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IWSG: Are writing conferences worth it?

If you’d asked me that question a year ago, I would have said “Yes” without hesitation.

Now I’m not so sure.

My doubts began once I noticed a disturbing trend.

I’ve pitched my work dozens of times to editors and agents at conferences.

Guess how many times I’ve walked away without a request?

Zero.

In the early days, I was elated. I thought this meant I was amazing. But I’m a skeptical person by nature, especially when it comes to anything that suggests I’m amazing. So I started taking an unofficial poll.

Every single writer I spoke to was flushed with success as well. Not a rejection among us.

Hmm…were we all that awesome? Did not one of us pitch the wrong project to the wrong person?

I began to wonder.

Then came the era of Twitter contests and other means of pitching manuscripts to agents and editors.

While those who requested partials or fulls from me through Twitter always responded to my submissions, the ones I met at conferences–who looked me in the eye and said how wonderful my novels sounded–rarely did. I was lucky to hear back from one out of ten.

What was going on?

How come agents and editors from a conference ignored my submissions, while the ones who didn’t know me from Adam were so generous with their responses?

I came to the conclusion that agents and editors at a conference will say yes to pretty much every pitch, interested or not. They do this for several reasons:

  1. They hate to see writers cry;
  2. They aren’t paid enough to deal with ugly public scenes;
  3. Rejecting someone’s dreams face-to-face is more difficult than sending a form email;
  4. Rejecting all–or a great majority–of the attendees would be bad for the conference.

Of course, conference organizers will and have refuted this, as have the agents I’ve asked. But anyone who knows the stats on query-letter acceptances will agree it’s a miracle that nearly everyone who pitches at a conference gets a request. From every agent they pitch.

What else have conferences done for me? Well, there’s the networking. And the stuff I learn in workshops. That must help a lot, right?

Not if you go by my personal stats:

How I landed my first NYC agent: cold query

How I landed my first publisher: submission call

How I got detailed feedback on my manuscripts from agents and editors: Twitter contests and submission calls

How I landed my second publisher: submission call

How I found great beta readers: through my first publisher

How I received the best advice about marketing, writing, and managing a career: through other writers at my first publisher

Is there an industry that exists to make money off unpublished writers, much like the dieting industry targets those who would do anything to lose a few pounds? Conferences, retreats, workshops, classes, how-to books–there are numerous ways to “help your writing career,” and many of them cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

The total cost for one of the conferences I regularly attend is over $3000 when you factor in registration fees, masterclass fees, hotel, airfare, and any meals that aren’t covered.

I thought of the habitual conference goers, the ones who have a closet full of T-shirts from all the writing classes, retreats, and workshops they attend. They’re still slogging in the same trenches, year after year.

It troubled me. So I decided I would no longer attend writing conferences. Instead, I’d focus on writing and submit my work more often, concentrating on what has always worked for me.

That resolve lasted a few months.

Then I thought of the friends I wouldn’t see. The good times and laughs I’d miss. The feeling of heightened inspiration that only comes from spending a few days with people who are your kind of crazy.

Are writing conferences worth it?

Yes, but probably not for the reason you think.

***

What do you think? Do you attend conferences, workshops or retreats? Why or why not? Any success stories to share? 

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group’s purpose is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.

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39 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I like going to literary festivals. I find them inspiring and invigorating, especially because they’re filled with people who love reading. There aren’t that many writing conferences in Europe that I’ve found. Thanks for this post. I kept feeling like I’m missing out on something big and important, but now I feel better.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Ula! I’ve never attended a literary festival–I’ll have to look into that.

