Ever finished a conference season feeling you didn’t get much value for your money? Or are you still waiting to go to your first writers’ conference, paralyzed by the choices out there or worried about the cost? Here are some practical tips to help you approach next year’s conferences in great shape.
Decide on your needs
It’s best to approach conference season in light of your unique needs. Do you need to soak up advice about the writing craft? Do you want to learn about self-publishing? Do you want to pitch a story to agents? Do you want to make connections within your genre? Take a few minutes and write down your goals for next year. Then write down the one thing you’d like to achieve to make that year shine for you.
Make a shortlist
Don’t just focus on that conference your friend always goes to and which sounds cool. Search on “writers conference” and research what’s out there, then make a shortlist of conferences that might fit your needs and research some more. Make a spreadsheet to record the vital stats of each conference on your list—where it’s to be held, how much it costs, and what kind of sessions, workshops, classes or opportunities it offered this year (because next year’s offerings won’t be publicized until quite near the conference date).
Plan your time
When making your shortlist, note the dates of those conferences and compare them with your work and home calendars. Think about graduations, house moves, milestone events for family members, and work commitments for you and anyone else who’s going to be needed at home while you’re away. You might even need to plan around medical needs—if you know you’re heading for a knee replacement, get it done well before the conference.
Calculate the cost
There’s nothing worse than drawing near to the date of a conference and then realizing it’s going to make a much bigger hole in your bank account than you’d thought. Especially since conference fees are often non-refundable past a certain date, as the conference organizers have to make financial commitments based on the fees they’ve received. So be smart—once you’ve figured out one to three hot contenders for your time and money, calculate just how much money that’s going to be. You’ll be paying for the conference fee, a hotel stay, possibly meals (check this), travel to and from the conference, a new outfit or two and about $200 in incidental expenses. Think of the conference as a working vacation in an expensive resort, and you’ll get the picture.
If you’re not going to be able to afford the total cost of the conference, don’t sign up. Don’t just assume the money will be there when you need it. Strategize alternatives—could you forgo a vacation to pay for the conference (negotiate this with your spouse if you have one)? Could you go to the cheaper local conference instead? Could you stay with a friend instead of at the hotel, or share a hotel room? Does the conference award scholarships, and how do you apply?
Be careful if you’re asked to be on a panel or help present a workshop at a conference, as many conferences expect presenters to work for nothing or next to nothing, to pay for their hotel room and travel, etc. If finances are an issue, make sure you know what the deal is before you say yes. Dropping out later because you’ve realized you can’t afford the trip will be awkward all round.
If you’ve ascertained you can afford your target conference, sign up as early as you can. The early bird usually gets lower fees, the most favorable hotel rate, and guaranteed participation in events that fill up fast. Make a note of the date past which there’s no refund for cancellations, and set a reminder to review your schedule before the no-refund date to make sure nothing new has cropped up at work or at home.
Want to pitch? Research your agents
If you’re signing up for a conference because you have a manuscript to pitch to an agent or publisher, or think you’ll have one ready by the conference date, research those industry professionals meticulously before you sign up. You might only get one or two pitch sessions, so make sure you’re pitching to the very best fit you can find. And if you draw near the conference date and realize your manuscript won’t be ready after all, contact the organizers and release your spots to someone else. Don’t pitch an incomplete manuscript.
If you find these suggestions helpful, let us know in the comments. I have a few more for you—and perhaps Katharine will let me come back again!
Jane Steen was born in England and, despite having spent more years out of the British Isles than in, still has a British accent according to just about every American she meets.
Around the edges of her professional occupations and raising children, she stuck her nose in a book at every available opportunity and at one time seemed on course to become the proverbial eternal student. Common sense prevailed, though, and eventually she had the bright idea of putting her passion for books together with her love of business and writing to become a self-published author.
Jane has lived in three countries and is currently to be found in the Chicago suburbs with her long-suffering husband and two adult daughters. Her book, House of Closed Doors can be found here.