Making the Most of Writers' Conferences

Writers’ Conferences Are More
Than Giant Writing Classes


By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

A partial excerpt from the new edition of The Frugal Book Promoter


Make the most of a conference by planning in advance. You want to treat a conference like a garden and bring home all the ripe stuff that suits your palate. That means you have to organize. This section will help you do that. Without it you won’t be able to glean the most from whatever conference you choose.

Your notebook—either the old-fashioned paper kind or the one you set up on your laptop— is key to getting the most from a conference:

  • Bring a seven-subject notebook. Divide the notebook into sections that match your goals. These might include: Agents, Publishers, Promotion, Writing, and Other Contacts. Leave one section open for a category that crops up after you arrive.
  • On each separator page tape a number ten envelope in which you slip business cards, bookmarks, mini notes to yourself, and small brochures. When you arrive home, part of your filing and sorting will be done.
  • Take blank mailing labels to make index tabs that stick out from the edge of your notebook.
  •  On the first night of the conference, clip and paste separate parts of the conference handouts into corresponding segments of your notebook.
  • At the back of your conference notebook make a directory section. Use the label index markers to delineate each one.

o   The first page is a name and address list for publishers. They should be listed in conference handouts but you may glean more from seminars. Star the ones you spoke to. Make notes. What have they published that is similar to your book? Jot down anything that will help them remember you when you write to them and mention your encounter. Query letters work best when you indicate you are familiar with the person or company being queried.


Big Hint: When you talk to publishers always ask them what they do to promote their authors’ books. Pin them down to specifics.


o   The second directory page is for fellow authors. Jot notes on them, too. It’s no fun to arrive home with a useless business card.

o   Ditto for agents and for conference planners. You may be surprised at how often you’ll refer to this page.

o   A page for “Other Resources” includes information on anything from other conferences to books you’d like to read.

o   Designate a few pages for writing ideas.

o   The final pages are for new promotion ideas.


Hint: Bring a small pouch of tools—I use one I received with an Estée Lauder gift-with-purchase. Toss into it color-coded pens, snub-nosed scissors (sharp ones may not get you through airport security), a small roll of cellophane tape, your index labels, paperclips, strong see-through packing tape, hammer, tacks, razor, ChapStick, hole puncher, breath mints, elastic bands, Band-Aids, and your personal medication. Don’t unpack this when you get home. You’ll need it in the future for other conferences, book signings, book fairs, and other promotional events.


You can use a conference to promote, too.

  • Some conferences offer tables where participants can leave promotional handouts for their books or services. Before you leave home, ask your conference coordinator how you might utilize this opportunity.

  • Ask the conference coordinator if they publish a newsletter or journal. If so, send the editor media releases as your career moves along.
  • Take your business cards to the conference.
  • If you have a published book, take your bookmarks to give to others. And even a few books. Authors tend not to forget to give their books to people who are in a position to recommend it.
  • If you have an area of expertise that would interest a conference director, introduce yourself. She may be busy, so keep your pitch very short and follow up later.
  • Think in terms of gathering endorsements for your book to use in the future. You are building a network.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of the multi award-winning HowToDoItFrugally series of book for writers. Learn more about them at She also invites you to subscribe to her writers’ resources blog, Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites pick Follow her tweets at And that new edition of The Frugal Book Promoter? It just won a USA Book News award in its own right (for best business/writing book) and the e-book edition was just honored at Dan Poynter's Global EBook Awards.


elysabeth said...


Thanks for sharing these tips. I especially like your hint about a "tool pouch". This is a super great idea and I will have to put this together since I do quite a few conferences. As it is, I've not had any use for a hammer or tacks but do tend to use a lot of tape (masking mostly but clear too). This is definitely a must-have idea for traveling to several conferences in a year. You probably could say leave this pouch in your overnight bag or whatever luggage you tend to use frequently. I'd probably leave this in my car since I don't fly to any of the conferences I attend (I'm mostly at local, within 3-5 hours of my home and as an exhibitor, not as an attendee). E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of FINALLY HOME, a middle grade/YA mystery written similar to a Nancy Drew mystery

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, great tips. I haven't been able to attend an in-person conference yet, but will now be prepared for when I can.

I like the idea of asking publishers what they do to help promote their authors. This is important to know. If want some help marketing your books.

Heidiwriter said...

Excellent tips. I enjoy going to writers conferences, not only to glean valuable information, but to meet old friends and new ones! It's the highlight of my year to go to the Women Writing the West conference!

Unknown said...

Great ideas. The business cards are SO important.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Great tips. Somehow I often arrive at conference without business cards, now they are always with me.

Magdalena Ball said...

What great suggestions Carolyn. An author friend of mine always calls her publisher before going anywhere - a conference or even a visit to a friend in another state to ask if there's some event she can be hooked up with. If you can treat a conference like a business, and substantiate that with notebooks like you suggest, there are tax benefits for writers.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

I can see lots of ways we could use these ideas for online conferences too, using virtual business cards and networking. Think it's a much better idea to use a notebook as it will be so much easier to access main points later rather than dredging through computer files.

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