A writing conference can open the door to an exciting career as a published author. It can also be a waste of both time and money. I didn’t attend any writing conferences until I was invited to them as a guest speaker. However, I can see the value in writing conferences if you’re prepared and have the right mindset.
There are two primary reasons that people attend writing conferences. The first is to become better writers. The second is to pitch manuscripts to literary agents and editors in the hopes of getting published. Additional reasons to attend include feedback, industry news, and networking.
There are several factors you’ll want to consider before you register to attend a writing conference. The purpose of this article is to help you make the right decision for you.
7 Reasons to Attend a Writing Conference
It didn’t take long to come up with a list of seven reasons that a writing conference would be a valuable experience for an unpublished author. I’ve attended conferences in Arizona, Minnesota, and South Carolina, and I learned quite a bit at each, even though I already had an agent and book deals with two different publishers.
1) Become a Better Writer
Most people ask me how to get published. Very rarely am I asked how to write a book that is worth publishing. It’s an important distinction, because there is a lot of competition to gain the attention of agents, let alone to get a book deal from a publisher.
In order to stand out, your manuscript needs to grab and hold the attention of your readers, create an emotional connection with them, and it needs to show that you have technical skills as a writer.
My first book was published by Scholastic’s Orchard Books in 2006, and yet I learn something new about the craft of writing just about every day. A writing conference can be one of the sources that you use to improve as well.
Writing Conference General Session
General Sessions often feature panels of agents and editors sharing exactly what they are looking for in a manuscript. You’ll also typically hear from at least one bestselling author with impressive sales and a bit of name recognition. That author will share her story, but she’ll also offer some tips on writing.
Writing Conference Workshops
The bulk of learning the craft of writing will come in the form or workshops and breakouts. Some conferences have special workshops that you can attend before or after the main conference.
They typically cost a bit more money, but will be anywhere from a few hours to a full day of intensive, interactive guidance from either a published author, a literary agent, or an editor.
However, if you are on a budget, most conferences also feature workshops and breakouts that come included with your registration. Whether you select one based on the presenter or the subject, you won’t go wrong.
2) Gain Industry Insights
I feel a bit sorry for writers who feel that learning the business side of publishing somehow diminishes their art.
There’s no doubt that focusing on the craft of writing is the best way to get your first publishing deal, but few artists can sustain long careers without some level of knowledge about the industry.
Knowledge of demographics (the people who are buying your books), industry trends, the financial health of everyone from online retailers to national chains to independent bookstores, and even information like average sales for books similar to yours, and the latest trends in advances from publishers is all important.
If a conference you attend offers industry insights from a NPD Group analyst, Publishers Weekly editor, or even publishing executives or literary agents with clout, go early and sit in the front row with a notepad and paper (or a digital device of your choosing) and take diligent notes.
When you ownership of understanding what’s happening in the publishing industry, you improve your chances at making good career decisions.
3) Pitching Literary Agents and Editors
I put this one as third on the list, but who’s kidding? The number one reason (by a wide margin) that most people attend a writing conference is to directly pitch literary agents and editors. I won’t lie. If I was still an unpublished author, it’s exactly why I would attend.
This opportunity alone could be worth the price of admission. I mean, you get access to the very gatekeepers who could change your fortunes simply by showing interest in your story. Worst case scenario, they don’t think your story is a good fit for them. Okay, great. That’s not the end of the world.
But unlike a query letter where most literary agents and editors at smaller publishing houses pass on your pitch without so much as a rejection letter, there’s a good chance those same literary agents and editors are going to give your direct feedback when you’re sitting across from them—especially because they know you’ve invested a lot of time and money to be there.
Of course, they’re also getting paid and their feedback is part of the value you receive for attending.
4) Networking with Literary Agents and Editors
Are you more willing to buy something from a stranger who rings your doorbell or when you get a recommendation from a friend or family member? Relationships make a huge difference in sales, and goes for pitching literary agents.
Think about it. Do you think literary agents pay closer attention to an unpublished author who sent them an unsolicited query letter or one who was recommended by a current client or even a friend?
Attending a writing conference is your opportunity to build relationships with literary agents and editors who are actively seeking new talent. You’ll see them on stage during a keynote presentation, leading workshops, and in pitch sessions.
