Monday, December 20, 2010

Are You Getting Your Money's Worth At That Writers' Conference?

You better save big if
you want to attend
Conference X!
A couple of posts back, I wrote how I have an aversion to writers' conferences. And for good reason. A little over a year ago, I attended my last conference. It was one of those big splashy ones, where they promote the idea of getting on the right track and getting published. I'd qualified as a finalist in the annual contest, so, I thought, now's my big chance! There had to be an agent there who would definitely take me on. Here is a breakdown of my three and a half day journey at what I will refer to as Conference X.

  • Day One -- Arrive at airport, find my lost luggage, track down shuttle to hotel, check into said hotel. Slightly disappointed because, considering the price I'm paying for the room, one would imagine some updated technology, such as Wi-Fi and a flat screen TV. Perhaps the inside of said hotel room shouldn't look like a Motel 6? The conference is being held in the same hotel and they pushed the idea of 'discounted' room rates.
  • Day One, 2:00 P.M. -- Conference X begins. I learn how to choose sessions that are right for me, and since I don't write nonfiction, nor do I need to start a writing group, I skip the first session and don't attend one until 4:00 P.M., which involves pitching to agents and editors. Although I learn about the Elevator Pitch, the room is packed to suffocation. There has to be a fire code being broken, here, especially since I'm stuffed into the window sill in the back of the room. I can barely see the bobbing head of the guest speaker.
  • Day One, 5:30 P.M. -- Evening Break. I'm starving, and since there is only a dessert reception at 8:00 P.M., I head back to my room and order in a $20 hamburger and water.
  • Day One, 8:00 P.M. -- The evening's keynote speaker. He talks for about ten minutes and then tells the aspiring writers in the room to go to the bookstore next door where he'll be doing a book signing. Stunned silence falls on the room when he leaves the podium as we all think, "What the heck was that?" What the heck was that?
  • Day Two -- I get my continental breakfast with all the other early-riser writers. I meet a few of them and chat while waiting for the morning session to start. At 8:00 A.M. it's Conference X's annual business meeting and I sit in. But what good is this doing me since I don't even live in the state? So I chat for a while with an aspiring YA writer.
  • Day Two -- Agent dos and don'ts session. They basically knock down the self-published a notch or two and then proceed to regale the crowd with stories about the wildest queries and proposals they've received. Oh, and they let us know who pays for lunch when they get wined and dined by editors. That's about it.
  • Day Two -- Agent and Editor Forums -- There are about thirty agents/editors in all and I learn what each one represents. Only one truly represents what I write, so I'm basically up a creek. Except for one, all editors inform the aspiring writers that they don't take on new writers unless represented by an agent. That's about 99.9% of the group. "Why are the editors here, then?" one guy boldly asks. No one on the panel has an answer to that one. Seriously, no one.
  • Day Two, 2:30-6:00 P.M. -- Afternoon sessions. I pick one on the Romance genre (I don't write Romance, but nothing else looked overly helpful) where I learn every sub-genre of Romance and that Romance is hard to break into. Couldn't I have just Google-searched that one? During my session on screenwriting (which, in a roundabout way, informs all attendees that you have to live in California to even think about screenwriting), I have my agent meeting. I wait with about fifteen other hopefuls in what I call the 'Cattle Call' area. We are called in for our ten minute sessions. I sit in front of my agent who, from reading her bio earlier, has little to no interest in representing my genre. Her glassy eyes, frantic bounce to her knee, and unprovoked lack of interest annoys the heck out of me. After a couple of questions, I get, "Here's my email. Send me twenty pages." I'm ecstatic until I compare notes with other Conference X attendees. Every agent in there asks for twenty pages.
  • Day Two, 7:00 P.M. -- Another keynote speaker. Another shameless plug for the roomful of aspiring writers to buy his book.
  • Day Three -- After another continental breakfast, I head over to a session on effective historical research. Yeah, this is my kind of thing! It was interesting, but I only walked away having learned one new thing while a majority of the time the group spent arguing over the use of proper slang. Hmm . . . My second session deals with writing sex scenes. I could use a little help in that area. During this time I have my editor meeting, which ends up consisting of me and five other individuals all pitching in a roundtable-type format. Every one of us writes a different genre and our editor focuses primarily on Romance. It's a bust all around. Unlike with my agent, the editor never replied to my query.
  • Day Three -- Afternoon sessions. I vaguely remember these because I couldn't stop thinking about those query letters I needed to write when I got back home. I know that one dealt with writing the perfect pitch. That's nice, since I've already met with my agent and editor.
  • Day Three, 6:30 P.M. -- The awards ceremony. I'm pumped! The finalists get to eat first, there's wine at every table, we sit with the other finalists in our categories (although half of our table doesn't show), what could be better? I don't place in the top three. I straggle off to my hotel room and tearfully call my husband. After all, this was the whole reason why I came.
  • Day Four -- I have a plane to catch, but decide to sit in on the winners' readings. Very enlightening. There is some good stuff out there. I'm still sulking a bit, but in all I'm enjoying the stories. By pure luck, I snag a few precious minutes with a departing agent. She quickly tells me to query her and she'll go from there. I catch my plane and fly home.
You might be asking, what exactly did I get out of all of this? Well, for one, I became highly disenchanted by the supposed 'glamour' surrounding the writing world. Let's not fool ourselves. Those who make it outrageously big in the writing world are just a small raindrop in the mighty ocean. I struggled to connect with many of the writers around me, mainly because they seemed clueless when it came to the writing industry. One man sitting next to me even told me he'd lost his job and was only writing a novel to 'make the big bucks.' What? And nobody at the conference seemed about to dispel that myth to attendees. I spent close to $2,000 (flight, hotel, conference, etc.) to attend Conference X, but when I got into the thick of things, it was easy to see that they were in it to make a buck. I would never have spent that kind of money if I hadn't expected to, at least -- at the very least -- walk away with something worth my two grand. I expected the agents and editors to show a glimmer of interest, if not in my work, then at least in someones, but they were too busy dodging conference goers as if we carried the plague. At times, some of them were short with writers, as if how dare we approach them outside the allotted agent one-on-one times. Don't get me wrong. Agents and editors are only doing their jobs, just like anyone else, but if Conference X is any representation of the pool the majority of them come from, then why do they waste their time attending conferences in the first place? Do they receive free lodgings and food that, in the end, I suppose I'm paying for with that $600-$700 conference price tag? I'm not sure, but I don't really see the motivation behind most agents attending conferences, and even less so for editors.

