Without incurring travel expenses, lining up childcare, and battling crowds, more than 11,000 aspiring children’s and young adult authors attended WriteOnCon, a free online writing conference held from August 10-12. From the comfort of home, they were able to log onto the conference's Web site and view blogs, vlogs, panel discussions, workshops, and live streaming presented by literary agents, editors, and published authors. Visitors to the site could also submit questions to industry professionals participating in live panel discussions each evening of the conference. The site also linked attendees to a forum where they could submit query letters and sample pages to be critiqued by fellow conference attendees and by literary agents.
WriteOnCon was the brainchild of aspiring YA author Casey McCormick, who contacted Elana Johnson, an author she knew through the online writing community. “I knew I could not organize a conference myself, since I didn’t have the necessary contacts,” McCormick says, “and I knew Elana has a strong online presence. I emailed her and she loved the idea.” The two brought on board five other writers—Jamie Harrington, Shannon Messenger, Jen Stayrook, and Lisa and Laura Roecker—to help organize the event.
After brainstorming via e-mail (McCormick estimates there were “hundreds if not thousands” of e-mails exchanged), the team pulled together WriteOnCom in less than four months. Knowing that input from literary agents would be a key component of this conference, McCormick mentioned the event in an e-mail to Steven Malk of Writers House, who liked the idea and agreed to participate.
His response encouraged the organizers to contact industry professionals they had dealt with, and they then reached out to other agents, editors, and authors they didn’t necessarily have a personal connection with. “Most of the people we contacted wanted to be involved, McCormick says, “including a number of debut authors who loved the idea of giving back,” Among these were Josh Berk (The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin), Kimberly Derting (The Body Finder), and Rachel Hawkins (Hex Hall). At final count, 37 authors and illustrators, and 22 agents and editors, participated in the conference’s programs.
One of the presenters was Mary Kole, associate agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and founder of kidlit.com, a Web site for writers trying to break into children’s books. She learned about WriteOnCom from Jamie Harrington, who became her client last April. “Jamie has a vigorous Web presence, which is a very important part of being an author in today’s market,” Kole says. “I grew up in the Silicon Valley and have worked at dot.coms, so online issues are very close to my heart. When Jamie asked if I’d do a chat and a blog during the conference, I was happy to oblige.”
Kole notes that, despite an early glitch (with the unexpectedly large volume of traffic, the site crashed on the first day and the organizers had to switch servers quickly), the conference was informative and productive. “I used the forum to great effect as an agent,” she says. Writers who posted manuscript pages got feedback from other attendees and it was very much a workshop atmosphere. I went through posts and treated them as submissions. I contacted some authors, and in fact am just now reading one of the manuscripts I found through the conference. I am very excited about it.”
Though Kole doesn’t discount the value of in-person writers’ conferences, she observes that this online counterpart “had none of actual conferences’ potential awkwardness.” Programs like speed dating and pitch sessions can create a lot of pressure, she says. “Here I was able to pay more attention to individual attendees, which is not to say that I don’t usually do that, but this made it easier to control the situation. Authors and agents got to connect on a more personal level, which is ironic since the contact wasn’t made in person.”
McCormick says that the number of WriteOnCon registrants far exceeded the expectations of the organizers. “It is very gratifying,” she remarks. “We plan to make it an annual event and have already started to talk about what we can improve on next year.” Meanwhile, the content from the conference has been archived on the conference’s schedule of events.
Kole says that she travels to writers’ conferences all over the country and has “never seen such a positive response from writers.” Asked whether she thinks that online conferences will become more common in the future, she responds: “I hope WriteOnCon is the only one out there for a while, since I want the organizers to be rewarded for their visionary product. I know that there are so many writers there who aren’t able to take advantage of the benefits of in-person conferences. This was definitely an itch that needed scratching.”