Why should a writer attend a conference or convention?
There are a whole lot of reasons to go to a conference or convention. Many people go as much for fun as they do for business. It really depends on where you are in your writing career.
If you're unpublished, you might want to focus of conventions that offer a strong writing track and the chance to talk to small- and medium-press editors, who are often more receptive to new writers’ work. Steer clear of conventions that mainly focus on costuming or media. Look for conventions that offer publisher-sponsored parties, teas, and other events; they are prime opportunities to get to know people in the business.
If you have been selling short stories and have just finished a novel, you might want to look for conventions that offer the opportunity to pitch to book editors and reputable literary agents. While you can make good contacts at regional conventions, be wary of the agents featured at smaller conferences. Some convention organizers don't do a good job of distinguishing between genuine professional agents and well-intentioned amateurs (or worse, scam artists).
And if you’re a working writer, you’ll probably be looking for larger conventions that offer the best networking opportunities with editors and other writers as well as a chance to expose new readers to your work.
How can you decide (before you put your money down) if a conference is right for you?
Take a look at the guest/attendees lists — do you see the names of people you’d like to listen to or chat with? Take a look at the programming schedule, which might not be posted until a month or so before the conference. Do the panels and workshops and other events interest you? Now, look at the costs of attending the conference, not just the registration fees but also the hotel, air fare, etc. Can you afford this? The good news is that convention expenses are tax-deductible for working writers. But a tax deduction is no replacement for having money to live on.
How do you make a good impression at a conference?
First, focus on the fundamentals. Smile. Be pleasant. Make sure you and your clothes are clean and in good condition. Get some sleep. Don't emit a strong odor, be it bad breath or expensive cologne. Wear the kind of clothes the other pros will be wearing; this will be business attire at most romance conferences, business or dressy casual at literary conferences, but it can be a casual shirt and jeans at an SF or horror convention. Carry some attractive business cards, but keep them in your pocket until a new acquaintance asks how he or she can contact you. Be yourself and have fun, but don't show up for your pitch session wearing your entry for the costume contest (especially if you're going as Barney the Dinosaur).
If you've chosen writing as a profession or avocation, the chances are high that you're an introvert. Shy, even. Maybe the thought of going up to strangers fills you with anything from dread to panic.
Take a deep breath. Calm down. Networking isn't that bad, and like most other things, it's a learnable skill. All those editors and writers and agents you want to meet? Many of them are introverts, too. And while they're doing business, they're pretending to be extroverts, with varying degrees of success. (So keep this in mind if people seem weird. They're probably just trying too hard.)
Once you've pushed yourself past your comfort zone, your sense of social depth perception can suffer, and it's easy to inadvertently come on too strong and annoy the person you're talking to. Be mindful of personal space and avoid off-color remarks and jokes. Your risk of making a bad impression increases a thousand percent if you're drunk or flying high on your third Red Bull, so when you're in the bar and you want to do business, it's best to stick to tea or soda. But by all means, if the editor's glass is dry and she's looking longingly at the martini menu, offer to buy her a drink.
Don't pitch at people unless you're in an actual pitch session. You're not looking to corner an editor, you're looking for a conversation; if you're doing all the talking, you're probably doing it wrong. The best way to be interesting is to be interested. Ask the editor about his or her ongoing projects (provided the editor didn't just discuss them in detail at the Q&A panel you skipped out on). But don't make them feel they're being grilled or being asked too-personal questions; the worst thing you can do is to come off as a potential stalker.
But if things go well, you can have talks that give you valuable information about who's looking to buy what (and who you perhaps shouldn't submit to). Furthermore, a good conversation with an editor or fellow author will make you feel energized and excited about your writing prospects. And the very best conversations may be the start of new lifelong friendships.
What if you get there, and find things aren't what you expected?
Even a well-planned convention can end up with problems due to hotel errors, or high-profile guests may have to cancel at the last minute because of unexpected travel snags or illness. Because of this, it’s best to not pin all your hopes for a convention on a single guest attending or a single workshop, etc. Do your homework first and try to choose conventions that offer a wide range of events that will interest you.
If you arrive at a convention and at first it’s not what you expected, give it a chance. If you’re looking for the pro author guests and don’t see them, check the hotel bar — this is the prime hangout location for writers. If you came to meet other attendees and find the panels under-attended, check to see if there are going to be room parties later that people may be resting up for. Try to set aside your expectations and be open to what the convention has to offer.
But if it simply isn’t working for you, take a look around and see what other opportunities present themselves. If you’re in the middle of an unfamiliar but interesting city, take the opportunity to do some sight-seeing. You might be able to forge new friendships with other attendees who are similarly disenchanted with the conference. Or, visit local museums, libraries, etc. and do research for a new story or novel.
Also, once the weekend is over, you might want to send a polite, non-judgmental email to the convention chairs to let them know about the things that didn’t work for you or created problems for you. Again, politeness is key here; the organizers are likely unpaid volunteers who worked as hard as they could to put on a good event. They’ll want to know what went wrong for you so they can do better next time, but they won’t be receptive to your message if it’s disrespectful or ends in high-handed demands. Many conventions will offer membership refunds or free registrations to future conventions if there’s been a genuine at-con disaster.
If you’re pitching a book to an agent or editor at a conference, what do you need to do?
Make sure you know the rules of the pitch session going in, and make sure you’re following those rules. If you know who you’ll be pitching to, try to learn a little about the agent or editor and his or her tastes, and adjust your pitch accordingly. Practice your pitch on friends, and prepare pitches of different lengths. For instance, it’s always good to be able to describe your project in 30 seconds or less, but you’ll also want an intermediate and longer pitch that you can use depending on the circumstances. And it doesn’t hurt to have a back-up pitch prepared in case the agent or editor says “I don’t think that project will work for us, but do you have anything else?”
When should a writer consider NOT going to a conference?
Conferences are wonderful, but if you’re behind on your novel deadline, don’t go, unless there’s a truly compelling reason. You should also reconsider your attendance if going to the conference will send you into debt, or deeper into it. And if you have the flu, please stay home; the virus that gave you an annoying cough could land someone else in the hospital.
If you decide you must cancel and you’re scheduled to participate as a panelist or on other programming, be certain to let the organizers know as soon as possible so they can adjust their scheduling accordingly. It’s simply the polite thing to do.