January 11th, 2012 by Bob Mayer
How To Pick and Choose a Writers Conference

Excerpt from The Writers Conference Guide: Getting The Most Of Your Time & Money

Types of writer events

Finding the right conference can be a daunting task, especially for the new writer. The key is two-fold: first, where you are in your career and second, what is your overall strategic goal?

Before you go looking at conferences you must remember what you want to achieve from attending the conference. Are you looking to better your writing? Find an agent? Or expand your network? It is important to understand the differences between conferences, conventions, workshops, retreats, critique groups and brainstorming groups.


A gathering where writers, agents, editors and publishing industry professionals present workshops.  Many conferences also give you the opportunity to sign up for one-on-one short meetings (from 3 to 20 minutes) with agents and editors.  Conferences range from approximately 50 people to over 1000. Conference coordinators typically try to attract both unpublished and published authors by offering workshops in varying levels of craft and industry. Some conferences have specific Published Author’s only workshops and retreats. Most of these workshops are about the business side of publishing.

TNWIFConference(6)It’s key for authors to connect with agents and editors. It’s key for agents and editors to connect with potential new talent. Conferences help bring the publishing industry, from new writer, to published author, to editors and agents and publishers together under one roof. The bottom line for most writer organizations is to help the ranks of the unpublished to enter the ranks of the published, which means attracting the publishing industry professionals aspiring authors need to network with.


These are usually geared more toward fans.  almost every weekend there is a science fiction convention somewhere in the United States.  Romantic Times is an annual conference for readers of romance.  There are usually mixtures of business and craft workshops at these events. Conventions help connect the avid reader to authors. The feel of a convention is much different from the atmosphere of a conference. Since the purpose has less to do with getting authors published and more to do with readers meeting writers, often the dress is entirely different. We often see more of the outrageous attire at conventions such as Romantic Times, Dragon Con or Comic-Con. Most attendees are die-hard fans, and though some have a desire to write, they are generally there to meet their favorite author.

Conventions do have author workshop tracks regarding craft and the promoting aspect of the business, but the over all feel is less business and more mingling between fans and authors.


Run by a group or individual, a workshop is where a professional in the industry leads a small group of writers, focusing on their works in progress or a particular subject matter on which they are experts. These are great for those who want to focus on the specific topic of the speaker, whether it be craft, industry or a combination of both. While networking occurs, the main purpose is usually education.


A retreat is an event or place where a writer can go and work, usually cut off from the usual distractions, in the company of other writers. The purpose for those attending is usually a week away from life’s distractions. However, often retreat participants get together in the evening hours for critiques, or to talk craft or business. Many times, writers view such events as a published-only retreat, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If you need the occasional time away from your routine to finish a book so you can begin to market it, this just might be the place for you. Also, since it’s generally a small group, it does still lend itself as an opportunity in networking.

The Right Writer’s Conference For You

The number one source to find listings of almost every writers’ conference is Shawguides.

The listings in Shawguides allow you to break down your search by country, state, or type of book.  The listing will give you basic information about a conference, and there is usually a link directly to the conference web site.

The way a conference is listed in Shawguides is a good window into the variables you should be looking at.

Year established

This can give you an idea of longevity.  Remember, though, that new conferences are popping up to take advantage of digital publishing and self-publishing. The last several years have seen a lot of upheaval in conferences due to the economy.  The Maui Writers’ Conference, which was considered the premier conference for many years, is now defunct.  The Santa Barbara Writers Conference changed owners.  EPICon (Electronically Published Internet Connection Conference) is a good example of a relatively new conference that appears to be thriving as it caters to the epublished author.

Program description

This gives you an overview of what the conferences is about. Generally speaking, each year every conference has a theme and often times they cater to that theme via specific workshops and presenters. Note if the listing says editor and agent appointments are available.  That’s usually a big selling point for conferences so they normally make sure to announce it.  Notice the conference example we used is for both writers and readers, so it’s straddling the line between a conference and a convention, which is rare.

Program length

Most conferences run over a weekend.  Sometimes a conference will offer a pre-conference workshop.  Bob has done both his Write It Forward and Novel Writing Presentation for a half or full day before the normal start of various conferences and drawn upwards of 500 people.  Some conferences are just one day long.  One thing to consider about a conference that’s only one day is the lack of socializing and networking opportunities as people arrive and leave on the same day.

Group size

Two hundred is a good-sized conference.  At the height of the Maui conference, they topped a thousand attendees.  Small conferences can draw less than a hundred people.  The large conferences will tend to have “big name” speakers, people who are well known and have name recognition.  The problem with this is accessibility to the presenters.  Smaller conferences might not have the big names, but they’ll tend to offer more open formats, with more access to presenters.

Program focus

This will tell you if they’re going to cover your area.  At the fundamental level, there are two types of writers conferences:  genre and literary.  And rarely do the two meet.  Genre conferences usually focus on craft and the business of publishing.  Literary focus on ‘art’ and rarely have a business focus.  You can tell a lot about the focus of the conference by looking at who the presenters are.


We have found this a key consideration for the unpublished author. Look at all the presenters listed. Are the presenters people who teach something you need to learn? Have they achieved what you want to achieve? During your goal setting, you should look at authors who write the type of book and have the type of career you would like to have.  Go to those authors’ web sites and check their schedule.  Most will list what conferences they are going to present at or have presented at.  Go to conferences where the majority of the authors presenting are published in the type of writing you’re targeting.

If one of your goals is to pitch to editors and agents, go through the list of those attending, find out what they rep and who they rep. We’ll discuss pitching in depth later, but knowing who the agents and editors are ahead of time gives you the opportunity to prepare for the one-on-one pitch as well as chance meetings.

