Friday, June 18, 2010

It’s Conference Season Again

By John Gilstrap

For me, every June marks the beginning of the writers conference season. That’s when American Independent Writers (AIW) sponsors its one-day confab in Washington, DC. Next up, in a couple of weeks, will be CraftFest and ThrillerFest, followed by Bouchercon and Magna Cum Murder, with the season ending in October. A couple of months ago, I attended my first Left Coast Crime conference, and I liked it so much that I’ll probably be returning to that again next year, which will cause me to reset the beginning of my season.

This begs the question (that's for you, Jim), "Are writers' conferences worth the money and effort?"

My answer is a definitive maybe. It all depends on what you seek to get out of your attendance, and what you’re willing to do while you’re there.

Agent pitch sessions. I know many authors who found their agent through the speed-dating ritual of agent pitch sessions, so I think their value is well documented—so long as you, the author, do your research and dedicate yourself to not wasting anyone’s time. First of all, don’t even begin the process until your book is finished, and your pitch is well-practiced. Just because an agent is at a conference doesn’t mean that she’s the perfect choice for your book. Concentrate on pitching agents who specialize in the kind of book you write. Don’t pitch your romantic suspense novel to an agent who loves political thrillers and does not represent romantic suspense.

Panels. Frankly, these are the wild cards of writers’ conferences. Depending on the makeup of the panel, they can be entertaining, informative, or deeply horrible. A lot about the success or failure of a panel depends on the level of preparation by the moderator, and the rest has everything to do with the chemistry created by the panelists. I believe in always putting on a good show for the attendees, but a lot of authors are very much into themselves and therefore tend to ignore the audience that’s in front of them. Also, more than a few authors are terrible public speakers. I say go to panels with reasonable expectations.

The bar. Whether you drink or not, the bar at the conference hotel is the place to be if you want to make lasting relationships with industry insiders. Too many conference attendees make the mistake of going to bed early. The bar teems with authors and editors and agents, all laid back and having a good time. Get to know them. Join the conversation groups. This isn’t the place to pitch (unless asked); it’s the place to get to know future business contacts—maybe future friends—as people, and not as stepping stones for your career.

More than anything else, these terrific business opportunities are all about having fun. So, go have some!

What say you, fellow Killzoners? Any thoughts about conferences that you’d like to share?


  1. I've been writing for about 8 years (w/the time I scrape together after the day job)and in all that time, have only gone to 2 major conferences. The 1st was very early on so I gobbled up all the different classes with gusto. My 2nd conference was 2 years ago--those same class offerings made me yawn. PLEASE don't misunderstand, I know I have LOTS of learning left to do, but right now I need to learn it thru my own writing, not classes.

    So at this time, the value of a conference really boils down to meeting with editors/agents.

    And as expensive as most conferences are, I don't go until I have projects hot, boxed and ready to go for a pitch.

    If I could improve one thing about conferences, it would be offering of more intensive workshops, and less of the hit-and-run 1 hr workshops that can only skim the surface of a topic. I believe I would find more value that way.

    And they always manage to schedule my editor/agent appointments in the middle of the most interesting classes of the conference. *-)

  2. Already been to the AIW conference (was in the pitch room all day, John, so I never saw you). I'd like to add two comments on pitch sessions:

    * We always get people who come late for their pitch sessions, show up early, or show up at the wrong time. Or for that matter, can't remember which agent they're seeing. If you are bad with time and scheduling, then print a copy of the email with times at the agent names and bring it with you. That way you have an original copy to refer to at any time during the conference. Wear a watch, and if necessary, set the alarm.

    * Research the agents carefully before choosing them. If the agent does not represent your genre, DO NOT schedule a pitch session with them. Some people think that all the agent needs to do is see how good the story is, and they're agree to rep outside their genre. This does you little good when you get to the pitch session and the agent turns you away because she doesn't rep your genre.

    * Do not pitch short stories or unfinished novels to the agents. We usually get one of these every year. Agents only represent books, not short stories--short stories go to magazines. It doesn't speak will about your knowing the market. On unfinished novels--many people never get past the first three chapters, so agents are not going to take a chance on a new writer. Wait until you are done.

