ou’ve always been the kind of person to get involved and volunteer where writing and writers are concerned. So, you may eventually find yourself as a writing conference chair or on the board of directors of your writing group, planning a writing conference. Maybe you haven’t said yes yet, but you’re still considering it.
January is about beginnings, about taking chances, and about new opportunities. Planning a writing conference isn’t as hard as it looks if you find volunteers, learn from past conferences, and start planning the year before (like a wedding). Besides, you will have a great item for your resume, meet fabulous speakers and talk with them one-on-one, and feel like you can do anything after you’ve planned a conference.
Take it from me; I planned the 2007 three-day annual Missouri Writers’ Guild conference (the year after I got married). I often thought, What am I doing? I’m sure new gray hairs popped out; but to be honest, I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.
So, where do you start?
You have to know your budget before you do anything. You are a writer, and maybe math and budgeting scare you. So, find someone to help you—a fellow writer, a family member, or a friend who was an accounting major—because you must start with a budget. In 2007, I used the previous conference chair’s budget worksheet and looked into any grants we could receive. Here’s a quick guide for figuring your budget:
- Write down the current balance you have in the bank.
- Add all the revenue you expect, and UNDER estimate! If you expect 200 people to attend, only add in registration fees for 150 or 175 people. (When adding up revenue, it may affect the price you charge writers to attend, so figure this out at least a year in advance. Then, you can advertise the lowest possible price for registration that doesn’t make you bankrupt.)
- Don’t forget you may have revenue from attendee’s registration fees, book and raffle sales, art council grants, fundraisers, membership fees, sponsorships, and donations.
- Subtract all the expenses and OVER estimate. You will have venue and food expenses, including audiovisual costs which are unbelievably high; speaker fees, travel expenses, and room and board; marketing costs; mailing fees; and miscellaneous costs always pop up for things like pens and folders for attendees, copying for speakers, and decorations.
- After adding revenue and subtracting expenses, you should be in the black. If you are not, then you need to raise your registration fee, look for grants or fundraising opportunities, or cut some expenses. You can also look for ways to save money by getting decorations or office supplies donated or cutting deals with your venue such as agreeing that if you have one hundred people attend lunch, then you get a 10% discount on food.
“If you can guarantee so many guest rooms will be booked, they may give you a deal on the conference rooms.”
Create a tentative schedule before you look for venues, so you know how many conference rooms you’ll need. Consider these questions: how often will attendees meet together as a whole group? Will you have breakout sessions (which I highly recommend) where writers can choose subjects that interest them?
Shop around for a great venue for your writing conference. If you can find a hotel large enough to house you, then a hotel will probably give you the best deal. They will often give a discount on guest rooms for conference attendees and speakers. Also, if you can guarantee so many guest rooms will be booked, they may give you a deal on the conference rooms. Many hotels offer complimentary breakfast and happy hour, so that will cut your costs on meals or snacks you need to offer attendees.
If you really like a certain venue, but they are not offering you the best price or discounts, then go back and talk to them again. Use your bargaining skills. You may be surprised at how willing they are to negotiate with you to hold your conference there, especially if it’s an annual event. If you and your group are happy with their service, then there’s a chance you’ll book with them again. Bring this to the hotel staff’s attention.
“Look for best-selling writers in your region. This will cut down on travel expenses.”
Once you have your budget and venue, then the fun begins! You get to find speakers. What attracts writers to your conference? Editors, agents, and best-selling authors! These people tend to be more expensive, especially if you are planning a Midwest conference, as I was, and most of the agents and editors live in New York or California. I had to pay a speaker fee for their time and service and also buy them airline tickets.
- Start with three or four “big names” that will attract writers. You don’t need your entire speaker list to be well-known writers or agents and editors.
- Use contacts in your writing group, and see if anyone’s agent or editor would agree to come to the conference. Many will come for a slightly smaller fee if they can meet with their clients face-to-face sometime during the conference.
- Find editors and agents just starting out in the business who are looking for clients. Writers are coming to your conference to learn and to network with someone who is interested in their work. These newer editors and agents are looking for talented writers; they will sometimes charge lesser fees because they are new.
- Look for best-selling writers in your region. This will cut down on travel expenses. You can use Google and search for something like “Missouri authors” or “Famous authors in St. Louis.” Here’s an example of a successful local writer story: Saturday Writers, a writing group in St. Peters, Missouri, invited Ridley Pearson, a best-selling St. Louis writer, to come speak for a small fee. He agreed to do it for FREE because he wanted to give back to the writers in the St. Louis area. If you are a non-profit group, a writer can actually donate some of their fee to your group and then claim it as a tax deduction!
- Fill the remaining spots of your speaker list with local or regional writers and editors. Look at the newspapers and magazines in your area, and ask editors to come speak to the freelance writers in attendance. Maybe you have a writer in your group who is very savvy at marketing and could do a marketing workshop for writers in turn for her conference registration fee.