More than likely they’ll also be at networking events like happy hour, and they have to eat at some point, so they’ll probably grab a meal at or near where the conference is taking place.
Study the names of agents and editors before the event. Most will have promotional pictures on the conference website. If the opportunity presents itself, introduce yourself.
And if you want to improve your chances of being remembered, do a little research and bring up something you admire about them (a client they represent or a book they’ve published), or something you both might share (from the same state, attended the same college, had the same favorite book as kids).
Don’t be shy. After all, they fully expect enthusiastic writers to approach them throughout the conference. Just read the situation like any other social interaction. Try not to interrupt them if they’re already in a conversation. Don’t come on too hard too fast. And be friendly. It’s that easy.
5) Build a Peer Network
The life of an author can be lonely. That’s why building a peer network is so important. You need people you can call, text, or email when you’re feeling isolate—people who understand what you’re going through. Besides, it never hurts to have qualified feedback on your manuscript from someone you can trust.
One aspect that few consider when it comes to peer networking is that people from the conference are not only going to find literary representation, they’re going to get published.
If you have a relationship with one of those people—and they think you’re talented—there’s a good chance she’ll introduce you to her agent one day. Then, when you get an agent, you can do the same for others.
The hard truth about the publishing industry is that it’s filled with rejection. I sent out 300 query letters and I got 270 rejection letters. Of the 30 agents who asked to review the manuscript, I only had serious interest from four or five.
One of them wouldn’t give me a commitment until there were major revisions to the script, and even then, she wanted me to know that there were no promises even if I did apply her notes.
I finally signed with an agent, but when she went to auction with my first book there were only three bidders.
Once it was published, the School Library Journal gave it a less than encouraging review. Okay, it was optioned as a movie. Twice. But it never got made.
Look, you’re going to face a lot of rejection along the way.
Having family and friends who are involved in your life will help make a difference.
So will having peers who are in the trenches with you—people who truly know what it’s like to finally get an agent who wants to see your manuscript, only to hear back a few days later that it just wasn’t for him. It crushes your soul!
You can find peers who understand you at a writing conference.
7) Inspiration & Ideas
Writing conferences are filled with inspiration and ideas that can spur you on to great things. Think about it. You’re hearing stories from other writers who have broken through and found real success as professional authors. If they can do it, why can’t you?
You might also find yourself inspired by the more technical side of writing. Maybe you learned how to be more efficient or how to type faster.
There could be a breakout session about making an immediate emotional connection with reader or even something technical like a new app for fiction writers that promises to revolutionize the way we write stories.
You’re certain to find plenty of inspiration and new ideas at any writing conference.
7 Reasons You Shouldn’t Attend a Writing Conference
Although attending a writing conference can be a very positive experience, there are also valid reasons to avoid writing conferences. The intention of this list is to ensure that your expectations are aligned with likely outcomes.
The last thing you want to do is invest in an experience and the be so disappointed that you decide to give up your attempts to get published.
1) It Costs More than You Can Afford
Unless we’re talking about critical medical care, I can’t think of many things that are worth going into debt.
Trust me. I fell in the trap and my wife and I are still trying to dig out of some poor decisions that we’ve made with money. It adds stress and complication to your life, and that’s the last thing any of us need.
It adds stress and complication to your life, and that’s the last thing any of us need.
Investing in a writing conference is no different.
For instance, Writer’s Digest has over 40 video courses as part of their University that features online boot camps and conferences. Each one ranges from $147 to $799.
That isn’t cheap by any stretch so you want to make sure that you not only get value for the investment, but that the expense won’t add undue stress to your life.
The Affordability of WriteOnCon
WriteOnCon is online as well, but it has a slightly different business model. They offer a $30 monthly subscription for access to all of their content, and there is no minimum.
So, if you can get what you want in 30 days, you only spend $30. It’s also an incredible event with content targeted specifically to middle grade and young adult writers (I was part of the faculty for their inaugural conference thanks to an invite from Shannon Messenger).
The Real Expense to Attend SFWC
The San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC) costs $745 and if you would like to attend a “Speed Dating” session with agents from San Francisco and New York City there is an extra $75 charge.
