Can’t Go to the Conference? Don’t Despair!

Upset Young Woman Sitting Alone with Her Head in Her Hands on Bench Next to Books and Backpack.

Because there so many excellent conferences, we all miss out on a few. I like to joke that if I didn’t love my husband, I could arrange to be away from home 80% of the time just by going to conferences!

But when you’re missing out on what you think is an especially good conference, you might wonder if you’ve blown your career — or at least a major opportunity. I submit that while conferences are wonderful for many reasons, including networking and fellowship, a conference shouldn’t make or break your progress and missing one won’t end your career. Why? Because before signing authors to partner with us, agents and editors perform due diligence.

When I was a newly-minted literary agent, I attended my first conference and proceeded to sign an author on the spot. Well, I didn’t have the contract in hand, but I promised one. The author was charming and presented herself well in appearance and speech. Even better, I loved her nonfiction book idea and agreed with the book’s mission. I thought her material was well organized and the writing held up. However, later I came to realize the book had been written years before and the author’s situation had changed so that the information wasn’t as accurate and up to date as it should have been. The book never sold, and we parted ways amicably.

Because of my inexperience at that time, I fell into the trap of becoming caught up in the author’s personality and my own enthusiasm and emotion in a highly-charged atmosphere. Anyone who’s been a part of a conference understands how the energy can bring on almost a sense of euphoria so it’s not the best time to make any decisions about a long-term business relationship. From that point on, I have made a practice of performing due diligence before signing an author. In the quiet of my office, I study the proposal and book itself, go online to learn more about the author, and otherwise do everything I can to be sure this is an author whose work I can reasonably expect to sell to a publisher. Granted, no amount of due diligence guarantees every project will find a publisher.

So while it may be hard to stay home while your friends are away at a great conference, consider that your ultimate audience — the reader — receives no benefit from an author’s high-powered lunches with editors and agents. All the reader cares about is your book’s benefit to her. So your project, not how well you can charm an editor or agent, will determine your success.

Your turn:

What is your biggest obstacle to attending a conference?

What was your best conference experience?

Have you become a published author without ever attending a conference?

34 Responses to Can’t Go to the Conference? Don’t Despair!

  1. Kathy E Eberly September 12, 2013 at 3:18 am #

    Last year was the first year since I joined ACFW that I was unable to attend the conference due to a lack of monetary cash flow and I was very disappointed. This year I knew the conference was coming up yet I chose to spend the money that I would have spent on the conference on my first mission trip to Jamaica. Much as I would like to go to the conference, I know that this is not my year to attend. Besides, I might actually find myself constructing a book out of this experience and have something positive to present next year! :)

  2. Ron Estrada September 12, 2013 at 4:11 am #

    The cost! By the time you factor in travel, hotel, and fees, a big conference like ACFW can easilly approach a thousand dollars. Few of us can afford that. I negotiated with my wife this year and signed up for one day. I can drive to Indy and I found a less expensive hotel nearby. Even with that, it’s tough to justify. My best conference experience was at the only other ACFW conference I’ve been able to attend. That was in Nashville in ’05. I met a lot of great people and made some permanent friends and mentors. It’s funny how exicted I was about my agent and editor appointments, but the real gems were the other writers like me. They would be the ones to stick with me over the years. The best part of the agent and editor appointments was showing me exactly how much I had to learn about writing. Hopefully I’ve come a long way since then!

  3. Lisa Hall-Wilson September 12, 2013 at 4:39 am #

    Being in Canada, getting to those big conferences like AFCW or Mount Hermon is a huge investment! That’s why I think events like WANACon, a digital conference I can attend from home at a fraction of the cost is an innovation we’re going to see a lot more.

  4. Debby Mayne September 12, 2013 at 5:15 am #

    There are all kinds of obstacles – health, money, and time – but I try to go to as many conferences as I can. I missed last year, but fortunately I’ll be there this year. Like Ron, my favorite experiences have been meeting other authors and making friendships with other like-minded people. I was published before I attended a conference, but I think it helps to meet the publishing professionals in person. What’s amazing is that at the ACFW Conference, you can dine with your editors, pray with them, and enjoy them as people before you sit down to talk business.

