books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Writers Conferences: Are they Relevant in the E-age?



 Oh, the lure of a Writers' Conference! A luxurious place where writers can polish craft, learn the latest publishing trends and hang with successful authors, agents and publishers--undistracted by mundane life.

It's a mini-university course that just might get you published.

With parties.

The modern writers conference began in the U.S. in the 1920s with Vermont's famous Breadloaf Conference, but you can now find them all over the world. They last from a day to several weeks, usually in an exciting or idyllic location.

But they can cost a hefty chunk of change. And at some of the bigger conferences you get a chance to book a personal pitch session with an agent—for even more money.

So 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.

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

So conferences are catching up with the trend, and now provide more than just a course in traditional publishing. California's Central Coast Writers Conference, where I'll be teaching this weekend,  featured Smashwords founder Mark Coker last year. And I read this week about the conference in York, England where Irish e-publishing guru David Gaughran and indie chick-lit superstar Talli Roland gave a joint workshop for self-pubbers. 

Is a conference worth your time and money in the electronic age? Can't you get all of David Gaughran's advice in his book Let's Get Digital and learn from Talli at the Writers Guide to E-publishing?

Yes, you can--but real-world conferences have many other benefits. As a veteran of over a dozen, I can say each one was worthwhile for me—not because they helped me land an agent or publisher. But I got some solid instruction in how the industry works, plus some painful reality checks and a couple of ego boosts--and  most importantly, I met great people.

I first got to know my co-author Catherine Ryan Hyde at a conference. I never would have dreamed back then that the author of Pay it Forward would ever want to co-write a book with me, and I'm sure she didn't suspect it either. But as both our careers have grown, we stayed in touch.

I've also had a chance to hang out with my idol, the ever-classy Nathan Bransford, and share wine with super-savvy "Agent Savant" Laurie McLean and get to know Danielle Smith, the Book Review blogger I knew from "There's a Book" (I had no idea she was my neighbor.) I also met dozens of wonderful not-yet-published authors. We scriveners are solitary animals, so connecting with members of our species in the real world helps keep us healthy.

But for those of you who can't afford to go to a conference this year, you can find a mini-writers' conference in the book I wrote with Catherine, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE...AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY. Which will be FREE for Friday and Saturday this week.


The E-Book Will Be FREE Sept 21-22!
The paper book is now available from Amazon.com for under $10, and under £8 in the UK . And the ebook for Kindle will be absolutely FREE on Friday September 21st and Saturday, September 22nd in both the US and the UK  (In October, it will be available for Nook and Kobo.)

We wanted to make the book free for people taking my course at the Central Coast Writers Conference--so we're also making it free for all of you!

So even if you can't come to beautiful San Luis Obispo for this weekend's conference, you can have a FREE virtual conference for your Kindle or computer's Kindle app. 

But be aware that 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 revered Breadloaf Conference is also known as “Bedloaf” 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 faltering in our belt-tightening age. The Maui Writers Conference has disappeared, and he 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—went on hiatus for a few years. Although I see it is reinventing itself and sprang back to life in 2012 as our economy recovers.

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 fantastic.

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 $600-$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 get any get-in-touch-with-your-muse writing workshops here. They’re 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, but if you’re shopping for an agent, this is the place to meet them up close and personal.

b) “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. Personally, I recommend staying away from these.

5) The Small Regional Conference: These are usually held at a local college campus and aimed at authors who can commute from home. Often they're aimed at a particular genre. They usually last no more than three days and are timed with the assumption the attendees have day jobs. They tend to be considerably less expensive and offer a lot of bang for your buck. The Central Coast Writers Conference has hosted great speakers like Nathan Bransford, Catherine Ryan Hyde, and Mark Coker. Because only a few hundred people attend, you get a chance for one-on-one chat with them.

If you want to learn more about specific conferences check out the Shaw Guide to Writers Conferences.

And if you do go, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your experience:

1) DON’T dress to impress. At one conference I attended, a woman came dressed as a tree. Shedding real leaves. Don’t do this. Also, dressing as one of your characters WILL get you noticed, but not in a good way. Wear neat but comfy clothes. The days will be long and intense.

2) DO wear something distinctive: a scarf, hat, or jacket every day that will help people remember you.

3) DON’T pitch your project unless you’re in a specified pitch session. (Especially when the pitch comes from the next stall in the ladies’ room. Don’t do this. Agent Janet Reid posted this hilarious video on how not to pitch a book at a conference.)