Just out of curiosity, I checked back at the prices for Conference X this year. If you pay day of, at the door for the three and a half days, it's almost $800. Last year, when I attended, it was reported that sixty people paid the premium day-of price. If the same holds true this time around, that's a whopping $48,000 that Conference X is bringing in on just one day. Kind of makes you think, doesn't it? Especially when over 300 aspiring writers attend this specific conference. On top of that, they collect annual membership fees, contest entry fees, class fees, etc. Why, in a world where so many people are scraping together money just to make mortgage payments, and in an industry that considers reading fees to be scams, are these high conference fees allowed?

Here's my advice:

  • If you want to attend a conference, first, do your research. If your work is ready to pitch, and I mean really ready to pitch, then find an agent who will really work for you. If you get stuck with an agent/editor who doesn't even represent your genre (and soooo many conferences do this) then either back out of the conference or insist on who you have in mind. Anymore, I honestly believe the only thing I'm paying for when it comes to a conference is that meeting with an agent or editor. I've heard enough keynote spiels to last me a lifetime. So, you should ask yourself, "Do I really want to pay to meet that agent?"After all, what is the point of one-on-ones since most agents don't take you seriously until they see how you write your query? Some agents will actually say that to you straight up.
  • If your state/community has a good writing organization, join it. The local conferences where I live feature the exact same speakers that speak on a monthly basis at my local writing meetings. There is no reason to pay an almost $200 price tag to listen to someone I've either heard speak or has nothing new to add to what I write. I pay my $60 membership fee and I'm good for the whole year. It's the gift that keeps on giving all year long!
  • Many of these local writing groups offer specialized classes. They can be hit or miss depending on the class, but if you're really struggling with a roadblock in your writing, keep an eye out for one that would be helpful. I did, and it turned out great for the struggles in which I'd found myself.
  • Be careful when it comes to joining a national writing group or one located in a different state. Although enticing, what good will it do you if you can never attend a meeting? If there is a local branch, like with RWA or SCWBI, then by all means, join. But please attend the meetings. Otherwise it's kind of like getting a membership to a big box store. After a while you stop shopping there because who needs twenty pounds of spaghetti? If they don't have what you need, then don't join. If you do, put your membership to good use.
  • Have an active critique group to add to that writing group. I don't think I can stress this one more. No, I don't mean your sister, mother, husband, or attentive dog. You need to have writers, others like you actively writing and querying in the writing world. People who aren't so close to you that all they say is, "Nice story. I like it." Your group should be comfortable with what you write, open to suggestions, and easy to relate to. If you find yourself pulling teeth just to get your work read or to get a point across, then find another one.
  • Know your genre inside and out. Only you know what kind of agent you're looking for. Don't be caught flapping in the breeze when it comes to a one-on-one with an agent or editor.
Here's my question to all of you, dear readers:  Are conferences really worth your time and money? Why or why not?

