Publishing conferences and events can be a valuable resource for many people in the publishing industry. In fact, you can often find BookBub representatives giving workshops or sitting on panels at these events, because we find the chance to connect with authors and other industry professionals invaluable. If you’re an independent or traditionally published author thinking about investing in a publishing conference this year or next, there are so many to choose from that the options can be baffling. Where’s the best place to start? How can you tell if the time and money spent will be worth it? It’s important to choose the right kind of conference — but how can you tell what kind is right for you?
With the help of some authors and publishing friends, we’ve compiled a quick author’s guide to publishing conferences, along with some handy tips and tricks. Have any tips to add? Leave them in the comments below!
1. Determine your goals.
As with any major marketing investment, it’s important to determine your goals for attending an event. What are you hoping to achieve? What will make this conference — and its associated costs — worth it for you? Here are just a few ideas to start you off:
- Sell books in-person to your target audience
- Meet some of your biggest fans in person and build on those relationships
- Build buzz and relationships with reviewers and bloggers
- Connect with agents, editors, and other industry professionals
- Learn about industry trends
- Build your network of author connections (and author friends!)
Be clear and realistic about your goals so you can pick the conferences that are right for you, and then evaluate your success after attending! While goals like “sell books” or “sign and distribute 100 promotional copies” are infinitely more measurable, “making new author friends” can absolutely be a worthwhile goal as well — just make sure you’re comfortable spending money without a direct financial return on the investment. Setting expectations will help ensure that you spend your marketing budget wisely.
2. Do your research.
Scope out the conferences most relevant to your goals and research their primary purpose. Here is an overview of a few main categories of publishing conference that you should be aware of, with some quick tips on each.
These are conferences aimed at publishing employees, booksellers, and the media. While there can be good reasons for authors to attend these conferences, the conference organizers for this type of event are primarily catering to industry employees looking to connect with each other; for example, a publisher’s sales reps and marketers might attend with the goal of telling bookstore buyers about their upcoming big books. This group of conferences includes catch-all trade shows and rights fairs like BookExpo and the London Book Fair.
Industry meetings take place on the show floor of the London Book Fair 2017
When considering attending these industry-facing conferences, keep in mind that most of the attendees are there for specific, work-related purposes. Often, unless you are part of an event or signing, it’s unlikely they’ll have the time and energy to interact meaningfully with any author attendees.
If you’re sending yourself [to a conference], be realistic and ask yourself what you’re planning to achieve from this show… FOMO is certainly real, but pay attention to how much energy (not to mention funds!) you’re spending and what you’re getting out of it.
Writing workshops and author-focused programs
These conferences and workshops are created specifically for author attendees. Membership organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and creative writing programs like GrubStreet host conferences with an emphasis on writing and craft, and they often feature panels and talks about the industry as well, with an eye toward helping authors learn and grow their craft or trade.
This type of event can offer authors unparalleled access to industry professionals, since these professionals specifically attend to talk to authors and help them grow as artists and businesspeople. Sometimes these conferences will offer the chance to sign up for 1:1 sessions with agents or editors — you’ll be getting anywhere from ten to thirty minutes of a professional’s undivided attention! For authors seeking traditional book deals, this might be the start of that journey — and for independent authors, the advice and insights these industry experts offer can be invaluable.
Industry AND author-focused conferences
Some conferences meld together elements of both craft-focused conferences and trade events. A few good examples include Bouchercon, the Romance Writers of America’s annual summer conference (RWA), and Novelists, Inc. (NINC). These conferences have programming across a wide variety of topics and can feature speakers from every part of the publishing world.
With programming across dozens of topics and attendees often in the thousands, these conferences can be hard to assess for a first-timer. The best way to decide if these events are right for you? Testimonials! Ask your friends who’ve attended these events what they found valuable, read online discussion about the conference in past years, and follow event hashtags to see what is being discussed while the conference is taking place. These events can vary widely in content and quality, so it’s important to do extra research to find the best fit and to craft a strategic approach to the event itself.
For me, I find NINC to be a great conference to focus on the business side of writing as well as networking with my peers. RWA, on the other hand, is valuable for a romance writer at any stage because there are craft and business tracks, as well as opportunities to learn about publishing trends (both indie and traditional) as well as the chance to meet and/or hear some of the Grandes Dames of Romance speak and share their stories and lessons.
With most of an author’s career spent at the keyboard, going to the RT Booklovers Convention allows us to meet readers, authors, and other industry professionals to make that personal connection. Aspiring authors can attend workshops that give them the ins and outs of the book business straight from the people who know best.
Consumer-facing conferences or “fan” events
Consumer conferences are specifically for readers to connect with authors — they can get their books signed, discover new books, and attend panels to get behind-the-scenes information about their favorite books and authors. BookCon, YALLFest and YALLWest, and many more fall into this category. Some authors even attend cons beyond the bounds of traditional book publishing, such as Comic-Con.
As an author, unless you are featured on a panel or as part of an event, the benefit of attending a conference of this type is to find like-minded artist friends and form a stronger community within your genre.
Attending a fan con connects you with people who you know are already passionate about a subject — so much so, that they’ve decided to spend the time and money to be with other like-minded people. These are the people that you know can be swept up into worlds… Plus, they’re super fun! I highly enjoyed my time at Leviosa Con in 2016, a Harry Potter con where we all — myself included — could talk about the books we loved. It provided a forum where we could bond over our shared admiration and organically talk about how Harry Potter affected our lives, and in my case, inspired me to write!
