I recently signed up for my fourth writers' conference this year and just received some information about additional workshops and events near me. Guess what all of these events have in common? They're all really freakin' expensive. Attending a conference is expensive for all kinds of reasons. Usually, you have to travel and stay overnight at least one night, and they don't host these things at The Comfort Inn, so you're usually looking at about $300 in transportation, $200 for a room ($100 if you're lucky enough to find someone to split the bill), $100 total for food since nobody wants to feed people anymore, and around $350 for conference tuition. That's a lot of money!
You might be looking at that and saying, "Oh whatevar! I only attend local conferences because I'm reducing my carbon footprint." Hey, that's great, but it's still a butt load of money.
Does anyone seriously believe that writers can print money in the basement along with self published copies of their first novels? Maybe I'm behind the curve, but I can't do that.
Basically, all writers start out writing "on spec" which is a euphemism for staying up all night after your day job and hoping your spouse doesn't leave you, you can keep your eyes open the next day, and that someone will pay you for what you do eventually. There's a lot of hope and waiting and no money. Sure, you might get the odd grant here and there, but those are usually small and the competition is tough, so writers can't totally depend on those.
Of course, you might say, "Really great writers don't need frou frou things like retreats and conferences. Elbow grease is free and it works!"
I used to feel the same way, and I still believe talent and hard work are two essential components that money can't buy if you're going to make it as a writer. However, like any other industry, networking is essential. For one thing, writing is a lonely activity and no matter how hard boiled or introverted you think you are, you need other writers to lean on. Also, you can say all you want about enduring themes in literature and archetypal characters, but trends are real too, and it's important to be aware of what's going on in the current market. The books on publishing are outdated by the time they come off the press (even the virtual press) and most of the websites and magazines are vehicles to sell you stuff. In short: I don't think you can get by as a professional writer without attending conferences.
This makes me wonder if even in these "enlightened" times when a woman can run for President of the United States and a black man can be elected President, we're still only getting part of the story. Literature shouldn't only be written by people who have the luxury of extra time, encouragement, and money just because it's available to them almost by default.
Also, the conferences, knick-knacks and services available to writers aren't the only expenses related to getting an edge because we now have MFA programs and self publishing to deal with. How many people have the time and money to get admitted to much less attend an MFA program? Okay, so you don't need an MFA to write a book, but it doesn't hurt. Self publishing: again, not something writers need to do, but I get so annoyed by all these posts claiming self publishing is empowering.
Maybe self publishing is empowering for the people who have the time and money to spend on it, but I don't think it's that empowering for the rest of us. I see it as a potential excuse for big publishers to say, "Well, if writers can afford to handle the entire publishing process on their own, why should we shoulder so much of the expense for projects we take on? Why not charge writers for editing, publicity, etc?"
If someone like me is having trouble keeping up with the spending frenzy associated with writing, how is someone with even less time and disposable income supposed to compete?