4) DO offer to get an agent or other presenter a cup of coffee or ask how she’s enjoying the conference. Or ask what books he reads for fun. It will give you great material for your query letter.

5) DON’T cart around all 800 pages of your magnum opus and try to thrust it upon faculty members. Something that can be helpful—if requested—is what’s called a “one sheet”. It’s mostly a convention in the Christian book world, but it’s useful for any kind of book gathering. It’s a printed page with your photo, bio, contact info and a short pitch for your book including word count, genre, target audience and short synopsis.
 
6) DO perfect your pitch beforehand, so you can tell an agent or editor in three sentences what your book is about. (See my post on “Hooks Loglines and Pitches.”) Then ask if you can query. (If you’re querying a novel or memoir, make sure to say if it’s complete.) If she says yes, you can put “REQUESTED” in the email header. A big plus.

7) DON’T compete for faculty attention like a needy two-year old. The accolades will come when you perfect that book and get into print.

8) DO bring a notebook, several pens—and if you are attending a hands-on critique session workshop—a first chapter, story, or a few poems. Business cards, if you have them, will help with networking. Also, bring some protein bars and energy drinks and/or water. Your breaks may be too short to grab real food.

9) DON’T forget to have fun. You’re there to make friends as well as learn. One of the most important aspects of a conference is meeting fellow writers.

10) DO remember agents and editors are people too. As the late, great Miss Snark said “It’s like visiting the reptile house. They're as afraid of you as you are of them. Honest.”

I should warn that writers' conferences do have their dark side. I've seen a few instances of  bullying and verbal abuse. Some workshop leaders seem to think "tough love" (skipping the "love" part) is the best way to teach a fledgling writer to produce great prose. Editor Victoria Mixon wrote a series of blogposts on bad writers' conference experiences last month that's hilarious.

And at one conference, I witnessed an incident of workshop bullying that was so scarring it turned into the inciting incident of my mystery GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY. (If you'd like to know more about the dark side of writers conferences--and laugh at them a bit--GHOSTWRITERS is available at the US Amazon.com for $2.99 and the UK Amazon.co.uk and at Barnes and Noble for Nook and Kobo.)

How about you, scriveners? Have you had good or bad experiences with writers' conferences? Were they worth the money? We'd love if you'd share some of your stories. If you've never gone to one, are you planning to? What do you hope to get out of it?

Attention Email Subscribers! Feedburner has had a hissy fit and is no longer sending emails to many people subscribed to this blog. This seems to be happening all over the blogosphere. Many bloggers are switching to other email programs, but I'm such a cybermoron, I'm going to need to get some tech help. Meanwhile, if you'd like to get notifications of new blogposts, and Feedburner has let you down, just send me an email at annerallen at yahoo dot com. I will put you on my list of personal blogfriends and send you a notice when the Sunday blogpost is up. (I promise not to spam you with anything else.)

37 comments:

  1. Sadly I've never attended a writer's conference. (Heard about an online one next month that I might sign up for though.) The one sheet is a great idea. I bet people still haul their manuscripts around though.

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  2. Any writer's conference where people can be lucky enough to meet YOU is worth going to!

    Betsy Lerner has a point, though. lol
    (But you knew I'd say that, didn't you?)

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  3. A tree? Now there's one I haven't seen yet. Aside from that, I do think being a real person in the real, non-cyber world has its merits. Great post, Anne, as usual.

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  4. I attended all four days of the Pacific Northwest Writer's Association conference in 2011 and cannot speak highly enough of the experience. Granted, I'm also a member of the PNWA and might be a tad biased.

    There were seminars on general writing tips and tricks, genre specific, th publishing industry, as well as agent/editor pitch sessions (which do NOT cost extra). Much to my dismay, I wasn't able to go this year, and understand they changed the way they manage the pitch sessions.

    It was wonderful to be around other writers. You could turn to anyone and strike up a conversation, knowing you had something in common. I'm still in regular contact with a number of peopleI met over the long weekend.

    They offer tickets for the whole weekend, two days, or one day, so there's something to fit most budgets. That said, it still isn't cheap - though members get a discount. Since I lived nearby, I didn't have the expense of a hotel or flight. For anyone living in or around Seattle, this is a conference well worth your time (as are the regular meetings throughout the year).