  3. All good advice, John. Attendees must have a clear strategy before going to the conference. Remember that even a bad plan is better than no plan. See you at the bar at ThrillerFest.

  4. If there are published authors, editors and agents at a writer's conference I want to meet, it's worth my time and money. I just attended the Backspace conference in NYC and had the honor of participating on two panels. From the response of the attendees, they were valuable. I also was lucky enough to attend a one hour workshop with the great Donald Maass. I got enough out of that one lecture to say the conference was a wonderful success. (I'm blogging about it at Sorry, but had to get that in!) In short, my advice would be to examine your budget, examine your goals, then choose a conference or two every year that meets the criteria. It's worth it.

  5. An excellent conference held every May is Pennwriter's. This year it was in Lancaster, next year is Pittsburgh's turn. This year's keynotes were James Rollins and Elizabeth Kann. Next year, it'll be Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Maberry.

    The sessions are a nice mix to interest both published and unpublished writers. The PW con attracts top agents (this year Janet Reid, Jennifer Jackson, Jenny Bent, Emmanuelle Alspaugh, and Alex Glass attended). Several of them have already requested slots for next year's conference.

    Another tip for pitching agents: Don't go in and just rattle off your prepared blurb. Have a real conversation. Ask the agent if she's enjoying the conference, etc. When she asks what your book is about, then go into your pitch.

  6. And keep in mind the excellent advice from Boyd Morrison on how to work a conference.

  7. I went to Bouchercon last year, John, and didn't know a soul. As you may know, it was very well-attended, with nearly 2000 people there. All the published authors briefly gathered in small groups before disappearing. Everyone else, it seemed, was from Indiana. I felt like a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium. The panels were heavily-populated by authors who mumbled and wouldn't speak into the microphone.

    Left Coast Crime was another deal entirely. Smaller in scope, it seemed more attendee-friendly. The published authors were more accessible and less cliquish. The panels were better (I was even on one of them). Although the hotel bar charged $15 for a glass of house wine (what writer can afford to buy a round there???), they had cocktail parties in the conference area with significantly lower prices.

    I'm going to Bouchercon this year, but I'm not exactly brimming with optimism. However, I'll definitely look forward to LCC in Santa Fe.

  8. I just got back from one in May in the Northwest and was prepared to pitch to an agent. It was a group event and she announced as we sat down that she wasn't taking on new clients for at least a year because of the economy. I'd waited all day to see her, and then she said that. I would have appreciated that information being passed on before I scheduled her as my main agent to see.

    Otherwise, meeting so many new writers made it worth it:)

  9. This is a travel day for me, so forgive my lack of follow-ups. It's hard to do this on a BlackBerry.

    Mike, you raise one of my conference pet peeves: cliquishness. It does happen, and for whatever reason, B-Con always seems to be the worst offender. For that reason alone, it is not on my list of favorite conferences. It's just too big. But it's also The Big Event. FWIW, I urge people to be clique-breakers. I fear that I sometimes project that when I hang out with my buddies--writers I haven't seen since last Bouchercon--but it's never my intent to exclude others. I think that I speak for many, though certainly not all.

  10. Since Boucheron is going to be in San Francisco I'll be able to attend. I have a question for you and those who have gone before. As a fan, blogger, aspiring author would I learn anything from the panels or workshops. What kinds of things are discussed during the panels? I don't plan on pitching anything since it's my very first conference and would rather just network and absorb as much as I can.

  11. Robin,
    Bouchercon features dozens, if not hundreds, of panels, none of which have yet been assigned. I think there's always a little something to be gleaned from some of the panels. If nothing else, you get to see and meet some favorite authors.

    John Gilstrap

  12. I thought I'd suggest a distinction between a writers' conference and a fan conference. Our own Willamette Writers Conference in Portland is for aspiring writers with panels on technique, marketing, etc., and with opportunities to meet agents. Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime are fan conferences. Go to meet authors and hear them talk about the mystery field. I go to both, for different purposes. Hope to see you all in the bar at Bouchercon!