In 2018, I launched the Belize Writers Conference (BWC).
It was a dream of mine to start a writing conference and introduce fellow writers to my beautiful Caribbean birthplace.
Although I was raised in California, my ties to Belize are strong. I knew there had not been a novel published internationally by a Belizean since the 1980s. As an author, book coach and avid reader, I also wanted to promote the literary arts in Belize.
I decided to focus the conference on introducing writers to literary agents, since so many writers (including myself) are often misinformed about the process of trying to publish a book with a traditional publisher.
I have a respectable literary resume: my poetry, short stories and essays have received awards and have been published in good literary magazines. For more than 23 years I’ve written a newspaper advice column that reaches 30,000 weekly readers online and in print. I’m the author of “When Your Heart Breaks, It’s Opening to Love,” which received a national award for books that promote tolerance and forgiveness.
But my queries to literary agents went nowhere until I launched the writers conference. Then agents began pursuing me.
Starting a writing conference isn’t easy, but it has been incredibly rewarding.
Developing a writing conference is like starting your own freelance writing business or a non-profit organization. You need a mission, business plan, budget, marketing strategy and plenty of resilience. I ran an education-based nonprofit in Belize for 16 years, so I understand how things work in the former British colony.
Interested in starting a writing conference? Follow these tips
The good news is that BWC is now entering its third year, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.
If you’re interested in starting a writing conference of your own, follow these tips.
1. Determine what type of conference you would like to start
Do your research.
While there are many writing conferences out there, even those with long track records struggle in today’s climate.
Talk to conference directors. Get to know the conference landscape.
Ask yourself: How is my conference unique? Does it fill a niche that will compel writers to register?
2. Create a budget
BWC’s biggest expense is travel costs, accommodation and meals for two literary agents, my assistant and me.
Many conferences save money by bringing in two or three powerhouse authors and relying on local talent to fill the remaining spots on the schedule. I don’t have that option. The literary community in Belize is nascent and there are no agents based there.
Consider how you will pay for your headliners and how to entice other pros.
At BWC, authors who present workshops pay their own travel costs. In exchange, they receive a discounted conference package and can sell their books at no charge. Our authors are excited to add teaching at an international event to their literary bios and to connect with a new audience of book lovers.
3. Choose a venue
The first BWC was held at a hip beachfront yoga retreat on a bucolic island off the coast of Belize. Some attendees complained that the floor and ceiling fans were insufficient against heat and humidity.
As a result, we moved our conference to a beachfront resort in southern Belize with air conditioning in every room. It’s essential to keep attendees comfortable and happy.
4. Establish an advisory board
Every year I invite a group of smart, accomplished writers to join the BWC board.
This talented group makes decisions, edits publicity-related materials and helps to ensure that BWC benefits attendees personally and professionally. I work from home so having an advisory board also gives me much needed face time with talented peers.
5. Choose your faculty
To find the right agents for BWC, I read a lot of online interviews. I look for agents who are accepting clients, have a track record of publishing deals, are experienced workshop facilitators and whose personalities signal that hanging out with writers for five days at a beachfront resort would be heaven.
6. Formulate a marketing plan
A marketing plan is a step-by-step strategy to reach the people who will want to attend your conference.
Ask yourself: What’s the hook that will appeal to them?
For BWC, it’s our gorgeous tropical locale and the exceptional experience of working directly with agents. Whether a writer plans to self-publish, hybrid publish, find a small press or a traditional publisher, agents have incredible insight about what makes a successful manuscript.
Once you have your hook, identify your ideal attendees, determine where they hang out online, get your email list ready, line up speaking opportunities and develop collateral material to promote your conference to your target audience.
If you’re an author with book launch experience, you have the skills to market a conference.
7. Be a good literary citizen
BWC inspired me to establish the first literary fellowship for a Belizean in the country’s history. Funded by Copal Distillery Foundation, the writer-in-residence fellowship at the Belize Writers Conference recognizes a talented Belizean writer and funds their BWC tuition and board.
8. Be resilient
As BWC’s conference director, I’ve dealt with situations I never could have imagined, from complaints about humidity to one participant who refused to share her suite with another writer after she agreed to do so.
I’ve learned to think on my feet and not take criticisms personally. I try to ensure that every participant has the best experience possible but I know you can’t please everyone all the time.
9. Plan for the long run
Decide beforehand not to be one and done.
Commit for at least five years. It may take that long to build up the publicity and reputation that will make your conference an attraction and a success.
The BWC is now in its third year and going strong. My focus for 2020 is to create year-round opportunities in the U.S. such as literary readings and author panels to build the bios of writers in our BWC community.
And, of course, to continue inviting writers to vacation with literary agents!
Photo via Belize Writers Conference