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”:

 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.

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