  5. Susie Finkbeiner September 12, 2013 at 5:26 am #

    My very best conference experience was at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference in Grand Rapids, MI. It’s affordable (under $200 for 2 days), which drew me to it right away. But what really impressed me was the intimacy of the conference. I felt welcomed into a family right away. Since my first time attending, I’ve had a novel published. The Breathe family has been such a support to me. They’ve become dear friends to me.

    I’ve never really thought of conferences as a big opportunity to get a book contract (for me, at least). But, really, it’s a good time to make connections and learn. And to develop friendships with people who understand the writing life.

  6. Diana Harkness September 12, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Being around all the people at conferences is so stressful that it raises my blood pressure to unhealthy heights. I end up drinking wine in my room and taking ibuprofen to quell my raging headaches. After meeting with Steve Laube at one, I ended up in the restroom with a nosebleed. At another I presented myself so badly to one publisher that I was certain they wouldn’t want my book, but they took a look at it anyway. I think I’ll stick to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College which always inspires and never forces me to meet with anyone.

    • Steve Laube September 12, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

      Oh my! I gave you a nosebleed? My reputation just took another hit, pun intended.

      All I can say is “I am so sorry.”

  7. Judith Robl September 12, 2013 at 5:39 am #

    My first conference was Glorieta in 2001. What an eye-opener. I learned that I didn’t even know the questions, much less how to get the answers. I’ve tried to get to a conference about every other year since then.

    Last time was November 2011 in Kansas City with Heart of America Christian Writers Network. Attendance there ranges to about a 100 or so participants, but they draw some great agents and editors. The size is large enough for diversity of callings and small enough to create some level of intimacy between the participants.

    Then there was HACWN’s Super Saturday with Cecil Murphey the middle of August this year. A single day, packed with information and touching base with those I know only through the internet. Super!

    If you are in the Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas area, you might want to check HACWN out.

    It satisfies most of my requirements for a conference: valuable information and contacts, short travel time, affordable, and great fun as well.

  8. Martha Rogers September 12, 2013 at 5:57 am #

    I love going to conferences and have been to Mount Hermon, Professionalism in Writing Conference in Tulsa, one here in Texas and of course ACFW. The biggest obstacle is the cost, so now I choose the ACFW conference as the one I attend because of the friendships I have made and the wonderful contacts. I co-direct and teach at the Texas Christian Writers Conference in Houston.
    My best conference experience when I met Francine Rivers back before she had become so well-known. She sat and talked with me in Tulsa for a long time and then invited me to write to her if I had questions. When I did write to her later, she always sent the sweetest notes back and patiently answered my questions.
    I’m published now, but it took some long, hard years, attending ACFW and Mount Hermon to hone my skills, and a very caring and patient agent to get me there.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray September 12, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

      Martha, you are such a blessing to your readers, and certainly a wonderful blessing to me!

  9. Cecelia Dowdy September 12, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    I’ve attended countless conferences over the past two decades. Before ACFW existed, I attended RWA for several years. I haven’t been to ACFW since 2010. For the most part, it’s because of the cost, and getting someone to help with our son while I’m gone.

    Going to conferences has always been a pleasant experience for me. Like others have mentioned, I had the best networking experiences with other writers like myself. I’ve made life-long friends with people that I’ve met through RWA and ACFW.

    Like others have mentioned, you can always attend a local writers’ conference to save on the cost. Last August, I attended the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference for one day. I met with a lot of ACFW people – most from the Mid-Atlantic region. We had a blast socializing in between sessions and during meals!

  10. Patrick E. Craig September 12, 2013 at 7:09 am #

    Tamela,
    This is excellent advice for writers and comforting, too. So I thought I’d participate and answer the questions.

    1. Biggest obstacle – the high cost of the bigger conferences and trying to work it into a schedule that includes a day job.

    2. Best experience – The Mt. Hermon Conference where I met with Steve Laube and he encouraged me to turn the idea for “A Quilt For Jenna” into a novel.