Each pitch is 3 minutes but the entire session is only 51 minutes and there is no guarantee to the number of agents you’ll get to talk to.
You can bet that overzealous attendees will ignore the three-minute time limit, so that means you may end up getting penalized if you follow the rules.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great conference with a stellar presentation.
But let’s say you go to SFWC, you sign up for the Speed Dating, and you want to attend all four days… but you live far enough away that you need to get a hotel room. If you haven’t lined up a roommate, you’re likely adding somewhere between $600-$1000 (on the cheap side) to the event.
Throw in food, gas, and parking, you’re probably adding another $300-$400. Are you flying there? Okay, so the gas money can pay for the rides to and from the airport, but you have to consider a plane ticket.
That’s at least $250 roundtrip unless you get lucky and book one of those $59 Southwest one-way deals. Now we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $1700-$2,500.
Manage Your Expectations to Define the Value of a Writing Conference
If you can afford to invest that kind of money and you won’t be upset if you don’t end up signing with an agent or getting a publishing deal, then go for it. There is a lot you can learn a writing conference like SFWC.
But if it that investment is going to stretch you, my recommendation is to hold off. Put a little cash away each paycheck, and even if it takes a year or two, don’t go into debt for a writer’s conference.
2) Your Manuscript Isn’t Ready to Pitch
Fair or not, you only get one shot. That means before you pitch any agents or editors at a writing conference—or even through an unsolicited query—if it gets rejected, you won’t get to fix it and resubmit. That’s why you need to make sure that you’d be willing to publish it as is.
I’m not talking about fixing typos and bad punctuation, either. That’s a given. Your story needs to be rock solid.
That means your characters come to life and each scene should be so compelling that a reader would be willing to skip school just to see what happens next.
Once you’re confident that the story is as good as it will ever get, it’s time to attend a writing conference. If you have doubts, wait.
By the way, I’m not talking about the voice of doubt in your head that you’ll struggle with until the day you die.
I’m talking about the nagging feeling that you should have added more tension to a scene, or tied up some loose ends in the plot. Or that you rushed the ending or somehow your protagonist was saved instead of having done the work to save herself.
Fix that stuff first. Then pitch your manuscript.
3) There Are No Literary Agents or Editors Who Work with Middle Grade Authors
There is a part of me that believes literary agents are willing to represent any book as long as they think it has a viable shot at big sales numbers.
But when it comes to investing real money to pitch an agent or an editor at a writing conference, real money is involved. So, I wouldn’t risk it.
The best way to protect your investment is to make sure the agents in attendance represent the type of manuscript you’re written. That applies to editors as well. Do their publishers release books that align with yours?
I would encourage you to research each agent at the conference. If you see there are similarities between what you’ve written and the books they’ve sold, that’s a great sign.
But if most of the agents in attendance prefer middle grade fiction that’s more literary and you write sweeping fantasy adventures like Rick Riordan, you may want to look for a different conference.
4) You Expect to Leave the Conference with a Literary Agent or a Book Deal
The last thing I want to do is discourage you, but life as an author is filled with rejection. You have to believe in yourself and your story when nobody else does—and you need to remember this.
All you need is one agent and one editor at one publishing company to love your manuscript.
The odds of an agent offering to represent you at a conference aren’t very good. They’re even worse if you expect to get a publishing deal.
The best you should hope for is that someone will ask to review your manuscript after the conference. Your realistic expectation should be that you want feedback from the pros on whether or not your story is viable.
On the other hand, agents and editors don’t just attend writing conferences for the paycheck. They genuinely are on the search for new talent and want nothing more than to find the next bestselling middle grade author. And it happens.
Just know that investing in a writing conference doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up with literary representation or a book deal.
5) You Are Easily Discouraged by Feedback
I nearly walked away from my writing career because of negative feedback. I can’t think of many things that will crush your soul more than snarky reviews.
It doesn’t matter if they come from Kirkus or some disgruntled writer with an unpublished manuscript who eviscerates you out of envy.
To make matters worse, I can be so sensitive that neutral feedback from a review company sends me into a tailspin. When it comes to consumer reviews, I’m crushed by anything under four stars.
