Friday, November 28, 2014

The Value of Writers' Conferences

Most of the time, I really enjoy my job. But some days I don’t.

Three times this month, I’ve called my clients to give them big news: Their book was accepted by a publisher. Their reaction? Bill let out a big sigh of relief. Jessie squealed. Brenda was essentially speechless in disbelief. In every case, they thanked me for my hard work and persistence. This is the part I love.

About a dozen times now, my clients and I have parted company; about half were at my initiative, half at theirs. In every case I was disappointed, either at my own failure or at their unreasonable expectations. That’s the part I hate. But life goes on, and future glories await. Such as my three deals for November.

The other part of my business, is in editing and consulting. Often, I field questions from aspiring authors who want to know the secret to success in the publishing world. They’re frustrated, even angry, because publishers have rejected their work again and again. Or the publishers only work through agents, and the agents don’t treat them any better.

One of those “secrets,” I tell them, is that they should attend a writers’ conference at every opportunity. You can learn write, how to edit your work, and how to sell it. Get a professional evaluation of your work, and find out what it is that you’re missing. You'll learn how to climb over those firewalls, and pitch your work directly to those (otherwise) hidebound gatekeepers. Take in the keynote address, take notes in the workshops, and ask lots of questions.

Unfortunately, most of those inquirers are not satisfied with that answer, and sometimes even seem to get angry. “I can’t afford it! I don’t have the time! I have a job and a family and a good-for-nothing husband who won’t help out!” They have nothing to learn, they shouldn’t have to work so hard, and the system is obviously rigged against them.

Sorry, dude. No, scratch that, I’m NOT sorry. This is the business. This is what it takes. Or did you really expect me to wave a magic wand and shower you in pixie dust? Apparently you’re looking for Tinkerbell; she lives across town from here in Burbank. No, I don’t have her phone number.

Like any other business, “it’s who you know.” Rewards will always go to those who take the time, pay the freight, and go the extra mile. When you arrive at the office each morning and find a hundred emails and phone messages, who do you call first? You call the people you know. As do I. As does every professional in every field. It’s up to you, to be someone they know.

But it’s not just about the meetings with industry pros. By networking among your peers (other struggling scribes), you can build a support system. Their contacts become your contacts. Your insights become their insights. You can help each other in ways that neither of you can imagine today. Start the conversation.

Yes, this is expensive. Yes, it takes time away from your career and family. But this isn’t a job; it’s self-employment. Every business has a learning curve and a cost of entry. It’s a Darwinian construct where only the fittest survive. Either you want it or you don’t.

Many writers are convinced that conference organizers prey on naïve writers and make lots of money. The honest truth is that most conferences work on small profit margins. The speakers and instructors earn only a tiny honorarium ($200 or less for 3-4 days of work), or even work for free, as the hosts cover their expenses (travel, lodging, meals).

How do I know this? I managed a conference for several years, and today I consult for three others.

In the past few years, a number of fine conferences have gone out of business. They could get free or nearly-free labor from distinguished instructors, but then they would have to raise the price of admission to meet expenses. They could offer a lesser program and keep it cheap, or build it up and double the price. No good answers there.

That said, some of these failed conferences relied on faulty business models: They paid big money to get big-name speakers. They hosted their events at luxury resorts. They provided large amounts of unnecessary printed materials to the conferees. They failed to secure enough corporate sponsors. All of these factors drive up the cost of the event, and don't necessarily add value to the curriculum.

When agents and editors attend conferences, they WANT to meet you and read your work.  Many, like me, many actually prefer to make deals with authors they’ve met. THIS (and not a big speaking fee) is our motivation. But with shrinking enrollments, many potential speakers just don’t believe it will be worth their time. As they neglect the work on their desk to travel hundreds of miles, will it pay off?

That’s up to you. Bring your A game. We might surprise you.


  1. Correction, Steve. It was a squee, not a squeal. :) There's a difference. My friend and I are looking at a bigger conference this year. I find them fun and informative even if it seems like the class isn't for me or my genre. One can always learn.

  2. Great advice, Steve! Enjoyed your post.