So You’re Going to a Writers Conference

Hacks for Hacks - Sense of humor requiredHacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

A writers conference is a chance to connect with your fellow writers while honing your craft in an atmosphere–naw, I’m kidding. It’s mostly about getting hammered with your favorite author and landing a six-figure deal. Here’s how to get the most from your conference experience.

First, it’s important to set expectations. What does success look like? Given that you’ll meet with editors and agents, leaving with anything less than a two-book deal in hand is a career-shattering failure.

Your journey begins at the registration table, where you can sign up for a weekend pass, or pretend to be one of the names you see on the prepaid nametags. Don’t forget to take your conference program and totebag (and if the attendant isn’t looking, try to grab one of those “Panelist” ribbons they stick to the nametags, too). If people think you’re a panelist, you’ll be on equal footing with publishing professionals. They still won’t recognize you, but they’ll believe it’s THEIR fault.

Handshakes and business cards cover most everything there is to know about networking.

Be prepared for networking. That means bringing business cards. Yes, business cards–you have to treat your career as a business to succeed, so you’ll need to think like both an author and an entrepreneur. You might even say you’re a book-writing-preneur. Hand cards to everyone you meet, then shake hands with them. Tell them what you’re writing, then shake hands again. Handshakes and business cards cover most everything there is to know about networking.

Say you’re trying to get an agent. Research the list of agents attending the conference and pick the one you like best. Some agents even let you sign up for a one-on-one pitch session. If your dream agent rejects you, just remember there are lots of fish in the sea. And like Captain Ahab, forsake all those other fish in order to capture the elusive, mammalian fish you’ve set your heart on.

Hello, my name is guacamole
photo by Laura Hadden

Your odds of winning over an agent or editor will improve if you create a compelling elevator pitch ahead of time. An elevator pitch is a quick summation of your book that’s short enough to spit out during an elevator ride. An actual elevator is not necessary, though it helps. For example, say you’re with a prospective agent when the elevator “accidentally” breaks down between floors four and five. You can legally keep pitching until you can see the eyes of the firefighter prying open the elevator doors.

The key is to understand the social contract. You have to know how to behave in public according to the customs and laws we all implicitly agree to abide by. That means you should do several things that I wish I didn’t have to mention, but apparently I do: bathe. Brush your teeth. Dress like a not-homeless person. Do not yell at or berate people. Do not sneak into the guest of honor’s room. And so on. Basically, it means be nice.

Give her a copy of your manuscript. Does she want it? Of course not! Who would? 

But the social contract can also work to your advantage. You paid to get in to interact with editors, authors, and agents, so their time is yours. Make sure you get your money’s worth out of them by telling them all about your novel. Say you meet a well-known editor, who you know would love your new book on artisanal paper airplanes. Give her a copy of your manuscript. Does she want it? Of course not! Who would? But here on the conference floor or the bar or the restroom, the social contract prevents her from saying no without looking like a jerk. Even if she throws your manuscript in the trash as soon as she gets back to her room, everyone saw her give you a half-hearted promise to read it, which is practically a publication credit.

This will all go easier if you buy some drinks for your targets. Buy somebody a Long Island Iced Tea and they’re obligated to pretend to listen to your idea for a book about a monkey mission to Mars. Buy a few more rounds just to be safe. Just one more round to buy their friendship. You’re likeable! Really! Hey, where are you going?

What are YOUR tips for maximizing writers conferences? Share your wisdom in the comments!


About Bill Ferris

After college, Bill Ferris left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife, Jen, and his sons, Elliott and Wyatt, and he looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.


  1. says

    Nice humor to start the weekend. I found myself reading between the lines while snorting my coffee. I do not have any tips because I am just starting out, but I look forward the day when I will practice perfect personal hygiene and pitch my proposal.

  2. says

    Perfect timing, with the WU Un-conference coming up in November. That’s just enough time to identify my white whale, figure out my best not-homeless outfit, and print out a dozen copies of my epic fantasy trilogy (one-side and double-spaced, right? – I wonder if I have a suitcase that’ll hold those). Thanks for the tips!

  3. says

    Loved it, Bill. What’s not to like about poking holes in pretension and giving a big yawn-in-the-face to spewers of platitudes? Particularly liked your killer strategy of telling the entirety of your book (no detail omitted) to a drunk editor or agent. They’ll appreciate it as long as the drinks keep flowing and you’ll get (at least) the two-book deal you so richly deserve. Well done, sir.

  4. says

    Great stuff.

    If you *really* want to impress an agent, find out the title of the latest book from their star client, and then loudly (and publicly) announce that your book is “ten times better than that crap.”

    Hey, how will they know unless you tell them, right?

  5. says

    I have an important tip: When you get home, before relegating those agent and author business cards to the trash, take the time to put their contact information in your address book and add them to your newsletter list. Don’t let a week go by without reminding them of how you can dazzle.

  6. says

    That last part was funny, Bill, but certainly accurate.
    I have never considered going to a writers conference, but it’s something to take into consideration if I am to take this career seriously. After all, nothing beats the power of networking.

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  7. says

    A really fun thing to do at writers’ conferences: find the speaker with the Hollywood connection. You know, the guy who writes screenplays or novelizations of a TV series. Organize your friends into teams. Take turns strolling casually past him and pretending you’re about to attempt eye contact. Watch him jump, he’ll hit the ceiling! A good jump, one point; he pulls out his cell phone and pretends he’s talking to someone, three points; get him to pretend he’s talking to the potted plant, five points. May the best team win!