As Kamilla notes, be sure to select a conference on a topic or genre that is truly a passion for you. Author friends can be useful marketing allies when it comes to cross-promoting books, but at the root of these connections are invaluable bonds of friendship.
3. Start planning early — and get involved.
If you’re going to get the maximum benefit from a conference, involvement is key. Whether your aim is to gain exposure with industry professionals and media, or to reach new readers, being featured on a panel is a great way to achieve that goal. Also, connecting with your co-panelists is an easy way to meet new authors and learn from other industry members!
The best kind of show for any author to attend is one where a solid amount of focus can be given to the author and her/his book amidst that book’s ideal audience of purchasers and influencers. This means panels, keynotes, or talks. Attendees who already read that genre. Speed-dating sessions or a meal spent pitching booksellers or librarians. Also, as a marketer, I’m all about targeting. Time spent with smaller and focused groups can be far more effective than casting a wide net at a show like BEA!
While getting involved in the programming may seem difficult for an author just releasing their first book, it’s not impossible!
Some conferences actually prefer to hear from the author personally when they start putting panels together. Talk to your author friends who have been featured in the past, and find out how they managed it and whether they can refer you to a conference organizer. For traditionally published authors, consider offering to pay the expense to go to an extra conference — your marketing team may be able to pitch you for a panel or signing (but remember that these events get booked up early).
Traditionally published and indie authors alike can get involved by volunteering to help out. Many conferences rely on volunteer staff — as do the organizations running them. Becoming a volunteer is one of the best ways to get to know your fellow authors in an organization, get involved, and perhaps even find some opportunities to participate in programming.
4. Review the programming carefully. What will you be learning?
Some of the best conferences can be immensely helpful just from an educational perspective. As we’ve mentioned already, many of these conferences include programming geared toward authors, whether about craft, the business of publishing, marketing your work, or otherwise.
If upon careful review of the programming you feel you have a lot to learn from the speakers, attending can be a great investment of your time and resources!
Access to industry professionals and the wealth of knowledge they bring to panels, sessions, and critiques is invaluable.
There are countless sources of craft and publishing information available online, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there as well — sometimes it can be best to go right to the source, hearing information and tips directly from successful authors and industry professionals.
5. Scope out the networking opportunities.
Networking might be one of your primary goals, whether you hope to chat with book bloggers, make new author friends, or meet with industry professionals. How can you tell if the conference you’re considering offers enough networking opportunities? Consider these three factors:
Is the conference specialized enough to meet people in your niche?
If you write fantasy books, you may not have a lot in common with an author writing books for young children, or a writer working on a memoir. In order to best swap tips and tricks and increase the likelihood of building valuable connections, look for conferences within your field of work.
For example, SCBWI plans relatively small events specifically geared toward aspiring and current authors and illustrators in the children’s book world. This makes it easier to find like-minded friends or to meet editors and other industry professionals who focus in that genre. Similar organizations exist in most genres — find the right group for you, and invest your time and money there.
Writing and illustrating are both very solitary professions, so going to conferences helps you find your tribe. We hear from our members all the time about the friendships they form and critique groups they become part of.
Does the conference create space for author networking?
Some conferences — especially those geared primarily for industry professionals — allocate most of the programming time to panels, talks, and pre-arranged meeting slots for rights representatives and agents. If there aren’t any dinners, parties, or networking hours designated for authors to meet one another, you may struggle to find an appropriate time to network.
Is the conference overwhelmingly large?
While some people thrive in large, bustling conference environments, many of us might struggle to identify the right group to chat with. Large conferences are also more likely to be cliquey. Think about it: If 20 people from a single publisher are attending, or 20 authors who already know each other are going as a group, you may have trouble breaking in and making meaningful connections since they are likely to stick together. There are conferences of all sizes out there, so if you think you’d be more comfortable making connections in a more intimate environment, it might be worth starting small. Know your strengths and consider your networking style when making conference selections!
6. Evaluate the costs and benefits.
Ultimately, only you can weigh the benefits of a conference against the potential costs, since the potential upsides can include networking, learning new industry tricks, and making new author friends — and it’s hard to put a dollar amount on any of those benefits. However, when evaluating costs, don’t forget to include travel expenses such as hotel costs, plane tickets or gas and tolls, food, and so on, as well as the cost of the conference itself. Conferences can be expensive, but hopefully with careful consideration, you’ll find the spend to be worthwhile.
That said, don’t jump into an expensive conference just because your author friends are doing it. As Alana of HarperCollins reminded us, “FOMO is real,” but it doesn’t have to dictate your actions. Not every author can afford constant travel to events and festivals, and that’s okay. Check into your local programming if you’d like to find ways to make your event plans more affordable, or look for online festivals and webinars like ALLi’s Indie Author Fringe. Between author events in local bookstores and libraries, regional literary festivals, local chapters of organizations like RWA and SCBWI, online author conferences, and more, there could be events within driving distance (or the distance it takes to walk to your couch) that can help you achieve a lot of your goals without the hefty price tag!
Have you attended a publishing conference this year, or do you plan to? Tell us your tips in the comments!
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