This is where clearly defining your goals will help you make the best decision possible. Ask yourself what is the one most important goal you want to achieve by attending the conference and how does that align with your overall career goal. Some writers go to conferences with no desire to pitch. It’s not they weren’t career minded, or didn’t want to enter the ranks of the published, but their goals at that current moment did not include pitching.


A conference can get expensive, but a well planned out conference will be worth the time and money. There a lot of things to consider when looking at conference costs and picking one over the other. Again, its important to have your goals right in front of you when you do a cost analysis between possible conference choices.  In the book we list all the things you have to consider for cost- it’s rather a long list.

You can help defray some costs.  Often large conferences have on-line bulletin boards where you can find a roommate or two and split the room fee.  Traveling with people from your local writing group can also help, but remember to not hang with the same people from home for the entire conference.  You can see them any time.  We’ll discuss this more under How to Socialize.


This lets you know how far you will have to travel.  Additionally, a factor to consider is whether the conference is being held at the same hotel you’ll be staying in.  Conferences that are held in locales like libraries or other venues where you can’t get a room to stay are weak for networking.  As we’ll discuss in How to Socialize, networking is as important, if not more important, than the actual workshops you’re paying money to attend.

Month/Time of Year

There are several things to consider here.  First, of course, is if you can go on the days the conference is scheduled.  Also consider location and weather.  There are two sides to that.  Maui was a big draw because a trip to Maui was a big draw for presenters.  On the flip side, a conference held in South Dakota in February can run the possibility of weather problems.

You also can consider combining a conference with a family trip, but the danger of that is that you’ll be disappearing for long stretches of time and will be exhausted when you rejoin your family.


When a conference has a schedule where workshops are less than fifty minutes long, we’re not a fan.  All our workshops need at least that much time and the presenters we’ve met over the years generally agree.

Does the conference have too many workshops scheduled competing with each other? That’s a good news/bad news situation.  Too many workshops mean there might be less people in each, giving you opportunity to talk to the presenters.  But it also means that if too many are at the same time, you’ll miss some you want to attend. Then the question is:  are they recording workshops and will those downloads/CDs be for sale?  At some conferences you can get every single workshop on CD.  Also consider, though, that if the presenter is using Powerpoint, you’ll be missing a key part of the presentation.

However, this is also a good opportunity to talk with other writers about workshops. You can compare notes with other writers who attended the workshops you missed. You can ask your chapter-mates, critique partners or even new writers you just met to get you conference handouts of those workshops you missed and you can do the same for them.

On the flip side, if there are too few workshops to choose from and those authors aren’t teaching something you want to learn, the conference might not be worth your time and money. It is important to ask yourself: do the workshop choices and presenters meet my needs and are they aligned with my goals?

Another thing to consider is time scheduled for formal socializing?  Does the conference have meals where people sit at tables according to genre, or are presenters encouraged to sit at tables where they mingle with the participants? Often conferences put presenters, keynotes, editors and agents at separate tables. When we present at conferences we prefer to mingle with all attendees, not just presenters. It gives us an opportunity to talk to writers, find out what they expect, are experiencing and also we learn from them as well. You never know who you are going to be sitting next to.

Who Runs the Conference?

Is it a writing group?  A continuing education department at a college?  A literary magazine?  Keep in mind that the group putting on the conference is going to determine the tenor of the workshops and the entire conference.

Keynoter Speakers

Some conferences bring in big name keynoters such as Nora Roberts, Lee Child or Jeffery Deaver.  Understand that access to these people will be limited.  Often, you won’t see much of the keynote speakers other than during their workshops, keynotes or panels.  Not that they aren’t sociable, but many have to also do their day job, write, while at the conference.  Also, often some of those keynoters might not have much to say that can help the novice writer when it comes current conditions on how to get published.

Other Presenters

This is one area that often goes un-noticed by conference attendees. As mentioned above, the big name authors might not have the time to socialize with the new writer for various reasons, but the newly published author might. When looking at the conference schedule, take the time to find out more about the other presenters. What do they write? Who is their agent? Where are they published? What are they teaching? These presenters are often full of great craft and industry information that can help you in your career.

While we don’t recommend approaching a speaker before their workshop, we do recommend thanking the speaker when their lecture is over if you don’t have to rush off to another workshop. It might be a good idea to wait in the hallway as the volunteers will be getting the room ready for the next presenter. If the opportunity to thank the speaker doesn’t present itself right after, try to do it during a scheduled social event. As presenters, we love to hear that our lecture was helpful in some way. Also, this is a good ice-breaker to start conversations. Writers love to talk industry and craft and share their publishing lessons with others.

Find Recommendations

Google a conference you are considering going to and look for blogs or other comments from past presenters and attendees. This is one of the best sources to find out what the conference is actually like and how it’s run.

Looping back to the first section, the most important factor in picking a conference is your goal.  What do you want to achieve?  Is your focus on learning the craft of writing?  Learning about the publishing business?  Which part of publishing:  traditional or non-traditional?  Is it networking?  Is it trying to find an agent?  Is it about helping to build your platform?

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3 comments to “How To Pick and Choose a Writers Conference”

  1. Dawn
     · January 11th, 2012 at 9:49 am · Link

    This is one of the best explained conference list ever. Thank you.

    And I’m so excited that you’ll be attending the Fantasy On The Bayou conference in New Orleans in March! Can’t wait to take your classes, Bob.

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  1. When Is a Writers’ Conference Right for You? | Crossroads Writers

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