When you participate in a conference, always keep in mind there’s a transaction being conducted, and I’m not talking about the amount listed on the REGISTRATION page.
TRANSACTION – PART I
Paying to attend a conference—as well as footing the bill for all expenses (travel, lodging, meals, and incidentals (read: bar tab) is the cost of doing business as a writer. It’s usually worth it, especially for a popular conference or one that has a niche (known for great agents attending or generating a huge reader turnout) that fits your need. Even at generalist conference, you’ll meet other writers, publishers, editors, and readers while making some friendships or planting the seeds of rivalry—either of which could prove fruitful down the line.
This part of the transaction is a wash: the conference is a product and the writer should pay for it.
TRANSACTION – PART II
It’s after the check’s been written that the rules of the transaction get a little murky.
As a conference participant, you’ll have the opportunity, and probably be expected, to sit on a panel and hold forth on a topic that interests the group in question: writers at craft conferences, readers at fan cons. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you—and all the other attending writers—are providing content for the conference. Absent that content, there is no conference.
In any other setting, you’d receive compensation for providing that content, but as a writer, you are “paid” in an even better currency: exposure.
But here’s the rub: if the audience for that exposure is off-target (e.g., writers when you want to reach readers), irrelevant (e.g., a panel on science thrillers when you write mysteries), or logistically challenged (e.g., the last slot on the last day of the conference), then the value of your payment is diminished…maybe even worthless. I’ve been saddled with all three and I can tell you it doesn’t sit well after writing a check for several hundred dollars for the privilege.
Of course, a certain amount of this is understanding that, as a newbie, you’ll be paid the “minimum wage” in exposure currency. You can’t expect to be interviewed by a NYT best-seller at noon on Saturday if you haven’t earned that right. But you can, and should, politely ask for better placement, timing, or topics if room on other panels exists.
Perhaps it doesn’t and you have to make the best of a bad situation; even participating on a panel with three people in the audience gives you some experience in public speaking. And it’s important to treat the conference organizers and volunteers with respect; no one gets paid for putting a conference on and they’ve no doubt got their hands full.
But remember: you’re providing a service and deserve to get paid for it. This is your career. Don’t let it get shoved into a corner.