Last February, I attended my FIRST in-person SCBWI conference in NYC. If you’ve had a serious interest in children’s literature, you’ll quickly learn that the SCBWI is the place to be.
My entire January was dedicated to preparing for this event. And I can hardly believe it’s over!
Leading up to the conference, I didn’t feel like there was a lot of information on the internet to help me set my expectations appropriately. SO I wanted to write this post to help any other artists plan for the event!
Let’s dig in.
First of all, here’s my actual calendar for the conference so you can get a sense of how PACKED the weekend was from hour-to-hour.
Note: I won’t cover every single detail of every day. That’s just far too much. This article is already SO long. 🙈 Instead, I’ll focus on my personal highlights of each day.
Portfolio drop off
After I checked into my hostel in Chelsea, I took the subway to the Hilton in Midtown to drop off my portfolio and postcards.
Then I had SEVEN HOURS to just hang around and wait until the portfolio showcase.
I know, right? So much time to burn.
Why so long? That time’s reserved for judges and invite-only industry professionals to review all the portfolios before the showcase opens to the public.
Since you have a lot of time to kill, I recommend planning time to sneak in a nap and scheduling a dinner meetup with other attendees.
From 8-9pm, the portfolio showcase opened to the public! It was inspiring (and also very intimidating) to see everyone’s best work laid out for viewing.
I heard from MANY folks that they wished there was more time set aside to review the showcase. An hour for you to look at HUNDREDS of portfolios? And maybe a hundred other artists trying to see them at the same time??
Simply not enough time.
Additionally, most writers didn’t get to see the showcase at all because they arrived on Saturday morning. Kind of a bummer.
Seeing all the portfolios really inspired me. Yet at the same time, I felt like my gaps were much more obvious. When you’re running on very little sleep and high adrenaline, this can quickly feel overwhelming.
After wrapping up, I went back to my hostel and then had the WORST sleep ever, HAH. My brain wouldn’t shut off because I couldn’t stop thinking about the next day!!
This year, each attendee chose a track dedicated to a particular topic. I decided to take the “Art of Business” track.
Each breakout session had veterans of the kidlit industry presenting SO much valuable information. I’ve distilled my favorite moments and key takeaways below:
Before attending the conference, artists sent in their portfolios for a workshop critique opportunity. Christy Ewers (CAT agency) and Cecilia Young (Penguin Books for Young Readers) selected six portfolios and broke down their strengths and areas which had room for improvement.
I found it SO helpful to see what industry folks look for when browsing portfolios. Definitely one of the most valuable moments of the workshops.
While this doesn’t necessarily apply to my current career stage, I learned a TON about creating a book campaign. The speakers covered everything from school visits to pre-order giveaways.
“Your creative work comes first”
BIG reminder for myself. I often get pretty distracted with all of the business-y things (because I actually like it!). But sometimes, that means I neglect my creative work, so I need to remind myself of this statement often.
Where art directors find artists
During my portfolio critique, I asked what platforms art directors use when searching for talent.
Unsurprisingly, Instagram was on the list. But she also mentioned Pinterest, Behance, Women Who Draw, and Etsy. Definitely made me consider other places I want to put my work!
When you sign up for the SCBWI conference, you can also elect to pay for a one-on-one portfolio critique with an art director or agent. A few weeks before the conference, you receive your time slot for the critique.
This was absolutely the best investment I made in the conference. I met with Katie Fitch (Scholastic) who gave me some great pointers.
- The portfolio has strong characters, and she’d like to see more of them. — Excited to hear that the characters resonate. I’m more than happy to explore them further!
- Include more spot illustrations — “Spots” are illustrations of characters without a background. More spots would also force me to practice drawing different poses and angles.
- Explore illustrating board books — I had never considered board books (hard-paged books for ages 0-3), but I’m definitely reconsidering this now.
The “Piranha Pit”
Right after lunch on Saturday, the auditorium opened for folks to watch the Piranha Pit presentations. In a MUCH friendlier version of Shark Tank, authors presented marketing plans for their books in order to win a cash prize.
I almost skipped out on this because I was so tired, but I’m glad I stopped to watch. The presentations gave me so many ideas.
My favorite two presentations were for Strong (Rob Kearney, Eric Rosswood, and Nishiki Chanani) and Avocado Mustache (Kira Barrett).
Strong’s presentation pitched big dreams with a multi-level campaign including strongman events, a fire truck pull, and stand-ins! Each element showcased a ton of creativity. This presentation went on to win the prize—well-deserved!!
Avocado Mustache showed how a self-published book can get creative with their marketing. The author described reaching out to children’s boutiques campaigns to drum up sales. SO smart!
Networking happy hour
I wish someone told me food was being served at the networking happy hour before I had purchased dinner. 😂 At this point in the day, you definitely need to refuel.
Personally, I think this was one of my favorite networking opportunities. Each room had tables for the regional groups to meet together. I met some wonderful folks from my area and neighboring regions.
Definitely some of my favorite connections happened here!
Make sure you snag food before sitting down to chat! I was surprised how quickly they cleared out the buffets haha.
Of course, there were other highlights outside of the scheduled events. A few of mine here!
Hanging out with Jordan
All I can say is get yourself some good art friends!!
Jordan and I met through Steph Fizer Coleman’s Children’s Book Jumpstart course, and they’ve been SO invaluable to my creative community. Plus, they’re an incredible kidlit nature illustrator—you must check out their work!!
Jordan lives in NYC, so it was so great to hang out in person and talk careers and life.
Going through the conference with a friend is always helpful! It’s nice to know in all of the overwhelm, you can support one another.
Connecting with other artists
Obviously, you’ll also connect with several other picture book artists. It’s so great to learn from one another and find folks who can relate to your journey.
During the conference, you essentially gather your own gorgeous, mini print collection! I have so many stunning postcards from so many artists.
What surprised me
Of course, you can’t perfectly prepare for a fresh experience. That said, a few things surprised me!
There are a LOT more people than you’d think. I knew this was a big event, but it was still wild to see hundreds of people who were all excited about kidlit!
Networking in a group setting is difficult. In general, I love meeting up with new folks one-on-one and learning more about them. But group settings can be tough for me. Imposter syndrome can set in, and I can get quite shy. Something to keep in mind of next year!
What I want to do differently next year
I spent 90% of my conference prep working on my portfolio. While I think this was the right decision, next conference, I’d like to prepare slightly differently.
This would include:
- Researching speakers beforehand
- Preparing a mental list of networking questions
- Getting bolder about handing out my postcard
- Budgeting to buy kids books—seems obvious, but I somehow forgot!
- Making a game plan to get more sleep!
While I walked away from this conference with great connections, I know I can improve next year!
Is it worth the investment?
Hey, let’s be real. This is expensive.
For me, the total cost of the conference, hotels, food, and transportation came out to around $1700. So if you’re thinking of going, start budgeting now!! I’ve set up a category in my budgeting app to help me set aside funds for next year.
Even given the price point, if you’re serious about picture books, this is a very beneficial conference.
Yes, of course, you can find SO much information on the internet about picture books. I can testify firsthand to the invaluable classes I’ve taken online.
That said, giving yourself an in-person opportunity to interact with industry leaders, receive insight into the publishing market, and connect with other artists in person is invaluable.
Still have questions? Let me know! I’d love to clarify any folks who are on the fence about attending in the future!