Writers’ conferences are amazing things.
You get to talk to other people who understand the joys and agonies of being an author, share tips for getting an agent or a publishing deal, find new beta readers, make new industry connections, and even get tips on how to find a cover designer or self-publish your book.
But when you’re around so many people who can help your career out, and you’re so excited about sharing your work, you can also accidentally goof up, making a misstep that makes you look less than professional and hurting your career instead of helping it.
Let’s take a look at 7 common mistakes writers make at conferences and how you can avoid them—and use the conference to boost your career instead!
1. Only Talking to People You Know
Conferences can be overwhelming. There’s hundreds of people all around, all talking and trading tips and generally being full of energy.
It can be incredibly tempting to just hole up with one or two people you know, perhaps from your writer’s group, sticking with them the entire time.
But if you don’t sit with someone new at lunch, or talk to the guy next to you at a panel session, or ask a question of someone at a signing, you won’t get the full conference experience.
You don’t need to interact with everyone, flitting around like a social butterfly, but you do need to talk to at least one person each day who you don’t know—preferably two or three people you’ve never met before.
You never know who might have a fantastic connection to the perfect cover designer or editor for you, or who might have a great tip for how to get unstuck on your current work-in-progress.
It’s not hard to start a conversation at a conference—you all have something in common, after all: writing!
Just head over to a table with a few people sitting at it during lunch and ask if you can join, then ask the table what everyone is working on. It’s a ready-made icebreaker!
2. Pitching All the Time
Remember, though: you should talk to as many people as you can at a conference, but you should never start pitching your book unless you’re invited to.
If you start talking with an agent or editor during lunch or a session break, that’s great! Ask them about their job, such as what they like best about their clients or their agency. Ask them how the conference has been for them so far. Ask them about their favorite moment of the conference, or the best session they’ve attended.
But don’t pitch them your book. If they ask, go ahead—but don’t just barrel ahead with telling someone what you’re working on unless they ask you to.
Overenthusiastic writers have even been known to corner agents in the bathroom to pitch—which is a darn good way to make sure that agent remembers you, but not in a good way!
3. Trailing Agents and Editors
Just like you shouldn’t start pitching someone unless they ask you to, you shouldn’t be following agents, editors, and faculty at the conference around or giving them manuscripts, promotional materials, or other items without their permission.
Agents and editors are people, too, and conferences can be just as overwhelming for them as they are for authors. Everyone deserves a little downtime, and no one likes to feel like they’re being stalked.
Unfortunately, some authors are so excited about their work and the prospect of meeting an agent that they’ve researched and decided would be a perfect fit that they forget that!
It might seem like you’re being creative to have a packet of promotional items delivered to a favorite editor’s hotel room, or to research the agent you’re interested in so that you can bring up her favorite restaurant or that vacation she took last month when you speak.
To the agent or editor, though, it’s kind of creepy—you’re trying to establish a business relationship, and starting that out by Google-stalking the person or following them around the conference to talk to them at every opportunity doesn’t give the impression that you’re going to be a great client who’s easy to work with.
Take a breath and calm down. You don’t need to keep popping up to talk to an agent or editor every five minutes, and you don’t need to put yourself at their table at every session or meal. If you do a good job with your pitch, they’ll remember you and look forward to getting your manuscript sample.
Stick to pitching on the conference schedule, remember that industry pros are people too, and stay professional. It’ll make a good impression and make it far more likely that you’ll start building the relationships you want.
4. Getting Ahead of Yourself
When you pitch your book, stick to pitching your book.
By that, I mean that you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself, outlining your plans for a major feature film starring Johnny Depp, a long-running video game franchise, and a theme park.
If you wrote a good book, there’s a chance those things could come…eventually.
But for now, you need to focus on selling your book to the right agent or editor. If you do, they’ll work to find ways to sell subsidiary rights like film rights, foreign translation rights, and more.
Insisting that you’ve got the next major property that will make Harry Potter look like a drop in the bucket doesn’t convince an industry pro that you have a hit on your hands—it makes you seem overconfident and like you might be a challenge to work with.
