To Writer’s Con or Not To Writer’s Con

Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference, Colorado Springs, CO

Every year I try to attend at least one writer’s conference, just to keep in touch with current trends, to meet published and aspiring writers, and to learn new tidbits of information to share with my network. As a result, several of my next few publishing posts will be about things I learned from workshops or collected into a list of tips from this year’s conference. This year—and most years, to be honest—the writer’s conference I attended was Pikes Peak Writers Conference. It’s typically held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but it was virtual this year for understandable reasons.

Pikes Peak has a great reputation as one of the nicest conferences in the U.S. and they work hard to maintain that status with everything from carefully vetted speakers to an entire class at the beginning of each conference to help newer attendees get their bearings. This means two things about this conference. First, it’s a great place to get started if you’re new to writer’s conferences and not sure how to jump in. Second, it’s not going to have as much advanced material as some of the other conferences around, and as a result some people have found it’s usefulness dwindling as they gain experience in the world of writing and publishing. The real question is this: Is this conference, or any conference, worth your time and money?

Difference Between a Writer’s Conference and a Convention

First, let’s define something. There are two types of in-person (or occasionally virtual) events where you can potentially meet other writers and attend classes that will teach you some things about writing. One is a writer’s conference, typically characterized by exclusively offering educational meetings and sometimes network sessions. Conferences are typically quite expensive, ranging in most cases from $200 to $900 or more, but they have a lot of very important benefits that I’ll list below.

The other type of event where you might meet writers and attend classes is a convention. Many fan-based conventions like Comicon, Gencon, or PopCultureCon (for places where Comicon sued and made the organizer change the name) have workshops for aspiring writers. These are often taught by famous authors, at least in the case of the big name conventions, and are often very, very generalized in content. It’s not that you can’t get great information there. That’s just not the point of the event. The best use of one of these conventions is actually after you’re published, when you can spend some of your time marketing your book to the other attendees, who may be interested in trying a new author out who shows interest in the games, TV shows, or other activities they’re already interested in.

On the bright side, most conventions that offer writing workshops are actually a lot cheaper than many writer’s conferences. Gencon, for example, is one of the biggest gaming conventions in the U.S. and is where I attended several of my earliest writing workshops for the entrance fee of about $100. I learned things from those workshops, but I also spent a decent amount of the time writing in my notebooks instead of listening because the speaker was going over something I already knew.

I never spend time at a genuine writer’s conference writing unless it’s late at night in my hotel room after everyone is asleep. There’s too much else to learn.

Benefits of a Writer’s Conference

Now that we know what a writer’s conference is (and how it differs from the conventions some of us have already been attending), let’s evaluate the benefits. There are a lot of great reasons to attend a writer’s conference. For starters, many of them allow you to schedule a session to pitch your project directly to an agent or editor looking for new clients. This is an opportunity you can’t get elsewhere, but it’s also not the only benefit of a conference. Here’s a list of some great benefits you can get from attending a writer’s conference:

  1. Much higher request rates on one-on-one pitching. This feels a bit like my original comment, but it’s important to understand why this is true. It’s not that a conference is some magical place that puts all agents and editors into the mind-frame to accept manuscripts (although the best ones do feel magical sometimes). What’s actually going on is that the agents and editors who attend conferences are specifically there to find new projects and new clients. That’s why they go. You attend conferences to learn about writing or publishing and to network with other writers. Agents and editors go to conferences to network with other agents and editors for their future publishing deals and to find new clients. As a result, if you walk into a pitch session with a decent pitch and a well-written story, there’s a very high chance you’ll get a request for at least a partial manuscript. You’re one person out of maybe 25-30, and they want to look at multiple people from that list. If you send a decent query letter for a well-written story to an agent’s e-mail, you’re one person in probably a hundred queries they got that day, and they can’t possibly request pages from even one person every day without overloading themselves. It’s just less competition at a conference.
  2. Networking with other writers. Never underestimate the value of having writer friends. They aren’t just people to talk to when you feel bad about your writing or swap critiques with. Brandon Sanderson tells a story in his class at BYU about his first publishing contract. How did it happen? A writer he knew from his old writing class introduced him to an editor at a writer’s conference. I got my first partial request from an editor at a writer’s conference, and at that same conference I can’t even remember how many people I bragged to about my close friend who had a book coming out that year. How many sales did I get her? I don’t know, but it wasn’t zero. And if you decide to self-publish, no one knows more about finding a good editor and cover artist than another self-published author. Writer friends will open doors you didn’t even know existed. This is the single most important part of a writer’s conference.
  3. Learning to be a professional, and to be seen as a professional. This is a hard one, because no one can teach this to you. You just learn it via osmosis from being at a conference and watching people. You’ll sit on a bench and watch an author walk up to an agent and say “Hey, sorry to bother you, but I noticed you said in the last workshop that you were particularly interested in ghost story fantasy novels. I’m so curious about that concept. What specific things about ghost stories interest you?” And next thing you know they’re talking about things and the writer is naturally leading into mentioning that they have a ghost story fantasy, actually, and maybe the agent would like to take a look. And you, the innocent bystander, think how did they do that? The short answer? They researched the agent ahead of time, went to that agent’s workshops, prepared questions related to the agent’s work, and paid attention to what the agent said. And yes, I know that answer isn’t short. Neither is the process of preparing to pitch an agent. But watching that author and talking to authors who know how to do that will teach you what professional image you want and how to create it. Do you want to be a conference presenter? Great! Research a topic and become enough of an expert to justify them giving you a workshop. Do you want to just be a moderator? Conferences always need moderators, and it gives you the chance to schmooze with the agents and editors, which is a different kind of professional look. Pick what you want to be and use the conference to help build it.
  4. Some small amount of feedback on writing. It is relatively common for writer’s conferences to have a type of session that is a genuine writing workshop. In these, attendees submit some writing before the session and a panel of publishing professionals (or sometimes just one professional) gives some feedback on the writing. This isn’t your entire book—often it’s only the first 16 lines or sometimes the first couple pages—but just hearing how a professional views the writing can be of immense help.
  5. Some useful information. There is some great information in the workshops at writer’s conferences. Experienced authors talking about their process, and the complications they always face every time they try something new even in a genre they’re comfortable in. Experts giving lectures on the career they worked in for decades that you can apply to your project. Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference has had a coroner and infectious disease expert give a talk about the process and stages and ways of dying. At another conference they had an FBI profiler give a talk about how that profession actually works. Spoilers—Criminal Minds isn’t realistic. It’s all great information. And it’s also pretty much all on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong. There are some topics it’s better to sit in a lecture with a professional and study, but for the most part conferences don’t tell you anything you can’t eventually find somewhere else for free. Often on Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube channel. As a quick aside, I recommend Sanderson above other authortubers primarily because established authors are, in the vast majority of cases, better at telling other writers how to apply processes without criticizing different styles. Sanderson is a heavy outliner who has massive respect for discovery writers. Most heavy outliners on YouTube will tell you discovery writing is less effective, only for inexperienced writers, or simply not viable at all. Sanderson may tell you about his process, but he’ll never tell you his process is inherently better than yours.

Writer’s Conference Disadvantages

As much as I love writer’s conferences, they aren’t all sunshine and roses and for some people it’s a terrible idea to attend them. The first reason why is not going to surprise anyone. They are expensive. I said above that conferences can cost between $200 and $900 or more. That’s slightly inaccurate. I have researched a number of conferences all over the United States and I ahve only found one conference that is regularly less than $400. It’s a conference in Reno, Nevada that lasts a day and a half, costs about $150 just to get in, and an extra $25-$50 per appointment if you want to pitch any editors or agents or get any feedback on your writing. So, at the Reno conference I could pay $150 entrance fee, $50 to pitch one agent, another $50 to get some feedback on my first page, and only spend a day and a half at the entire event for that $250. At Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference I get all of Friday, all of Saturday, and typically 2/3 of Sunday filled with classes and networking, plus I can pitch as many agents or editor’s as appointments the conference has to spare and get feedback on my writing all in the base price of $450-ish. If I can afford the latter, it’s just a better deal. But even Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference is a relatively cheap conference. The San Francisco conference is regularly around $900, the couple in Utah are around $600 last I checked. Writer’s services are good business.

Money isn’t the only disadvantage, either. Some people have social anxiety. Imagine being someone who struggles with large crowds and doesn’t read social cues well spending three days at a conference hotel packed with strangers all trying to walk up to random people and make friends. Some people know most of the information from the workshops and already have an agent. That knocks out three and a half of my points above, because that person has an agent if they need feedback on their writing, they already know writers, they already know the information, and they’ve clearly made some good progress on the professionalism front. Maybe they could pitch to an editor they’re hoping to snag for a future project, but they don’t need to. They have an agent for that.

And the last disadvantage is one I can’t stress enough. If you aren’t experienced enough in writing, then a conference is just wasting your money. If you’re thinking about writing a book, then start writing and do some YouTube research before you go to conference. If you have a critique group that’s telling you all your work is really heavy on telling and not feeling unique, don’t go pitch that novel to an editor at Del Rey who’ll have to look at you and ask “Okay, but why do I care?” I definitely did that, and while I learned a lot at that conference, I also wasted the money I spent going there. I didn’t know how to use the conference right.

This is my point. Conference is a tool and you have to be able to use it properly in order for it to do you any good. Don’t pull out your power saw before you know what you’re building.


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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