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  5. I thoroughly enjoy the New England SCBWI conference I attend. It was a relief not to pitch to agents this past year. I had a blast and left inspired. I can't say I learned anything new because most things you can learn in a book and on the web and probably in more detail. Will I continue going year after year? Not sure yet.

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  6. Alex--Onlne conferences are a great idea. I know there was one for YA writers a few years ago that was very successful. People hauling those manuscripts around are so clueless. Even if an agent is interested, they won't want to schlep it home in their luggage.

    Ruth--Aw shucks. Thanks. The great thing about the CCWC is it's only 2 days. Not long enough to get suicidal.

    Alicia--Meeting real people in real time is definitely important. I think that's one of the big benefits.

    JillC--The PNWC sounds like a perfect conference--only one weekend, like the CCWC and small enough you don't feel overwhelmed. (The CCWC doesn't charge for pitching, either. There's a "table talk" session at the end when people can chat with all the presenters.) Thanks for sharing the info about PNCW--sounds wonderful.

    Laura--I hear from friends that the SCBWI conferences are great. And regional ones aren't so big you can't meet people one-on-one. Getting inspired and energized is one of the big reasons to go to a conference.

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  7. There is something very special about Writer's Conferences. Being in the same place with that many likeminded or at least like-goaled people. I have always learned soething new and left inspired. Manning (womaning?) a book table at one is a great experience. I'm very curious to see if we do as well this year with more and more people going to e-books.

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  8. I go to conferences for the camaraderie. :) I have to say too, that there is an amazing *free* online conference, writeoncon, which targets kidlit writers, and is a wonderful thing.

    Every time I go to a conference, I find a ton of writers who have not yet discovered this online community--so they are picking up their info on querying and industry news. For this subset of writers, conferences are gold.

    I agree with Laura--that you can glean the knowledge you need in other places, but I hope that I (and Laura--because I love to hang out with her!) will continue to attend conferences. :)

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  9. I'd love to go to a conference, but only to meet people. Actually, I'd rather go to a writer's retreat weekend, where all we do is write. Especially if there was one or two "special guests". Small, intimate is my thing.

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  10. The only conference I never miss is Novelists, Inc. It's for professional novelists, with the emphasis on the realities of the profession. Multi-genre, with a relaxed atmosphere, and terrific flow of information to and among attendees.

    And it's coming up next month! Looking forward to it.

    http://www.ninc.com/conferences/2012/index.asp

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  11. I'm hoping to attend my first conference in October, and I'd be lying if I said wasn't scared.

    But this reminds me, I shoudl probably buy my tickets if I'm to go eh? And maybe come up with that one page... Yikes! *grins*

    So thanks for the reminder. :}

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  12. Christine--I do think a conference is mostly about "finding your tribe"--I like your expression "like-goaled" people. Yes--will the book table succeed in the e-age? I sure hope so!

    Heather--Thanks for reminding me of writeoncon. That's the YA online conference I participated in a few years ago. I'm glad to know it's still going strong. And you're right--there are so many writers out there who don't yet know where to get the info they need online. That's one of the things I'll be teaching.

    Anne--I've heard about those retreats, but I don't know anybody who's actually gone to one. Sounds like heaven though, doesn't it? Write all day and schmooze with other writers every evening. They'd be especially great for busy moms and other people who don't get to write in private silence every day.

    Patricia--I didn't know about Novelists Inc. Thanks much for the link. It looks fantastic!

    Cathryn--No need to be scared (unless you're giving a big speech, like I am on Saturday) Just remember to pace yourself and don't try to do everything. I bet you'll have a great time. (Yes, you'd better get those tickets.)

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  13. Bring business cards--and lots of them. This is how we communicate on the run.

    Leave the high heels at home.

    Eat. Take breaks up in your room. Don't try to make every panel.

    Behave at the bar. People talk.

    Don't stalk.

    Bring a friend. Fit four in a room and split the hotel cost. Find the hospitality room for food.

    I'm an old hand at this.

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  14. I've been to four conferences and each one of them was well-worth the cost and effort. Aside from all the business reasons for attending, it's a great place to network and I've met some wonderful people whom I now consider friends. Great post!

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  15. I've attended the Central Coast Writer's Conference more than once. It's also where I first met Catherine Ryan Hyde.

    I'll be there again this upcoming weekend, but with a twist. I'm one of the presenters this year.

    I'm a believer in writer's conferences, but I've become stingy with my time. I make sure that I receive maximum return.

