Writers conferences play a key role in most authors’ careers. Often, a conference is a transformative event that helps an author transition from hobbyist to professional or provides an opportunity for a connection that makes a huge difference.

Unfortunately, some authors have unproductive experiences at conferences, especially if it’s their first one. It’s unfortunate because writers conferences are not cheap. In addition to the cost of the conference, you’ll spend a lot of time and money getting there.

To help you make the most of your investment, we will discuss some common conference mistakes you can avoid to save time and money and avoid missed opportunities.

What mistakes do authors make at their first few writers conferences? I asked conference veteran and literary agent Dan Balow. He’s been going to conferences longer than I’ve been alive, and he’s the director of his own conference, the very popular Write to Publish conference in Wheaton, Illinois.

What are some common mistakes authors make when going to a writers conference? 

Mistake #1: Attend for One Narrow Reason

Dan: Too many people attend a conference to do only one thing. Many of them just want to meet one certain person or pitch their book to a certain agent, and that’s so risky. That person may not come.

In all my years attending and teaching at conferences, I’ve learned that serendipities make conferences worth the time and cost. The unexpected meetings or conversations are some of the most pivotal moments. If you’re not open to conversations with people out of the blue, and you’re not asking people about themselves or opening your heart to others, you’re missing out and making a huge mistake.

Thomas: You’re missing out on education.

Some people attend a conference solely to pitch Steve Laube. They don’t want to pitch any other agent, and they spend all their time hanging out in the hall, hoping Steve will walk by.

If they’d just attend a session, they learn to write the kind of book that Steve or another agent or publisher would be interested in. A breakout session would educate them on how to take their writing to the next level so they could publish independently.

A conference is for so much more than pitching agents.

Mistake #2: Failure to Make Friends

We just finished hosting the Novel Marketing Conference, and we didn’t even have agents because I didn’t want that distraction. Sometimes, people get so distracted by the agents that they fail to make friends with other authors, and that’s where the real networking value is found. Authors distracted by agents and publishers sometimes fail to pay attention to the education around them. They miss out and often leave disappointed.

If you put all your eggs in one basket, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Most agents say ‘no’ to most pitches. It’s just math.

Dan: If you don’t have more emails and contacts when you leave than when you came, you’ve made a huge mistake. People make lifelong friends at writers conferences. These are people who become more than a mere colleague who occasionally helps you kick around an idea. Writers who meet at conferences become a great source of encouragement for one another, and that kind of friendship can transform your writing and publishing experience.

Mistake #3: Waiting Too Long Before You Attend a Writers Conference

Thomas: Many authors wait until they already have a completed book and a proposal in hand. By waiting, they haven’t allowed the content of the conference to shape the book.

If you attend a conference before you write your book, you can take classes on show-don’t-tell, crafting a good ending, or character development. Educating yourself on the writing craft can improve your book, and it relieves the pressure of attending a conference. You don’t have to pitch your book. You can attend to make friends, learn, and get acclimated to the conference environment.

When you come back next year, you’ll be far less nervous and have a better book because you will have applied the lessons you learned the previous year.

You’re more likely to succeed in publishing if you attend a conference one year earlier than you think you need to.

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.

Dan: Perhaps God’s will is for you to attend that conference to encourage someone else. God works in complicated ways, and you may have a conversation that dramatically affects the other person’s life. We can’t separate the pursuit of writing and publishing from how we live our Christian lives. It’s not all about us.

Thomas: If you approach networking by asking, “How can I bless other people?” it gets much easier. If you’re making connections to introduce two acquaintances to each other, networking becomes much easier. When it’s not about you meeting someone, it’s far less intimidating. That conversation isn’t nearly as nerve-wracking because you’re not trying to get anything out of it. You can approach people with a generous spirit.

Where you plant, you will harvest. That’s a promise or a threat depending on what you’re planting. But if you sow generously, you will harvest abundantly.

Mistake #4: Not Having a Plan 

Conferences like Write to Publish really demand that you have a plan.

My conference, the Novel Marketing Conference, doesn’t require you to have a plan because everybody does the same thing at the same time. The schedule is the plan. You attend, participate, and do the next thing. It’s a straight line.

