Attending a writer’s conference can change the course of your life.
I know, because it happened to me. And I’ve seen it happen to many other people, too.
In fact, there’s not one other thing you can possibly do that will accomplish more for your writing career than attending a writer’s conference. That’s a big, bold claim! But let me tell you why I know that it’s true. And more importantly, how to make sure it turns out to be true for you.
In this article, you will learn:
- Why I believe in writer's conferences
- The benefits of attending them
- How you can get the most out of them
Table of contents
- Why I Believe in Writer’s Conferences
- 1. Have the Right Mindset
- 2. Pick the Right Writer’s Conference for You
- 3. Study Writer’s Conference Websites & Social Media Presence
- 4. Know Who the Presenters Are
- 5. Join the Writer's Conference Facebook Group
- 6. Arrive a Day Early
- 7. Dress to Impress
- 8. What To Do While You’re There
- 9. Wake Up Early & Stay Up Late
- 10. Follow-up
- About the Author
Why I Believe in Writer’s Conferences
Thirty years ago, I decided to attend my first writer’s conference. Somehow, I instinctively knew that the most important thing to do was make a personal connection with the staff. Trusting my gut on that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I figured most people would shove their book proposal at an agent or editor, then slump sheepishly in a chair while the agent or editor stared at the pages. And I knew I didn’t want to be most people.
By the way, that’s the Golden Rule of How To Get the Most Out Of a Writer’s Conference:
Don’t Be Most People
But back to my story. While all of that paper shoving and sheepish slumping was going on, I was busy engaging in casual conversations with interesting people. Now it just so happens that the interesting people I pro-actively struck up conversations with…were editors, agents, and other staff.
One such editor was Steve Laube. Rather than pitching a specific book idea, my goal was to enjoy getting to know him as a person. The approach worked, leading to a win-win partnership that continues to this day. Steve played a key role in the publication of 20 of my traditionally-published books. He now serves as my literary agent.
That’s why I believe in writer’s conferences. And I’ve experienced them from every possible angle: as an attendee, a staff member, and even as a keynote speaker.
Writer’s conferences work. Well, they work if you do. Here's how to get the most out of them…
1. Have the Right Mindset
The right mindset is key. Think of yourself as a writing professional who is seeking mutually beneficial relationships with other writing professionals. And now here’s the big secret: understand that they need you just as much as you need them.
Most attendees unconsciously believe that the staff is there to reject them and make them feel inadequate. This, of course, is silly. No one needs to get on an airplane and fly to another city to make other people feel bad about themselves. They can do that right in their own hometown.
Agents, editors, and industry professionals from all over the country travel to writer’s conferences for one simple reason. (And trust me, it’s not for the money. Because typically the only people getting paid are the keynote speakers.) It’s because they are looking for you.
Do you think anyone wants to go back to their boss and say, “Getting out of the office to attend that conference was a complete waste of my time and your money?”
Of course not. They want it to be worth the trip, just as much as you do. Their goal is to report, “I may have just found the next big author!”
Now don’t go crazy and get cocky. But do look in the mirror every chance you get and say, “The only way they win is if I win, too!” That’s not only the right mindset, it’s a stone-cold fact.
2. Pick the Right Writer’s Conference for You
When it comes to writer’s conferences, it’s definitely not “one size fits all.” So your second step, after getting your attitude in check, is selecting the right conference for you.
Some writer’s conferences have a literary bent, appealing to poets and high-brow authors whose goal is to win the National Book Award. Any talk of something as crass as selling books is frowned upon. I accidentally attended one and it was a complete waste of time and money. Lesson learned.
Some conferences emphasize fiction, others non-fiction. Some are more about learning the art and craft of writing, or the chance to get your manuscript critiqued. I would avoid those. You can accomplish the same goals without hopping on an airplane. Instead, look for events where you can network with power players in your niche.
Here’s a fool-proof strategy:
- Use Publisher Rocket to find the 20 top-selling books that directly compete with the one you want to write.
- Look in the front matter of each book to identify the publishing house.
- Search the acknowledgments page for mentions of literary agents.
- Google the names of the publishing houses and literary agents you discovered followed by + writer’s conference.
- Put those writer’s conferences at the top of your list.
- There are other considerations as well, which I’ll cover next.
Consider a Niche Writer’s Conference
There are now writer’s conferences focused on the self-publishing industry. So if you do not see any advantages to being a hybrid author (balancing both traditional and self-publishing to leverage the strengths of both, which is what I do), then stick with something like The Self Publishing School’s Author Advantage Live event.
If you’re a Christian author, the Blue Ridge Christian Writer’s Conference and Mt. Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference are the two premier events. Everyone who is anyone in the industry will be on staff at one or the other…and often both.
The key is to choose an event specifically tailored to your niche.
3. Study Writer’s Conference Websites & Social Media Presence
Once you’ve identified a handful of writer’s conferences that match your basic criteria (i.e. the people you need to meet will be there), it’s time to think about other factors.
