This past weekend I attended the 2015 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. It was only the second writing conference I’ve ever attended, and far larger in size and scale than the first. There were maybe four times as many agents and editors as there were at the first one I went to (the Missouri Writer’s Guild Conference in 2013) and the info sessions and keynote speeches were jam packed with helpful information, great speakers, and conference attendees with smart and revealing questions.
Here, I wanted to reflect on a few things I learned at the conference, and a few points I think will be valuable for any writer who aspires to make a living writing books.
First and foremost, writing conferences are invaluable for the networking opportunities alone. I think every aspiring writer should go to at least one per year, and more if you can afford it. Every time I go to a conference I am amazed at the quality of people I meet. At my first conference, I met Daryl Rothman, who has turned into one of my most trusted writer friends and allies in my three-year authorial journey. I networked with an agent who requested a partial of our manuscript, and I was given the chance to pitch my novel for the first time. This most recent time around, I met multiple agents who not only answered my questions helpfully but also offered their services and assistance going forward (I cannot say enough good things about agent April Eberhardt) and I met several authors and aspiring authors who have connections, in their own ways, to my story, and together we will be able to collaborate on writing better stories and promoting each other’s work. The people you meet will justify your decision to attend thrice over.
There is a code of conduct at writer’s conferences, though it’s very much unspoken. Here are some quick and dirty rules I learned about attending a conference:
1. Don’t talk to everyone.
This might seem strange, but upon further examination, it’s not. Are you utterly disinterested in writing for magazines? Then don’t go socializing with magazine editors and writers, taking up their valuable time, because believe me, there are plenty of other conference attendees who can use that person’s time in a more productive way. The same holds true across genres.
2. Don’t ask for personalized advice about your specific projects during a general session, unless you can make your question relevant to many people.
It’s selfish of you and demoralizing to others to waste speakers’ time with questions that are pertinent to only one person. A general session attended by dozens, if not hundreds, of people, is not the place to ask questions particular to your problems and ideas. If you can make your problem broadly relevant, ask away. If not, save it for when you urgently corner the speaker after the session.
3. DO talk to everyone who might be helpful or valuable to you.
At first glance, agent April Eberhardt (previously mentioned) wouldn’t have seemed like she’d be much help in my cause. She doesn’t represent science fiction, which is the genre I write in. However, April is open to working with self-published authors, and when I learned that I didn’t hesitate to approach her (tastefully, after the session ended) for advice in how K. Makansi might go about seeking agent representation or moving forward with sales. April, it turned out, was extremely excited about the work we’ve done so far, and wanted to help however she could. I left with several valuable pointers and April offered to do me a few extremely generous favors, including introducing me to a crowded panel at a session later on that afternoon. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t been bold enough to talk to her and solicit her advice.
4. DO remember that EVERYONE is a human being and that agents, editors, and famous authors are generally perfectly normal, nice, and down to earth human beings. And don’t be afraid of them.
I think it’s easy to get caught up in the fear of agents and editors as though they’re evil aliens from outer space who will never understand the true genius of your project. But by and large, this is totally wrong. Every time I meet authors getting ready to pitch, they look like balls of tense, terrorized energy, frantically rehearsing their memorized pitches, hunched over their computers and crying tears of despair before the pitch has even happened. Without fail, every single published author/agent/editor I met this weekend was down to earth, enthusiastic about meeting aspiring writers, and welcoming of questions, suggestions, or input. I’m sure those evil aliens exist, somewhere, but with luck, you will never meet them.
One of the things every single conference speaker or presenter hammered home, over and over again, at the sessions and keynotes I went to, was the idea that writing is more than just an art: it is also a business. If you want to succeed as a writer, you have to be business-savvy as well. The ‘tortured artist’ mentality only carries you so far – basically, through the finished draft. Beyond that, you are responsible for your own business and your own book sales, and those who are most successful are those who understand that. In addition to being a writer, you are also a salesman, a marketer, a PR firm, a strategist, and an ad-man. Don’t ever forget that from the moment you decide you want to be published as an author, you are responsible for the sales of your book.
Finally, the single biggest takeaway from the conference, for me, was the idea that we are all in it together. Jonathan Maberry gleefully hammered this point home in his Friday night keynote address, and I want to reiterate it here. When I first started writing, my core group of Twitter friends – Jessica West, Rachael Spellman, Peter Samet, Jonathan Paul, Nillu Steltzer, Graham Milne, Drew Chial, Imran Siddiq, and many more – became my biggest advocates and allies. Not only did they help me edit and proofread my novels before they came out, they were instrumental in the marketing and promotion of the books prior to release. From the beginning, I knew that as writers, we could only grow in each others’ presence. Jonathan Maberry echoed this sentiment in his speech (and I paraphrase very loosely here): “When we help each other out, we all write better books. When we write better books, more readers read our stories. When more readers read our stories, we all succeed.”
With that in mind, go forth, dear writers, learn and profit from those around you, spread the gospel of writing, and sow the seeds of stories far and wide.