Bigger conferences with multiple sessions and tracks require you to choose between several great options happening at the same time. You may need to interview somebody during the sessions, so you have to skip parts of the conference.

That kind of conference requires that you review the conference website and plan which track you’ll take, which breakout sessions you’ll attend, and which portions you’ll permit yourself to skip so that you can network or nap. You don’t want to be figuring that out at the conference on your phone at the last minute with a million things happening around you. You can adapt your plan as needed, but it’s much better to have a plan to modify than to have no plan.

Dan: The difficulty with planning for a conference you haven’t attended before is that you don’t know what’s important. Planning for your second conference is a completely different from planning for your first. That’s why having experience at more than one conference is so important.

Mistake #5: Thinking You’ve Learned All You Need to Know

Conferences are not a one-and-done thing. Your professional development should be ongoing. Some people tell me, “I’ve been to enough conferences. I know all about publishing. I’m ready to get my book published.”

From my perspective, you can never know enough. You will learn new things every year. If you attended a conference ten years ago, some of what you learned is completely different now.

Don’t ever think you know it all. There’s always something more to learn.

Thomas: Having a teachable spirit is imperative. Once you lose it, you won’t learn any more than you know right now, and your success will level off. Often, authors who’ve published one or two books become completely unteachable, and their progress stagnates. They stop selling any more copies than they’re already selling because they’re just not learning.

Early in my career, I taught at Mount Hermon, and a famous author was in my workshop. Everyone in the industry and at the conference knew this lady; she was one of the major speakers at the event.

I was teaching a breakout session on technology, and she was in the front row taking notes. She was a publishing veteran with decades of experience and millions of book sales. That’s when I realized that she was successful because she’s teachable.

She was hoping to learn something from me in that session. She wanted to learn, which also allowed her to learn from other people at the conference.

If you feel arrogance or an unteachable spirit creeping in, you’ve really got to nip that in the bud. It will torpedo your career long term.

Dan: Some publishing professionals have told me they only go to conferences where they teach, but I believe those folks should also attend conferences to learn.

In any other profession, you’d have continuing education requirements. Teachers, dentists, and surgeons must complete their continuing education to stay current in their fields. Ongoing learning is important.

Thomas: I’m from a family of accountants. My dad, sister, and brother-in-law are all CPAs, and they are required to take 20-40 hours of continuing education every year to keep their certificate of public accounting in the state of Texas. Debits and credits have not changed since the 1600s, but the U.S. tax code has. You must stay current on the changes in your field if you hope to stay in business.

Mistake # 6: Promoting Your Novel at the Conference

Thomas: Some authors attend conferences to promote their novels. It’s not a mistake to hustle your book at a conference, but the mistake is that a writers conference is not a target-rich environment for novelists. Most of the attendees won’t be readers of your specific genre.

If you want to sell your Amish romance, go to an Amish romance conference for readers, not an Amish romance conference for authors. Better yet, go to a homeschool convention where the voracious readers gather.

If you want to catch fish, go where the fish are, not where the fishermen are. At a writers conference, everyone is a fisherman.

Now, if you’ve written a book on the craft of writing or how to work conflict into your novel, you will have a target-rich environment at a writers conference. Still, I wouldn’t make book sales your primary purpose for attending.

Dan: That’s a pitfall any author can fall into. It’s a result of the requirement to have a platform. The danger of attending a conference to help build your platform is that you begin to view all relationships as transactional. People cease to make friends purely to encourage them. It’s unhealthy to start turning every relationship and opportunity into a transaction.

Thomas: Viewing relationships as transactional can work for a short time. A transaction can get a relationship started, but it doesn’t sustain a relationship over the long term.

A transaction is like a bunch of twigs and leaves that kindle a fire. Maybe the first time you met that special person, you were at a store buying something, and you locked eyes and knew it would be true love. That transaction sparked something, but growing the relationship will require more fuel.

As Christians, our relationships don’t even have to start transactionally. We can start relationships by being generous.

Mistake #7: Not Bringing Business Cards

If you don’t bring a business card, people can’t follow up with you easily. You’ll inconvenience everyone who wants your email address or phone number, which isn’t very generous or professional.

