In July 2012, the first UtopYA conference – touted as “a convention for female, paranormal/fantasy young adult authors and the readers who love them” – drew 80 people, half of them panelists. In 2013 the conference returned to Nashville’s Scarritt-Bennett Center for the weekend of June 28–30. This time, UtopYA sold out four months in advance and quadrupled its attendance. As last year’s keynote speaker and bestselling author of the Hourglass series Myra McEntire said, “It’s one of the most supportive conferences I've ever attended.” McEntire returned in 2013 as both a panelist and attendee, and noted, “This year’s UtopYA was exactly as I expected it to be – a jolt of creative energy and a reminder that the writer’s journey doesn’t have to be lonely.”
Indeed, UtopYA can feel more like a pajama party (albeit one in street clothes) than a conference. Attendees huddled together during breaks, sang the cup song from Pitch Perfect, and squealed as they met other participants of the conventions. The atmosphere was laid-back, engaging, and in between panels the majority of attendees perused the 26 author exhibitors, eagerly buying books.
With 35 panels covering a range of YA-related topics, among them Fictionalizing World Causes & Teen Issues, Digital Marketing Outside the Box, and How to Navigate Cliques and Promote Your Book, the 65 panelists – authors, bloggers, marketing directors, screenwriters, podcasters, cover designers, publishers, and editors addressed everything from writing New Adult fiction to writing for multiple audiences and choosing between traditional or self-publishing. Many panels reached standing room only capacity, and nearly all were punctuated by bursts of laughter. No question went unanswered, as everyone was encouraged to speak up. “The support and family-like atmosphere, no matter if you’re a reader or your background is in publishing – from the curious writer to the aspiring author, from indie to traditionally published – makes UtopYA a not to be missed conference," said one of this year’s keynotes, author Jennifer Armentrout (Lux series, Entangled Publishing).
The hospitable feel of UtopYA is intentional, as paranormal fiction fan and conference founder Janet Wallace’s goal was to create a nurturing environment. “I wanted a place for women writers and their fans to connect over a shared love of fictional boyfriends in a non-judgmental environment. A place where women 16 to 65 [and beyond] could swoon over a hunky vampire without feeling embarrassed, and where aspiring writers could mingle and learn from established writers – on equal footing – everything there is to know about the new digital world of publishing, the evolving traditional world, the business of being an author, as well as find their tribe.”
The tribe mentality is a driving force in the conference, and it has paid off for a number attendees. “UtopYA played a huge part in the growth of my business,” said KP Simmon, owner of InkSliger PR. “I can pinpoint the start of InkSlinger PR’s growth and expansion to UtopYA 2012 and Myra McEntire’s keynote address stating ‘you can do it.’ I took those words and the relationships I built there to heart.” Simmon credits the attitudes of the attendees, and the encouraging of open dialogue and community, as instrumental to her career.
In this year’s opening remarks, Wallace set the tone of generosity for the convention by saying, =“Whoever said ‘It’s lonely at the top’ climbed the mountain alone.” Next year she plans to expand the convention further, adding a public signing event, and a write-in – a modern take on the be-in, where authors will bring their laptops and write together – after the closing keynote. As Wallace anticipates new additions and growth in 2014, it's clear UtopYA is gaining momentum.