Mary Mary

P.S. If you're interested in a different view concerning conferences, then be sure to read Sister Lorena's post next week!

❅  ❄  ❅  ❄  ❅  ❄  

To all our friends, family, and followers:



  1. Sorry your conference adventure didn't work out. Makes me doubly shy of the big national conferences.

    On the other hand, our local writer's group [Northern Colorado Writers] puts on a good conference. Your description makes me appreciate the director more.

  2. Very intersting Mary. I've heard pro's and cons for a while now, but you seemed to sum up how I think conferences work. I haven't been to a writing conference, but have had similar experiences at design and print conferences. It really agitates me when the session descriptions sound great, but the content misses the mark during the presentation.

  3. Great post, Sister and good use of humor!
    I must confess I have never attended a writer´s conference but this reminds me a lot of the library’s conferences I use to attend in my youth. The only difference is that instead of trying to land an agent, the purpose in those conferences was to land a job. But writing is a job after all.
    It is very sad that even at such professional meetings, they still pander to the “big bucks” myth.

  4. Kay -- I'm glad that you've found a great home with the Northern Colorado Writers. I wished I'd known more about the writing world when I lived in Colorado and then I would've had a good home! Just as long as you're staying connected then you will continue to progress in your writing.

    Kari -- I agree with you. The descriptions sounded great, but then you get into the session and it felt like so many of the speakers just wanted to talk about themselves as a published author. I know the compensation they receive is a free day at the conference, so you can be rest assured that the money the conference takes in isn't primarily going to pay the speakers, unless it's a big keynote speaker.

    Violante -- I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Writing is a job, as you say. People outside the writing world don't take us seriously, so one would expect that industry insiders would. Sadly enough, that's not the case most times. Many are in it to make a buck and to make themselves look good as a national writing association. Conferences that fall short need to be held accountable for the prices they're charging and what attendees are receiving in return.

    ♥ Mary Mary

  5. This conference sounds like a nightmare, Sister Mary! My experience with conferences has been the opposite (but the ones I've attended have been local.) I guess a writer should be cautious about going to out-of-state conferences without a specific agent in mind. If you are planning a trip to that city anyway, the conference would be an added bonus. But traveling for that sole purpose may not end up being cost-efficient for a pre-published writer (sounds better than amateur writer :)) Maybe an alternative solution, as Kay mentioned, is to just attend local conferences (or one that is close to your hometown). The annual conference they organize in my city is only $150 (one day, including lunch.) I don't think that is excessive when presented with the opportunity to network with industry professionals.

  6. I was going to one in jan but my plans caved. I'm really glad, because I'm sure I would have been disappointed. I don't want to pitch, I can equery to pitch, I want feedback and to learn to improve. I'm going to try and attend the local conference this spring.

  7. This was easily one of the best posts this blog has seen. Funny in that scathing, lemme-give-it-to-you-straight-or-not-at-all style typical of you, Mary Mary. Though I feel I've gotten a lot out of the three (local) conferences I've attended and plan to continue attending, I think this post effectively laid out the potential pitfalls every writer faces.

    Incidentally, I was freaking out a bit over your $20 hamburger until I read the $2000 total conference bill. Yowza. I'd be makin' tearful phone calls, too.

    Thanks for the anti-conference view. Looking forward to Lorena's pro-conference view next week.

    A very happy Christmas- and for all you naughty boys and girls huffing at the chunk of coal in your stocking this year, just remember where diamonds come from.

    Keep on keepin' on, out there.

  8. About three months into the first draft of my first novel, I attended a writer's conference in a neighboring state.

    I had delusions of grandeur back then. Saw myself speaking on the Today show. I just knew my idea was cutting edge and any agent would jump at the chance to publish my book. Boy did I get a rude awakening.