    CCWC has never disappointed me as well as the Public Service Writers Association conference in Las Vegas. The Big Sur Writer's Conference is another good one.

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  16. Sunny--Thanks!! These are fantastic. Especially the one about behaving at the bar :-)

    marja--Glad to hear all your conferences were great experiences, too.

    Barbara--Congrats on being a presenter this year. I look forward to seeing you there!

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  17. I left a comment earlier but somehow didn't post it (that serves me right for using my tablet to leave comments).

    Basically, what I said about conferences is that if you are involved in a local writing group that hosts their own writing conference, you may save some cost (it all depends on the group) by volunteering for the most part of the weekend. Some groups will comp you the cost of the conference in exchange for volunteering and there are many opportunities - man tables, moderate panels, et cetera.

    Usually the hosting group will give you time to attend some of the sessions as long as you do your job and help out.

    The past couple of years, my conference experience has been on the other side - as a vendor/exhibitor. I'm not at these conferences to attend the sessions, especially since I'm hooking up with conferences where my books would be most beneficial. I've done homeschool conferences and now I'm working my way into the librarian conferences and hopefully the social studies groups nd teacher conferences. I've got to target the right audience. At the upcoming Georgia COMO librrian conference I'll be doing a presentation about my books and I'll be manning the SELA (that's southeastern librarian association) booth where they are going to let me set up a table and sell my books. They also have an author reception for the attending authors. So there are lots of opportunities for authors to hook up at conferences, not just with other authors but to get your name out there.

    Conferences are definitely worth it from both sides - attendee and exhibitor/vendor. E :)

    Elysabeth Eldering
    Author of FINALLY HOME, a middle grade/YA mystery
    http://elysabethsstories.blogspot.com
    http://eeldering.weebly.com

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  18. When I went to Left Coast Crime a few years ago, I left EXHILARATED. Robert Crais was the speaker, and he did such a lovely job of entertaining the audience with writing problems that everyone in the room wanted to be just like him.

    Conferences are pricey--so you have to go to the ones that can help you the most. Sometimes, though, what you need is motivation. Having a bunch of successful authors give talks about their craft is simply inspirational.

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  21. Some day I'd like to go to a writers conference... I really like the sounds of the conference that was friendly to indie writers where Talli and David spoke.

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  22. elysabeth--GREAT tip about offering to volunteer in order to get free conference tuition. I know members of my local Nightwriters club volunteer at the CCWC (and do a great job--hi there, Nightwriters!) You're talking about a slightly different kind of conference--a book expo for book buyers rather than a learning conference for writers. But those can definitely be useful for the published author!

    D. R.--Left Coast Crime is one of the biggie genre conferences I talked about, and I'd love to get there myself some day. Big conferences like that can be really energizing.

    Laura--I want to go to that York conference, too! English conferences tend to be a hybrid of the learning-writer and the book-buyer conference. And it's in such a beautiful place!

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  23. Thanks for this!!!! I had hoped to attend this year's Bouchercon but it is not to be. My first one will be closer to the time my first mystery comes out.

    Did anyone read John D. MacDonald's "Please Write for Details"? You've reminded me it is time for a reread of that!

    There was a much lauded writing teacher in my area whose verbal abuse was famous/infamous. I never took his classes. (The one novel of his I read was grammatically perfect but totally vacuous, nothing ever happened. I always feared we lost some great, shy genius under his "tutelage.") And of course we will never know!!!!

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  25. I would also add, be nice to and talk with the people running the conference. They can often give you the inside track to what's going on and who is where. If you have time, volunteer to do something.

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  26. Anon--Bouchercon is one of the biggies--a hybrid of a writers' conference and book festival, with lots of readers attending as well as writers. It sure would be fantastic to get there sometime.

    I'm going to have to check out that MacDonald book about the Mexican art school in the 1960s--very like a writers conference. Sounds hilarious. It's out of print, and not in ebook, but it looks as if you can get the used paperback pretty cheap.

    All the old conferences have that guy--the one who thinks it's his job to stomp on everybody's dreams the way the world has stomped on his (or he has stomped on his own.) Sad old dudes. I had fun killing one off in Ghostwriters in the sky.

    Helen--Very good point. Volunteering and getting to know the staff are great ways of getting the inside skinny.

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  27. I've attended several conferences. Several have been very helpful and a couple not so. I've met lots of writers that have become friends (Sunny, Madelyn and Sylvia to name a few). As for the not so helpful, thank goodness they aren't the norm.

