A Quick Guide to Planning a Writing Conference

I am writing this blog post as a little time capsule that is part instructional guide and part philosophy on communicating and coordinating with people. My hope is that the future managers in charge of the Write to Publish conference will read this and get some useful information.

This blog post will be a little less reflective and a little more reactive, as I am currently still in the thick of planning the 2020 conference, which will take place on January 11 at the Smith Memorial Student Union—less than a month away (how terrifying)!

However, what I want to talk to you about, future managers of Write to Publish, is the way in which you invite speakers to participate in the conference, because I believe that is the most important part of the planning process.

The term “speakers” refers to everyone from the keynote to additional panelists, instructors, moderators, and facilitators—they go by many names and do many things, but the most important thing you need to know is that they are people who are giving you their time, often without any guaranteed benefit for them in return.

If you are planning a conference, it is vital that you take this to heart when communicating with panelists. Take the time to be engaged with speakers and show your appreciation for both their work and the unique individuals that they are.

This begins with your very first email: the pitch. The pitch is your first step—maybe your only step—and it needs to do three things:

  1. Define your vision for the conference. In other words, it should communicate what is so wonderful about your conference. This should be unique every year, but it should align with our main goal: demystifying the publishing industry. This vision should have a broad appeal to your potential speakers so that they can start to see their work aligning with it.
  2. Show how the panelist fits in with your vision. This requires you to research each individual panelist and find something about their work that connects back to your vision for the conference. It’s a lot of work, but it pays off exponentially. It shows that you are engaged with their work and that you are sincere in your invitation.
  3. Invite the panelist to the conference. This is what oftentimes is called “the ask.” Be clear about what you want panelists to do, but also be flexible. Not everyone feels comfortable with speaking on a panel; some speakers may feel more comfortable facilitating a workshop. Allow yourself enough flexibility with your program to accommodate panelists’ interests and abilities.

Now comes the hard part: the time between sending out your pitch and getting a reply. Many anxious thoughts will fill your mind, but you have to ignore them, because at this point you will be sending out so many invites that you will be too busy to be anxious about it! Take comfort in routine: research potential speaker, write invite, send invite, repeat over and over again until you have enough speakers. A comfortable number of invites for a panel is anywhere between five and ten potential speakers. Yes, I have invited ten people to participate in a panel and gotten three replies. That is normal. Don’t panic. Just keep sending invites!

It may take an hour (bless them!), a few days, or even a month, but most people will reply to your initial email. In a few cases you may have to send a follow-up. These follow-up emails should be short and polite and should refer back to your previous email. Never assume that someone intentionally ignored your email or that their lack of reply is a rejection. Many potential speakers are very busy and get a great many emails every day.

A new email pops up in the inbox. It’s a reply! Exciting but also scary. Rejection is not great, and you run the risk of it. Take a deep breath and click that email! If it is a rejection, your reply is simple: a quick thank-you and you are out. If it is an acceptance, your reply should also be a thank-you, but you are in! If the newly confirmed speaker has any questions, feel free to answer them. Always be quick to reply to their email. It shows that you are engaged, invested, and respectful of their time.

The difficult question: “Do you offer an honorarium?”

It is difficult to talk about money in any situation, especially when you don’t have any to offer. At this time, Ooligan does not offer an honorarium for speakers at the Write to Publish conference (a future goal, I hope). Write to Publish is many things—a publishing conference, a networking event, an open house for the graduate program in book publishing—but at its core, it is a fundraising event for Ooligan Press, so our budget is tight. Most speakers will understand this, but for some, this lack of compensation will be a deal breaker. Publishing is a field full of passionate people who also need to get paid; respect that. Just as we don’t have the budget to pay people, speakers don’t always have the budget to attend the conference unless they are being paid. Thank them for their time and consideration and allow them the opportunity to bow out of the conference as gracefully as possible.

A final note: Your sincerity is the most vital asset you have in planning this conference. It is your social capital—the only currency you have to offer people. Caring about the speakers and having their best interests at heart is an essential part of planning this event. Your goal should always be to ensure that everyone involved has a good time and gets the most out of their experience. If you can hold onto this idea amid all the chaos, you will do great work and hold a wonderful conference that I hope to attend.

Best of luck!