    3.I self-published before I attended a conference.

    • Steve Laube September 12, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

      I dare not get all the credit. Nick Harrison, editor for Harvest House, had a lot to do with it too!

      Ultimately it was you who did the work and created a great story.

  11. Leigh DeLozier September 12, 2013 at 7:41 am #

    Finances are always a hurdle, but my biggest obstacle right now is my family. Not that I like to think of them that way, and it’s not even something they realize.

    My husband has always been supportive when I’ve wanted to plan for a conference, and I’ve been blessed to go to some of the larger ones (Florida, Blue Ridge, Philly). But our kids are in 6th and 9th grades — and the years are flying fast. Every major conference seems to conflict with something involving the kids — the weekend before school starts, the week of final exams, our daughter’s first band concert, a marching band competition for our son, etc. Yes, the kids would survive without me, and I have plenty of friends who miss those same kinds of things for whatever reason. That’s OK.

    We each have to choose, and right now being Mom outweighs going to most conferences. It makes me even more thankful for those 1- or 2-day weekend events that I can get away to a bit easier — and workshop CDs we can sometimes buy afterwards. :-)

    • Cecelia Dowdy September 12, 2013 at 10:25 am #

      I agree with this. Sometimes, I wish the ACFW Conference was held during the summer, when school is out, instead of during September. This way, it would be less likely to interfere with school events like games and band concerts. I do realize that it would be impossible to choose a time that’s convenient for everyone.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray September 12, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

      Leigh, shorter conferences are definitely an option for busy moms! I hope others will be inspired to consider those.

  12. Heather Day Gilbert September 12, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    Great post, Tamela–I agree w/Ron, above–cost has been the prohibitive factor for me for the past two years I’ve wanted to go to ACFW. The biggest LURE for me is the chance to meet SO many author friends and even editors my MS is out with. However, this email is encouraging that those publishing editors, while at conference this week, will ponder the proposals before them upon return, in the quiet of their own offices…and hopefully my book will shine as bright as I would only hope my personality would at conference!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray September 12, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

      Heather, the reader will see your sparkling book and probably won’t meet you, so that’s what counts!

  13. Cynthia Dawn September 12, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    This summer I was awarded by The Word Guild as a talented, unpublished writer and given free registration to the Write!Canada conference. Being only 19 years old, I was so honoured and blessed. I did EVERYTHING I could to make an impression, from the way I cut my hair to the business cards I designed. I also made one-sheets, JUST IN CASE I had an opportunity to pitch the two books I’ve been crafting, though I knew that neither of these books were in any shape to get published. But that wasn’t what I went for. My mission was to never be forgotten.

    I learned so much through that conference. I am still trying to find guidance on how to make my books the best they can be. One day they will be ready, and I have a number of connections I can proceed with. That was definitely not a wasted opportunity.

  14. Amber Perry September 12, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Tamela,
    Thank you for posting this, because I was feeling quite disappointed about not being able to attend ACFW this year. I have two young children and after praying about it, I just didn’t feel right about leaving them.
    Being that I’m a new writer, though I’ve made great strides and fabulous connections thanks the ACFW, etc, I still have not been able to attend a conference in person. Can you believe it? So sad! I will keep my fingers crossed that I can attend soon.
    Anyway, thank you again for the post.
    God bless!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray September 12, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

      Amber, when my daughters were small I made that same decision many times!

  15. April Gardner September 12, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Thank you, Tamela!! This was just what I needed this morning. I KNOW God wants me RIGHT HERE, at home, today. I’ve known this for months, and today is no different. Strangely enough, money wasn’t an obstacle this year. LOL. It was God’s firm “not this time” that kept me from buying that plane ticket.
    It feels good to be where God wants me to be, but it doesn’t quite take away the sadness of not being at conference, not hanging with friends, and chatting it up with the only ones who really “get” me. And YES! I’ve wondered whether it was a mistake, whether I’d miss out on a fantastic opportunity by not going. So thanks again for this timely post.

