It’s 2023, and we are finally seeing the comeback of in-person writers conferences! Some beginning writers are new to the writing community. If you began your writing journey during the pandemic, you might never have had the opportunity to take part in a real, live, in-person writers conference. That’s right, in ye olden precovid days, writers attended conferences in person.
In-person writers conferences are not cheap, so you want to be sure to get the most out of your time. You may be feeling nervous about attending your first conference. Perhaps you’re wondering what to expect, how to prepare, and how you’ll benefit.
Literary agent Dan Balow knows all about writers conferences. He’s an agent with The Steve Laube Agency, as well as the director of the Write to Publish Conference in Wheaton, Illinois.
Why bother attending an in-person conference?
Thomas: For writers who are relatively new to publishing and writing, explain why they should even bother attending an in-person conference when so many online summits are free or cheap. Why spend all that money to breathe the same air as a literary agent?
Dan: All writers conferences have beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes, so no matter where you are on the experience spectrum, you can get a good foundation at a writers conference. You can also learn about the many different skills that are necessary to be a successful writer.
Attending only online conferences prevents you from experiencing those serendipities that happen whenever you get together with a group of people. You never know who you’ll sit with at lunch. Those unplanned meetings often have a greater impact on your life than the planned sessions. Without those incidental meetings between the sessions, writers miss out on a major benefit of conferences.
The interaction with other people at a writers conference is invaluable.
Thomas: As with many industries, it’s not just what you know but who you know, particularly in traditional publishing.
If you want to publish, you can learn everything you need to know about marketing, writing, and publishing from books and online courses. After that, it’s just a matter of connecting with your readers. Indie authors don’t necessarily need to know anyone in the traditional publishing industry. I keep meeting indie authors who are quietly making $250,000 selling a book no one’s heard of simply because they have a group of readers who love the author.
Traditional publishing is different because dozens of people work on the traditionally published book, so the human connection with those people is key.
Relationships With Successful Authors
Making relationships in the publishing industry has been critically important for my business. I met Steve Laube and Mary DeMuth at a writers conference early in my career. In-person writers conferences allow you to build relationships with the faculty you sit with at lunch and also the fellow newbie authors you meet.
When you sign up for the newbie track, you might not realize you’re on the same track as other future bestselling authors. Famous people are always a little suspicious of new friends because they don’t know for sure if those people care about them or their fame and money, so be friendly before they become famous.
Meeting fellow beginning writers is a golden opportunity to connect with the bestselling authors of tomorrow.
Dan: The downside of an in-person conference is that there may be some spiritual warfare or ego that gets in the way. It’s a good time to network, but there’s a risk of turning every potential relationship into a business transaction.
Christian writers know that when you make connections with people, God moves in mysterious ways. He puts people together at the water cooler who have the same interests, and that’s how God does things sometimes. Be open to those divine appointments.
Thomas: Nearly all writers are introverts. At a conference, you’ll meet introverts, who pretend to be extroverts for a few days, and then go home and crash. I have met extroverts who write books, but most people at conferences are intimidated and get overwhelmed easily, especially at their first conference.
I recommend attending your first writers conference early in your career. Some people wait to attend their first conference until they’re ready to pitch their book. At that point, they are trying to connect with agents, editors, and publishers; and they’re just too nervous to make those connections well.
Dan: Attending a conference early in your career gives you plenty of time to work on the necessary aspects of publishing.
I’ve taught a conference workshop called “Are You Writing Out of Order?” When writers put off certain tasks until the end of the process, they end up needing to pause everything they’ve done up to that point and then wait for two years to let it play out. Why not do the things that take the most time at the front of your career?
Thomas: That’s classic operations management. If you need 20 components to build a widget and one takes 20 hours to manufacture, you need at least 20 hours to build the widget.
If you can build that 20-hour piece as you simultaneously build the other pieces, you’ll be much more efficient.
In-Person Access to Faculty
In addition to agents and editors, successful authors also attend conferences to teach workshops. They aren’t selling courses, and they may not have a book about writing. The only way you can learn from them is by hunting down one of their podcast interviews or coming to their live event at a conference.
Faculty at live conferences typically offer question-and-answer sessions at the end of their presentations.
When I first started speaking at writers conferences, I was teaching technology and marketing. I had a super successful bestselling author sitting in the front row of my class, taking notes on what I was teaching.
