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What I Learn from Conferences

2017 was, for me, the year of the conference. I managed to fit in eight this year, something I haven’t done since the early days of BookEnds. Back then I was going to conferences as a way to let people know I existed. Websites were around, but the way people found agents back then was through books, and the books I was going to be listed in weren’t published yet. So I was counting on conferences and word of mouth. Word of mouth still exists, but the word travels so much faster these days.

This year I’m not sure what happened, but I booked myself solid. I was in Toronto, Key West, Bethesda, Seattle and a few places in between. I networked with clients, editors, publishers, marketers, and authors, both published and unpublished. I had wonderful times and I had, close to, miserable times. And I learned a lot about conferences, myself, and authors.

Some observations:

1. I enjoy conferences so much more when I have free time. This last conference in Toronto, Bouchercon, is an industry conference and I had lots of free time. I enjoyed a wonderful dinner with two colleagues, I met one-on-one with a number of BookEnds clients (most of these were scheduled in advance), I attended publisher cocktail parties where I reconnected with former colleagues, met new authors, and connected face-to-face with editors I’ve always talked to, but have never met. I even got some time to explore the city and shop at a few beautiful independent bookstores. I also sat and talked about the business with a couple of authors who are not clients. Sometimes I was quizzed with questions on how things work and other times we just chatted (I enjoyed both equally).

2. I love just chatting. I love it when an author introduces herself and we share a drink or cup of coffee and she quizzes me on what I know about publishing. I love sharing my knowledge.

3. Men are more willing to network and put themselves out there. Whether this is actually true or not I don’t know, but consistently from conference to conference I would find it was the men who were willing to come up and strike up a conversation with me, who would wave me down and remind me that we’ve met before, and who would invite me to join them so they could quiz me on everything I know about publishing. I’m not sure if we women have had it drilled into us that we don’t want to bother people, but it made me sad for all the women who were too nervous or shy to come out from the corner and join me or ask me to join them. I also noticed that a group of men were more willing to have you join them where groups of women seem a little put out when you walk up to their conversation. I am more than happy to be challenged on this, but this was my experience at many of the conferences I attended. And of course this does not apply to ALL men or ALL women.

4. When I’m wandering the bar or lobby I’m there looking for someone to have a conversation with. Please, pull out a chair and ask that agent if she’d like to sit down. It could be a valuable networking opportunity for you.

5. I love speaking, doing creative panels (something more than just meet the agents), and workshops. I love teaching and interacting with authors and find that these types of things are what I’m best at.

6. I’m over all-pitch conferences. I understand that pitches are a vital part of the conference, but I will only commit to 1-2 hours from now on. I think my time is more valuable elsewhere (Pitchfest might be the exception).

7. I really, really love just talking with people. I love hearing about careers, plans, books, and I love giving my professional opinion (it’s why I have a blog). I just think I love it on a more casual basis and not an overly booked, exhausting schedule.

8. We all spend far too much time on our phones. When sitting in the lobby, riding the elevator, or standing in line for coffee I made a conscious effort to put my phone away (even when it was buzzing with work chatter). We can’t network with our eyes on our phones and no one will approach us if we’ve made ourselves unapproachable. Instead of using the phone as a way to feel comfortable we all need to sit and watch, observe, and strike up conversations with those people standing right next to us. You never know who you’ll meet at a conference or what will happen from that meeting.

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5 comments

  1. Those are good lessons to learn and thanks for reminding me of them. I know I often feel nervous at conferences to join conversations with strangers or to approach that agent to chat. I think I’ll look back at this post right before my next conference as a reminder to put myself out there a bit more and see who I might meet.

  2. I followed your conference schedule via your posts last year, and you wore me out! I agree, though, on the importance of talking to others in the publishing business at conferences. I have learned more about publishing and writing while sitting in the bar listening to other authors or edits and agents who are willing to invite me to eavesdrop than at any panel or workshop anywhere. There is so much collective knowledge, and the bulk of the professionals attending conferences, whether editors, agents, or authors (or any of the myriad careers that come together over books) generally love to talk business.

    So glad you survived the “year of the conference” with sanity and health moderately intact!

  3. I’ve always wished I had a sign with me to hold up in elevators at some conferences for when editors and agents got on. It would say, “Hi, I’m not going to assail you. Have a good day.” So many industry professionals look quite nervous when they get on elevators. Lovely, and refreshing to hear a different side of the story.

  4. I’ve only ever been to conferences where the majority of attendees are women (say 98%). So can’t comment on conversation strike rates, but I have learnt over the years that I get a lot more out of conference when I broaden my engagement to those outside my friendship group.

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