So, as I promised, here is what I brought home from the SCBWI winter conference. I also met @Naroth-Kean there - which was really nice! So please tune in if you want to add to this very subjective account!
What I got out of attending SCBWI NY:
Direct material outcome, i.e. A project, a contract a book deal - NO.
This expectation had been set right for me by other forums and blogs, including the excellent video by Will Terry, so I did not expect any of that to happen. When I booked the conference, I was looking for an agent. As I signed up with an agent in December, this was not a priority anymore: I would not exclude that it is possible that an agent shows a direct interest in you at an SCBWI conference: many are there just to look for new talent. However, the professionals coming to this conference where clearly there to discuss the art and business of children book publishing as a topic, and not to talk about work directly, so I very much doubt that any such conversations would happen there.
Contacts or conversations that may lead to a material outcome - QUITE POSSIBLE.
With two different occasions to display your portfolio (the showcase and the "art browse") and having distributed more than 250 postcards in three days, it is definitely not impossible that the right person with the right project had a chance to look at my work and may contact me weeks or months down the road. I have talked with a lot of random people, and some may have been art directors - who knows. What I found to be more difficult than I expected is talking with the faculty. They were all super kind and available, but were put under siege by lines of people after every seminar, so understandably tried to make themselves scarce in between talks.
Meaningful contacts with colleague illustrators and/or writers that may lead to further interaction. DEFINITELY! I was amazed by how easy it is to struck up conversations with other attendees. I am not the most comfortable person in approaching strangers, and I need my pauses of privacy to re-generate, but whenever I did mingle, I pretty soon ended up in an interesting exchange about anything from art direction woes to making a living as an illustrator of children books. I even met a person with nearly the same biography as me (she used to be a neuroscientist, I used to be a scientist in Pharma research), who is also thinking about doing scientific non-fiction for 4-8 years old. We exchanged contact information and I was very happy to find somebody with a similar background and aspirations to bounce ideas to when the time comes.
Actionable knowledge. PLENTY. With twelve parallel sessions, you always have the feeling you are missing out on something, and hearing less than what you need, but overall I learned quite a lot of very interesting stuff. The illustrator intensive was all about collaborations with art directors, so they showed a large number of case studies, which was incredibly enlightening. I attended three breakouts: one with Lucy Cummins (Art Director, Simon and Schuster BFYR) about the do´s and dont´s of contacting art directors - that was a witty talk with lots of new stuff; one by Kristen Nobles, who is currently building a new imprint for picture books at Page Street Publishing and is actively soliciting submissions ONLY from unpublished writer-illustrators. So if you are a new writer-illustrator, here is a publisher looking explicitly for you; The third one was on social media use, by Travis Jonkers. Lots of good stuff there too, and also pointers to a variety of bloggers and podcasts about picture books I did not know about.
Psychological impact. HUGE. I did not expect this, and was quite taken aback by how much these three days have changed my perception and attitude towards entering this business. First of all I realized how much passion is at work at all levels - not only the artists and writers, but anybody involved in publishing children and young adult books takes it as a mission and a responsibility towards the next generation. This is definitely energizing and contagious. Second, I finally got rid of the idea that there is a right and a wrong way to do children books. Or to do art, for that matter. I knew the diversity was huge, but to see it all grouped together in one place is quite a different experience. As a speaker put it: Picture books is not a genre, it is a form. So you can talk about pretty much anything, in any thinkable style and have a product that reaches the heart and soul of readers and is just perfect as is. That was a very important message for me, as I tend to obsess about "drawing it right" and "painting it right" and, I realize, would really profit from letting go of these technicalities and get to the heart of what I am doing rather than the surface. I am not seeing that it is not important to know how to draw and how to paint - the more you know the fundamentals, the freer you are to move in any possible direction your career takes you. But it is particularly important for me to stop thinking that somebody is judging every stroke and giving me a note at the end: art school is over, it is time to do art, not assignments.
Third and last and most important: nearly every speaker stressed the importance of being authentic. It´s not only about representation of minorities (though we had a lot of that), it is about conveying the message that only YOU can convey. As Dr Seuss put it, nobody is you-er than you. Or, as in the enormously inspiring keynote by Bryan Collier: "what makes you awkward is what makes you special". What an empowering message: don't hustle trying to understand what the market wants, or to fit your portfolio to some expected standard - strive instead to bring forward what makes you tick, what interests you, what you find important, your childhood experiences, and so forth. That message really cured me of the impostor syndrome that I sometimes (always!) feel as a career-hopper. The fact that I did not dedicate my whole life to art is, after all, not a weakness as I always thought, but a strength to leverage.
So, in essence, yes: I am happy to have attended and I think it was what I needed right now. I do not think it is possible to put a cost/benefit label to it (like whether it was worth the expense), but if it does not blow a hole in the budget, I would defnitely recommend atttending this or any other of the SCBWI events. Next year, the Tomie DePaola award will be substituted by another award format, and the prize will be attendance to the NY conference - so that may be a way to get the experience without the cost.