    I always tell other writers to go with other writers for support and cost cutting. Besides, if you get lost, you have someone to laugh with...Stephen.

    Have fun its why you attend the conferences.

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  28. Jenny Milchman posted this, but my spam filter tried to eat it:

    "I think that conferences and other real-time, F2F experiences are more not less relevant in the e-age. So much is done virtually that a physical connection can really help you stand out, and becomes especially meaningful. My favorite cons have been ThrillerFest, Malice, and New York Writers Workshop's Pitch conference, where you get to pitch editors from the Big 6.

    I just heard a reinvented Maui has come back...do you know anything about that?

    Great post! Hope your tech issue clears up; I'd like to subscribe."

    Jenny--Just sent me your email address to annerallen at yahoo dot com and I'll add you manually.

    Kat--Definitely a few are "not"-- but I think the good ones much outweigh the bad. Going with a group helps a lot--with expenses and moral support.

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  29. For those in SoCal, the California Crime Writers Convention in Pasadena in June 2013 is highly recommended for writers. It's two days of seminars about craft, publishing and law enforcement techniques. There's an agent cocktail part and Sue Grafton as keynote speaker! All this for less than $300 (includes lunches and breakfast). Check out the website for info. The event is sponsored by Sisters in Crime/LA (who organize it) and Mystery Writers of America.

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  30. And DON'T follow an agent to the bathroom and try to pitch to her while she's throwing up in the toilet. Bad, bad, bad!

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  31. Hi,

    Just read your blog and got a lot from it. I am going to order 3 books you suggested, including yours.
    I have attended a few conferences and learned a lot from each. Wish I could attend more, but circumstances have changed, so it is not possible at this point.
    Anyway, thanks to you and to all the commenters. I have completed a YA fantasy and am trying to start my platform. I am starting late, so this platform business is a real challenge, nevertheless, here goes.

    Janys Mikel

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  32. Jenny--I forgot to say I hadn't heard the rumors about the rebirth of the Maui conference. I hope they're true!

    Sally--SoCal Crimewriters sounds fantastic. What a bargain, too. I'm going to look into that one myself, since I'm a SinC!

    Leslie--Absolutely. Especially not if she's throwing up :-)

    Janys--This is me giving you a big virtual hug! Thanks for buying the books. Platform building takes time, so have patience. The best first step is commenting on blogs like this and getting to know people--so you're doing it right. Have some fun and think of it as a big cocktail party.

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  34. I didn't realize there were so many different types of conferences. The idea of going to the larger conferences, like RWA, gives me hives. A smaller conference sounds like a great alternative.

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  35. Christine--I sure prefer the smaller ones. No way could I face RWA at this stage in my life. I like small towns and prefer one-on-one conversation vs. crowds. At the CWCC I got to have a quiet lunch with an agent and a prominent book reviewer. We chatted about the good stuff we see happening in publishing. A great experience.

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  36. Hi Anne-
    We just completed GA Romance Writers' Moonlight & Magnolias conference this past weekend.
    I'm proud to say we have a digital subchapter within our chapter for indies and self published authors, and we offered an entire digital publishing track to everyone who attended MM12, headed up by editors from Entangled Publishing.
    Since Atlanta is booming with movie production, we also highlight screenwriters. This year Mr. Stepakoff, creator of Dawson's Creek, was our featured craft speaker. Two years ago we featured Michael Hague.
    I would be remiss if I did not point out that we at GRW offer a general admission price that is slightly higher than members' pricing, so it is not mandatory to be a member of RWA to attend.
    For the networking opportunities alone, conferences are worth the price of travel and admission. I'm so happy to have met book reviewers from The Romance Dish, Facebook friends, as well as authors who are involved in other genres, such as steampunk and alternative history. It's terrific to talk with them, learn of other events and groups out there, and make face to face contacts.
    And nothing beats conferences for getting to know agents and editors, as well as new publishing houses who are seeking authors for digital press.
    RWA Nationals will be held here in Atlanta next July - I'm ready to jump into that enormous ocean after four local conferences now!
    And one more thing - Volunteering in any way at your local conference enriches the experience. You get even closer relationships, as well as insider information. I highly recommend it.

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  37. Pamela--Thanks much for all his great information on Moonlight and Magnolias. I've heard it's one of the best regional RWA conferences. And how great to know there's a RWA branch that's accepting indies. Great info. And I agree that volunteering is one of the best ways to experience a conference.

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