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To Attend or Not To Attend the Conference? That Is the Question (for struggling writers)

Nice view from the elevator at RT.

Recently, several authors began discussing writer conferences in the comments section on a blog. Two opposing groups soon formed: those who sang the praises of conferences and those who thought conferences were a waste of money and time spent writing new books.

The most interesting takeaway about this discussion was how romance authors fell in the former group with other authors (horror, sci-fi, literary) joining the latter.

In May, I attended my first readers’ conference, Romantic Times, known as RT—a whirlwind event of epic marketing and learning opportunities for writers and a time for readers to meet kindred spirits and their favorite authors. For years, I considered attending RT and decided to save my pennies until after my first book came out. You get a lot of swag for your buck at conferences like RT, but is it worth it?

It depends. As an author, if you’re comparing in-coming dollars to
dollars being spent, then no. If you see it as an opportunity to
network, engage new readers, and learn more about the industry, then it’s a
tax-deductible investment that’s guaranteed to give you future returns.

Let’s breakdown the costs I incurred for RT to give you an idea of how much attending a large conference like this one can set you back:

RT convention full attendance fee: $434.00 (received $50 off for presenting a workshop)
Flight to New Orleans: Free (used points but would’ve cost ~$450)
Hotel: $447.50 (5 nights, shared cost with roommate)
ODCs: $525.00 (food, airport shuttles, drinks with friends)
Author promo materials: $125.00

Grand Total: $1,481.50

For the majority of authors, those who aren’t best-sellers backed by huge publishers, these expenses come directly out of their pockets. My author promo materials were minimal. Other authors sponsored RT events and parties, paid for advertising in the goodie bags or with promotional posters, or put out banner stands and gave away high-end swag at the book fair. The expense can easily be many times higher than what I spent.

Again, is it worth it?

With so many writing conferences—large and small, reader focused and author focused, local and  across the country—I decided to poll my fellow Washington Romance Writers (WRW) to get their take on conferences, since romance authors seemed to find value in conferences more than other genre writers. Overall, their comments mirrored why I believed attending conferences are worth the money.

  • Learning the Craft and Industry Updates
    Conferences can offer long days chocked full of panels on craft, marketing, and the writing business. It can send your brain into overload if you don’t pace yourself, but for unpublished writers and published alike, there is always something to learn.Mystery and romance author, Maggie Toussaint, said that attending the WRW Retreat, RWA Nationals, Sleuthfest, and Malice Domestic conferences along with intensive one-day writing workshops helped “elevate her craft.”Self-proclaimed “baby author” Taylor Reynolds felt conferences were invaluable for information on “ALL aspects of publishing.” Right now, she mostly attends workshops focused on craft.Author Kerri Carpenter sees value in conferences for unpublished and published authors. With the changes in the industry, Kerri believes that it doesn’t matter if an author has 1 or 100 published books, there is always something to learn. She points to several contemporary romance workshops she attended at an RWA conference where she kept noticing one of her favorite authors Kristan Higgins, a multi-published, award-winning writer, diligently taking notes about craft. Seeing such a seasoned writer working to improve on her already successful career made Kerri respect Kistan Higgins more.

    Miguelina Perez, author of the new release The Vicar’s Deadly Sin, agrees with Kerri: “If you are an experienced author and a famous one at that, I still consider this an important aspect of the author’s life in that they stay fresh with whatever new writing techniques/software, etc., coming out.”

    No matter how well your books sell, there is always room to grow and improve on your craft.

  • Making and Achieving Goals
    Celebrating with author Kate Johnson after our fun and successful Whedon writing workshop.

    Kate Johnson’s new book, Impossible Things, released before the RT conference. Her publisher, Choc Lit, was attending RT and wanted Kate to pitch a panel to gain more exposure. With our shared love of all things Joss Whedon, Kate asked if I wanted to co-present with her, and we brainstormed on a Whedonesque concept, which she pitched to RT. Feeling brave, I reached out to WRW and gathered a group of indie authors to pitch another panel on what writers experience at different phases of self-publishing (What to Expect When Expecting Your First or Fiftieth Indie Book). Both panels were accepted—a total shock to me, a newbie author and presenter–and their acceptance of my panels fulfilled a career goal. Then I was accepted at the book fair, fulfilling another goal to do an author signing. This book signing was a bonus and made the conference costs worth it to me. Not only would I give back to the writing community with my workshops, but I would gain exposure to new readers through my panels and signing.

