The Changing Face of Writers’ Conferences

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 06 2020

The last of my writers’ conferences has been canceled for 2020. What was to be my bigget conference year in a long time. I was to attend SIWC, Thrillerfest, and Flathead Writers. And then, of course, there are big industry events like BEA, LBF, Bouchercon, and many others. I’m disappointed. So are many.

The cancelation of conferences, social distancing, and remote workplaces have me thinking a lot about how we do business in publishing and how we will do business in the future.

While it’s easy to see how workplaces might adapt, conferences are different. Many are struggling to figure out how to fill the hole and many agents are wondering what their role will be.

BookEnds and Writers’ Conferences

I have written a lot about my concerns about conferences. How they aren’t entirely fair to writers and are often cost-prohibitive for agents. I’ve also talked about how the BookEnds blog, YouTube, Twitter, and even our Instagram presence came from my feelings about conferences, and mostly my desire to reach more people than a single conference can.

This is different though and I suspect far-reaching. Who knows if conferences will be able to recover financially from this year, who knows if authors will be able to afford to attend next year. Who knows if they’ll want to.

As many of you know, BookEnds has made an effort to create even more content than normal during this time. We want to give you something positive to focus on and hopefully inspire you along the way. And content is great, but even I don’t think it fully replaces what you get from a conference — networking (with agents and authors), the energy, the bond you make with others.

The New Face of Writers’ Conferences

Some conferences asked that we continue on with our schedule, but remotely. That means Zoom workshops, panels, and pitch sessions.

After much thought and discussion, we’ve declined most of them.

Workshops, panels, and pitch sessions take a lot of time and even virtually this is a full day of work. But this time, unlike when we attend a conference in person, there is nothing to gain for us. We aren’t networking, with other agents, editors, or even authors. We are simply taking pitches.

I’ve been honest about this for years. Pitch sessions don’t get us clients. They are something agents do to give back to the community and for conferences. But we don’t get clients through pitch sessions. We get them through queries.

So to spend an entire day giving back without getting is asking a lot of agents. Honestly, I can’t afford to give up an entire day in the office, or an entire weekend if I can’t see the returns.

I’ve offered to replace my conference time with a 1-2 hour zoom meeting, but I can’t personally justify pitches, especially when I’m open to queries. If you planned to meet me at any of these conferences query and put the conference name in the referral section. To me, that’s the same as a pitch.

There’s no telling what the new face of the conference will look like, but it must be different from the old way conferences have been done. Businesses, conferences, and authors included, who use this time to rethink their practices, and improve them, are the ones that will succeed the best.

Now is the time, more than any, for conferences to rethink their goals and focus and for authors to rethink what they expect and want out of a conference. Maybe virtual conferences will work, but not if they are only a virtual version of what everyone has always done.

8 responses to “The Changing Face of Writers’ Conferences”

  1. Avatar Robin Benton says:

    Nothing will replace the networking opportunities of conventions in my opinion. However, You may want to consider a Facebook Live event. Schedule it to happen at the same day each week. An attorney I am acquainted with has done this and now Friday’s with Eric has become a regular meeting place for not only other professionals in his field, but also clients and others who enjoy the format. The nice part about it is the way he structures it to be fun, informative and also interacts with those who attend.

    I think the fascinating thing about it is the way people at the event are also interacting, helping each other and making contacts in the chat area of the event. In a way, it is as close to a ‘convention’ as you can get without being there. I have made new contacts from people at the event as well as learned a great deal from it.

    I understand your concern about those who want to make a pitch. Eric’s concerns about being asked for free legal advice is addressed at the beginning of each session where he tells everyone, he is not their lawyer. He has made it clear the event is about sharing information to help everyone and I’ve seen him simply ignore those who attempt to get him to answer a specific legal question.

    Facebook Live Events won’t replace conventions but it could provide you with a platform to share while making contacts. And no, I’m usually not a fan of Facebook but in this one instance I have found it to be a great way to interact with others in my field. Just thought I’d share my experience with you and thank you for your blog. I enjoy it!

  2. Avatar Hanh Bui says:

    Dear Jessica,
    I want to say thank you for being truthful and transparent about the world of publishing. In this time of uncertainty when so much in publishing is even slower than normal, it does give us writers hope to continue to learn about the process. I’m using this time to continue to develop my stories and to learn about the business. Your YouTube videos and posts are always so helpful and packed with good information to empower writers. I’ve learned so much from you and feel more prepared to handle different steps on my writing journey. Thank you so much for your time and support of all writers and illustrators. I appreciate that your kindness extends beyond your clients. My best to you.

  3. Avatar Tim Reynolds says:

    A wonderful post, Jessica! This is much the same about pitch sessions that I heard privately from a straightforward senior editor with one of the big five houses. In fact, it was a query that got me my agent (BookEnds’ very own Naomi Davis!) despite plenty of networking and pitching at conferences.

  4. Avatar Karen Shaw says:

    A rethink will need to be done on the way we do so many things and the interactions we have with others. I think many of the ways we conduct ourselves will need to change. Especially our culture of gathering en mass. What an interesting time. There are such brilliant , creative minds in the world of writers, agents. publishers, etc., and in the world of everything, that this time for a change will be fascinating and a chance to do things differently.

  5. Avatar joan ramirez says:

    Thank you so much for the honest opinion re conferences as a way to get agents.
    I just can’t afford it anymore.
    My job has been furloughed. Don’t know when I’ll return.
    I’m editing my novels to pitch to agents directly.
    I think they have merit as I’ve done tons of research and edited authentically.
    By the way, I find your postings very helpful.
    Stay safe. The writing community needs you.

  6. Avatar Colleem says:

    I liked reading your insight on this. As a beginning writer, I really thought pitches at conferences would be better than queries since you were face to face discussing your story. This was quite eye-opening to hear your perspective of it. I still like conferences since they seem to recharge and motivate a writer, so I personally hope they continue. But I’m in agreement, in person is the best way to have these. Thank you for your continued blogs and YouTube videos. They are most appreciated!

  7. Avatar AJ Blythe says:

    I agree, the networking and face-to-face with friends is one of the significant elements of conference that won’t be able to be replaced by something online.

    While I know and understand your position on pitches, for a writer it can also be a fabulous opportunity to get face time with an agent to discuss their ms. It isn’t always about getting a request for pages. Does the query blurb work? Have a nailed the genre/word count? Is it appealing? What’s the market like now for this genre?

    This makes the difference between a slush pile query and a pitch and can be why quite a few requested ms are never submitted.

  8. Avatar Marcia Fowler says:

    Jessica, I fully appreciate all you’ve been doing during the pandemic. I subscribe to your YouTubes and love the interaction between you and James. You’ve been able to keep the strong content going, even when it’s just you or when the two of you join together from your respective homes.
    Like many of your readers, I missed out on a conference this year, the NESCBWI in Springfield, MA. But listening and watching your videos has been a silver lining. I feel like a kid again waiting for the mail to arrive. “Did my penpal write back?” But in this case it’s checking YouTube for a, “Did Jessica post anything for me?”
    You and James have been helping me and probably others, stick to daily writing during this pandemic. For me, that means more than attending a conference. Thank you.