How to Prepare for a Writer’s Conference
by Daniel Parsons
Networking is a fundamental part of many writers’ careers. Do it well and you can build a loyal network of friends and mentors, receive lucrative marketing opportunities and open yourself up to collaboration options. With SPS Live so close we can almost touch it, and a procession of other industry events to follow throughout the year, now is a good time to set yourself up for networking success.
In today’s post is an essential checklist of practical steps you can take to prepare for a major conference. Following the advice outlined here will give you the organisation and focus you need to make the most of your time at any event, allowing you more mental bandwidth to build valuable relationships and further your author career.
BOOK A HOTEL
The first thing you should consider is booking accommodation. If the event is far away and spread over more than one day, I can’t stress this enough: book a hotel. Even if you could commute and attend without booking one, the advantages of having a room are too plentiful to ignore, if you can afford it.
The first time I visited The London Book Fair, I didn’t follow this advice. To save money, I commuted extremely early and spent the day struggling against an uncomfortable brain fog. Plus, I missed an author afterparty because I had nowhere to stay the following night.
Companies book business class plane seats and comfortable hotel rooms for employees for a reason: employees who arrive at meetings well-rested perform better. You don’t need to travel like a royal but there is definitely merit to be found in booking accommodation.
As a minimum requirement, for a multi-day networking event, you should book a hotel room for the night before the event so you can arrive well-rested. If possible, you should also add an additional night to take advantage of any extra invitations you receive during the day.
HAVE BUSINESS CARDS
It’s important to get business cards printed before your first event. They don’t need to be fancy or expensive. Plain black text on a white background is fine as long as they contain the necessary information:
Phone Number (Optional)
Your Job (Author, Illustrator, etc.)
Social Media Links or Handles
You can include other details if you have something special to share. For example, some people include their address. Others have double-sided cards if they have two jobs (e.g. author and editor).
Even if the card has a plain design, it reminds people that they met you and gives them the information they need to contact you again. Plus, it offers them your name which most people will have forgotten the moment you tell them it.
WORK OUT YOUR ITINERARY
Large trade fairs come with a boatload of seminar options. The London Book Fair is a three-day event, boasting talks on editing, translation, movie rights, audio production, digital streaming, printing methods, future tech and more. Each day, there are 20+ talks and panels, all with different speakers. You can learn a lot and meet extraordinary people. However, getting the best out of each event takes planning.
A good way to get as much value as possible is to print out the entire multi-day itinerary and whittle away the ones you don’t mind missing. That will leave you with a list of four or five high-quality seminars each day. It’s possible to fit in more but be careful to allow wriggle-room to network in-between or navigate your way around the building.
You don’t have to stick to this list. It’s just a guideline to stop you scrambling for a map while picking events on the fly. Planning will allow you to feel calmer and more prepared in an otherwise chaotic few days.
CHECK THE FLOORPLAN
Many major publishing conferences allow you to see their floorplan long before they open their doors, and with good reason: the most popular venues are massive, often covering several thousand square feet. This means it’s easy to get lost, particularly if you’re visiting for the first time.
To avoid confusion, look over the floorplan ahead of time. You can often find them on venues’ websites. Doing so means that not only will you be able to find the exhibits that most interest you, but you can also organise to meet fellow authors at recognisable checkpoints. Plus, you will know exactly where the bathrooms are when you need them.
The biggest benefit is that you can use the floorplan to cross-reference with your itinerary. That way, you will know ahead of time which seminars you can’t attend simply because they are too far apart and will take too long to navigate between if they’re back to back. As a result, you can swap out clashing events for ones that are easier to reach.
PRACTICE YOUR ELEVATOR PITCH
Rambling is not a good quality in writing or a speech but it’s especially frowned upon in networking. Once you’ve been to a few events, you’ll be able to spot the perpetrators. Never self-aware, they suck innocent bystanders into unending conversations without providing value.
It’s easy to avoid being that person. Just keep in mind these two things:
1. Everyone’s time is valuable, including your own.
2. Your message must be clear.
If people are attending a networking event, they want something out of it – knowledgeable friends, collaboration partners, marketing intel – whatever. Thus, they need to meet and assess acquaintances quickly to find ones who fit those criteria, and not waste too much time on dead-end conversations. This isn’t selfish; it’s a major reason for being there, for them and you.
Elevator pitches can help you speed up the process. For example, my fiction elevator pitch goes:
“Hi, I’m Dan. I write young adult fantasy and comedy horror books.”
If someone probes further, I’d add:
“I’ve had 5,000 paid book sales. Have I got a mailing list? Yeah. 6,000 members – 4,000 fantasy and 2,000 horror.”
Notice how quickly I dispense key details? It seems robotic out of context but that’s exactly the information many new contacts want to know. Are you an author? A publisher? A distributor? If you are an author, what do you write? Be specific because readers have specific tastes and other writers want to know if your audiences overlap enough to collaborate. After all, The Hunger Games and The Martian are both sci-fi books but Weir’s science-loving readers might not be so interested in Collins’ teen romance.
Hard numbers are important too. I wouldn’t lead with them but, if it seems like someone is testing to see if you’re worth their time, stating raw numbers is the fastest way to find out. Being clear upfront will put off some contacts but it will also stop you both wasting time and having to part ways awkwardly when the details finally emerge. Those who like what you tell them, however, will be more interested because of your candid introduction.
In an earlier section, we touched upon the importance of planning your itinerary. However, allow me to contradict myself briefly and make a case for ignoring it.
Event venues are often huge and mysterious. Potential lurks around every corner but so do wrong turns. Upon arrival, you might discover that two back-to-back talks you planned to attend are separated by a corridor that’s closed for renovation. Getting between them involves unforeseeable challenges and, even if you ran, you’d arrive sweaty and late. Hence, that one itinerary box will be left unticked.
But that doesn’t matter. Here’s why: between the two talks you recognise a big author wandering the stands. What are the odds! Had the corridor been open, you would have missed them, and meeting this person holds more networking potential than any presentation.
Plans get derailed but often a detour turns out to be a better route. Remember this when it happens because it’s easy to let serendipity slip under the radar when you’re too busy trying to stick to a less-than-ideal plan.
As a final tactic for your first event, my best advice would be to enjoy yourself. Relax! I mean, you’re an author, hanging out with other book lovers. That’s living the dream!
Remember not to take this whole thing too seriously or you risk losing sight of why you started writing in the first place: because you love it. This event isn’t some forced-fun occasion set up by your day-job boss. It’s an opportunity to talk to your friends and idols about stuff you both love and possibly to take your work to a whole new level.
Follow all of the tactics outlined in this post and you will put yourself in good stead for a well-organised, stress-free networking experience. With the fundamentals covered, you can learn, socialise and grow your business in comfort.
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