Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Writers' Conferences: Are they worth it?

I’ve been doing a lot of pondering recently on whether or not writers’ conferences are worth my time...and authors’ time. This pondering was brought on by the terrible experience I recently had in “volunteering” myself as a speaker at the SDSU Writer’s Conference next year. After chasing the woman who runs it, Diane Dunaway, with phone calls and emails, I finally received an invitation to speak and a request for quite a bit more information. Now, I spoke at this conference about a decade or so ago and know that it pulls a decent number of editors from New York. Many of these are friends and acquaintances, so obviously it would be nice to be there and spend time with them.

More importantly, though, San Diego is not a publishing Mecca in any sense of the word. And I’d like to change that. By speaking at the conference, I thought I would help to grow the San Diego publishing community. I thought for sure that I would become a regular attendee at the conference, speaking year after year. I have even thought that San Diego would be an excellent location for a new “publishing course,” such as Columbia and NYU offer. Why should students have to fly all the way east to learn about publishing? And San Diego is a wonderful destination for those New York editors sick of the humidity every summer. A trip out here with a bit of vacation thrown in would be a treat.

Alas, after jumping through many a hoop for Ms. Dunaway, after agreeing that I didn’t even need a hotel room (though, really, who wants to drive forty minutes back and forth each day for a conference, when a room is such an inexpensive courtesy), and after writing up a biography and interest list for her use, I received an email “uninviting” me, with the excuse that with so many attendees from “prior years” coming, she did not have room for anyone “new” (even though I’m not “new”). Needless to say, I found this quite rude and not business-like and, as I said, got me pondering about the benefits of writers’ conferences.

And, truthfully, other than for the social aspects, I think most writers’ conferences are a waste of time. I’d say about ninety-nine percent of the time. And the biggest waste of time at any conference is the “one-on-one” meetings with agents and editors for which many conferences actually charge extra. Please, save your money and your time and do not sign up for one of these.

Your talent is in writing. So what does sitting down with an editor or agent and verbally pitching them accomplish? Nine out of ten agents or editors will say, “Send me three sample chapters” or “Send me your proposal.” One editor once told me that she asks them to write the name of the conference on the envelope. The impression, of course, is that she wants to prioritize those submissions. In reality, she explained, it lets her set them aside in a big pile to reject in four or six weeks. In short, the positive feedback you receive during a one-on-one is more likely to be a courtesy than genuine. Unless the agent or editor has read something you’ve written, a request for material based on a verbal pitch has no more chance of being favorably received than if you simply spent forty-one cents and sent in a query letter, instead of the $50 or $100 or $150 extra spent to get the one-on-one meeting.

Once I asked Michael Seidman, long a publishing fixture and well-known mystery editor, how many writers he had found at writers’ conferences. He said, “In twenty-one years of going to conferences, three.

On the flip side, I did hear about one agent who went to the Denver writers’ conference and left having signed up four of the five members of the local romance writing group. Keep that in mind...the writing group part.

In all my years at conferences, I have yet to find a client. I enjoy attending them because I always try to take the opportunity to educate authors. For example, I have been the luncheon speaker at a mystery conference and discussed the state of the market. At this luncheon, I asked everyone in the room who had bought a mystery novel in the last month to raise their hand. In an audience of about 150 writers, about five hands went up. If mystery writers don’t buy and read mysteries, should writers be surprised that it is difficult to get one published?

At another conference, I made myself a pledge: I would not ask for material unless I truly thought it promising. Author after author came to my table and pitched their novel or nonfiction project. Each had either a sample query letter or a few sample pages that I read. And to each one, I told exactly why I would reject it and did not ask for material. Most, but not all, left the table quite disappointed, even hostile. Others appreciated the feedback. Later I learned from the conference director that I had earned a bit of a reputation as a hard-ass, but she said, “It’s good that someone here is being honest with them and not asking for a sample chapter of everything.” She invited me back the next year.

What’s worthwhile at a conference? Well, for starters, some do offer actual classes or seminars and those can be worthwhile. But do you need a one-hour class on writing a query letter? There’s about as good an article on it as you can find at my website, and that appeared as a chapter in an entire book about writing query letters. Get the article for free and the book at the library. There, I just saved you at least $350.

The best seminar I attended at a conference required everyone to bring twenty copies of the first eight pages of their novel. We all read those eight pages and everyone in the room commented on what worked or didn’t work. Granted, this is a long way from the MFA in Creative Writing classes at Columbia, but it did offer feedback from one pro and eighteen writing “peers.” But why invest in a two-hour seminar at a conference when you can find a local writing group to join and get similar feedback? Many are created by writing instructors at local colleges. Not quite an editor from Knopf, but certainly a group that lets you read and refine your work over several weeks or all year is preferable to a short seminar. And, as I mentioned above, sometimes being in one helps you get an agent.

I have also spoken extensively at conferences on what goes into a publishing contract. There are authors who get contracts without agents and an educated author has a better chance of improving that contract. Plus an educated client will be a better one with whom I can work.

Alas, though, I will not be speaking at the SDSU Writers' Conference. I did offer Becky Ryan, the Director of Continuing Education at SDSU, the opportunity to hire me to run the conference next year, if she wants someone wired into the real publishing world who knows how to run a conference in a business-like manner. I won’t hold my breathe waiting for the call, but if I do hear from her, I’ll be sure to let you know.



Christa M. Miller said...

Thanks for this. As a writer with limited funds, I've often felt guilty that I don't attend conferences. Some authors appear to believe that if my career were that important, I would sacrifice groceries to attend!

At some point I do plan to, but mainly to meet other writers I've met on blogs and elsewhere on the net - not as a career move necessarily. I'd rather have some fun than walk around with a grim set on my face because it's "work."

Anonymous said...

Whoa, you've really just saved me about $250 I don't have. I've been to one conference, but, as the youngest person there, I had no idea what I was doing and felt rather helpless surrounded by snowbirds. There were some nice introductions to the querying process, but nothing I couldn't have found online. I now live with the guilt of making my parents pay for that day.

You're right. Writers should focus their attention on honing their pen. I can write, but when it comes to verbal conversation I'd fail before I even spoke. (I freeze--it bites.)

And though I wasn't at your convention, THANK YOU for being honest with my fellow writers. I can't stand it when people sugar-coat their critiques to me. It's best not to delude someone into taking a bigger fall than they have to.

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