July 27th, 2012 by Diana Peterfreund
So Many Gatherings, So Little Time…

Unfortunately, a family emergency required me to miss theme week, but I’m back to talk (a wee bit belatedly) about conferences, conventions, and other booky gatherings.

I’m in an interesting position as a writer because I’ve written in several different genres and each, it seems, has its own world of events. I think it’s also important to differentiate between a writing conference and a fan convention. Though many fan conventions have writing tracks, and many writing conferences have promotional opportunities for attendees, they have incredibly different flavors. The following details my experiences, which is of course very much depends on the shape my career has taken over the last ten years.

RWA is a writer’s conference for romance authors, and as an aspiring romance author, I went every year without fail for six years straight, as well as to many of the local chapters’ smaller conferences and retreats. This year’s National Conference is actually going on now. However, my attendance has dropped off, since there’s less an RWA conference has to offer me as a published, agented, non-romance writer outside of the occasional craft workshop and the chance to see old friends (see pic of my hugging pal Simone Elkeles and her RITA Award, in that order, in 2010). I’d probably be going this year, seeing as my new book is romancey, but scheduling did not permit. However, for an aspiring author, especially one in romance or women’s fiction, it can’t be beat.

The NINC Conference filled my desire for a published-author based writing conference for a few years, with amazing roundtables with editors and extraordinary day long workshops with research experts and storytelling masters. The 2009 NINC Con in St. Louis was the best writing conference I’ve been to in my life. In the past few years, however, its focus has switched almost entirely to indie publishing, which is not my focus. But again, if that’s your thing, the NINC Con is one of the most well run writer’s conferences on the planet.

RT is a very popular fan convention for romance and, increasingly, YA authors, especially of the type who write paranormal romance. I’ve never been, but I know several authors who swear by the event every year. It’s very expensive, though, and I’ve never taken the plunge, mostly because it falls at an inconvenient time of year for me.

The spec fic versions of RT are big fan conventions like Comic-Con and Dragon*Con, which can also be expensive if you don’t have help from your publisher. But I like to try to make it anyway, since when I’m at Dragon*Con, I’m a fan as much as I am a pro. This year, I’m headed back to Dragon*Con with my husband and our daughter (and a trunk full of costumes!) for days of fun, panels, and sightseeing. (That’s me in my clockwork can-can dancer outfit in 2009.) I just found out I’m to be on a panel with Mercedes Lackey, which made the 13 year old fangirl inside me squeal. Catch me there!

I’ve also this year gotten into more writer focused and smaller science fiction conferences, and attended the SFWA Nebula Awards weekend here in DC this spring (which, as you can probably guess by the organizers, is a writer conference). This was my first Nebulas and I had an amazing time, met a bunch of new friends, and even formed a singing group with RJ Anderson, Ellen Kushner, Lily Yu, and Franny Billingsley (pictured at right). And I’m going to be a guest at my first Capclave in October (organized by DC-area SF fans).

If I have a new book out, I’m always very eager for my publisher to schedule me at the industry expos like BEA, ALA, ALAN, NCTE, etc. etc. These conferences are historically focused on the gatekeepers: booksellers, teachers, librarians, etc., though they are increasingly drawing readers and book bloggers. (Pictured, because apparently all I do is take pics with my writer buddies, is me with the fabulous Malinda Lo at the Harper Booth at the 2010 ALA.)

It’s interesting to see the different types of gatherings different genres have. As a mainstream and children’s fiction author, I find myself attending a lot of book festivals, which are usually held outdoors or in bookshops instead of in convention centers, and are attended primarily by families, many who picnic. Specialties here include local-interest specialty publishers and authors, mystery writers, non-fiction writers, literary authors, picture book authors, and of course, brand-name stars as headliners.

I’ve been a guest at a wide variety of local book festivals, including the Baltimore and Annapolis Book Festivals, the New York Library’s Teen Book Festival, and I will be speaking at the Virginia Fall for the Book Festival this September as well as headed back to Charleston in November for the second annual YALLFest (a young adult book festival). The picture shows the incredibly kick-ass (and very hot) Zombies Vs. Unicorns panel at the 2010 Baltimore Book Festival, with Holly Black, Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld, Kathleen Duey, Carrie Ryan, and me.

The interesting thing about book festivals is that though they can be amazing (that Baltimore event pictured above was unbelievably awesome), they can also be a challenge. Some may draw local crowds that aren’t necessarily big genre readers or well-informed about the industry. They may not know what “young adult” means, or be familiar with books outside big blockbusters like The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter. It can be quite a change from attending a sci-fi fan convention or YA extravaganza where every attendee you meet has memorized George R.R. Martin’s entire backlist and can quote chapter and verse from Tamora Pierce. You really have to learn to tailor your conversation to your audience. (I attended one book festival panel where a panelist had to explain what a zombie was, and another where as a “children’s author” I was relegated to a tent with toddlers and a puppeteer, which… don’t get me wrong, I love puppets. I just don’t think the people who came to the tent were necessarily looking for sexy teen books about killer unicorns.)

As I go to all these different events for the first time, I’ve learned that they all have their own set of rules and culture. At Dragon*Con, I merrily sell copies of my books off a table alongside a dozen other authors, but apparently, that’s not expected at SF writer conferences (oops, lesson learned!) At RWA, they won’t even have your books at the literary signing unless they’ve been ordered by the organizers in advance (which can get sticky if the conference is held around your release date, as I learned with my debut novel). At some events, the attendees want to hear about how to become a writer, but at others, the focus is on the state of the industry, of literary criticism, or even just fan service.

The type of event that’s right for you is very much dependent on where you are in your career. Aspiring and newly-minted writers are going to get the most bang for their buck at conferences that focus on their needs, like RWA or SCBWI conferences. Though many fan conventions feature “writing tracks” with craft and industry workshops, they are a feature, not a focus, and you’re more likely to get face time with editors and agents at a writing-focused conference. So by all means, attend the writing tracks, but don’t attend a fan convention JUST for the writing tracks.

Published, established authors looking for writing conferences are going to derive the most benefit from those that cater specifically to you (see my NINC love, above). I go to fewer writing conferences these days and save my cash for master classes and workshops. And of course, published authors are going to spend more of their time reaching out to booksellers, librarians, and readers at fan conventions, industry expos, and festivals.

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