Some go for the inspiration. Some, to improve their craft. Some go in hopes of finding an agent who will get them a six-figure advance and a three-book deal while others go in sheer desperation, not really knowing why.
Recently, I was one of many authors invited to speak at the 2018 Historical Novel Society Convention in Cumbernauld, Scotland. Old Salt Press authors Alaric Bond, Antoine Vanner and I were asked by author and conference co-organizer Margaret Skea to lead the breakout session, Getting it Right in Nautical Fiction. The writers who chose our presentation had lots of questions and comments, making it a very lively workshop. I connected with one writer in particular whose work-in-progress interests me and we exchanged contacts as well as research information. This sort of interaction is why I go to writers conferences, sometimes as a presenter but more often as an attendee.
In the past, when I went to conferences I attended every presentation, hung on the words of every speaker. After all, I wanted to get everything I could out of the experience. Things have changed for me over the years. Like my writer friends below (Alaric Bond, Antoine Vanner, David Davies and myself at the recent HNS conference in Scotland) I go for the social connections. To catch up with old friends and build relationships with new writers. To hear about what everyone else is working on and how they’re surviving. Building these friendships is both pleasurable and rewarding. Bit by bit it can further your writing career. It’s BD — business development for creatives.
The hottest spot, the place to get the most bang for your buck at the conference isn’t the auditorium where the famous author is on stage giving the key note address, nor in the booksellers room where the famous author is signing her latest bestseller. Instead, the hottest spot at any writers conference might be the morning coffee bar where you happen to run into a lesser known writer whose work you admire. It might be at the hotel bar or a local tavern where you talk and laugh with new friends and old while sampling the local brew. The tavern atmosphere (and the local brew) is important and you won’t find it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
I always come back from writing conferences newly inspired and reconnected with colleagues whose opinion I value. Writers who will give me feedback on a chapter I’m working on or a new series idea. Writers who will collaborate or commiserate with me. Writers who might blurb my book. And I will do the same for them.
Go ahead and sign up for a pitch session or two, it’s good practice. But sign up to interview THEM, not to hard sell your baby. I learned long ago that book deals aren’t made during a frantic ten-minute one-to-one with a stranger in a crowded room that sounds like a telephone call center. Introductions through other authors and well-targeted, killer query letters are more usually more productive when it comes to getting your foot in the door. It goes without saying you have a fresh, well-written, compelling manuscript. And resolve. You can’t underestimate the importance of resolve, it’s far more important than luck.
If you’re looking for an agent, here’s a hot tip for targeting the right one for your project : Browse the web for writers conferences in order to find out which agents will be there. Go to their websites and their twitter feeds to see what it is they’re looking for. If any of them seem like a fit for you and your novel, write a personalized query, perhaps mentioning the conferences they’ve recently attended. Your query is your pitch. By targeting agents in this way you save time and avoid collateral damage from the shotgun method of mass mailings. Every year there are many writers conferences. Check out New Pages to keep abreast of upcoming conferences. You don’t need to attend the conference to pitch the agents.
You don’t need an agent to self publish, but you do need freelance editors, beta readers, proof readers. You need a printer. You need other authors to blurb your books. You need a marketing plan. You need reviewers. Maybe you’ll meet them face-to-face at a writers conference.
If you can’t afford to go to a conference try forming your own. Find one other writer in your area. Meet at a local coffee house or tavern and commiserate over the local brew.