    Author and 2010 Golden Heart Finalist Keely Thrall sets primary, business-related goals for each conference she attends such as setting up two to three agent/editor pitches, getting submission requests, learning about self-publishing, and gleaning “real time” information about the writing industry. Sticking to her mission, Keely met her conference goals this year and secured requests for her manuscript and learned enough to create a business plan when she returned home.

  • Networking with Industry Professionals and Readers
    Getting ready for my first book signing.

    I sold three books at RT’s book fair. Although I’m not giving E.L. James a run for her millions, I was proud of those books sales, because it showed the power of networking. One was a reader I sat next to during dinner. We bonded over our love of Jane Austen. Another was an attendee of my Joss Whedon workshop. In fact, the two authors (Sorcha Black and Katherine Bone) flanking me during the signing made the day even better. Katherine Bone chatted me up to her friend who bought my book. Besides making new friends with two fabulous writers, I learned more about their genre and their books (Katherine writes sexy pirate romances and Sorcha fantasy/erotica). Then I ran into Riley Darkes of Savvy Authors when we were trying to find the Walgreens—she was battling a cold and I wanted a soda and snacks that didn’t cost a mint. We kept in touch, and she asked me to help with a workshop and promo for Savvy Authors. You never know where the opportunities will present themselves. I made friends from Canada with new writers who shared their inspiring stories with me and now we support each other online. Standing in line at registration, I shared Joss Whedon stories with Suzanne Brockmann and spoke with a rep from Books-A-Million. I’ve met representatives from the ebook departmens of iTunes and Amazon and learned about upcoming industry changes. Bloggers, librarians, indie book sellers, and book reviewers attend these conferences, making it a great way to get your book to them for a review or to stock on their shelves.

    Karna Small Bodman, bestselling thriller author, believes in the value of conferences and the variety of networking opportunities. During a pitch session at the New Jersey RWA chapter conference, Karna met her editor, who would go on to buy Karna’s next two books based on a synopsis. One of Karna’s favorite conferences is Thrillerfest hosted by the International Thriller Writers. The top 40-50 agents and editors attend Thrillerfest where bestselling authors give workshops, keynotes, and book signings. Networking at Thrillerfest, Karna met well-known, respected authors who gave helpful career advice and provided blurbs for her books—a priceless endorsement.

    Maggie Toussaint believes that both fan and writer conferences are essential for career development. She doesn’t measure success by immediate book sales at conferences, but believes it is about relationship building and solidifying fan and peer bases. That’s why she budgets for at least two conferences a year.


Having fun at Heather Graham’s Masquerade Ball
with authors Kate Johnson, Debra Dunbar,
and Meredith Bond.

Overall, everyone interviewed for this blog felt the conference costs were worth the benefits: manuscript requests and book sales, making new friends (other writers who understand and support you), and marketing opportunities. The trick is to be proactive in making those connections with other attendees.

I met author Debra Dunbar at the WRW Retreat. We both write paranormal romances with a humorous tone so she invited me to contribute to a short story anthology being released in December. I was honored by this opportunity, which may never have transpired if we hadn’t spoken at the Retreat.  An ad in a magazine or on a blog will never be as memorable as a face-to-face meeting over a conference meal, workshop, or at a book signing. Not to mention the opportunity to let loose and enjoy publisher and event parties. At RT, we enjoyed a pub crawl with cover models, a Mardi Gras party, and lots of great New Orleans food.

Taylor Reynolds noted that location is one of her key factors in attending a conference. If two conferences offer similar workshops and networking opportunities and one is in Iowa and the other in Florida, she’ll choose the latter. Iowa is very lovely, but Florida has beaches, which will come in handy when winding down from conference mania.

And, as the authors constantly reminded me, it’s all tax deductible.

Here’s a list of fan and writer conferences recommended to me by readers and authors:

Any suggestions on conferences you enjoy? Have you felt the conference experience is worth the price?

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