      The truth is, writing conferences don’t work for a lot of people, especially introverts and those with social anxiety. And plenty of people succeed without them. If you approach them as a wonderful opportunity to meet some great people who are passionate about writing and reading, you’ll love them. If you’re hoping they’ll help with your career…well, that certainly hasn’t been my experience. Maybe others will say differently.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Sounds like they are good for the knowledge and networking at least. I can’t imagine every pitch worthy of a yes. We know what the real ratio is from regular submissions.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly, Alex! I imagine the agents are saying yes to be kind or encouraging, but it’s actually much kinder to tell the truth. I bet they run into lots of authors who don’t want to hear it, though.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    I used to be a regular at a Children’s Writers Conference in my area. Not as expensive since I lived nearby. I loved the excitement of the conferences and networking with other writers and the presenting publishers and editors. And, yes, they are overly positive, and yes, it helps keep the conferences going. I haven’t been to a conference in a few years now. I’d go again for the right topic/genre.

    Reply
    • JH

      They do get addictive, Mary–all that excited buzz and inspiration. Writing can be so isolating that I find a few days surrounded by other writers always boosts my spirits.

      I’ve made some enduring friendships at conferences.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    I’ve been to a few conferences. One of the editors I met flat out said she requested everything, because she knew only 10% of people would send her a submission–and that was after she asked them too. It cost her next to nothing to say yes, so why wouldn’t she leave the writers with a good impression.

    I’ve found there are two types of writers who get the most out of conferences. One – the writers who are just starting out. They are sponges for all the workshops, and they come away with a ton of knowledge that can get them to the next level. And, two: the experienced writers, who go to give the workshops, not take them. They are there for the networking with other writers (some of whom they already know, and may have met at previous conferences), and with the agents and editors who are attending because they already know them.

    My goal is to become the second kind of writer.

    Reply
    • JH

      A-ha! Thanks for confirming my suspicions, Elle. At least that editor admitted it. I’m not surprised so few authors actually follow through. I had a couple good friends who kept getting requests and never responding to them. It boggles the mind.

      Your goal is a good one. I’m there with you.

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    I’ve gone to a handful of conferences over the years, and I always got something out them. Not an agent or a publisher, but information, camaraderie, laughs, etc.

    This totally cracked me up – “But I’m a skeptical person by nature, especially when it comes to anything that suggests I’m amazing.” 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, it’s true. Funny, but true.

      The camaraderie and laughs are a huge draw. Maybe even worth the thousands of dollars.

      Reply
  6. Avatar

    I never went to a conference and have wondered about them. After reading this, I don’t think I will go to a conference. I may not have even had the courage to approach agents in the first place, but if they don’t do things as they used to and tell every writer to send them their book, wasting the writers time, then it’s not worth it. Such a shame. Imagine how many writers they are hurting by doing it this way. They think they’ll hear good news but then don’t hear back at all. That could be damaging.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s definitely damaging, and even if you’re in a good place with your writing, it’s incredibly frustrating. Why waste a person’s time that way?

      I had this big plan that I was going to tell all the agents I pitched to be honest with me last year–not to blow smoke up my ass, but then I only ended up pitching one. And she did take the time to respond, thankfully. I got all keyed up for nothing. 😉

      Reply
  7. Avatar

    I think conferences are more about networking than anything else. Learning tips and tricks from your peers. I haven’t been to a writer’s conference but I have been to a few professional conferences over the course of my career.
    Networking and partying … perfect excuse for the latter.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Tami. As Elle said above, if you’re a beginning writer, the workshops are really helpful.

      But once you’ve been around the block a few times, it’s difficult to find a lecture that will offer up something you don’t already know. Not impossible, perhaps, but quite challenging.

      Other writers, however, always have insights into something I haven’t tried or didn’t know about. Well worth it. Plus, it’s just fun to party with people who get you.

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    I did go to one conference in NYC. I think it was Algonquin. We met with a coach to hone our queries in a group of ten. Our group was suspense/thriller. The coach was very good and our group bonded well and had an email group going for a few years after. We presented our pitch to four different editors (not agents) over two days. Some writers got no requests, some got first pages requests, and some got fulls. It varied. I got a partial request which ended up as a rejection because this particular agency already had something too similar in the works. The conference price was several thousand dollars. It was a good experience, but I haven’t done another. I have heard of people with experiences like yours: lots of requests but nothing to show for it in the long run. If I do go to another, it would be to learn about marketing and hang out with other writers. I wouldn’t count on getting an agent.