Bestselling authors are successful in part because they’re teachable. They may know almost everything I teach, but they strive to learn one new thing that will give them an edge and fuel their continued success.
Dan: In any profession, or even in the Christian life, long-term teachability is super important.
Jerry Jenkins gives a talk called “Can You Still be Moved?” It’s for mature Christians who can hear the story of someone coming to Christ and experience very little emotion. If you don’t get a tear in your eye after hearing someone’s conversion story, you may need to evaluate what’s going on in your heart.
If you ever feel like you’ve reached the point where you’ve “made it” and have nothing left to learn, sirens should be blaring in your ears. You may need to take a sabbatical to get your passion back.
If learning new things about your Christian walk, operational logistics, and writing craft are not constants in your life, it’s a dangerous sign.
Thomas: At a Christian writers conference, you get the sense that all the writers are on the same team. I’ve seen a similar phenomenon at indie conferences because those authors are collectively opposed to “evil” traditional publishing. There is a revolutionary spirit, and you get the sense people are on the same team.
But you definitely don’t get that team feeling at secular, traditional publishing conferences. There’s more jealousy between writers in the same genre. There’s a temptation to see other writers as competition. Writers at secular conferences want agents to sign a nondisclosure agreement before they share their ideas.
At Christian conferences, there’s an understanding that we’re on the same team. You’ll often see people praying for one another and encouraging each other. It can be very spiritually uplifting.
Dan: A Christian writers conference is a place where believers gather. We see the fruit of the Spirit demonstrated as people show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control.
Obviously, Christians aren’t perfect; but it’s always a great experience, no matter what Christian conference you attend.
You really do not get the same experience at a secular, general-market conference.
In fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a crossover book where you write in a way that appeals to an unbeliever, but you leave out the Christian stuff. When writers do that, the book ceases to be a Christian book.
At general-market conferences, the themes people are writing about and the pages they read aren’t even close to anything a Christ follower would ponder in their heart to write. The chasm is wide between the Christian and general markets.
Thomas: Jesus said that people hated him so much that they’d hate his followers too. Nothing has changed. You can take out the religious stuff, but you’re taking Jesus out. You can include all the religious talk and remove the name of Jesus, but there’s something special and different about Jesus that makes people uncomfortable with their sins. Jesus causes people to realize that they need to change.
What can writers expect to experience at the Write to Publish conference?
Thomas: Dan, you direct the Write to Publish Conference. What should attendees look for at that conference?
Dan: The Write to Publish Conference is a full immersion experience. It’s more than just a couple of hours of courses here and there.
You’ll have breakfast with fellow writers and faculty in the morning. You’ll be sitting with other authors and talking with professionals throughout the day, and you’ll be having evening snacks with other publishing professionals and writers. Expect to put in a 16-hour day.
Thomas: It’s much different than a conference at your church where you’re home by dinner time.
Writers conferences tend to be on location. Whether it’s being held at a hotel, conference center, or university campus, everything happens at the same location. Breakfast and dinner are part of the conference.
Still, it’s important to remember that some things are optional. You’re not required to show up at every event for 16 hours every day of the conference. You don’t have to attend the bonus night owl session if you’re a morning person.
However, if you’re a high-energy person and can do a 16-hour day, great. If you’re not, skip a few things and take a nap.
Many of the sessions and workshops are come-and-go because people have one-on-one appointments with editors and agents throughout the entire conference.
If someone stands up to leave during a session, no one is offended because everyone understands that person has an appointment. The speaker won’t automatically assume it’s because their presentation is boring.
How do you prepare for the conference before you arrive?
Dan: You need to carefully review the conference schedule and start building an initial calendar and schedule for yourself.
Most conferences have a theme type of course that’s taught Wednesday through Friday. Sometimes the sessions build on the previous day’s session. Before you arrive, decide which of those continuing sessions would be most beneficial for you.
Figure out when it would be best to schedule your one-on-one appointments. Choose the workshops that you want to take in the afternoon.
For my entire career, I’ve made a practice of spending 30 minutes in the evening organizing my work, schedule, and priorities for the following day.
If you don’t have a plan for your day at a writers conference, you may find yourself standing by the proverbial water cooler, milling around the bookstore, or visiting with people at lunch. By the end of the conference, you may realize you paid $700 to attend group lunches and browse a bookstore.
By creating a tentative plan, you will get so much more out of the conference.