    Part of the conference fee included a five minute pitch to an agent. The minute I sat down with one (who shall not be named) her assistant clicked the stop watch. I quickly introduced myself and about halfway through the first sentence of my pitch she cut me off and said, "Not interested." She had just published a similar book (which I later learned was a futuristic story that had nothing in common with my book). Then she instructed me to send out query letters to agents and publishers.
    When I told her I was only a hundred pages into the first draft of my novel, she shrugged and said, "Just to put some feelers out."

    I will digress a second here. I later learned that I did EVERYTHING wrong. I pigeon holed my book by labeling it as a supernatural thriller, since it wasn't complete I pitched a novel that has since morphed into a different story.

    Needless to say, I slinked away and headed to my seminar, which, as luck would have it, happened to be about querying publishers. The panel was comprised of several agents and editors who repeatedly cautioned writers to submit their best work. I finally asked if it was okay to query "before" my WIP was completed. All The panelists answered with a resounding NO!!!! One of them explained that someone may like my idea. Then, when they requested a partial, or even a full, and learned my piece was incomplete, it would go straight to the slushpile. To make matters worse, I would have lost my chance with that agent or publisher.

    To this day I don't understand the reason that agent instructed me to submit my MS., before it was ready. In the whole scheme of things it doesn't matter either, because that experience taught me a valuable lesson. Humility.(: I also learned a lot about the publishing industry and some of the seminars helped to improve my craft. I'd attend the conference again.

    Also, FWIW, when I returned home I did a lot of soul searching about my novel. I realized if I had taken on the project for the sole purpose of being published, then I was in the wrong business. I decided to walk away. Then the strangest thing happened. About two weeks later, I discovered that I missed the act of writing itself. I missed my characters and the world I'd created. Now, I write because there is nothing else I'd rather do. Although publication would validate me as an author, and provide some sort of pay for my efforts, it is not the reason I write.

    I've been working on my novel for about a year and a half and am only on the fourth chapter of my second draft. I'm no longer in a hurry to put myself out there, and I no longer harbor the delusion that I will someday be the next Dean Koontz. I want to write a cogent, interesting story. Of course someday I will query my work, but if it isn't picked up, then I'll self publish and move onto the next story. Have a merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.

  9. Lorena -- In retrospect, of course this conference was a nightmare! I thought I'd feel better about where I was in my writing when I left, but I just felt taken. Local conferences aren't quite as bad (except, Conference X is national and local at the same time) but I must say I'm unimpressed with what many of the local conferences have to offer. The ones around here usually focus on specific genres that rarely include what I write and they tend to bring back many of the same agents. To me, that's not really getting your money's worth. At the same time, I see your side of things.

    Chris -- Nice of you to drop by! With conferences, I say start out small. Go to your local one and see where that takes you. Just do your research about every agent who will be there beforehand. You don't want to get stuck with one who will have no interest in your work.

    Aurora -- Thanks for your kind comments. I'm glad you enjoy my style. I don't like to BS the audience. I guess I write it as I see it. I'm also looking forward to Lorena's POV post. Bring it on, Sister Lorena! Ha! Just joking! I know it will be great!

    Merry Christmas to you, too!

  10. Andrea -- I love hearing other writers' stories! I think it's great that there are forums where we can share what we go through. I definitely hear you on the delusions of grandeur! It's surprising how many conference attendees arrive believing they are the next best thing, and yes, I'm one of those. We should write because we love it so much we can't seem to let that story or those characters go, but at the same time, if we want this to be a career then we need to focus it in that direction at some point in our creative process. I see my writing as a career and I want it to be exactly that. I want it to be successful and I'm going to do all I can to make it so.

    As to the agent who told you to waste queries before your work is even ready, that steams me. That was a very irresponsible thing for her to say. If agents want us to take writing seriously then they need to be up front about what we'll encounter and not tell us to blindly query before we are ready. I know most agents would highly disagree with her, as you stated, and that's good. But there are the few you have to watch out for . . .

    Thanks for your comment!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  11. This experience sounds completely HIDEOUS! It does sound like quality (and cost) of conferences varies widely. Thanks for helping us steer clear of the kind we definitely don't want to attend...

    Andrea's comment raised an interesting point. When I started 'seriously' writing, I had several people tell me I should query with only the first three chapters completed, and I didn't take their advice (having read all the counter advice on the internet).

    Having said that, people do get book deals based on partials - but they're usually not complete 'unknowns' without connections. Unfortunately those of us who are new to the game have to prove we can write a whole novel before anyone will take us seriously...

  12. I agree with you, Adina. That manuscript has to be finished before you can even think about querying. It may have been a different story fifteen or twenty years ago, but today, you have to have a finished product.


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