    Reply
    • JH

      I can’t say I ever counted on getting an agent. What I do count on, though, is getting a response from one who’s requested a full or partial from me. The lack of courtesy is what steams me.

      That conference sounds amazing, and extremely helpful. I wonder if it still exists?

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    I always walk away with *something* from a literary event, whether it’s a reading, a workshop, a conference, or whatever. But, I do try to balance the “bang for my buck” ratio when I’m deciding where to spend my limited free time and dollars to help my writing career (which may, after all, be helped best by staying home and writing). If all I walk away from at a reading is a useful thought, that’s fine. The reading was free. If the con costs me $3K to attend, I want more than just a helpful hint or two.

    A problem I’m running into at writer conferences is finding content that is aimed above “absolute beginner.” I’m not making my living fully from my writing yet, but I am making money and I’m not finding much that will help me bridge that gap. Good post!

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    Reply
    • JH

      I’ve had the same problem, Samantha. Even the workshops that seem advanced end up being geared at beginners. Which makes sense, if beginners make up the majority of the attendees, but it can be frustrating if you’ve advanced beyond that.

      I once attended a “masterclass” on social media. The instructor began by explaining what a hashtag was. :/

      Reply
  10. Avatar

    I love this post! Thank you for it. You are right-on that agents and editors from conferences will 99.9% request. I also find it interesting that agents & eds report only half of those requests are ever sent in. So not only is it not necessarily in favor of the author if everything is requested but not much feedback (as you said) but on their end, they aren’t even getting all the MSs they requested and they took time out to talk to the writer and fly to the conference.

    But like you also said, I think that if you ONLY go to a writing conference to pitch, you already missing out. There’s someone I network with who spent 2 entire conferences waiting outside the pitch room for opening slots. This writer pitched to every single agent and editor at those events. This writer is still unpublished and shopping the same work 2 years later.

    I’ve wandered into workshops because it was the only thing going at that time and learned a ton. At the local conference I just attended, my critique group and I got an idea to collaborate on a potential series, all from hearing other authors talk about an idea they had that worked for them. I’ve also learned which publishers to stay clear of–guess where I heard the real stories? The bar. Over drinks and nachos.

    Local conferences can be good for making closer-to-home connections. And literary festivals, where you meet readers and local volunteer organizations. Those are worth it too.

    Here’s my June IWSG post: Goal, Set, Check! Setting SMART goals

    Reply
    • JH

      One of the biggest mistakes I made last year was only hanging out with people I already knew. For whatever reason, I was feeling fragile, and hanging out with friends was comforting.

      However, THEIR friends were not people I’d ever spend that much time with if I had a choice. Not that they weren’t nice, but we just didn’t “click.” We had no chemistry.

      This year, I’ll definitely broaden my horizons. If I’d been so clique-y the first few years, I wouldn’t have any friends at the conference!

      Reply
  11. Avatar

    I’ve actually never been to a conference. One is cost, and the other is family. I started getting serious about writing around the time I was pregnant with my first child. Since then, I’ve had another and I just can’t bring myself to drop the kids on my husband and take off for a week to do my own thing. Perhaps someday I’ll check it out, but by then, I probably won’t need it for your reasons.

    Reply
    • JH

      Understood, Loni, and there are so many writers who can’t attend conferences (usually for financial reasons) who do just fine.

      I’m willing to bet J.K. Rowling wasn’t spending hundreds on writers’ conferences when she was on social assistance.

      Reply
  12. Avatar

    Really interesting post. I’ve never attended a writers conference and don’t know that much about them, but I can see how they might be a really fun way to meet fellow writers and building relationships with them. I think it would almost be harder to pitch a book to someone face-to-face than via email, much the same way that it would be harder to reject someone face-to-face.

