Improving on Good Conferences

At least a dozen times these last two weeks I’ve heard or thought about something and said, “OH! That would make a good blog for Murderati.” But as I sit down today to write a blog, none of those past quasi-brilliant ideas are coming to mind. I’m on overload. I’ve been on the East Coast for eleven days and very ready to go home.

I completely enjoyed Thrillerfest and miss New York and the Grand Hyatt. I’ve also been enjoying RWA, though I’m tired. Unfortunately, I’ve been sorely disappointed with the Marriott-Wardman Park where I am at the RWA conference, except for the extremely helpful staff member available near the registration desk who should be given a raise because she’s one of two staffers who smiled, the other being the friendly clerk at the shipping counter downstairs.

Since I just came back from the St. Martin’s book giveaway, I was thinking about what, if anything, I’d change about Thrillerfest and what I’d change about RWA to make the conferences better. What do they do right that the other group can take to make their conference even better?

First, you have to understand the differences between the two organizations. I blogged about this on Thursday at Murder She Writes, which is really geared more toward romantic suspense of all stripes.

In a nutshell, ITW is an author-centric organization with a strong author support structure. I would not change that. It’s what makes it appealing to me as a romantic thriller and supernatural thriller author. They do it extremely well, and amazingly keep getting better. RWA is a writer-centric organization with a strong writer support structure. There is no better organization to begin with to learn not only the business but the craft of writing. There are a lot of amazing storytellers out there who just need a little guidance in order to make a good story great. Whereas 80% of the members of ITW are published, only 20% of RWA members are published. And that’s okay because of the mission of each organization.

So keeping in mind the mission of each organization, I’ve thought about how each group could become stronger in support of their mission.

ITW: International Thriller Writers

The ITW author signings are twice a day after morning and afternoon workshops. For thirty minutes, the authors who presented during the previous “session” sign books after they are purchased.

Unfortunately, these signings are short, crowded, and cumbersome. They feel tacked on and almost like an afterthought.

RWA has two hugely successful programs. The first is the literacy signing where publishers donate books. It is open to the public. Readers—not just conference attendees—can come in to purchase books and all proceeds go to literacy (this year raising over $60,000.) RT has a similar signing, but it’s run through a bookstore similar to the way ITW does it now, though like RWA it’s during one two-hour time period and also open to the public.

It seems to me that having one larger signing open to the public—whether a literacy signing or a traditional bookseller signing—would draw in the public and allow for a larger venue and more potential sales and/or exposure. We (i.e. the authors) would be able to promote it to our newsletters, helping not only ourselves but other authors who our fans may enjoy. ITW can promote it to local media. Perhaps we can entice the bookseller to donate 20% of the proceeds to literacy. Something to draw in readers, encourage librarians and the participating bookstore to advertise it in their stores and libraries during the weeks leading up to the big event. We can even name it something catchy like The Big Thrill: Live. (Ok, that’s bad, but you get the point.)

The second book signing that RWA does is the publisher giveaways, where to promote their authors (and as a benefit to conference attendees) publishers put on a “signing” and give away free books. The authors are present to sign. It’s in many ways better than leaving books on tables or chairs because it gives face time with fans or potential fans, and it’s a great way to introduce new authors. I don’t personally think that this is a good idea for ITW, as there are far fewer authors in attendance, but it might be something to think about for the debut authors who people might want to try but aren’t sure about spending the money without a taste.

If I had my way, I’d opt to have the single two-hour signing on (for example) Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon and find ways to bring in readers who aren’t registered for the conference. 


RWA: Romance Writers of America

RWA provides valuable information to writers of most levels, from the just-starting to the established author. Their workshops are fantastic and varied and writers can pick and choose based on their craft level and experience. I’ve generally be impressed with the quality level of the presentations, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the PAN (published author) workshops that avoid the basic craft issues and focus on business issues. Because of the vast numbers of RWA, we can draw a wide variety of people to present workshops and offer unique experience and information. RWA is also unique it that it offers a huge support and networking opportunity to unpublished authors that is, frankly, unsurpassed by any other professional writers organization. The sheer size of RWA helps in providing opportunities to a vast number of writers.