Remember, this is your big chance to make the impression of a lifetime. Choose the conference that’s most likely to be a good fit for you. The best way to do that is to “try them on for size.”
How? By studying their website and social media presence.
At this point, don’t be overly concerned about workshop titles (we’ll get to that aspect in a minute). Instead, search their site —and especially their prior-year event hashtag — and ask yourself:
- Does this look like my kind of place?
- Are these my kind of people?
- Can I picture myself showing up and fitting right in?
If the website features attendees gathered in a chapel singing from a hymnbook and you’re an atheist, you might want to rethink it. Conversely, if you are religious, you might want to pass up on the event that humorously recommends packing twice as much whiskey as you think you’ll need.
Some things to consider:
Where do you feel most alive? At the beach or in the mountains? Maybe you prefer the sophisticated energy of a cosmopolitan city. Where would you feel more at ease? At an upscale hotel or staying in a rustic cabin?
If you’re a city girl who’s terrified of spiders, you’re not going to feel confident sitting on hay bales around a campfire. If you’ve lived in a town of 2,000 people your entire life, you might not want to be dodging traffic on the streets of New York.
There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s about finding the conference that’s best for you.
You may want to begin with a writer’s conference within driving distance. One advantage is that you might just find a local writer’s group (although you could just as easily find one on Meetup.) What you can’t find online is a true kindred spirit to serve as your live-in-person accountability partner. That alone might be worth the price of admission.
If you’re willing to fly, decide how far you’re willing to go. But keep in mind that distance isn’t the only factor affecting time and cost. It’s sometimes faster and cheaper to fly across the country to an airline hub city like Atlanta then it is to fly to some obscure town in the middle of the country, requiring connections and expensive puddle-jumpers.
Registration & Total Cost
Some events are more expensive than others. Some are all-inclusive, but most are not. So don’t just look at the price of admission. Factor in hotel costs, meals, taxis, etc. If it’s held in New York City or Los Angeles, lodging alone might cost far more than the event.
Just because an event is cheaper and closer, doesn’t mean it’s a smarter financial decision. Be sure to factor in networking opportunities and how likely you are to be able to connect with industry insiders. If you land a major book deal, the event will be the best money you’ve ever spent. And remember, all of your expenses related to your writing career are tax-deductible. So keep the receipts.
4. Know Who the Presenters Are
Now that you’ve chosen and registered for your writer’s conference, it’s time to learn all you can about the staff:
- Study their bios on the event website to see who is most aligned with your goals.
- Explore their websites.
- View their books on Amazon.
- Buy and read books by key staff.
- Follow them on social media.
- Be familiar with their interests and associations.
Be Ready to Meet the Staff
Based on what you discover during your research:
- Make a note about any common interests you share.
- Write down at least one good question to ask each staff member. It should be about their work or field of expertise, not about you.
- Now, when you bump into staff members at the event, you won’t be at a loss for words like everyone else.
- Ask professional questions about their latest projects. At the very least, know whether or not they write fiction, non-fiction, or movie screenplays.
- Don’t be creepy and mention their kid's recent birthday party. That’s a great way to get marked as a stalker.
Most people won’t be able to match staff faces to their names and won’t be able to strike up casual conversations. They’ll be too busy staring at name tags and stammering in awe. Don’t be most people.
5. Join the Writer's Conference Facebook Group
Once you’re familiar with who’s who, it’s time to join the event Facebook Group:
- Begin to engage immediately. I’m amazed at how few attendees do this. It’s a lost opportunity and an easy way for you to immediately set yourself apart from the crowd.
- Everyone likes Likes. So go to the Facebook Group several times a week, during the months leading up to the event and like the posts.
- Add thoughtful comments and ask smart questions.
- You’ll instantly go to the top of the class.
Send Friend Requests to Attendees & Staff
Be sure to send friend requests to all staff members. Not all will accept you, but many will, especially when they see the increasing number of mutual friends you share. So the smart play is to connect with fellow attendees first, then build your staff connections.
6. Arrive a Day Early
The day of the event will be pure pandemonium. Flight delays. Lost luggage. You name it.
As a result, most people will be frazzled. That’s not a good look on anyone. So don’t be most people. You want your first impression to be a great one. Arrive at least a day early.
Make the Most of Downtime to Network
Guess who else will arrive early? Right. The staff. And a big reason why they arrive early is because these events become like annual family reunions for “the regulars.”
So the day before the crowd arrives is probably your best chance to network with them, while they are still relaxed and not surrounded by people shoving book proposals at them.
Tim Ferris hit the New York Times best-seller list using this one strategy. He attended industry events to network with key people during their informal downtime. If it’s good enough for Tim, it’s good enough for you.
7. Dress to Impress
Most people will slouch around the writer’s conference in jeans and workout clothes, lugging the event-monikered tote-bag everywhere. Don’t be most people. We’re not talking about donning an evening gown or tuxedo. Or being so over-dressed that you look ridiculous.