    Reply
    • JH

      Nice to see you again, Ellen!

      As for pitching, yes and no. It’s hard not to be nervous when you sit across from gatekeepers and tell them about your masterpiece, but you also have a certain leeway when it’s face-to-face.

      You can chat a little, get to know them a bit, and they get to ask you questions. Much better than a cold query, where any little misplaced word can make an agent stop reading.

      Reply
  13. Avatar

    This is excellent information. I have never attended a conference but will approach the concept with a giant (brackish) grain of salt.

    Reply
    • JH

      Not a bad idea, Ryan. Although, as a result of this post, I got talked into attending StokerCon 2017.

      Twist my rubber arm…

      Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Anna! I’m so looking forward to meeting you in person. It’ll be fun.

      I can introduce you to the infamous Electric Lemonade.

      Reply
  14. Avatar

    A couple years ago, I thought about going to a writer’s conference, but I didn’t have the money and the idea of talking to people face to face is not my idea of fun. I’m too introverted.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good decision, Patricia. I’ve heard from several introverts who went to conferences and were completely miserable. Even worse, they felt like they were on the outside looking in. Not fun.

      I think a lot of writers are introverts, but I guess there’s introverts and then Introverts with a capital I.

      Reply
  15. Avatar

    I’ve been to a local, small conference and enjoyed some of it. It was free and 20 minutes from my home. I’d always wanted to go to a big one in NYC, but I can’t afford it. But now after reading your post, I don’t think I’ll even bother to think about it anymore. Thank you.

    Reply
    • JH

      You’re very welcome, Cathrina. While I still think conferences can be great, they’re definitely not essential.

      And if you have high expectations, the chances that you’ll find them a letdown are also high.

      Reply
  16. Avatar

    I’ve gone to three international conferences and several regional ones, but there’s a sameness to them that has caused me to put them on hold. Like others who commented here, I find meeting people and talking about the craft the most beneficial part of my time spent.

    Loved reading about your experience. Very interesting and it sounds as if your work is appreciated. You are amazing!

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Lee. YOU’RE amazing.

      There’s definitely a sameness to the conferences I attend, mostly because I go to the same one over and over again. 😀 I really need to start mixing it up.

      If there was an IWSG gathering where we could all meet, I’d be down for that.

      Reply
  17. Avatar

    I think it’s good to imagine writers’ conferences and even conventions as not necessarily a zero sum game.

    In addition to having a convenient way to meet up with fellow writers, your networking opportunities expand the more you see some of the same agents, editors, etc. Opportunities for things like anthologies can arise out of simple conversations.

    Also, being able to legitimately say to an agent or editor that you spoke with them at such-and-so conference does confer a certain amount of legitimacy: this writer is taking things seriously, and I can read their work with the assurance that they’re interested in a career doing this. Of course, the work must speak for itself.

    But it isn’t the be-all and end-all, for sure.

    Reply
    • JH

      I’ve actually suspected the opposite, Randee–that agents see the “Requested material” with the conference’s name on the email-subject line and immediately hit delete, because they know they said yes to every pitch, no matter how rotten.

      I love the camaraderie with the other writers, but I wish I still believed the pitching offered a special opportunity rather than a collection of faux requests.

      Reply
  18. Avatar

    I’ve attended conferences both as a writer there to learn and network and as a speaker, also there to learn and network. I like going as a speaker best because then the conference is free, I sometimes get paid, and I get to sell books.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s my dream, Diane. I’d love to ascend to presenter ranks.

      Reply
  19. Avatar

    I haven’t been able to afford to go to anything yet. I haven’t been able to afford to join any organizations yet.
    I’m sure I’m missing out, but I can’t afford to get in!

    Oh. And, I’m not good with people, so, there’s that. 🙂

    Glad to see you here again.

    Heather

    Reply

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