  16. Steve Myers September 12, 2013 at 8:46 am #

    First, Tamela, THANK YOU for a great topic and reasonable reflective thoughts on what is a process for all of us. It is a little bittersweet not being able to attend then annual ACFW Conference for all the reasons so many fellow writers above have stated. [Distance, cost, investment, health, family, employment, etc].

    As much as I appreciate fellowship and retreats in my lifetime my writing does not hinge on the need of an annual reunion of sorts but perhaps like high school, college or with family, every few (five) years is welcome. By all the above plus other issues I’m quite secure what I attempted and accomplished in 2012 will pay dividends for years to come.

    My objectives in attending the 2012 Conference here in DFW included: 1. Am I good enough. To have one’s writing evaluated was my top goal attending a conference. Meeting with my editor and publisher of choice she stated to my question ‘if I were good enough…’ she answered “It’s not a matter of IF you will write for us but WHEN.”

    My second objective was to research, meet with and at least have paid my dues and/or have access to my agent of choice. As much as I wanted that to happen and like all writers be ‘discovered and signed on the spot,’ knew all too well in reality its a process over time. I did not get an appointment as much as a divine appointment which was all the more better. Post a session with that agent in attendance I was graciously granted a few minutes and having a professional background in media was able to summarize myself quickly, mention the names of my mentors and goals for the conference. She was exceptionally gracious (as was the editor) and suggested her door was open whenever my manuscript was ready for prime time, so to speak (my words).

    One of the most important meetings for me was with my mentor. Actually, I have several but to have fifteen minutes with one met by e-mail and introduced through several mentor friends was a gift moment as well. My objective was to not sell ‘a book’ as much as chart out a ‘career.’ Asking the tough questions is sometimes the wisest move one can make.

    Another divine appointment came after the gala in the bookstore as the fire sale of what not to pack up and take back was in progress. There I met another mentor (from e-mail and the loops) getting an unprecedented ninety-minutes or more of conversation, counsel, mentoring, and introduction to other key members for the process of my journey and to share with other fellow writers (seekers) the time in a productive and grace filled environment. I learned as much or more in that 90 minutes than all of the conference combined.

    Post the conference was the hard part. My mind/brain was mush for about six weeks of information overload. Hit and miss on what is the yellow brick road for some was not for me. However, the next wisest step was hiring a critique-editor for some personal one-on-one analysis, evaluation of writing and tutorial suggestions. I went back to the specific areas of my weaknesses (3 of 10 critical rules) and from January to April went back into ‘Grad School,’ through online teaching, MP3s and books. And that final series of training is what has made the difference in my writing.

    Last year I had one manuscript pre the conference that while good at about a 140k word count was not ready for prime time. Working with my mentors I considered a different path through another publisher with books in the 55-60k and 60-65k word range, then began to read and study the work itself. Open to grow as a writer and eventually supplement my day job of income I wrote a Contemporary novel and then a Historical. As much as I loved my place in writing I did not want to become pegged in one without an option to the other. And was that ever wise as well.

    My expectations post the conference were also unrealistic. Like many I wanted to sell a book, have it written and published in the 6 month to 1 year window. Like a script line from the movie WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, a the end, ‘When you find who you want to spend the rest of your life with you generally want that to happen as soon as possible,’ I wanted that to happen as a writer. Sometimes its best when that doesn’t occur. Like wine copy from a classic commercial spoken by Orson Well, “We will serve no wine before its time,” so is the process of finding my niche and getting it in the best shape to launch a career and not just sell a book.

    Four years of college in a BA in my 30s and later a Masters taught me a lot about what I’d approach in life professionally. In a sentence, “Its a process.” And like my agent to be (I hope) ‘there is no time limit on getting the first MS right.’ Attending A CONFERENCE is perhaps the Fraternity/Sorority initiation and prerequisite to gain access later on when the MS is ready for prime time. And while Conferences are good they are not necessarily annual rites of passage or the means to an ends. I’m not one for a quick contest entry to get in with a publisher, editor or agent. I love the Cinderella Story (but thinking of Carl the Greenskeeper in Caddyshack, aka Bill Murray) I know they are rare and seldom have happy endings. Like another advertising tag line spoken by John Housman “they make money the old fashioned way; They EARN it,” I believe if we work at the process we can become published (repeatedly) if we work at perfecting the craft. I also learned that at the 2012 Conference here in DFW.