You want to dress one notch above the crowd. Guess who else knows the rule about dressing one notch above the crowd? Again, the answer is: The staff.
Take Your Wardrobe Cues from the Staff
Check on social media for photos from prior years.’ Then take your wardrobe cues from the staff, rather than the attendees. If you inquire about the dress code, you’ll invariably be told it’s business casual. Err on the side of business not casual. Once you arrive, if people routinely mistake you for staff, you’ll know you’ve picked the perfect wardrobe.
And whatever else you do, don’t carry the dang tote-bag because most people will. And, for sure, you don’t want to be most people.
8. What To Do While You’re There
There are many articles on the internet that tell you the obvious practical stuff. My goal here is to give you real strategy. But let me just hit the highlights:
- Write out, in advance, your #1 goal for attending the conference.
- Study the website so you know exactly what workshops you plan to attend. Based on that information, write out your daily schedule.
- Understand what types of sign-ups are required for specific parts of the conference, and understand how they work. These can sometimes be extremely complicated. And many are on a first-come, first-served basis. Don’t miss out.
- Make a list of people you want to meet, in priority order, and check them off the list as the event continues.
- Prepare your “elevator” pitch and practice it with family and friends. But only “pitch” when invited to do so.
- Collect business cards. Add a note to the back with some point of connection to the person.
- Look for opportunities to form great author partnerships (Check out this podcast on How to Effectively Collaborate with Other Authors for inspiration.
- Hand out your card. If you don’t have one, get one.
- Have several copies of a formal book proposal ready. But never hand it to anyone unless specifically requested to do so. (Great tips on writing the
- Once you’ve connected with a staff member, your mission is accomplished. Don’t continue ‘stalking’ them.
- Resist the temptation to cling to your “new best friend” (i.e. the first person you meet at the writer’s conference that you feel a connection with). Mix it up, sitting next to different people each time and dining with different groups.
- Create a One-Page Summary
Once you’re certain you have a winning book idea, using Book Idea Validation Mastery, create a one-page summary that includes:
- Contact information
- Url of your killer Author website
- Short bio (see tips for writing a great Author bio)
- Proposed winning book title and sub-title
- The “Hook”
- Brief description of the book
Give this to staff members, rather than a 20-page proposal. If they want a full proposal, they’ll ask for it. More likely, they’ll ask you to send it to them after the conference.
Have Your Answers Ready
Make a list of questions you are likely to be asked and know your answers:
- What type of books do you write?
- What books have already been written on the topic?
- Where do they rank on Amazon? (Find out using The KDP Sales Rank Calculator)
- What makes your book different?
- How much writing experience do you have?
- What qualifies you to write this book?
- How big is your social media following?
- How many people are on your mailing list?
- Do you know any Influencers who will endorse the book?
9. Wake Up Early & Stay Up Late
Your big writer’s conference is no time to catch up on your zzz’s. Instead, you want to make the most of every opportunity. There are two types of people on staff:
- Morning people
- Night owls
So wake up early to connect with the morning people. Then stay up late to kick back with the night owls.
If you need rest, take a cue from the Spanish and plan for an afternoon siesta. Because there’s no such thing as an afternoon person anyway!
Most people won’t bother to follow-up. So don’t be most people. You should already be connected to most of the staff members on social media, so you can shoot them a direct message.
This message should not be about you, but about them and how, specifically, they made a difference in your life. I can tell you, as a speaker, that there’s nothing that means more to me than receiving a message like that after an event.
But if you really want to stand out from the crowd, send a handwritten note. You know, the kind that requires paper, an envelope and—wait for it—a stamp. I can guarantee you this: almost no one else will go to the bother of doing it. So this is probably the easiest way to make an impression.
Send Them Your Selfie
Make it a fun goal to take a selfie with all of the key staff members. It’s an easy way to break the ice. Afterward, you can print out the photo and include it in the card, adding a face to your name so it’s easy to remember you.
If you’re fortunate enough to hear those glorious words, “Send me a proposal,” consider it a high honor. And be sure to send one immediately after the conference. Send one copy via email, for convenience, and another copy via FedEx so it looks official.
Writing Is a Real Career
All of this assumes that you are interested in writing as a real, long-term career. Because that’s what it is. And what it can be for you.
I wrote my first book thirty years ago and have made a full-time career based on my books ever since. That’s because books are the perfect springboard to my online programs and live events. As a result, I’ve consistently earned a six-figure income, year after year.
If you want to do the same, you can begin your journey today. Sign up for a writer’s conference. Because now you know how to get the most out it.
About the Author
Donna Partow is one of the top-selling Christian authors in America. Her books have sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. She’s been a digital nomad for nearly a decade, able to live anywhere in the world, earning a six-figure income with just a laptop and a cellphone. She has traveled and worked in more than 40 nations on six continents. Learn more about her annual Lifestyle Freedom Event here.