I’m getting married in a little under two weeks, and a few nights ago I had my first anxiety dream about my upcoming wedding. It went like this: my wedding and the American Library Association Annual Conference (ALA) had been scheduled for the same time. I was arranging books at our exhibit booth in my wedding dress, and when I tried to leave to head to the altar, an author appeared for her signing. She demanded that I stay and fix the lighting, which she said was not flattering. I woke up in a cold sweat.
It doesn’t take Freud to figure out where this dream came from. As any marketing person can tell you, conferences take an immense amount of work, planning, and mental energy. As it turns out, weddings do too. The good news is that I’ve learned a lot in my eight years of planning and attending conferences that helped me stay sane throughout the wedding planning process—and there’s a lot that wedding planning can teach about conferences, too. Here are a few tips that I’ve found to be true for both events:
Always be prepared. Long-term planning is essential, but I’ve found that in order for events to go off without a hitch, a lot of time needs to be dedicated to thinking through the minute details because seemingly small things can throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans. Are any of your dinner guests gluten-free? Do you need a reminder to change your watch when you get to a new time zone? In which part of the convention center is the exhibit hall located? How many pens have you brought for your signing? What will you do if your powerpoint was not uploaded as promised?
If you are an author attending a conference, think through all the items you will need and make a list, so you remember to bring them all with you or make sure your publisher has them. If you have an itinerary, look over it carefully and get any questions you have answered early, before the conference starts. The more time you set aside ahead of time to think through the details, the less likely you are to be caught by surprise on the day of your event.
You can’t make everyone happy. In wedding-land, it’s notoriously hard to satisfy everyone and make decisions without some feelings getting hurt. You’d think that conferences would be less emotionally wrought, but I am here to tell you that’s not always the case. Your book is your baby, and it’s natural to feel disappointed when it doesn’t draw the attention or sales that you hoped it would. Not all signings go well, and not all panels pull a standing-room-only crowd. Not every author gets his or her own publisher-sponsored cocktail party. When it comes to conferences, everyone is working with limited time, attention, and resources. Try to go in with managed expectations, and remember that you’ve created a beautiful piece of art. Even if it doesn’t attract all the attention you hoped it would, it is still something to celebrate and be proud of. And if you connect with just a few new readers who are excited, you never know where that might lead.
Use Institutional Knowledge. When I started planning my wedding, nothing helped me more than speaking with friends who had gone through it before. They pointed me in the right direction, kept me sane, and even shared their spreadsheets with me. If you are an author going to a conference for the first time, don’t reinvent the wheel: use your publisher and peers to help you plan. If you have never done a signing on a conference floor before, ask for some recommendations of ways to break the ice with people walking by (we have some great recommendations from authors here, here, and here). If you are going to a dinner or another event for the first time, ask fellow authors or publishing staff what they use to start conversation or keep it going. What kind of materials are helpful to bring along? If you ask questions you’ll find that people are happy to share their knowledge and experience with you, so you don’t have to start from scratch.
Don’t lose sight of the big picture. In conferences and weddings, it’s easy to get bogged down in the small details. But at the end of the day, what’s your goal? If it’s a wedding, your goal is probably (hopefully!) to get married. If it’s a conference, your goal may not be quite as clear, but it’s worth thinking through. Do you want to introduce your book to new people? To connect in person with key contacts? To meet your editor for the first time? To sell copies at your book signing? To drum up new school visits? If you can figure out which goal or goals are most important to you, it’s easier to plan your conference experience around that. Decide where you want to allocate your time, energy, and resources. Let your publisher know what you hope to accomplish, so you’re all on the same page. Your goal can help you navigate the conference craziness and come out sane on the other side.
Whatever you do, don’t let the stress of event planning take away from the joy of the event, whether that means getting married or sharing your book with the world (next time ALA is based in Las Vegas, you could do both at once!). Keep calm, keep your eye on the prize, and you’ll get through just fine.