We’ve already talked about the AWP conference being held next week in Minneapolis. But I want to go over conferences generally as well. There are, in my mind, two reasons why as an author, you should be thinking about attending conferences. (I’m talking about conventions here, too, but the terms are often used interchangeably, and to simplify I will mostly use ‘conference.’)
First, there is the basic writers’ conference. AWP is one of these, though it is also an industry (academic) conference, so combines the two. There are many, many other writers’ conferences which feature the holy grail of the writing life – meetings with agents and editors. These will also feature some breakout sessions, but the main reason people go to these is for the chance to make their pitch.
There are many types of these, from genre-specific to those geared towards certain markets (such as Christian), and they are held all over the country. One of the largest is the DFW Writers Conference in Texas (of course, right?). I’ve never been to this one, but it’s on my radar. At conferences of these type, you may have keynote or other presentations from well-known authors. But that is not the draw. Again, it’s those pitch meetings. Very often you need to sign up ahead of time for those, and certain conferences will charge for them. You need to go armed with a formal proposal, and backed up by a completed manuscript. In rare cases I’ve heard of an author pitching an idea, but this is usually for nonfiction work and most often the book was design heavy. Almost always they had some written material to offer as a sample.
There is a subset of these, called a Pitch Conference, one of which is being held at The Loft next November. It’s two days and it’s not cheap (over $400!). But the whole focus of this is pitching (as the name implies). There are several of these held each year. Not everyone is a fan. If you see a conference offering this new-fangled idea of query feedback, perhaps you should jump on that.
There are some writers’ conferences that are juried. You must apply to be able to attend. One of these is Bread Loaf in Vermont. The prestige of getting accepted is gilded by the reputation of former students and the number of NYC publishing houses in attendance.
The other type of conference you may consider is a targeted fan conference. For instance, the mystery genre is replete with conferences – there’s Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, Crimelandia and many other smaller ones. At this type of conference, you as an author can go and meet other writers, but the convention itself is geared towards writers and fans. So there may be panels on craft, but there will also be opportunities for fans to meet authors. I think it’s a good idea to go to one before you attend as an author – though I wouldn’t pass it up if your publisher offers to send you, simply because you haven’t been yet. These types of conferences will often allow volunteer panelists, so you can be on a panel if you choose. That’s a great way to get exposure and meet other authors.
Many of these are genre-specific – romance, mystery and fantasy and science fiction being the most popular. The fantasy/science fiction realm has raised this to an art form, with the various Cons held all over now, the largest being the San Diego Comic Con. Not just comics any more, believe me. These feature all types of entertainment – books, but also TV, movies, comics, and gaming. You will often find art sales and lots of costumes at these. Most of them include breakout sessions, a marketplace, and lots of parties. The one I go to is held here in July each year, called CONvergence. It’s four days of sessions, parties and costumes, but it also features a whole hotel floor devoted to gaming, author signings, movies and more. I go as a fan and writer, and last year I was on three fan panels. This is the largest volunteer-run convention of its type. There are large and small Cons now all over the US.
The other type of convention that authors should know about is the many industry conventions held every year for booksellers. The biggest is Book Expo America (BEA), held mostly in New York City but traveling occasionally to LA or DC. This is for members of the American Booksellers Association, and the publishing companies come out to fill the trade show floor. This convention has grown beyond its initial audience, however. They have now added a digital component and a whole day conference for bloggers. There is also the affiliated BookCon, which is billed as “the ultimate celebration of books,” which seems more like the genre fan conferences I discuss above.
There are also smaller, regional conferences held in the areas of the regional booksellers associations. The one near me is called Heartland Fall Forum, and is the convention of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association (MiBA/GLiBA). These regional shows may be a better place to start, as BEA can be a bit overwhelming for the first-time attendee.
I would discourage any author from attending one of these bookseller conventions unless your publisher sends you. There is really nothing for you to do unless you are a featured author. You can go to sessions (but many of them are geared for booksellers, with focus on inventory control, etc) and you can walk the trade floor, but you’re not going to randomly meet many fans, unless you just happen to be in the right place at the right time. The parties at BEA are legend, but you have to know where they are. And I have seen authors walking around BEA with a sandwich board, asking a question in a panel thinly disguised as a pitch for their book, and it’s just sad. These are industry professionals, and they want to meet authors with credibility. But if your publisher offers to send you, run, do not walk, because there is no better way to meet hundreds of booksellers.
There are many other smaller conventions and book festivals going on all the time. Do a quick search to check out what’s near you, and see what your budget is for travel to any that are further away. Talk to other authors, find out what their experience has been. And lastly, for any conference or convention, have a plan. If you are going to a writers’ conference, pick your pitch meetings and sessions carefully. Decide what your focus will be. If you are going to a big convention, know what your goals are, and try to have a plan of attack. I love these things, and I’ve had wonderful experiences at them. But you don’t want to be the guy with the sandwich board.