Business cards aren’t expensive. If you can afford to attend a conference, you can print business cards for $30. Learn more about business cards here.

Mistake #8: Not Following Up With People You Met

If you leave a conference with a big stack of business cards, you should follow up with the people you meet.

When I attended conferences more regularly (before I had small children), I would set aside one day after the conference to email the people I’d connected with. I often wrote something on the back of the business card to remind me who the person was and what I wanted to talk to them about.

I’d email them, saying, “It was great meeting you at the conference.” I’d put as much into the email as I could remember and work to start that relationship. We’d have forgotten each other a month after the conference if I hadn’t done that.

Dan: As each day passes after a conference, the memory fades.

If you don’t have a proposal to send or don’t think you’re ready to follow up, you may decide to follow up in three months instead. If you wait that long, they will not remember you.

Striking while the iron is hot is paramount after a conference. Use that next week to follow up with everybody you met and establish a communication chain.

Thomas: We have a whole episode about striking while the iron is hot. In that episode, we discover how Esther used generosity to create the opportunity to make the ask, and we connect her story with marketing principles.

Mistake #9: Not Resting

Conferences can be physically demanding. I have attended conferences where I interacted with people for up to 18 hours. Having your brain picked for 18 hours is mentally fatiguing. To mitigate that fatigue at the Novel Marketing Conference, I hosted it in my hometown and didn’t participate in any evening activities.

When people invited me to dinner, I’d thank them and explain I was going home for dinner. After dinner with my family, I went straight to bed because I needed energy for the next day.

When you’re making your conference plan, schedule time to rest. You don’t have to attend the night owl session or the pre-dawn prayer time.

There’s pressure on conference coordinators to give people value. You want to pack every second full of value. It’s a great thing, and some people want to participate in every moment, from sun-up to sun-down. But just because it’s on the schedule doesn’t mean you have to do it. Give yourself permission to go to bed early or to eat by yourself.

At the Novel Marketing Conference, one lady sat by herself during lunch. I invited her to sit with us, but she wanted to sit alone. I told her, “As a fellow introvert, I respect your dedication to your own mental health.”

Schedule time before, during, and after the conference to rest. Resting will revive your mental and physical energy for interacting with people.

Dan: I think the serendipities are as important as anything else, so for the Write to Publish conference, we scheduled nothing in the evenings except a social time with chips and dip, cookies and cupcakes, and lemonade. People sat around hanging out, and we will continue doing that.

Thomas: To kick off the Novel Marketing Conference, I hosted an ice cream social for my patrons. They didn’t have to come to the conference to come to the ice cream social. It was simply an unstructured event to show my patrons how much I appreciate them.

I didn’t speak from the stage at any point during the ice cream social. It was just people eating Bluebell ice cream and chit-chatting. Everyone had a good time. People weren’t necessarily there to see me; they were there to talk to each other.

You can create unstructured time for yourself by skipping a session on purpose, which goes back to having a plan.

Mistake #10: Focusing on Status

Sometimes at writers conferences a hierarchy can emerge. A person may have a ribbon on their name tag indicating their role in the publishing industry. An unspoken pecking order emerges as some authors assign a status to that role. Agents and editors are at the top. Conference faculty and published authors come next and then come the unpublished authors. A certain kind of attendee is only interested in people with more status, and that is a toxic mindset.

Regardless of a person’s role or title, everyone at the conference is a regular person. They are your fellow believers and children of God.

Don’t buy the lie that a nonfiction writer has nothing to teach a novelist or vice versa. An author from a different genre may have something to teach you that they’ve learned by selling nonfiction books that will help you as a romance writer.

Don’t see people for their status or title. See them for the person that they really are.

Dan: If you’re writing biblical fiction and you meet a writer who is an Old Testament professor at a Christian college, by all means, sit down and talk to them. That professor likely has three Ph.D.s and has written commentaries. They might be able to teach you something that’ll help your writing.

Staying in your own lane is good when it comes to writing in a genre, but it’s a bad philosophy when you’re attending a writers conference.

