WHEN I LIVED in Michigan, the county library system held an annual writers conference, one that they asked me to teach in. They also asked me to serve on its board, which I did, thinking that I would have all sorts of expertise that might be useful to them. But when I got to my first board meeting, I discovered that they already knew something that most writers-conference organizers either do not know, or don't apply. And the thing they knew was this: to have a successful writers conference, you need to have a plenary speaker that people have actually heard of.
This is something that all writers conference say they do, but few actually succeed at. Conferences run for profit often aim for an A-lister, but then discover that, to turn a profit, they have to settle for someone further along in the alphabet. And university writers conferences often fall victim to inbreeding, with academics convincing one another that Graham or Desdemona really is extremely well-known, even though the writer in question may have written exclusively for the sorts of magazines whose sole purpose is to occupy shelf space in university libraries.
Our little county library system avoided these traps.
First, we were a non-profit, so every penny we made on registrations went straight into providing content for the conference; we even held the conference at the local Carnegie library, so we wouldn't have to spend a cent on facilities. We also sought sponsors to make up the shortfall between what we took in and what we spent to put on a good conference.
And second, our board had an unwritten no-BS rule. If you proposed someone as a plenary speaker and had to spend time explaining who he or she was, then you were not proposing someone in whom the board was interested. As we had librarians on the board, we also had a darn good handle on who our county residents were reading, and that played into our decisions as well.
Following these simple guidelines, we got people such as Elmore Leonard and Audrey Niffenegger as our plenary speakers.
When we did this, something amazing happened. Really good writers came out of the woodwork to teach at our conference, partly because they wanted to hear the plenaries, and partly because it looked as if we knew what we were doing with our conference. Published writers came to take our workshops. The atmosphere was positive and not desperate, and when you sat down to lunch, chances were that there was someone at your table who could offer significant insight into an area of writing that you wanted to know more about.
So these days, when people ask me about writers conferences, I ask them one question: have you heard of, and do you admire, the person who's headlining the conference, or was it someone you had to Google?
Because, if it is the latter ... keep moving ... nothing to see here.