Five Tips for Attending a Big Conference

SCBWI's 21st Annual Winter Conference is happening this weekend in New York City. I regret that I will not be going this year. Hopefully next year. 

Can I tell you a little secret? I joined SCBWI in 2012, but I didn't attend any of their conferences until 2017. I'm an introvert, and going to a conference where I didn't know anyone sounded like more trouble than it was worth. I was wrong.

What changed? In 2017, I accepted a volunteer position for my region, coordinating and editing my region's newsletter. I'd never met anyone from my region. Yeah, I accepted the volunteer position through email. But then I had to know what was going on, so I went to my first SCBWI conference, a small one-day event in Las Vegas. I put on my brave face and introduced myself to people . . . and I ended up with some friendships that I still treasure.

I learned that most of the people in children's publishing (at least the ones you meet at SCBWI conferences) are kind, friendly, and helpful. 

So, when some friends asked me to attend the Annual Summer Conference in Los Angeles a few months later, it wasn't scary anymore.

Tip #1: Take a Friend (or Multiple Friends) with You

I learned this from the friends who invited me along in 2017, and I believe it will decrease your anxiety and increase your enjoyment more than anything else you can do. 

One of my Storyteller Academy critique partners asked me to room with her and another friend from our class with Arree. We did almost everything together. This gives you someone to sit with, someone to eat with, and it also protects you from having to make small talk with people you've just met.

My Roommates in 2017

Last year, I invited a friend from Vegas. We took the same flight and roomed together with another friend from Storyteller Academy. 

My Roommates (in Costume) in 2019

You do want to put on your brave face and make some new friends, but doing that all of the time will wear you out if you're an introvert.

Tip #2: Take Breaks When You Need Them

Did you notice when I said, “We did almost everything together” in that last section?

Sometimes, one of us headed back to the hotel room to take a break. We all did it at least once during the conference. Don't let your fear of missing out exhaust you.

There's probably going to be at least one session or networking opportunity that you're not as excited about as some of the others. It's okay to let it go. Conserving your energy will help you make the most of the sessions and opportunities that you're most excited about.

On the other hand, don't hide in your room and miss the conference. I've heard stories from people who did just that. If you didn't take a friend with you, introduce yourself to someone who looks like they could use a friend. We can always use another friend who wants to talk stories, right?

Tip #3: Be Prepared

You don't want to corner editors or agents or try to give them your manuscripts. BUT it's a really good idea to have business cards if you're a writer, or postcards if you're an author/illustrator. And if you have a story that's ready to query or submit, you'd better practice your pitch for it beforehand. 

I thought I was ready for that first big conference in 2017. And then Arree introduced me to his literary agent, Rubin Pfeffer, at dinner the night before the conference. Arree told him that I had this great witch story, so Rubin sat down next to me and asked me for my pitch. Then he gave me feedback on my pitch, which was slightly mortifying but also extremely helpful. We talked for about 20 minutes, and he gave me a lot of great advice. Then he offered to give me a referral to another agent he thought would be a great fit for me and asked for my business card. 

I didn't have business cards.

He told me to make him a business card that he could pass on to the other agent and give it to him sometime during the conference.

So I did.

And I worked on that pitch. At that same conference, Arthur Levine asked me to pitch the same story (which still hasn't found a home) to him, and he complimented me on my “succinct pitch.” I laughed and told him truthfully that Rubin had gotten to me first, which made him laugh and go into a story about editing Harry Potter. And seriously, I was waiting for someone to pinch me. 

Arthur actually sat by me during Meg Medina‘s keynote speech at last summer's conference as well. It was a completely inappropriate moment to bother him. We just smiled at each other and listened to Meg's fantastic speech. I doubt he remembered who I was exactly, but he was still friendly. There was recognition.

My experience has been that publishing professionals in the children's book industry are friendly. They want you to have the best possible experience. They want you to learn from your mistakes and succeed.

Did I have business cards at my second big conference? Yes, I did.

My point is that you never know when opportunity is going to strike. If you're prepared, you have nothing to worry about.

Tip #4: Manage Your Expectations

The likelihood that you'll end up with an agent or a publishing contract because you attended one conference is small. I actually wrote another blog post with tips for connecting with agents and editors through conferences. You can read it here. 

So, what can you expect to get out of your conference? You can expect to pick up some knowledge and inspiration. You can expect some great networking opportunities with other writers, illustrators, art directors, agents, and editors.

How you handle those opportunities is up to you.

Tip #5: Plan on Building Relationships Over Multiple Conferences

I'm going to use this picture with Benson Shum as an example of building relationships over multiple conferences.

In 2017, I met Benson at the dinner where I met Rubin Pfeffer. Ken Lamug introduced us. (I met Ken at my very first little regional SCBWI conference in Las Vegas. He's the Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI Nevada.) So, Ken introduced us, and we hung out with each other a few times over the course of the conference. 

Then we followed each other on social media after the conference. Benson ended up taking a course from Arree, and I interviewed him for our blog because the story behind how his first picture book came out was pretty cool. He's an animator for Disney, and his story won the Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase. It was published by Disney-Hyperion before Benson took Arree's class, before we met at that first conference, but we were still excited for him.  

Anyway, last year when I started talking about throwing a dinner party before the conference, Benson emailed me to see if we could hang out afterwards. I introduced him to my roommate, who been friends with Ken for longer than I have, and it felt like something came full circle. 

These are some of his books:

Isn't that sloth the most adorable thing? 

If you're going to the conference in New York City this weekend, don't stress yourself out over whether you're doing it right or wrong. Enjoy the speakers, the workshops, and the new friendships that you make. I hope you have a wonderful time!

And if you have tips or questions, please share them in the comments. Thanks for reading!


Blog Contributors

Instructor Photo: Myrna Foster

Myrna Foster writes and edits content for Storyteller Academy and the WriteRiders Newsletter for SCBWI Nevada. She has spent a lot of time teaching and coaching children, including five years as a preschool teacher. She's also worked as a journalist, and Highlights High Five has published six of her poems. 

Arree Chung is an author/illustrator and the founder of Storyteller Academy. Arree’s Ninja! series has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Kirkus also gave a starred review to Mixed, which recently won the FCGB award. 

Today Arree lives a creative life, making stories for children. Arree spends most of his time making picture books, writing middle grade novels, and sharing his love for art, design, and storytelling with kids and dreamers everywhere.

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