However, in RWA’s effort to appeal to all their members, they’ve extended that to the workshop presenters. I was puzzled when I noticed for the first time (after a publishing professional commented on it) that there were many craft and business workshops being offered by unpublished authors. Perhaps this “me scratching head” moment was because I had just come back from Thrillerfest where during the Craftfest portion we had such incredible instructors as Lee Child and Lisa Gardner (my heroes.) Unless the writer has another area of expertise—such as they are a copyright attorney as well as a romance writer and talking about copyright law—I don’t see the benefit of learning the craft or the business from writers who haven’t sold.

I think it would benefit the unpublished members of RWA—as well as the published members—to find instructors who are established and well versed in the subject they are teaching. I have nothing against unpublished writers talking about an area of expertise, but if they haven’t sold I don’t think that they are the best person to talk about how to write, market or promote a book.

I am a huge fan of both RWA and ITW. I think they serve their members very well, and in no way can they be all things to all writers. These are just two things I noticed after the back-to-back conference where I think that each organization can learn from the other to the benefit of their members.

I’m interested in what you all think as well. What do you like about going to conferences? Published or unpublished or non-writing readers, how do you benefit? Why do you go . . . or not go? Comments, theories, suggestions? If you aren’t a writer, would you travel thirty, sixty, ninety minutes to attend a booksigning with multiple (more than 50) authors?

I won’t be able to respond until tonight, as I am flying home today, but I will respond once I get home and settled (unless my plane is delayed, then I’ll be posting angrily from the airport.)

Oh! And the winner of SUDDEN DEATH by me and CHARMED AND DANGEROUS by Toni is . . . .Billie!!!! Please email me your snail mail address and I’ll get those out on Tuesday. Congratulations!

16 thoughts on “Improving on Good Conferences

  1. Chris Redding

    I agree mostly about unpubbed authors doing workshps, except that the best workshop I ever went to was an unpubbed author. Margie Lawson is in demand all over the country and has spoken several times at RWANat’l. She is unpubbed, but what she has to offer is amazing. So I’m not so willing to dimissed unpubbed authors giving workshops. If Margie can do it, I’m sure others can.

  2. billie

    Good grief! How cool is that?

    Very interesting question about unpubbed writers teaching workshop classes. I’m sure many of them have good stuff to offer. I’ve also been to a few workshops with pubbed authors who DIDN’T.

    Not sure how to know that ahead of time, when organizing the conference and selecting presenters.

    We do put our work in the hands of agents and editors who have never published a word, and give great value to what they tell us though… in the query/publication process as well as at conferences. I’m not sure it’s all that different.

  3. Karen in Ohio

    Allison, your blog is well presented. Although I’ve never been (yet, but am planning to attend Bouchercon this year) to a writers’ conference, I’ve been to plenty in other topics, and your ideas are solid. It doesn’t matter where a presenter is coming from, as long as they have well-thought out and presented material. My rule of thumb for determining whether or not a lecture or workshop was worth my time was whether or not I learned anything new. If I learned at least one significant thing, it was worth it.

  4. Brett Battes

    I haven’t attended RWA yet, but I love your idea for Thrillerfest! They’ve been looking for ways to bring in more fans, and this seems to be something that might just do that. It would be great, if nothing else, to test it out for a couple conferences in a row. If you bring in the fans for free for the signing, it’s very possible that some of those fans will come back the next year as paying attendees. Definitely worth giving it a shot!

  5. tess gerritsen

    Allison, what a great idea for T’fest signings! I’ve been to both RWA and T’Fest, and you’re absolutely right about the literacy mass signing event. Since it’s open to the public, huge numbers of readers turned up, and writers got a chance to chat with each other, as well as with fans. The only downside to the mass signing that I attended? Not enough cashiers, and the lines to pay for books was way too long. (Ah, we should always have that problem!)

    So I say, right on. T’Fest should re-vamp its signing event. Make it a mass signing, open the doors to all customers — but make sure that you have lots of bookseller cashiers ready to ring up the sales.

  6. MJRose

    Great post Allison and actually the board has been talking about doing that for three years now – not eliminating the signings we have but adding a giant one and there have been all kinds of obstacles but we think we might pull it off in 2010. Stay tuned.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I couldn’t agree more about this:

    —-It seems to me that (ITW) having one larger signing open to the public—whether a literacy signing or a traditional bookseller signing—would draw in the public and allow for a larger venue and more potential sales and/or exposure.——

    I’ve said this every single year, and it sounds like there are plans to do this in a big way next year. I don’t want to give anything away that’s not supposed to be common knowledge yet, though.

