4 Conference Success Secrets

I have been on the faculty of more than 150 writers conferences over the years. Some might say that is the definition of insanity… !?! But I would not be where I am today if it were not for the fine people I have met over the years at those events. I am a firm believer in the purpose behind a writers conference and what can be accomplished.

After a while it became clear which writers were going to have a successful conference and those who weren’t. Let’s look at some tips to achieve conference success.

1. Set Appropriate Expectations. More often than not the first-timers has visions of grandeur thinking they are going to be “Discovered” and in short order would be flying in a private jet paid for by their publisher.

It has happened (not the jet part) but it is so rare they can be counted on one hand. It is wise to set the expectations very low. Figure you will meet a couple editors. You will get to practice your pitch a couple times. But you will learn a ton of new things from the classes and from listening to others talk about the writing profession.

2. Be Prepared. You never know when you will suddenly be confronted with that agent or editor you’ve always wanted to meet but couldn’t get an appointment. I have experienced it first-hand, watching the recognition flow across the writer’s face….accompanied by their sudden inability to talk coherently.

Remember that we agents and editors really want to meet and talk with new writers. Otherwise we would not be at the conference! We want to talk to you. Don’t worry that you’ve been caught off guard, but if we do ask “What are you working on?” be prepared to answer. You can even say “You want to hear my sound bite pitch?” Of course we do. Take a deep breath and let ‘er rip.

Understand that a writers conference is a safe place to fail. Your pitch may be poorly framed. Your idea may need to be reworked. Your pet project may be an echo of one that we just sold to a publisher. That is okay. See #1 above. If you set your expectations to zero, hitting a 1 on the scale is a victory, no matter how small.

3. Keep a Positive Attitude. Don’t let your anxiety, lack of sleep, jet lag, or information overload ruin your experience.

I once stood behind two women who were arguing about which one would get the last appointment left on the schedule…with me. I had come to the table to see what the appointment schedule was like and came upon this potentially ugly scene. They were starting to do a little hip checking at each other and angrily saying things like “I drove six hours to get here to see him and I got here first.” The conference had not even started yet and two people were already on edge.

I leaned in, lightly touched their shoulders and said, “Maybe I can help.” One of them turned pale and wide eyed. The other turned beet red. We all laughed nervously and figured out a way where they both could have an appointment.

Remember that while you are in public there are eyes that may see you in action. Eyes that see how you treat conference staff or hotel staff or restaurant employees.

You have invested a lot of time and a lot of money to attend the conference. But while that is true, keeping a light heart and a willing smile will make the experience so much more enjoyable.

4. Ours is a Small Industry. If you are going to regale those around your lunch table about how awful your editor is at So&So Publishers be aware that there are others within earshot of your tale.

Awful rumors can start at conferences. I once had an editor call to find out why I was shutting down the agency, he thought we were successful. ??? After stammering for a moment I had to ask, “Whatever gave you that impression?” It seems he had overheard someone at a conference saying something to that effect. I was quick to correct his error. I’m grateful he called to verify the veracity of the story and had not spread the rumor.

Remember that we agents and editors know each other. Some with relationships that go back three decades. And we do talk to each other on occasion…. So, be careful with your words and your complaints. Often what you say is not heard with precision and the new version becomes the story that is retold.

Your Turn:

Any secrets of success you want to add?




16 Responses to 4 Conference Success Secrets

  1. Avatar
    Joan Donaldson March 30, 2015 at 5:31 am #

    One more comment: Thank the folks who organized the conference. I currently serve on the writing faculty at a conference and have witnessed the incredible effort the director gives to the event, to the point of sacrificing time to complet’s his book. So take a moment and thank the people who organize conferences that bless the greater writing community.

  2. Avatar
    DIANA HARKNESS March 30, 2015 at 5:35 am #

    Excellent advice. From the viewpoint of an attender and not a presenter, I would add another point. Iff a deluge of people causes pain, arrive early, take frequent breaks, make sure you take some pain relievers, and don’t try to take in every seminar or workshop. In other words, experience the conference on your own terms.

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    Jackie Layton March 30, 2015 at 5:37 am #

    Thanks for the great tips!

    I had dreamed about attending the ACFW conference for years, and I put too much pressure on myself when I was finally able to go. I wish I could have read your post then.

