Several things, but let's start on a positive note. When writers get together to listen to/learn from knowledgeable speakers, ask questions, share ideas, visit one-on-one, exchange business cards, learn about other authors' books, commiserate about everything from finding a publisher to marketing--all those are good things.
After having more or less turned my back on writing conferences in general, I drove up at the last minute to attend the Northwest Arkansas Writers Conference on Saturday. What did I like about it? For one thing, it was free, although that's not necessarily a prerequisite to liking these get-togethers. There are, after all, expenses involved--a meeting room, refreshments, remuneration for speakers, and so on. I'm willing to pay a reasonable price and usually leave feeling I've gotten my money's worth.
But back to free--somehow that set the tone for a comfortably casual day. My book table was also free, and I shared it with another author (more on that later) and had the chance to visit with others nearby. Now, it's been my experience that books don't fly off the tables at these conferences, and that's not why I take mine. It's exposure. For example, I downloaded a couple of authors' books for Kindle after the conference, and hopefully some of the folks I had the chance to talk to did the same with mine. In contrast to a formal sit-down dinner, attendees had the option of a box lunch or bring-your-own.
Greg Camp and Casey Cowan of Oghma Creative Media covered a variety of topics during the morning. In the afternoon, Duke and Kimberly Pennell of Pen-L Publishing let us in on "the dirty little secret of writing" which is, "Writing is writing. Business is business." Finally, Velda Brotherton clued writers about how to become an overnight success in 20 years! Dusty Richards wound things up with Writing 101. All the presenters handed out good hard facts interspersed with humor and entertained questions during their presentations, giving the whole day an interactive touch.
I have to say, my faith in my fellow writers took an upward turn--which leads me to the negative side of (some) writing conferences.
Conferences longer than a day, maybe a day and a half, often (not always) become tedious. Some writers take more than their ideas, questions, and books with them; Mr. Ego sits at their tables and follows them around, dominating their conversations. There's a fine line between letting folks know where you are along the writing road and making sure they know you're ahead of them whether you are or not! Contests can be a good thing, but competition doesn't necessarily promote camaraderie. (Mr. Ego likes it, however.) Sometimes I get the feeling the chance of placing in a contest is the only reason some people attend.
Book tables are good for exposure, but I don't like staying with mine so much as mingling and meeting other authors. I don't take my books to make a killing, and being tied to a book table interferes with my main purpose for attending a conference.
So--in summation--I give the NWA Writers Conference five stars--and I'll be back next year!