I love going to writers conferences, and it's really awesome when I'm speaking there as well. But as wonderful as the networking is, if you don't show up with a plan or a set of action items for the conference, you can get sucked up into the vibe of the event without being very productive. Here are some tips to help you maximize your event!
Goals: Before you go to a writers conference, be clear on your goals. If it's just networking that's great, but if you want to get more than networking out of the event, make sure you establish your specific objectives in advance.
Start networking before the event starts: Now that you've gone through the conference website, it's time to identify the folks you'd like to get to know better and start your networking early. Send them an email and tell them you are looking forward to seeing them at the event, or hearing them speak. Follow them on Twitter and begin to network with them there. Early networking is a great way to get in front of agents and publishers you might not otherwise have access to.
Make appointments early: The conference website should be your new best friend. Comb through it to find names of publishers and agents who are going to be there. Most conferences will offer you publisher or agent appointments so you can present your work, but if you want to coordinate a meeting with someone for any other reason dig through the website to find out who will be there and see if you can get on their calendar. I have showed up at conferences hoping to make appointments there and found that they're not only difficult to schedule, but often confusing as well. Once you hit the conference floor the momentum of the event takes over, and any appointments that haven't been confirmed prior to event generally won't happen.
Take business cards: Make sure you bring a lot of business cards -- running out at an event is never good.
Stay organized: I will generally bring some letter-sized envelopes with me to the event and then file cards by session or event so I can keep track of where I collected them. For example, let's say I went to a big awards dinner and did some networking. If I file all of these in the "Awards dinner" envelope, I can add a personal element to the follow up email like "It was nice to meet you at the awards dinner, wasn't Marci's acceptance speech great?"
Easy follow-up: Ok, so you've had a great meeting with a publisher and they want to see a chapter of your book. Great! Now what? Take their card, flip it over and jot down a few important notes on the back such as: follow-up steps, short meeting details ("met for lunch"), and anything else you can fit onto the card such as any personal details they shared -- like having a daughter who went to the same school as your kids or something like that.
Never eat alone: There's a great networking book by the same name (Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, Crown Books) and the statement is true. At a writers conference be sure to grab a table packed with people and even better, don't sit with the same folks over and over again. Mix it up and meet new people!
Action items: At the end of each conference day, I find it helpful to gather my notes and go through and highlight the important items from the day. I have often waited until I'm on the plane back home, or worse, the Monday following the conference and I generally can't make heads or tails out of who I am supposed to follow up with at that point. Lesson: do it early while the information is still fresh.
And finally, our bonus tip:
Plan B: If you can't afford to attend the writers conference that's in your town here's an idea for you. When a big conference rolls into town, an author friend of mine will sometimes hang out in the downstairs coffee shop or restaurant at the hotel where the event is being held and network with people there. You never know who you might meet...
Conference follow-up: This is a biggie. Make sure you always follow up with everyone you connected with, especially if you committed to them that you would send them more information, sample chapters, whatever.
Keep the networking going: Relationships take time. Don't expect miracles when you land at a writers conference. Sometimes great stuff will happen right away, and other times it's a process. Don't let the networking end when the function is over. You're now networking with them online via Twitter and Facebook, and perhaps you have some follow-up to do. Keep on their radar screen and then be on the lookout for future events you can attend!
Writers conferences are a great way to get out there and network, meet your peers and meet agents, publishers, and marketing professionals who can help you publish or market your book. Here are a few for you to consider!
Romantic Times: http://www.rtbookreviews.com/
Unicorn Writers Conference: http://www.unicornwritersconference.com/Unicorn_Writers_Conference.html
Romance Writers of America: http://www.rwa.org/
Book Expo America: http://www.bookexpoamerica.com/