by Cat Rambo
Writers are often told that they must go to conventions and conferences in order to network and move their careers forward. It’s good advice, but only if you approach your con experiences with some smart planning. You’ll also find that the costs add up fast. Here are some suggestions for making the most of your time AND your budget.
Your mileage may vary according to what sort of convention you’re attending. I’ve tried to cover the following possibilities: F&SF (or genre-adjacent) conventions such as Worldcon, Norwescon, one of the many comic-cons, or Gen Con; F&SF writing-centric conventions such as the Nebulas, Readercon, or World Fantasy Convention; and non-genre-specific writing gatherings, such as the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, Cascade Writers’ workshops, or the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference.
Decide who you want to connect with by a) looking at the guest or membership list, which is usually available online, b) joining/following the convention’s social media accounts to see who’s posting there, and c) asking among your friends, including online groups you belong to.
If the convention is non-genre-specific, find out what kind of presence your genre will have. What teachers or mentors are attending that you would like to meet? What agents are appearing and what genres do they represent? (You may need to go to their agencies’ websites to find this out.)
Look over the convention’s website and promotional materials to determine what the event’s strengths are—what does it offer that isn’t always available, such as a chance to pitch to multiple agents, or the Nebula Conference Mentorship Program that pairs newer conference attendees with experienced Nebula-goers?
Using all of the above, set your goals for the event. Here are some sample ones:
- Talk to at least five fellow writers
- Pitch a book to three agents
- Ask a question at three panels
- Meet a particular editor, agent, or publisher
If you’re giving a talk or appearing on a panel, promote your event beforehand. Mention it in your newsletter, social media, and any other publicity outlets you have.
Make your meet-up plans ahead of time, because making them during the con can be complicated and fraught. If you have anxiety about talking with people, perhaps practice your pitch or a few conversational openers ahead of time. Meeting people is an important part of the convention, and you may have to move outside your comfort zone.
One major cost of conventions can be the housing. You may want to find an alternative near the more expensive venue, but make sure you know how you’re going to get back and forth. Consider sharing a room with an agreeable friend who also needs to keep their budget manageable. Along the same lines, if you’re traveling a lot, take advantage of things like frequent flyer miles and hotel points. Carpool if you can. Writing-related travel and other costs may be tax deductible; have an envelope to put receipts in. But check with a tax professional before deducting them!
At a minimum, have a business card that you can give to people. It doesn’t need to be fancy—just be sure it includes your contact information. (Mine has a lot of white space by design, so I can write a note if I want the recipient to remember what our connection was about.) If you’ll be signing, bring a bunch of the type of pens you like to use.
If you have a newsletter, prepare a sign-up sheet for new subscribers. Consider promising a free story or other reward as an enticement to sign up.
If you have a book or item you’re promoting, pack some promotional material. It should have your name, website link, and any other important information. The coolest promo piece in the world does you no good if it doesn’t direct people to your work in some way.
Also, make sure you’re clear on all event logistics. If someone is not handling selling books there, you will need to bring your own.
Locate the places where attendees are allowed to share promotional material and put some there. Check back once or twice a day to keep it stocked.
Scout the locations where you’ll be appearing or meeting people so you know how to get to them and whether there’s anything you need to anticipate in terms of travel time, disruptions, or accessibility.
During the Con
Use the promotional material you brought! Hand out your card, put that newsletter sign-up sheet in a visible spot, and interact with other attendees rather than just dumping the material on a table and hoping people will take it.
Visit the dealers’ room and meet some of the booksellers. Don’t be pushy—this is not the time to sell them books. Rather, this is an opportunity to get to know them, make a good impression, and get their business card for future reference.
Review your goals and work on meeting them. Give yourself a reward if you meet them all.
Practice self-care. Make sure you get enough food, sleep, and the occasional shower. Sometimes cons have quiet space where you can go and re-center yourself if you’re not used to being around a lot of people. If they don’t have one, find your own quiet space and give yourself breaks as needed.
Follow up on promises made to send information, review copies, or anything else.
Send thank-you notes as appropriate.
Look up fellow panelists and follow them on social media. Do the same for any other contacts you made. Post any notes or other material from the con that you promised to share.
Finally, review how it went. What worked well that you’ll want to do again? What won’t you do? What lessons did you learn for future appearances? What costs were worth it, and what will you avoid spending money on in the future?
Some writers find conventions energizing; others, incredibly draining. Make your plans for the next con based on what you’ve learned and figure out how you can not just make the most of the experience, but how you can have some fun while attending. Enjoy!
Cat Rambo’s 300+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In 2020, they won the Nebula Award for fantasy novelette “Carpe Glitter”. They are a former two-term President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA). Their most recent works are space opera Devil’s Gun (Tor Macmillan) and forthcoming fantasy novel, Wings of Tabat (Wordfire Press).
For more about Cat, as well as links to fiction and popular online school, The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, see their website at academy.catrambo.com