Writing Conferences: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

At some point in every aspiring writer’s life, they will ask themselves: should I invest in a conference? That’s how you should phrase it, anyway. It is an investment: of time, of money. A lot of people report feeling more committed and professional after an event.

Here is an easy list of pros and cons of conferences, in case you’re on the fence about going to your first or going again. Use this list to keep your expectations in check (very important).

Cons: Why You Might Not Want to Go To A Conference

  • Expense: Conferences are expensive. The conference fee (usually between $100 and $500 dollars). Hotel. Airfare. You’re usually looking at about $1,000 bucks if you go to one of the larger conferences outside of your home state. Some conferences, though, do offer scholarships. It’s always a good idea to ask. Smaller conferences and  regional SCBWI days are a good alternative if cost is a huge factor.
  • Intimidation: This might be one of the first times in your life you’ll be meeting real, walking, talking agents and book editors. This makes some people more nervous than excited. My advice: try as hard as you can to get used to the idea. We’re the people you want to work with. And we’re just people who love good books. Look! We already have something in common!
  • Other writers and workshops: For some more advanced users, conferences are frustrating because some of the other writers operate on a really basic level. For some complete newbies, the advanced level of other attendees might be really scary. Workshops at conferences are also a mixed bag. One time, I was at a conference where someone raised their hand (totally unrelated to the discussion at hand, mind you) and asked what the difference was between fiction and non-fiction. Color me underwhelmed! It’s best to go into it eager to make new friends and expecting to learn something (but not have your mind blown) from the workshops.
  • Crazy opportunists: Conferences are rife with crazy opportunists, or people who hawk their projects to anyone who will listen. These are the people you hear about, sliding their manuscripts under the bathroom stall to a terrified agent. You’d be wise to avoid these folks. If you ARE one of these folks, don’t waste your breath/time/money. These tactics are much more “cautionary tale” than “success story.”
  • Unrealistic expectations: It is very, very rare that you will spot an agent from across the room, leap all over each other like Romeo and Juliet, and ink an agency contract by the end of the weekend. Writers connect with agents and editors all the time. But don’t expect it to happen. You will most likely get your heart broken if that’s the only reason you’re going. And don’t, whatever you do, show up with 10 copies of your full manuscript, all nice and printed out, and try handing them out. Nobody will take them. It’s ALWAYS best to query after a conference or, if you make a connection with an agent or editor, to send them a follow-up e-mail. I repeat: nobody will take the 300-page brick of paper off your hands right in the middle of the hotel ballroom. Don’t try it.

Now for the good news! There are tons of reasons to go to a writers conference.

Pros: Why You Should Go To A Conference

  • Agents and editors: Most people, people really serious about launching their careers, go to conferences to network. Forming bonds with other writers is great but…at a conference you can meet (and impress) some agents and editors. Saying “I met you at so and so” really does catch my busy eyes when I’m combing the slush.
  • Motivation: A near-guaranteed aftereffect of a writers conference is that you will get new ideas and get really pumped to write them. Don’t take your meanest writing block to a conference and expect it magically fixed, but you’ll be impressed with how motivated you feel.
  • Other writers: Yes, you’ll probably make some friends! Friends are good!
  • Critiques: Conferences are great for getting your first critique or pitch session in with a real, live publishing professional. Yes, they cost money. But the way I figure it, you’re already spending a lot of cash. What’s an extra $50-$100 for a critique? Skip lunch and dinner and opt for sandwiches from the corner store, if you have to. You’ll get to sit down with an agent or editor one-on-one and talk about your work. You might even get a request for more material, if your work is really polished.
  • A change of pace/scenery: Sometimes, a conference is great just because it doesn’t feel like your real life. You feel like you’ve just vacationed in Writerland and that’s a nice way to recharge your batteries.
  • Self-confidence: Every little bit helps, right? Well, after a conference, a lot of people get much more comfortable with the idea of writing, the logistics of becoming more committed to their work. It can work psychological wonders and, if you haven’t figured it out already, writing is a mental and emotional challenge for the ego.

So there you go! Literally! Go, if you feel compelled to.

For kidlit writers, I highly recommend making it out to a national SCBWI conference at least once. More info here: SCBWI. I prefer the summer one in LA over the NYC winter conference, though maybe I’m biased because the shorter flight has lured me. Seriously, though, it is the longer-running one and, puzzlingly, seems to attract more New York agents and editors. If you can’t make it to one of the national conferences, do go to your regional SCBWI chapter’s events. Some excellent chapters throw amazing conferences, like the Nevada SCBWI chapter run by Ellen Hopkins. Why I like SCBWI events: all the people you meet are into kid’s books. Every single one of them. So you’re not sitting next to a cozy mystery/romance thriller writer at lunch.

