Since I first started pursuing publication seriously, about sixteen years ago, I've been to more conferences than I can count. Local conferences, national conferences, chapter conferences, and conferences calling themselves conventions. With so many choices available, how does an author know which conference is right for her?
Consider Your Goals
When I look at conference registrations, the first thing I think about is my goal for the next year. Do I need to work on the craft of writing? Maybe I need to network with other authors more. Or maybe what I really need is to build my readership. Different conferences cater to different goals.
If your goal is to work on the craft of writing—plotting, characterization, dialogue—than a conference with lots of workshops led by authors you respect is the way to go. Often writing organizations, like the Romance Writers of America or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, have their own national conferences filled with panels and workshops on a range of topics and led by bestselling authors.
These national conferences are also great for authors whose goal is to pitch to an editor or agent. Editors and agents often come to the bigger conferences because more of the authors on their lists are likely to be there, and it gives them a chance to meet face-to-face with their authors and other industry professionals.
The writing organization conferences can be wonderful for networking with other authors as well. You can schedule lunch or coffee with an author you've wanted to meet. Many of my writer friends and I met at conferences, stayed in touch, and sometimes our friendships led to collaborating together on a project or to cross-promotion.
If building your readership is your goal, focus more on conferences aimed at readers. The Romantic Times Bookreview Convention is one of the largest examples of this sort of conference. Lots of readers attend to mingle with their favorite authors at parties, panels, and mixers. Smaller, more genre specific conferences are great for writers looking to meet more readers as well. I recently attended the Historical Romance Retreat, and it was wonderful to spend so much time with readers who love what I write—historical romance.
And if you have to skip a conference this year because it doesn't meet your goals, know that you can always revise your goals next year. My goals and the conferences I attend change every few years.
Consider Your Budget
Let's be honest. Conferences are not cheap. Not only does the registration cost money, authors have to pay for travel and lodging, swag, meals, and depending on the conference, promotional opportunities. If the cost of a national conference is beyond your means right now, consider attending a smaller, local conference or a multi-author book signing event. Driving is usually cheaper than flying and you can bring books and swag with you, rather than having to ship it.
Find a roommate. I almost always room with a friend of mine at conferences because it makes sense to halve the cost of the room. The hotel is usually one of the biggest conference expenses. Take advantage of the meals included in the conference registration, if there are any, to save money as well. Often the conference includes a continental breakfast or a luncheon with a keynote speaker.
Finally, consider submitting a workshop proposal. Frequently, speakers are compensated with a reduced registration fee. For a few hours of your time you can reduce your costs and increase your visibility.
Consider Your Time
I made the mistake one year of agreeing to attend nine different conferences/conventions/events. By the end of the year I was so exhausted, I could barely work up the energy to do the one thing I needed to do—write the book.
It's easy to overcommit yourself when a conference sounds really amazing or the organizer personally invites you. No one wants to say no when a board or a well-known author issues a personal invitation. But sometimes saying no is the best decision, especially if you can leave the door open for attending the next year. After my year of the nine conferences, I learned to limit my attendance to two or three events a year. It made me a better mom, a better wife, and a better writer.
Return on Investment
My husband loves to talk about Return on Investment. I don't like to talk about this as much because I've found the returns on my investment in writers' conferences notoriously hard to calculate in concrete terms. I know writers who analyze book sales in the months following a conference and consider the event a success or failure depending on whether their sales increase or stay the same.
I've never looked at my conference attendance this way because there are too many things I receive from conferences that I just can't measure. First, there's the author networking I mentioned earlier. No matter what kind of event you attend, if other authors are also present, you will be able to chat and at least become acquainted with a few of them. These relationships can prove invaluable later when you have an industry question, are looking for someone to cross-promote with, or just want to sit with someone familiar at a luncheon.
Secondly, there's the face-to-face time with industry professionals. Most of the conferences I choose to attend are also conferences where my agents, editors, and publicists will also be in attendance. You would be surprised at how much is accomplished in these half hour meetings. I've sold books and entire series, given input on my book covers, and helped design marketing plans. An email or a phone call can never replace the benefit of sitting across from the people you work with and discussing your joint plans for the future. You become more than a name in an inbox; you become a person and a collaborator.
Finally, I know only a very small proportion of readers attend conferences and book signing events, but every time you can meet with a reader personally is gold. In this age of social media, readers do not buy books from authors. Readers buy books from friends. Meeting a reader in person at a luncheon or in the hallway between events elevates you from another name in their Facebook feed to an acquaintance. Having a conversation or personalizing a book for them is even more special. Of course you can cultivate relationships with readers online, but it takes longer for any real connection to develop. Conferences are a great way to have a lot of meaningful and lasting interactions with new and longtime fans alike.
This year give some thought to the conferences you'll attend. Choose carefully based on your goals, your budget, and the return on your investment. Then plan to network, find new readers, and most importantly, have fun.
© Shana Galen