Thomas: Your genre can be a cage for you at a conference. Don’t refrain from talking to fantasy writers just because you write sci-fi. From a marketing perspective, both genres are nearly the same. You can learn a lot if you’re willing to expand your horizons and learn from someone in another genre.

Making friends outside of your genre also eliminates the possibility of envy. If one of you is more successful, there’s no cause for envy because you’re in different genres. But if you write the same kinds of books for the same readers, you may have to fight envy. Sin is always crouching at the door (Genesis 4:7). Envy tempts us, but it’s less tempting when you can say, “That genre is more popular than mine.”

Dan: We rarely think about how we perceive things until long after the fact. We’re not omniscient. Even in our Christian lives, we may not learn a lesson until years later and only then realize, “Oh, that’s what God was doing back then!” We don’t see that thing in the moment.

Sometimes you miss things if you don’t fully appreciate them at the time.

Years ago, I was asked to meet with a guy who ran an editorial development company to see how we might be able to work together for the publishing company I was working with.

He was a super guy, and I really enjoyed meeting him. Afterward, I began researching him and discovered he was Marty Greenberg, one of the co-founders of the Sci-Fi Channel on cable. He got his start by doing anthologies with Isaac Asimov. I didn’t realize that when we met, so I only asked him to tell me about himself and his qualifications. Afterward, I realized I should have shut up and listened to him.

I have deep regrets about not appreciating things more as they’re happening.

Mistake #11: Not Doing Your Research

Thomas: Conference websites offer a wealth of information. If you have a question about the conference, it is probably answered on the conference website.

If you can pitch agents and editors at the conference, research whether they represent what you’re writing.

You can waste a lot of energy barking up the wrong tree and pitching an agent for a genre they don’t even represent.

The Christian Writers Market Guide lists every agent and publisher. It will assist you as you research editors, agents, and conference faculty. You can buy a paper edition, which they update annually, or an online edition, which is constantly updated and costs only $9.99 per year. It’s almost free compared to what you’re spending on the conference. Get it before the conference so you know who people are and can strike up conversations.

Mistake #12: Thinking You Have Nothing to Offer Others 

Dan: One of the reasons you attend a conference is for networking, but networking is a give and take. You’re there to offer something to someone else.

No matter who you are, God has given you certain gifts to use for his glory. You must attend believing you can encourage someone else even if you don’t know how to write yet.

Satan constantly makes us think we’re not worthy and we have nothing to offer, but that is a lie. Fight that lie, and believe that you are attending the conference for some reason, even if it’s for someone else. Don’t believe the lie that you don’t have anything to offer because you don’t have enough experience.

Why should people attend the Write to Publish conference?

Write to Publish Christian Writers Conference Logo

Dan: We wanted to make it a challenging conference, so it’s not only 101-level classes. We’ll have sessions to stretch you. This is not simplistic stuff. Some conferences are better if you want to pick up the basics, but we decided to make this conference cognitively challenging.

Thomas: You offer a Basics of Book Publishing course, so you do have content for beginners, but it’s not just for beginners, and it’s not simply for making people feel good. Certain conferences don’t accomplish much, but they’re good at making people feel like an author for a weekend.

The Write to Publish conference will take you out of your comfort zone, which may be intimidating, but it’s better for you professionally, emotionally, and spiritually.

We’re all on the same team, trying to advance The Kingdom and honor Christ. It’s less about competition and more about commonality in Christ. Your real competition is not other authors in your genre; it’s NCIS or whatever mystery show is on TV on Thursday night. That’s your real competition.

To learn more about the Write to Publish conference, listen to our episode on what to expect at the Write to Publish conference. To receive a discount when you register for the conference, use coupon code TU2024.

What tips or encouragement do you have for somebody looking to attend their first conference?

Dan: Don’t be afraid to venture into it. It’s easier to stay away than to venture into it. We won’t be beating people up over what they’re doing. You may hear some discouraging words when you find out the publishing industry is different than you imagined, but don’t be discouraged.

When you finally have your book in print, overcoming those discouragements will have been worth it. Victory is only sweet when you’ve overcome adversity to get there. How much greater is that victory when we know we have a good Father who wants us to have good things and learn good lessons.

Give yourself a shot at the conference.

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