With most other conferences, you have to watch the list of participants and speakers like a hawk. Seriously. Do your research. Google everybody. Figure out where in publishing they are. The last thing you want to do is spend all that time and money and show up at a conference populated by non-fiction or adult fiction agents and editors. Make sure at least a handful of children’s book professionals will be there. The benefit of zeroing in on the kidlit people at an adult conference, though, is that you’ll likely have more face time with them as one of the few children’s writers in attendance.

So no matter which conference you choose, take this list to heart and take the plunge. It’s worth it at least once in every writer’s life.

And, of course, I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t point you all to the Big Sur Fiction Writing Workshop, put on by the Andrea Brown agency, that’s coming up December 3rd through the 5th! It’s an amazing weekend of small groups, in-depth workshops, close attention from faculty and, of course, lots of chances to network and meet writers, agents and editors. Click here for the website!

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  1. Steve’s avatar

    Another plus for SCBWI conferences (even the local ones) is that every faculty member has pledged to review submissions from conference attenders, usually for about six months from the date of the conference. It’s, like, part of the deal. You just mark the envelope, note that you attended the conference in your query, and they HAVE to read the submission! Scout’s honor.

    I don’t know if other conferences offer this pretty sweet perk.

  2. Mary’s avatar

    Steve: A great point!

    Yes, this is definitely a plus! I’ve heard editors make similar offers at other conferences but at SCBWI it is a requirement. Writers, watch out though… pay really close attention when an editor talks about their submission guidelines in any workshop you attend. They’ll usually tell you exactly how to submit stuff to them, even if they’re traditionally closed to submissions.

    Every time an editor rattles off guidelines, you can guarantee they’ll get asked to repeat themselves three times, usually by every single person who mobs them after the talk. Don’t be That Writer. Take careful notes and don’t ask them to repeat.

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Also, I don’t remember exactly what the deal is here, but some houses will NOT accept unsolicited submissions, under any circumstances, because of legal issues. DBG/Hyperion is like this, I think. (Someone totally correct me if I’m wrong, please!) Their lawyers forbid them taking any unsolicited manuscripts, even from conference attendees.

    So, don’t take it personally if the house has a hard and fast rule against it. Some houses you simply can’t break through to without an agent, unfortunately.

  4. Martha Flynn’s avatar

    “It is very, very rare that you will spot an agent from across the room, leap all over each other like Romeo and Juliet, and ink an agency contract by the end of the weekend.”

    You’re a dream killer, Mary. A dream killer.

  5. Mary’s avatar

    Hey, Martha… I work at a literary agency and a publishing house that accepts unsolicited submissions. I kill dreams for a LIVING. =P

  6. Emily Ellsworth’s avatar

    How about conferences for readers/reviewers? I don’t have a whole lot of available funds, but I would imagine conferences are one of the best ways to be “in the know” about new books and authors.

  7. Mary’s avatar

    Emily, that’s an interesting question. I’m a little stumped on resources for readers/reviewers. Writers conferences strike me as not that great a place for readers and reviewers to go because most of the attendees are writers who aren’t published yet and who are trying to make in-roads for themselves. Most of the events at conferences are very how-to-write/query/pitch/get-an-agent-centric.

    I’d think events like BEA, ALA, or local author get-togethers and festivals and readings would be better places for reviewers and readers to get to know authors and new books.

    Also, never underestimate the power of your local bookseller. Befriend the children’s buyer or bookseller at your local indie store. They have tons of knowledge about what’s coming out soon and might even be able to share some ARC’s with you.

  8. LSmith’s avatar

    This is probably a stupid question, but do they have writing conferences for teens? Not specifically for teens, just conferences that allow teens to attend? Or is there an age requirement? I doubt that I’ll make it to one before I’m 18 anyway, but I was just wondering.

    You sort of scared me with the crazy opportunists part, though. There’s a little movie playing in my head – one of a horrified agent speeding away in their car while some crazy person runs after them, manically waving around a manuscript.

  9. Mary’s avatar

    LOL, LSmith! I’ve been pitched by a few crazies recently and, it was my first time getting pulled aside, so it felt special, but I can see how it can get old… fast. There are people who will make themselves heard at any cost and they’re pretty common at conferences. No need to fear, though. I can always use my ninja skills next time…

    I’ve been to several writing conferences where there have been teens there. Sometimes they were students of one of the organizers or presenters, other times they were just there to learn and interact with people. I think they learned a lot and I’m really happy when I see a younger writer taking writing so seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an age requirement, but you can always fire off an e-mail to the conference admins and ask. They’re always very approachable… they want you at their conference!

    If there’s a conference or event in your area, I’d say go for it. You might want to check out the SCBWI website and see if there are any chapters in your area that hold agent events or even casual meetings… that could be a great way to get your feet wet!

  10. LSmith’s avatar

    Ooh, be careful! You’ll probably only have to demonstrate your ninja skills once, but who knows what scary level of crazy they will have reached by then? The conference people should hand out some of those ear piece things and have guard type people who can watch from afar and warn you if one is heading your way!

    I doubt that there are any conferences or events near here, but I’m going to check anyway. And I’ll definitely check out the SCBWI website. Thanks for the info and advice!