Thomas: It’s harder to make decisions when you don’t have a plan. If you’ve been chatting with people for two days and feel really tired, it may be hard to decide which of two interesting workshops you should attend.
On the other hand, if you make that decision the night before, you will likely still attend, even if you feel tired.
How do you decide which workshops to attend?
Thomas: Writers often have trouble deciding which workshop to choose when two interesting workshops are offered during the same time block. To help you decide which would be better for you, ask yourself this question: In which workshop would I be more likely to want to ask a question?
The advantage of a live conference is that you have access to the teacher. Make it your goal to ask one question in every workshop. That simple practice will help you build your courage and make you a memorable student. It’s a way for the teacher and the other workshop attendees to get to know you.
You may sit next to someone at lunch who recognizes you as the person who asked a good question. It also builds goodwill with the teacher, especially if you are the first one to ask a question and break that awkward silence.
Dan: The faculty members are just waiting for someone to ask a question. I have no problem opening the question-and-answer session by saying, “Ask me anything.” It breaks the question-asking ice.
Thomas: In one of my professional speaking classes, we were trained to write the first question. The speaker opens the question-and-answer session by saying, “One question a lot of people ask …,” and they go on to answer that question. No one in the room has to go first because the next question is the second question. It puts everyone at ease.
What happens during the Write to Publish conference?
Dan: Keep your head up as opposed to looking down. If most writers are introverts, they won’t be the social gadflies that pop in to talk to everyone in the room. But even introverts need to make a decision to talk to one new person each day. A lot of relational skills come into play at writers conferences.
Remember that these nice people want to help you. You don’t have to over-share personal details immediately, but you can have great conversations with people by keeping your head up. Don’t give the impression that you were forced to attend.
Thomas: Bringing even one friend with you to the conference can help you feel more confident and make it easier to connect with others.
Another tip is to contact the conference organizer to see if they need help picking up faculty from the airport. It’s a great opportunity to spend one-on-one drive time with a faculty member. I’ve met many bestselling authors that way, and some of them have been guests on my podcast.
Dan: We have a travel coordinator who organizes rides, and there are half a dozen people who could be picked up at the airport. It would be nice if they could sit in the front instead of the back seat as they would with an Uber driver. But if you get the opportunity, don’t make them regret that you picked them up.
Thomas: As a faculty member, who’s been picked up by many authors, I can say I’ve never regretted the fun conversations I’ve had.
Dan: Because of the times we’re living in, we do have a required statement where we ask people to act decently toward one another. As with any gathering of people, you want to make sure you’re treating people well, exercising the fruit of the Spirit, and acting in ways that make for good interpersonal relationships.
Thomas: And make sure you’re following the Christian sexual ethic. The expectation at secular conferences is that people are sleeping with each other, and some of them come specifically to hook up.
The expectation at a Christian conference is that attendees will follow the Christian sexual ethic. However, attendees aren’t screened. Your pastor doesn’t have to vouch for you to attend. Anyone can come to a Christian writers conference and say that they’re a Christian, so keep that in mind.
Dan: All Christian writers conferences have a prayer team. The prayer team backs up the directors, speakers, and logistics. We are aware that spiritual warfare may be at play. When you’re flying over the target, that’s when the heavy flak hits you. Satan does not want Christian writers conferences to go off without a hitch. He does not want writers to be encouraged, so he will attempt to thwart the efforts. Every Christian writers conference is undergirded by a strong prayer team.
Thomas: Jesus warned that there would be wolves in sheep’s clothing who would sneak in and deceive. That’s why we need to judge people by the fruit they demonstrate. This is not unique to writers conferences, but I think a Christian writers conference is uniquely vulnerable because it’s typically a group of strangers.
Some writers conferences emerge out of a pre-existing writers community. Those conferences are perhaps less vulnerable because people know one another. It’s harder for someone to sneak in.
It’s the same at a church. At my church, if you want to serve in the children’s ministry, you need to have a history of being in the church community for a while. You can’t just join the church and work with kids the next week. We still do a police background check and observe whether the person is attending a small group as a member of the community.
What is a one-sheet, and why would a writer need one?
Thomas: Many writers come to a conference hoping an editor will give them a $50,000 advance and a publishing contract. Sometimes, authors use a one-sheet to pitch their books. What are they, and why would a writer bring one to a conference?