    ‘Its a marathon,’ some suggest about the Christian life. ‘Not a sprint.’ And sitting on the sidelines this year of a conference about to begin is more about applying what I learned last year on the path where I hope God is taking me. Thank you Tamela for reinforcing all of this within your post and those who have answered in comments.

  17. Esther Thompson September 12, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    Thank you for sharing your encouraging advice to those of us who can’t attend all the conferences we’d like too.

  18. Georgiana Daniels September 12, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    Great post! I needed this today.

    My biggest obstacle to attending ACFW this year was scheduling. Between two kids on two different traveling sports teams, I just couldn’t make it :(

    Trying to plan for next year!

  19. Sara Baysinger September 12, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    I really needed to hear/read this today. I only live 45 minutes from where the ACFW conference is this year and I am unable to attend. Thanks so much for sharing!!

  20. Jenni Brummett September 12, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    During my first time at Mount Hermon I met a faculty member from DaySpring and received permission to send card copy ideas to them. To my delight, they purchased a handful. Since DaySpring doesn’t take unsolicited card copy, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise.
    The last few years at Mount Hermon I’ve had the privilege of meeting some agents and editors that I continue to have regular contact with. I hope to see them again in 2014, and work with them in the future.
    I also met my wonderful critique partner at Mount Hermon.
    Thankfully I live 35 minutes away from the conference center. I hope to attend as often as money will allow.
    Tamela, maybe I’ll meet you on the west coast sometime.:-)

  21. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 12, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    I don’t have one obstacle. I have 26 of them – the dogs in our sanctuary. It takes a lot of sheer physical labor to feed and walk them, and maintain their areas, and it would be kind of cold of me to leave my wife to deal with it for a few days ‘on spec’. (For a conference where I’m speaking, or for a publicity event, that’s different…she’d be furious if I declined something like that.)

    I was published without attending a conference (by a ‘subsidy press’ that gave me a standard royalty contract…no subsidy!). I love conferences, and get a charge out of networking, but most books are still placed the old-fashioned way…by query. So I’m not concerned.

  22. Pat Davis September 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    I try to attend the Greater Phila. Christian Writers Conference. I love the workshops and meeting with fellow writers. I obtained my agent without attending a conference. I would love to go to the ACFW conferences. Due to unforeseen circumstances I realize it’s all for the very best that I’m home and not at ACFW this weekend. I praise and thank God for His guiding hand. Thank you for the reminder of what is most important.

  23. Rachel Muller September 13, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    Great article! I love hearing about all the research you actually do! :) Although, I wonder how you fit it all into your week.

    As I sit and read through recent Facebook posts, I find myself longing to be part of the ACFW conference this year. There have been so many friendships I’ve worked hard on forming this year, and seeing those friends meet and greet one another warmly–like family–makes me yearn to be part of that family. However, I understand that my time will come and until then I don’t mind sitting back and ‘liking’ all their pictures and posts. :)

    In answer to your questions, my biggest obstacle is the fact that I have four young children and a husband whose schedule is difficult to work around. I look forward to the day the door opens for me to attend.

    And secondly, I certainly hope to become a published author without having to attend a conference. (But I’d still love to go) ;)

  24. Ian September 13, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    Tamela this was so timely for me. I had to pull out of attending ACFW this weekend due to illness and I’m a little crushed as a result.

    Thank you.

  25. Karen Nolan Bell September 17, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    My reason for missing a conference is solely based on my physical ability to get there. Due to medical issues, I don’t fly to the location or drive to it further than six hours. I would LOVE to attend some of the larger conferences and study under authors/agents/publishers/editors I admire. Broke my heart that I had to miss James Scott Bell. But, that is how it must be. Now, how about bringing some of these awesome conferences to the great city of Atlanta? You know y’all would love to come for a visit. We have loads of southern hospitality and ice tea to share.

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