    I was so sorry to miss RWA but I think a third con in a week would have killed me.

  8. Dru

    As a reader I would love if the ITW had a mass signing. I wanted to go this year but the cost was prohibitive with the few hours for the book signing.

    I’ve heard about the RWA literacy signing and if they hold it in NYC, I’ll definitely be there. How far would I travel to attend an event – no more than a 2-hour train ride.

    Great post explaining the differences between the two group. I’m more of a mystery genre reader who also love romantic suspense titles.

  9. JT Ellison

    I’m so excited to attend my first RWA next year in Nashville.

    I missed TFest this year, which was hard, since I’ve been to all of them from the beginning. I agree about the signings though – that’s always a crowded noisy time. I’ve always liked the sign right after the panel format, because you’re fresh in people’s minds and they can ask questions they weren’t able to voice in a group setting. It’s one on one time that’s invaluable, I think.

    Regardless, I’ll be back on the circuit next year and am looking forward to both RWA and TFest. And Bcon, and… and… and…

  10. Allison Brennan

    Yeah MJ! I’m thrilled that the board is considering it. I am NOT volunteering to help, however, just putting that on the record, in writing, now. Other than being there, of course, which I already have on my schedule. I recruited a bunch of romantic suspense authors at RWA to join ITW (It’s FREE! Join! Wow, very easy to recruit, LOL.)

    Chris, I know and love Margie Lawson and she would be under the heading of someone with an expertise to share. Like a prosecutor or a cop or a veteran or anyone else with specialized information and a strong teaching presence. Margie is a psychologist and one of the most brilliant instructors I’ve ever heard teaching how to convey emotion and physical action in novels. But she’s EXACTLY the type of instructor who would be valuable (and she did teach a class.) I was primarily talking about people who don’t have a strong background in the subject matter, teaching something that might be better taught by someone with the background and experience. I’m not bagging on RWA–I love RWA–I’m just reflecting on some of the things that I think would make RWA an even stronger organization. I’m not always right . . . but shhh about that.

  11. Allison Brennan

    Alex, you’re excused for not going to RWA–three would have killed me, too. Two back-to-back was past my limit, but I get a second wind on Friday of RWA. Next year, there’s a week between Thrillerfest and RWA so I’m going to both, but if they are back-to-back again I don’t know that I’ll do it. It’s 12 days, but when you add prep time and re-coup time, that’s 14-16 days total, and I can’t take 2 weeks away from daily writing time. This time worked because I turned in a book right before I left. But now I have to jump on revisions.

  12. toni mcgee causey

    I didn’t get a chance to come comment yesterday, but completely agree with Allison’s idea — and MJ, that’s great that ITW is considering it. I plan to be at both cons next year as well.

    The *one* critical point I wish RWA would consider is the timing of that major literacy signing event–they set it up for Wed (pre-conference) because many of the publisher giveaways are on Sat. However, for new / debut authors who are sitting there at the literacy festival, who are speaking maybe for the first time, no one knows about them yet, so they sit on a long row of a bunch of authors and it’s harder to move books. I’d really love for the big literacy signing to be toward the end of the festival, because I *always* discover new writers at the conference and I would go get their books–and therefore, the literacy event would benefit more–if the lit sale was later. If ITW chooses not to do publisher giveaways, but just one big signing, I hope they choose to do that signing after some of the panels and the new author debut breakfast has taken place so we get a chance to be exposed to more authors’ books, first.

    [I have no clue if that paragraph makes sense. I still have conference brain.]

  13. Elaine Charton

    Great points and I had always wondered about ITW so thanks for explaining the difference to me. I think that RWA should do something to highlight new authors. Balloons, flowers, something to let people know that this author has done something special and they should stop and ask what they did to deserve the recognition.

    As for the workshops, I’ve been a long time member of RWA(1991) I’ve attended great workshops from unpublished authors and horrible ones. The same could be said for the published authors as well. I think if someone can show the expertise in the subject then they can give the workshop.


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