Conferences on the Cheap

Someone on a writing forum I’m a member of asked about how to go to conferences when you don’t have much money.

I’m a BIG proponent of conferences, writers groups, and workshops. I think you should definitely go if you’re at all serious about writing.

Okay, look, I’m a small press author, and I go to a TON of conferences, book fairs, art events, comic cons and workshops. I think I did eleven last year, and I’ll do twelve this year.  I have TONS of expenses for going, but I also sell more print books when I’m there in person than I would by just having them sit on a shelf (partly because my contract with my former publisher did not involve distribution of print books). AND I’m definitely one to see how much I can do for as little as possible.

BUT my reason for going is WAY different than a beginning writer.

I go to network. I go to promote my stuff. There are some cons I go to for the sheer number of attendees, I get a booth, and try to sell stuff. That’s more and more lately, as there seem to be fewer and fewer actual bookstores in my geographical area than ever before.

A beginning writer should to go to a conference to learn about the industry, to learn about writing, to learn about genre, and to learn about submissions and self-pub and all the ins and outs that get talked about. They need to start learning and networking and all those other crazy and incredible things.

Networking has done more for me than straight slush pile submissions, but that’s because I network A LOT. It’s gotten me leads, friends, connections, and all kinds of wonderful fun memories, as well as a network of writers and editors and artists that I can contact for questions.

I’m also a government employee, so I’m not getting rich anytime soon, regardless of so many people (including several governors, but that’s another rant for another day) seem to believe. I also do some part time work, in part to cover my travel expenses, in part to pay down my student loans faster, and in part to do extra work on my house. That’s not a solution for everyone. One writer friend of mine has suggested doing the 52 week challenge to save money for conferences. It’s a great idea.

So how do you attend a conference on a budget?

Geographical location.

Depending on where you live, there might be a local conference or workshop within reasonable driving distance and you might save yourself a hotel fee. If a convention is within an hour’s drive, a lot of times, I will drive back and forth to save myself the money in a hotel. I can then eat breakfast at home, see my guys, pack a sandwich for lunch if I want, and take my own water bottle to keep from buying water at a hotel. If there isn’t one within a reasonable driving distance, look and see if there’s one within a reasonable driving distance of a friend or relative’s house.

I live 45 minutes from Dayton, Ohio and 50 minutes from Columbus, Ohio. My brother and sister in law live in Cincinnati. Any of those three cities are ones that I can either stay at home or with my brother, and save hundreds. My only cost then is gas, parking, and food, unless there’s a badge cost, but a lot of times, I don’t have that cost because of the amount of work I do at a con.


Some conventions will allow you to earn a free or discounted badge if you volunteer some time helping with the logistics of the con. This could be anything from stuffing conference bags, to working the registration desk to running schedules and paperwork to picking up guests at the airport. It’s a great way to network, it’s a great way to see what goes on behind the scenes, and most of the time the staff of a conference are way overworked and pulled in four hundred million different directions by the time the conference actually starts.

As a published author, I volunteer to appear on panels; this is an easy way to get a comped badge at a local conference or convention, but that doesn’t work so well at the big ones unless you’ve got a great hook, a big name, or some reason why you would be a draw to the attendees.  This is probably not an option for a beginner, unless it’s a fan run topic (like a popular television show) and you can somehow pitch yourself as knowledgeable enough to be an authority. Keep in mind that this normally also involves more than one panel. I’ve been known to do as many as ten in 48 hours, but I like doing them. I can hear the introverts shudder from across the interwebs.

Con Suite.

Check and see if the conference you’re looking at has a con suite; sometimes it’s a great place to grab a sandwich, a bit of caffeine, and a place to sit down and take a break without feeling like you’ve got to buy something in a coffee shop or a bar. Not all conferences have them; when they do exist, they’re awesome.

Get a conference buddy to split costs.

If there’s nothing in your area (and if you’re in Ohio, I beg to differ on that one), then you might not be able to get out of hotel costs or travel costs. Then it’s about finding someone interested in joining you that you might be able to split your hotel costs and travel costs. Obviously you can’t split an airplane ticket, but if it’s within reasonable driving distance, splitting gas and parking costs is a great way to get there. Splitting hotel costs is another way to keep costs down. You might also be able to see if there’s a way to bring some of your food along as well, to have cheaper things on hand (peanut butter, granola bars, your own pack of Coke Zero, etc.).

I’ve got a friend of mine that I’m attending a couple of conferences with in order to keep costs manageable. We will split a hotel room at Origins in Columbus (despite being close enough to drive, because we enjoy it and want to stick around for some of the later activities). We’re going to Chicago later this year (6-8 hours drive, depending on where we leave from, her house or mine). We’ve split the table fee for putting our books out for sale. We’re splitting the hotel room. We’ll split up the gas, parking, and tolls. We’ll probably pack things to take to keep some costs down. Total cost will be still a bit pricey, but about 40% less than doing all of this by myself. And…since we’ve done cons together in the past and are good friends, we’ll have a great time.

Miscellaneous tips…

  • Ask friends and family to give you gas cards for your birthday and Christmas to defray driving costs for conferences.
  • Ditto for gift cards for chain restaurants near where you’re going (if nothing else, makes a great gift to the person who might be letting you couch surf).
  • Doing the $52 week savings challenge is a great idea to get yourself a nest egg and a budget.
  • SET A BUDGET. Don’t blow your credit card for a great weekend. Budget for what you think you’ll spend…and give yourself a 10% cushion for “just in case”.
  • Remember to take good notes and make it all worthwhile; going and then not writing anything down is kinda meaningless…
  • DON’T forget your cell phone/charger/camera. You might meet some really cool people and want to share pictures.