Being with lots of other writers has an energy that you can't get online. Online is great, and I've made lots of wonderful friends online, but being with hundreds (or thousands) of others who share your dream is empowering. It's a great way to know you're not alone out there.

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  16. Good blog. I've historically been anti-convention, but after attending a few of the moderately priced ones, i found them somewhat helpful. I wouldn't make a career out of going to them, but a few here and there can help a writer network.

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  17. I've never been to any writing conferences before, but have been to enough other-purpose conferences to know I'd love to attend some. The Internet can provide us with a lot of things, but nothing's quite as pleasurable as face-to-face meetings.

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  18. I've only been to local one day conferences, and they were great. I loved the social aspect of it, and left feeling excited and energized. I'm within driving distance of the LA SCBWI conference, but the cost is still too high for me.

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  19. As a soon to be Indie e-published author, I like the idea of attending a conference oriented toward the self e-publishing market. I hadn't realized those type of conferences were starting up, but it only makes sense seeing how Indie e-publishing is gaining in momentum. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. As always, Anne, an interesting and humorous post!

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  20. There is something to be said about seeing someone in person. I've been to a handful of conferences, and seeing an agent speak, for example, gives me a much better idea of who they are (a real person!) than a web bio.

    Did I get my money's worth? Of course. Investing even a few dollars in writing makes me work extra-hard. I usually write daily and productively, but when I know I'm attending a conference, I haul. Maybe it shouldn't, but investing in writing makes me take myself more seriously.

    And I come out of it energized. There's something about meeting other writers in person that can't be replicated by text.

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  21. Janice--I agree about the energy. There's nothing like it.

    Christopher--I think there are people who "make a career" of going to conferences, and sort of stay stuck without really trying to get published. The conference itself can be the goal. Fun, but not the same as actually writing.

    Susan--Janice said it very well--there's nothing like networking with live people in real time.

    Julie--My friends in SCBWI say those one-day conferences are great. Maybe more useful than the big expensive ones.

    Lenny--That one in San Diego in October looks like it's going to be a very big event!

    MK--I think you nailed it when you said, "Investing in writing makes me take myself more seriously.

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  22. I came across your blog, Anne, when I read your guest blog on Mark Williams. It was so interesting that I thought I'd follow it up, so here I am! The subject of conferences is one that interests me a lot. What do we as writers gain from them? I'm inclined to think that when you've heard one speaker on publishing, etc, you've heard them all. One hopes the personal contacts will be useful. My own experience is, yes, to a certain extent, but they won't get you published! And I now opt out of any conference which is going to cost me more than a minimal amount of money. I'm a poor writer, I can't afford it!

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  23. I always love to read your weekly posts, Anne. They are packed with information. As I am in India, I initially felt bad when I learnt that to get an agent one has to sign up for conferences where one can also get a chance to pitch directly to an agent. Just, yesterday a writer in America who has got an agent told me that its not necessarily a pre-requisite that we have to be conference visitors to get agents. It was a relief reading her email.

    I would sign up for a conference just to meet the writers who I interact with online.

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  24. This is a really great roundup! I've been to three conferences (SCBWI NYC conference twice and the Writer's Digest NYC conference). I happen to live in NYC so that helped with the expense. What I got out of them was connections with other writers, inspiration, and a boost to keep doing what I love - writing. :)

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  25. In the flusher days of the '80s and '90s, I attended a national RWA conference in San Jose, several Women Writing the West conferences (taught at a couple), a Christian writer's conference at Mt. Herman, a couple of Win-Win regional conferences in Fresno, two California Writer's Club conferences at Asilimar, near Monterey, and many CCWC's at San Luis Obispo. What I've come away with is a tremendous breadth of knowledge about the industry and many writer friends. My writing has inproved exponentially because of the confidence of knowing what I know. Of course, all that has changed and we're on a new learning curve now. My advice is to join a writer's group in your genre and participate in the daily Yahoo listserves. You'll get more information there than in any of the conferences.

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  26. Wow! Bread Loaf sounds awesome! If only I wasn't in the UK...

    Is this the same as writer's circles? There's one in my home town and I'm tempted to go along, but if it's going to be a monumental waste of time and money I won't bother! I'm guessing it's probably not the same...?

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  27. I've written for many years and I've gained much from small local conferences. I always recommend them to new writers as there is so much to learn and it makes them feel a part of it all. One larger group I belong to is WWA and even though I write more historical instead of rip-roaring six-gun stuff I've made many dear (and influential) friends through the years. Just pick them with care.

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  28. Hi! I saw this a few days ago and RTed it! I've seen it RTed a lot and I'm not surprised. It's a great, thorough consideration of the different options. And of course, thanks for the quote!! :)

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  29. Attended my first crime fiction conference--Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe. It was a ride. Lotta fun.

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  30. I agree that the best part about writers conferences is the networking--but mostly with other writers. I prefer the smaller ones too. The big ones get too crazy for my tastes.

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  31. Wow! Thanks for the run-down. I've been wondering how the different conferences work.