Dan: A one-sheet is a sheet of paper with information about you and your book. It might include:
- Author photo
- Author’s background
- Summary of the author’s platform
- Title of the book
- Short pitch for the book
- Number of words
- Expected completion time
- Summary of the table of contents
It does not include any text from your book.
It’s a summary of the author and the book they’re pitching. Keep your one-sheet simple. Writers typically want to reduce the font size and make it too dense. Strive to keep the font readable. An agent or editor should be able to look at your one-sheet and know what your book is about, who you are, what your marketing platform is, and how long it will take you to write the book.
Thomas: A one-sheet is like a query letter with a fancier design. Even though you should memorize your pitch, you can have that little paragraph in front of you to help you remember; and you can also slide the paper to the agent or editor, so they can see it.
Agents typically don’t want to receive manuscripts at conferences because it makes their carry-on luggage heavy. But they might be willing to accept a single piece of paper. The one-sheet is something they can take home with them.
Creating a one-sheet also helps the author put together a concise pitch. Even if they never give the sheet away, the act of putting it together forces them to think through their pitch. It gives them more confidence when they arrive at the conference.
Dan: Please include your picture on the one-sheet because five minutes after the conference is over, that editor or agent will not remember you if they don’t have a point of reference with a photo. They’re probably meeting with 75 other writers throughout the conference.
What else should I bring to the conference?
Thomas: You may want to bring a business card to make follow-up easier.
Most authors never follow up with the business cards they receive. But writing a short thank-you note to a speaker or another author you met can have a great impact. Even following them on social media can be beneficial, and it doesn’t take much work.
I recommend writing follow-up emails every evening of the conference while you still remember the person you met that day. That way, you don’t come home with a stack of business cards of people you don’t remember.
If you wait to follow up until you get home, be sure and schedule time to do. I recommend scheduling a whole day to debrief and recover. Don’t expect to be highly productive on the Monday after a conference because you essentially worked a 40-hour week in three days.
When you follow up, send an email or write a note saying, “It was great to meet you at the conference. Let me know when your book comes out. I can’t wait to buy it.” Imagine how encouraging it would be to receive that kind of email.
Dan: You may also want to buy a hardcover journal and take notes and jot reminders the whole weekend. Put a little star by the things that you need to do when you get home. If you don’t, you’ll forget everything.
Thomas: If you plan to have a booth at a conference and hand out swag, I recommend offering a bottle of Purell with your book cover on it. No one did it before the pandemic, but now they go like hotcakes. Not only are you getting your book in front of people, but you’re also doing the world a service because conferences have always been super-spreader events.
You could also give away pens. People are always looking for something to write with.
Some authors make the mistake of trying to promote their novels at a writers conference, but your target readers are not likely at the conference. If you’ve written a book for writers, that would be a different story. Writers at the conference want to know about books on writing, software for writers, and websites for authors. If you write Amish romance, go to an Amish romance conference to sell your book. Don’t spend money for a booth at ACFW to promote your military sci-fi. It’s not an effective use of your money.
Dan: A writers conference is a professional conference. If you view it as a quick way to sell 100 copies of your book, you’ll be disappointed.
What final tips or encouragement do you have for writers who want to attend the Write to Publish conference?
Dan: Go into it with your eyes wide open. You most likely won’t be getting a book contract and an advance. Manage your expectations and strive to meet long-term goals, rather than only short-term goals.
What makes the Write to Publish conference in Wheaton, Illinois, special?
Dan: We really love the community. In the Chicago area, we have Tyndale House Publishers, University Press, Crossway, and Moody Publishers. Staff from each publishing house will attend the conference. We also have a good community of writers in the area. Wheaton College is an excellent Christian liberal arts college. On campus, you’ll find the Billy Graham Museum and the Wade Center, which houses a large collection of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers’ books. You’ll actually see C.S. Lewis’s desk with a wardrobe in that museum. You can sit there and study or read.
We’re surrounded by Christian communications and literature. It’s a great place for the event.
Thomas: And it’s surprisingly affordable. Attendees have the option to stay on campus in a dorm room. You can also choose to have roommates, which makes it even more affordable, and ensures you’ll get to know at least a few people.
There are also hotels nearby if you want to use your points and stay at your preferred hotel.
If you’re feeling lonely in your writing and publishing journey, one of the best solutions is to meet other writers in real life at a conference.
Check out the list of faculty members on the Write to Publish website. Novel Marketing listeners can receive a discount of $50 on registration with the code TU2023.