Up on the mailing list for the Writer’s League of Texas, a debate broke out over the price for the WLT Agents Conference here in Austin. One member and former director said WLT wasn’t priced to meet the economy’s downturn. Another former director disputed the additional message — that a $79 two-day conference in Denton, Texas next month was a better value and more affordable.

The WLT Agents conference was as inexpensive as $319 — so long as you paid for it seven months in advance (Nov. ’11) and you’re a member. One thing that would help: earlier commitments from attending agents, so you might see if there’s someone you want to pitch to before you register so early. (I know, people in hell want sno-cones, too.)

If you’re being thrifty, yes, the WLT Agents meeting is not $79. But that Denton conference looks like a different kind of meeting than the Agents conference, so I don’t believe these are really in competition. I’m not sure how a $79 conference could be the same kind of investment as $319 worth of speakers and agents. You could do both, really.

Budgeting for conferences can be tricky. There are good price points outside of the Agents conference. After attending WLT’s Agents meet one year, and then volunteering at another, I went to the San Francisco Writers Conference last February. Fine meeting, but priced right at the Agents. (Agent Laurie McLean was at both.) SFWC has a very deep list of speakers to go along with the agents attending. It’s a real publishing town there, a step beyond a writer’s hotbed. Here’s what I can testify: the organizers (Michael Larsen, Elizabeth Pomada) really reached out to make sure that out-of-town writers like me were welcomed. Even in a meeting that had more than 300 attendees.

See, that’s the other thing to consider while deciding about a conference, something even more important than price, at least to me. Consider the number of attendees the conference accepts.

The SF writer’s conference has sold out often, which means they’ve got a cap on the number of writers who try to talk with agents, or attend speaker sessions. Just last year there was an MS contest for the WLT show. While dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I was a first-round reader for the Austin Writer’s League contest. Too soon, there were 400-plus entries, and the submitted pages limit shrank from 30 to 10. Pretty tough to get a good first chapter offered on 10 pages, unless your metier is thrillers. Perhaps that’s why the WLT MS contest was eliminated: too much participation.

The Agents meeting in Austin is still pretty special, although there were just as many in SF (and some overlap). Travel to Denton in July, or SF in February? Or if living in Austin, just drive down to the meeting each day? Decisions, decisions. With a full MS ready to pitch, WLT is still a premier place to go. My workshop writer Elizabeth Buhmann earned a “send me a full MS” request from Ms. McLean at WLT last weekend. Is that worth $319? How much do you want to invest in meeting with the prospective partners in your publishing career? (That’s what an agent really is, considering they get 15 percent of your royalties and advance.)

You can get training and advice, but that instruction is sometimes at a different price than a conference packed with agents.

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