    I agree with setting your expectations low. It will take a lot of stress off and free you up to enjoy the experience more.

    I’d like to add cover yourself in prayer. Have your friends and family back home praying for you.

  4. Avatar
    Kathy March 30, 2015 at 6:01 am #

    Treat every encounter as a potential relationship, not as a future meal ticket. I treasure relationships with some editors and authors I’ve met, even though none of them have ever purchased a manuscript from me.

    On the other hand, I met the editor who eventually published my novel while standing in the lunch line one day.

  5. Avatar
    Chris Storm March 30, 2015 at 6:13 am #

    All great advice! Can I add something? Enjoy yourself. You love to write and are suddenly surrounded by hundreds of people just like you! You finally fit in! You belong here! Celebrate!

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    Ane Mulligan March 30, 2015 at 6:27 am #

    A couple of additions: if you’re new to the group and/or the conference, volunteer. All conferences need volunteers, and this will help you meet a few people one-on-one before the conference begins. That will help you feel more comfortable.

    The other thing is to always remember God has a time and place for each of us. If you don’t get the appointment you want, it might be that God has another place for you. Always factor Him into your conference.

  7. Avatar
    Richard Mabry March 30, 2015 at 6:49 am #

    Steve, good advice. I thought I was prepared when I attended my first conference…at least, for agents and editors whom I wanted to approach. Then I ran into editor Nick Harrison while we were both toasting English muffins, and he asked me what I was writing. I froze. Later, he told me he couldn’t consider my novel unless the heroine wore a bonnet, and we both laughed. But after that experience, I was prepared for anyone and anything. Moral: be ready for the unexpected.

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    Jeanne Takenaka March 30, 2015 at 7:29 am #

    Great post, Steve. Your tips, as usual, are spot on.

    I’m with Diana. It’s good to know your personal limits and to take breaks when needed. I find that I do better going into a appointments when I’ve had a little time to be quiet, so I’ll duck out of class early to give myself that time.

    I’ve also loved meeting faces that I’ve only seen online before. Taking time to build relationships while there brings a personal element to the conference, and provides encouragement.

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    Vannetta Chapman March 30, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    I have a much more successful conference when I take a little time to rest each day. It could be an hour by the pool or 30 minutes walking through a local park. Taking “down time” always helps me to be more “up” for the rest of the day!

  10. Avatar
    Marlene Anderson March 30, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

    Break down your larger goals of writing and getting published to small ones that you can actually accomplish every day. My goal for sometime has been to write more succinctly and in tune with what readers want to hear. I do that by blogging. It has helped me for larger writing goals.

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    Holly Varni March 30, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    When I attended my first ACFW conference I was blown away by the number of women that would burst into tears before their meeting with an agent or editor. The stress and pressure was so intense! They truly believed their destiny depended on the next ten minutes. For a moment, I felt as if something was wrong with me for not being more serious. What helped me gain perspective was not excluding the “God element.” I believe that God is in charge of the greater plan for my life (and books!) and all I have to do is enjoy the journey. I met some wonderful people, learned a tremendous amount, and left the conference smiling. Let go of the need to control, and make a sincere connection with those around you.

  12. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan March 30, 2015 at 6:16 pm #

    For my first writers conference, I planned to just observe what took place so I would know how to prepare for future conferences. Easy, right?

    At this first conference was a kind and approachable agent named Steve Laube. When he asked what I was working on, I had no answer, or at least no intelligible answer, to give him. So much for just observing.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube March 30, 2015 at 7:03 pm #


      Too funny!


  13. Avatar
    Steve Laube March 30, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

    You have all contributed some great thoughts.

    Enjoy your next conference!


  14. Avatar
    Charles Franklin April 8, 2015 at 7:58 am #

    Such great advice throughout! Thanks Mr. Laube and thanks to everyone for the tips! I’ll probably visit this post many times as I prepare for a conference I’ll be attending in August. My hope is to meet others and develop friendships with those who share my passion, as well as soak up knowledge from everyone. Though I dream of being “Discovered”, I’m also aware that my timeline doesn’t always jive with that of God’s. Thanks again everyone and I hope to meet each of you down the road! Blessings!

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