The big names will draw attendees, but often, they learn the most from the local speakers.
“Shepherds are responsible for making sure speakers are comfortable, know where they need to be, and introducing them before speeches.”
Volunteers and Committees
The number one rule is, “Don’t do the conference by yourself.” There’s no possible way you can keep track of everything on your own and be everywhere you need to be, especially during the conference. You need volunteers and committees!
Here are some recommended committees and volunteer positions for a writing conference:
- Speaker shepherds: Each speaker will have needs, and you cannot take care of them all. Ask for volunteers to “shepherd” your speakers. Shepherds are responsible for making sure speakers are comfortable, know where they need to be, and introducing them before speeches. Some speakers require more from their shepherds such as picking them up from the airport or taking them to dinner. Some speakers are more independent. Ask for shepherd volunteers (you’ll get plenty), talk to your speakers about what they’ll need, and match up your volunteers with speakers.
- Marketing committee: Create a marketing committee with a head-publicity chair. This committee is responsible for getting press releases to the newspapers, putting up flyers where writers hang out, and sending brochures to past attendees.
- Registration committee: You need someone to volunteer to receive registrations and fees. This is a huge job, and you will not want to do this yourself. (This is one mistake I made while planning the MWG conference.) The other people on this committee will sit at the registration desk when the conference begins and check people in.
- Fundraising/Raffle committee: Holding a raffle or silent auction during the conference is fun and can raise extra money, but don’t do this yourself.
- Book/freebie room committee: Having a book and freebie room is great for speakers who have books to sell. Also, most bookstores give you a percentage of the sales! Again, you will not be able to organize and work the bookstore. You need volunteers. In this book room, you can also have a table of freebies where writers and editors can leave guidelines, contest announcements, bookmarks, and so on.
- Decorations committee: When I planned the MWG conference, I wanted decorations at the opening night session and at our annual banquet. I found a couple of creative people, told them my themes, gave them a budget, and let them go. They came up with amazing ideas and the cutest book and fountain pen centerpieces for the banquet table, which we then gave away as door prizes.
Think of the different tasks you will need to do, and then whether or not some volunteer could do this for you instead. This is especially true during the conference since you will be putting out fires, answering questions, and making sure the schedule is on track. You are in charge of all the committees, of course, but if you can find reliable people to be the head, they only have to report back to you every month, and you can cross these tasks off your to-do list.
“Offering the chance to do a free one-on-one pitch with agents and editors is a huge selling point for writers.”
Special Things to Consider:
Agents and editors will often agree to provide critiques for a certain number of conference attendees for an extra fee. You can make money for the conference, too. For example, you can charge $25 for attendees to receive a professional critique. Keep $5 for your group or conference expenses, and pay the agent or editor $20 for each critique they do. In order to receive a professional critique, writers have to attend the conference and send their manuscripts in ahead of time.
Agents and editors will also agree to do one-on-one pitches. Offering the chance to do a free one-on-one pitch with agents and editors is a huge selling point for writers, especially if the conference is far from New York or California. If you decide to do pitches, you should have writers choose two or three speakers they are interested in pitching to on their registration forms, and you should schedule these in advance. Pitch appointments are usually five to seven minutes long.
Make sure you have a policy for refunds. You will have to pay deposits for your venue, buy airline tickets, and create marketing materials. Plus final payments may be due before the conference begins. So, you will want to make certain to have a refund policy clearly stated on the registration form for writers who want to drop out at the last minute. Realistically, you may have already used their registration fee to pay off the venue bill.
Some conferences have a no-refund policy. Others provide a date that people must pull out, and then they may receive a 50% refund. You will hear some sad stories, and you have to decide for yourself what you think is right. One of the easiest things to do is offer a transfer of registration, meaning another writer can take the drop-out writers’ spot.
Give your attendees breaks and networking opportunities. Writers like to talk and network with each other. It’s one of the benefits of attending a conference. Don’t make your schedule too jam-packed with classes and keynote speeches. After each session, give attendees a fifteen-minute break to mill around and grab a cup of coffee. Plan a reception on opening or closing night with the point being a chance to talk and reflect.
Provide evaluation forms for conference attendees. Ask what they liked and what could be improved. Save these for next year’s conference chair.
Planning a conference is a huge job; and like a wedding, you will think of things to do up to the last minute. Take time to enjoy the planning process. You are providing an opportunity for other writers to learn. You are meeting and talking with professionals in the business. You may just find some inspiration in this beginning for yourself!
Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, living in Mahomet, Illinois. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The News-Gazette. She is a columnist and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is assistant editor for the Sunday Book page in The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids. She writes a blog called, Read These Books and Use Them, for parents, teachers, and librarians. She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911.
When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, and two dogs—Chester, a boxer, and Hush Puppy, a basset hound. You can find out more about Margo by visiting her website: www.margodill.com. Find out more about the workshops Margo teaches by visiting WOW’s Classroom Page.