Never mind that some of the best-selling books in history average less than four stars despite having over ten thousand reviews.
My nature is to crave universal love and adoration, but age has brought wisdom and I finally realize that I don’t have to be enslaved to that ridiculous standard. All I need to do is find my niche and write for that audience. If everyone else hates it, oh well.
So, if you’re sensitive and are easily discouraged by feedback, you may want to skip writing conferences.
There’s a very good chance you’re going to face rejection by agents and editors, and unlike query letters (which often go unanswered) you may hear why they’re rejecting your pitch.
Remember four things:
- Your value as a human being is not tied to your success as a writer
- When you get rejected, its simply one person’s opinion—and her opinion is no more valid than yours
- You can get rejected by 299 agents but if just one is willing to represent you, that’s all you need!
- The most successful authors in the world were rejected, too
If you feel that negative feedback from people in the industry could potentially keep you from pursuing your dream as a writer, then you may want to consider skipping writing conferences.
6) You Insist on Implementing Everyone’s Feedback
As an author, it’s important to know that you’re work is going to get criticized. It’s the nature of the job. But if you allow it, criticism will erode your confidence and you’ll never trust your own judgement again.
When that happens, you’ll start to implement each and every recommended edit that you receive. And that’s a problem.
People offer criticism for a variety of reasons. I tend to believe that agents and editors have good intentions when they give you feedback.
There’s a catch, though. That feedback is based on either their own personal preferences or their beliefs about how publishers or consumers will react to your manuscript. It’s valid—and educated.
It’s also important to remember that Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) were rejected time and again by intelligent agents and editors.
That means even the best are wrong—and in truth, they’re probably more wrong than they are right, or every book would top the bestsellers list.
That’s why you need to listen to all criticism, but you don’t need to implement all of it.
The question becomes how do you know what you apply and what you should ignore? There’s not good answer to that one. You have to trust your intuition and keep pressing forward.
So, if you’re going be shaken to the point that you’re going to end up implementing every bit of feedback get, you might want to hold off on attending a writing conference.
7) You Are Prone to Listening to Your Inner Critic
More often than not, our biggest obstacle to success is the inner critic. It’s so easy to believe that we have no value to offer the world—and each time we hear even the slightest criticism, we can use that as a proof point.
I’m guilty! It doesn’t matter how many four star or five star reviews my books get. I only believe the bad reviews. And if a book averages less than four stars, I start to tell myself that it’s true… I have nothing to offer the world.
External criticism (real or perceived) fuels my inner critic, which often led to depression in my life. Now and again it still does, but I know my value isn’t in whether or not someone I’ll never meet decides to give one of my books a negative review.
My value as a husband, father, and friend—in fact, my value as a human being has nothing to do with their opinion.
That’s hard to overcome, though. So, if you struggle with your inner critic and you’re hoping that gaining traction as an author will validate you, skip writing conferences.
At least for now. Wait until the feedback you receive won’t trigger your inner critic. Then go for it!
Writing Conferences for Middle Grade Authors
There are a variety of conferences where aspiring middle grade authors could find value. Some of them are online, others are more traditional with general sessions, breakouts, and happy hours.
The prices start as little as $30 and they go out to around $2,500 when you include travel, room, and board.
I made this list to help you investigate if these conferences are right for you. If you’d like more detail before you click on any of the sites, please visit this page where I wrote a synopsis about each conference.
- Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Conference
- Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Winter Conference
- Writers Digest University Middle Grade & Young Adult Virtual Conference
- Writers Digest Conference
- San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC)
- Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference
- The Muse & The Marketplace
- Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference
- Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)
- South Carolina Writers Association
What do you wear to a writing conference? Attire typically varies by region, which is often more formal on the East Coast and more casual on the West Coast. However, most writing conferences provide specific dress code recommendations on the conference website.
What do you bring to a writing conference? Make sure you bring something that allows you to take notes at a writing conference. That could be a tablet, your phone, or a pad and paper.
Additionally, consider cash for tips, credit cards for meal purchases and hotel charges, as well as toiletries and fresh clothes. Business card are optional, and you likely will not need copies of your manuscript.