    I'd love to attend one, but in South Africa, they don't seem to be all that common.

    :-)

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  32. I've attended many conferences and was a board member of the Yosemite Writers Conference for several years. I found that each one had its pros and cons. I think the best way to pick a conference is to go online, look at the agenda, types of workshops, guest speakers and instructors, then select one that meets your needs. Some are geared to writing while others are geared to getting published.

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  33. After three days I've finally gained sight of your blog and all the other blogspot.com blogs.

    The downside is I've not excuse not to read Konrath now. Damn!

    My own experience of conferences in the UK is that they're not worth the money. I guess it depends on both the quality of those running the show and the quality of those attending.

    I do worry about impressionable newbies at the very beginning of their career who pay to attend things like this and will be in absolute awe of someone just because they are "published", or have celebrity status of some kind.

    As for the speakers... Best left unsaid.

    Sounds like you have a good variety of events across the pond, and a wide range from good to dire.

    But the idea of pitching to an agent in person just sounds all wrong. Great book, lousy personality and game over, by the sound of it.

    It will be interesting to hear back how this year's season differs from the last. Because sure as hell 2011 is a whole different world of publishing from 2010.

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  34. Woo-hoo! It looks as if most people are finally able to comment again. I don’t know if changing to pop-up comments helped. Do let me know if you’re still having problems.

    Gerry—Thanks for coming over from Mark’s blog. He’s kind of party-central for indie pubbers these days. Maybe better than a writers’ conference?

    Rachna—Thanks! You’re right—meeting people in person that you know online is one of the new writers’ conference perks of the Internet Age. Last year I met in person a blogger I’d met on an Irish site. Thought she was Irish—but she’s my neighbor her in CA!

    Ghenet—Being right in NYC gives you a big advantage. Those conferences are where you’re going to meet the movers and shakers

    Anne—That’s a LOT of conferences. You’re right that the #1 thing we need is a good critique group.

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  35. Steven—I think a “writer’s circle” is what we call a critique group. Except ours don’t usually cost money. A conference is more like a mini-university. Bread Loaf is like Harvard or Oxbridge. Very expensive. Very selective. But apparently with more sex.

    Betty—I do think if you’re firmly in one genre, like westerns or romance, it really helps to network at those genre conferences. Sounds like it’s worked for you, too, even though you’ve only got one foot in the genre.

    Nina—thanks for that great post on the Muse & the Marketplace conference.

    Clark—Left Coast Crime is one I’d love to get to myself.

    Liz—Sounds as if your experiences have been similar to mine.

    Misha—They do seem to be a mostly US phenomenon. I’ve seen them in Ireland, Spain and Mexico, but mostly for English-speaking foreigners.

    Robert—I’ve heard the Yosemite conference is great—congratulations. (And you can’t beat it for a scenic destination!)

    Mark—welcome back to Bloggerville. Hope you don’t get shut out again. Pitching to agents at conferences seems painful and expensive to me, too. You’re right that it’s all changing now. Yeah, go read Konrath. But hey, you are definitely blog-central for the indie diaspora!

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  36. Great discussion and breakdown! I do think you can find a lot of that community-feeling and swapping of ideas online, but there's nothing like good-old-fashioned human contact.

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  37. Highly informative, just wish we had a few in the UK. I learned a lot and I love your website.
    jackleverett.me.uk

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  38. Bob Mayer and I recently published a short book titled Writer's Guide to Conferences: Getting the most of your time and money. Conferences are getting more and more expensive and you are right, there is a ton of information out there in the blogsphere. But there is also a lot of bad information being put out there. I think conferences are a great way to network, meet other writers, and really stay in the loop on what is really going on in publishing. And I'm not talking necessarily about workshops, panels, etc. I'm talking about all the conversations that go on in the hall, at dinner and other social gatherings by authors who are taking charge of their careers.

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  39. There isn't a whole lot you can't learn from the world wide web, but there are benefits to a conference that aren't available sitting in front of a computer. One is actually meeting your colleagues face to face, getting a chance to pick their brains and ask questions. Writing is a pretty solitary venture to begin with, add the internet with makes personal contact with the world unnecessary, and it's even more so.

    The second is the inspiration you can get from hearing a really good speaker, or even participating yourself on a panel or a discussion. The give and take of ideas that may spontaneously occur during a discussion may be lacking when reading a blog or article on the exact same topic.

    And it's nice to put a face with a name, especially if I'm thinking of buying your book. With so many books to choose from, if I meet you in person, I have a reason to choose yours over a writer who is anonymous to me.

    Holli Castillo
    www.gumbojustice.net
    Jambalaya Justice coming summer 2011

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  40. Anne - this is such a great list! I'll tweet it out. I've been to the SBWC and Squaw and loved both, but I found at Squaw that I didn't much about writing. After earning an MFA and attending other workshops (and this was pre-blog), I felt like I'd heard all the writing advice before. What I did get out of it was some really great writer friends since everyone in my group was from CA. I've thought about attending SF, but not sure what I'd get out of it for the price. Maui would have been fun, but it shut down last year, too.

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