Focus on getting your pitch fine-tuned so that your book comes across in the best possible light, as the gripping and unique story that it is. The rest will come.
5. Not Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone
When you’re at a conference, you have a zillion opportunities to attend workshops and classes, get personalized critiques, pitch agents and editors, and more.
Take advantage of that!
Too many people attending writers’ conferences stick to a narrow track, only attending classes or panels in their area of interest, like fantasy, and never branching out to a scriptwriting class or a workshop on podcasting.
Attend at least one session that’s totally in left field for you, whether that’s on memoir or genre fiction or film making. You’ll learn something you had no idea about and will probably start seeing connections between different types of writing and different techniques that can help you make your writing even better.
Getting out of your comfort zone applies to other areas of the conference, too. If you’re nervous about sharing your work with other people, challenge yourself to pitch an industry pro or attend a critique session. Get feedback on your work and see if you can incorporate it into your next draft.
If you’re really nervous, dip a toe into the water by asking a question at a panel session or sharing a few ideas with someone you’re sitting next to at lunch. People at writers’ conferences are generally enthusiastic, engaged, and eager to help you build your writing career. Once you start talking to them, you’ll find that it’s less scary to think about sharing a page of your work or pitching your book.
And that’s where you’ll really start to benefit from constructive feedback, workshopping, and building your network.
6. Not Being Prepared
You can’t get the most value out of a writers’ conference if you don’t know what you’re looking to get—or if you’re not prepared to succeed there.
It doesn’t make sense to attend a conference and pitch a novel that you haven’t written yet—although nonfiction books are often bought based on a proposal, novels need to be totally completed, professionally edited, and ready to go.
If you pitch a great book that is only in the concept stage and the agent or editor loves the idea, you’ve only wasted everyone’s time—you can’t send a sample of the work and by the time you’ve actually written the book, the agent will have moved on to other projects and might not be interested anymore.
You can absolutely attend a conference if you don’t have a finished book—but understand that your experience will be different from someone with a completed manuscript. You’ll be looking for feedback on your concept and your writing technique, not for opportunities to pitch or sell your book or for critique on a polished piece.
You should also be prepared with some way to give people your contact information—you’ll be meeting tons of people who can support you along your author journey, whether that’s fellow writers or industry pros.
Not everyone wants to exchange phone numbers or texts, so you should have an author business card ready to go that directs people to your professional website and encourages them to sign up for your email list.
After all, your networking is only valuable if you stay in touch!
7. Not Following Up
All too often, authors don’t follow up on the connections they make at conferences.
This is completely baffling to agents and editors—why would you take the time and energy to create a great pitch for your novel, get up the courage to nail the discussion, and get a request for a sample just to drop the ball?
Maybe you’re nervous about having someone read your full manuscript.
Maybe you’re unconsciously self-sabotaging your career.
You had the courage and the drive to prepare your pitch and go after your writing dreams at a conference.
Make sure to follow up!
Send those sample pages out to every agent and editor who requested them, doing so promptly within a day or two after the conference.
Expect that it’ll take them awhile to get back to you—they probably have a stack of emails to go through after being away from the office for a few days—but make a note to follow up on that sample submission after three weeks.
And followup isn’t just for industry pros. If you spoke with a freelance editor, cover designer, audiobook narrator, or book trailer director that you’d like to work with, send them a note within a day or two of the conference to say hi.
Reach out to other authors who you enjoyed speaking with and keep the conversation going.
Stay in touch with your new writing friends, mentors, and peers, developing the relationships that will help nurture you throughout your author career.
Writing conferences can be great places to learn new techniques, make valuable connections, and pursue a book deal. But you have to put in some work and be ready to follow up promptly in order to make the most of your experience.
What are your best tips for getting the most out of a writers’ conference?
For more on building your network, check out these articles:
- Networking for Writers: Why You Absolutely Need To Be Easy To Find Online
- How To Find and Work with Book Review Bloggers
- How to Write an Outreach Email (plus a bonus email template)