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 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?

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