  11. Shari’s avatar

    I’ve been to the Surrey (SIWC) conference twice and it was fantastic both times. The expense was the only real “con” (and the first time, maybe a bit of “intimidation” too). The “pros” for me were motivation (I finally began to see myself as a “real” writer, lol) and meeting other writers — including someone who became one of my crit partners. :)

  12. Mary’s avatar

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Shari! I’m sure other writers who are wondering whether or not it’s worth it will like to hear this.

  13. Nicole O'Dell’s avatar

    This is a fantastic blog! I’ve been reading through some of the posts, and I’ve found so much useful information–interesting reads, too.

    Thanks for the great resource!

  14. KateKintail’s avatar

    What a great list of pros & cons. I think it depends a lot upon where you are in your process as well; some conferences are better attended by people with finished manuscripts, while others help more for inspiration and networking.

    A good resource for finding the writing conference (or center or residency or festival) that suits you best is: http://writersconf.org/

  15. Mary’s avatar

    Kate — Great points and a great resource link. Thanks!

  16. J.H. Everett’s avatar

    I think it is worth reiterating that there are a lot of smaller local opportunities, as well, if you want to get your feet wet. National conferences are great, but I know a lot of folks who worked their way up to them. Working your way up through smaller, local events introduces a person to similar elements of the industry, in incremental doses. The local attendees will be more familiar and travel time and expenses are much more managable. Look for conferences attached to local events at colleges and universities, local museums and galleries, or sometimes bookstores (with your local SCBWI critique group)! By involving yourself locally, you commit professionally and still give yourself time to grow into the bigger conferences. Having an established set of local friends and work under your belt can be a big confidence builder at large events. It can also help focus your needs, so that you know what to aim for at the national conferences.
    ~Ev

  17. Mary’s avatar

    Ev — Wise words, darling, as always!

  18. Ellen Hopkins’s avatar

    As a regional adviser for SCBWI NV, I’d like to say that (and don’t get me wrong… I love the national conferences!!) regional conferences may actually offer BETTER opportunities to connect with editors/agents, specifically BECAUSE they are smaller. Nationals may have 1200 attendees, while smaller ones may have 50 to 100. So even with more editors/agents at the big ones, odds are probably better at the regionals. I’d also like to say that while these connections are valuable, the craft workshops are probably more valuable, especially for newer writers, whose work is often not ready for an editor’s eyes.

    In that vein, if you do pay for a critique and happen to get paired with an author, rather than an editor/agent, the input you get is likely to be as or even more valuable because we’ve been there. We have found our way out of the slush, onto publishers’ lists, and we know they way to get there. So if you get a well-published author (as is often the case at SCBWI LA), celebrate that fact.

    And hey, I’ll go ahead and invite you to check out the amazing programs SCBWI NV offers, including an upcoming novel immersion retreat (May) and our mentor program, which has been attended by writers from all over the country and Canada. Truly, some programs are more worth your investment $$$ than others, so do research them.

  19. Mary’s avatar

    Ellen — Thank you so much. And seriously, readers, Ellen is a phenomenally hard-working and dedicated regional adviser (and she’s got stiff competition from other amazing SCBWI mentors, authors and advisers) and I have heard absolutely NOTHING BUT THE BEST about SCBWI NV’s programs. Highly, highly recommended.

    As for getting an author as your critique appointment, celebrate! I couldn’t agree more. We have authors on faculty at the Big Sur conference and, every year, attendees say that they got so much out of being paired with successful working professionals.

  20. Jean’s avatar

    That’s it! I’m saving up to get myself to a conference! (See my knees shaking?) If I have to, I’ll bring a tent and camp out behind the hotel eating PB & J. ;)

  21. Daisy Whitney’s avatar

    I haven’t been to a writer’s conference but am a big believer in general of the power of in-person networking. I think writers can get a lot out of it and agents, editors and dream-killers too! (Love the comments here on this post!)

  22. Mary’s avatar

    Daisy — Of course you do, that one came from Martha! Thanks for popping by. :)

  23. Martha Flynn’s avatar

    Six months later and so little has changed of your dream-killing ways….

  24. MaryZ’s avatar

    The NJ chapter of SCBWI has a great conference in June. Much more intimate than NYC conference, but with many NYC pros to learn from.

  25. Jean Ann Williams’s avatar

    Great conference post, Mary, and as always I read your blog. You do a great job, and you’re such a busy lady. I hope one day to be at a conference where you speak.

    I agree that conferences are really important. I have always benefited and taken a lot from them and used it in my writing life. I’ve participated in more workshops, though, and those are great, also.

    Jean Ann

  26. Christine Wolf’s avatar

    Excellent advice, Mary. Thanks for motivating me to look into the SCBWI LA Conference. I just attended the SCBWI New York Conference in January, 2011. It was an emotional rollercoaster, so I blogged about it, warts and all: http://christinewolf.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/what-really-happens-at-a-writers-conference/

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