By Maryka Biaggio and Vanitha Sankaran
Are you curious how the HNSNA Conference comes together? Well, we’d love to tell you!
First, a few words about structure and organization. The Historical Novel Society was founded in the United Kingdom in 1997 as an international membership that promotes historical fiction, especially through its quarterly publication, the Historical Novel Review. The HNS UK holds a biennial conference in even-numbered years, with satellite groups holding their own conferences in North America and Australia.
That’s where we come in. The Historical Novel Society North America Conference was founded for the express purpose of offering a biennial conference in North America. The first conference took place in Salt Lake City in 2005, and every two years since, HNSNA has held a conference somewhere in North America. You don’t have to be a member of HNS to attend a conference, but membership provides a discount on conference registration. Technically, the HNSNA Conference is independent from HNS, but we enjoy a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship, publicizing each other’s conferences and keeping each other apprised of regional activities. There’s also an HNS in Australasia that puts on a biennial conference in their region.
The HNSNA Conference is an incorporated not-for-profit organization, with a Board of seven volunteer members responsible for planning and putting on the conference in a fiscally responsible manner. The HNSNA Conference Bylaws govern the activities of the Board, including member terms and responsibilities. Board members may not be compensated for their organizational and planning contributions. While no special consideration is given to Board members over other attendees, they may participate in the conference in the same way any other attendee might, for instance, by proposing a session or pitching to an agent or editor.
Registration fees are set by the Board to ensure that the costs of putting on the conference are met. After surmounting financial struggles in the fledgling years of HNSNA, conferences have since been able to pass on sufficient funds to launch the next conference. The HNSNA Board is committed to ensuring, to the best of its ability, that each conference recoups its costs and provides sufficient monies for the next Board.
The HNSNA Conference is an action-packed weekend with engaging speakers on historical eras, historical research, the craft of writing, publishing, and more. Speakers include one or two guests of honor, usually top writers in the field of historical fiction, and dozens of program presenters who are experts in their field. Attendees enjoy meals and evening receptions together, getting the chance to network and socialize with other lovers of historical fiction. There are also opportunities to sign up for mentoring with experienced authors or to make pitches to agents who specialize in representing historical fiction.
Now, about putting on the conference. The HNSNA Board begins planning about two years before the conference. A call for venue sites is distributed, and prospective sites are carefully reviewed. We depend on local HNS members to propose the “perfect site.” Consideration is given to travel access, hotel costs, and the hotel’s conference facilities and amenities. The location generally rotates between the East Coast, the Midwest, and the West Coast.
Once a contract is signed with the hotel, planning shifts to conference logistics. The Board identifies two potential guests of honor, aiming for popular and well-known historical fiction authors but at the same time taking into consideration a budget that is, at this stage, largely preliminary. It can take 4-6 months to identify, decide on, and negotiate contracts with guests of honor.
There are many other details to be addressed at this stage: articulation of the call for proposals; decisions about registration processes; development of the budget and marketing plan; review of the website for changes and updating; and identification of and negotiations with agents and editors for pitch sessions. During this period we hold conference calls at least once a month.
One year before the conference, as mandated by HNSNA Conference Bylaws, Board members gather at the conference hotel for a three-day on-site meeting. Since Board members are scattered all over North America, the opportunity to meet face-to-face allows for more in-depth discussions about program planning. Viewing the meeting rooms also helps us make decision about room assignments and audio-visual equipment.
During the meeting the hotel arranges a tasting menu so the Board can decide on appetizers for our reception and entrees for our banquet. (That’s the fun part!) By the end of this meeting the Board generally has nailed down a budget, approximate registration fees, special events (like our popular Hooch through History offering), and dates for the Call for Proposals and registration. Also at this stage, Preconference Academy workshop ideas are explored. It can take 3-4 months to finalize preconference workshops.
The next phase involves intensive work on the program. The Call for Proposals is published, and the Program Chair begins the review process with a specialized team. Up to five reviewers rate each proposal and decide on the final program. The Program Chair next works closely with the Marketing Chair (who is also the website manager) to load the program up on the website so details are available and interested persons can view the program and special offerings before deciding if they’d like to register. At this point, phone meetings become more frequent, often once every two weeks.
Six months before the conference, attention shifts to registering attendees, fine-tuning the program and special events, and working with the hotel on guest accommodations, session rooms, and food and beverage offerings. In the two months leading up the conference, Board members and conference helpers are busy attending to such things as: arranging signage and audio-visual aids for session rooms; scheduling attendees for pitch sessions, Blue Pencil Café mentoring, and volunteer assignments; designing and printing the program; ordering badges and office supplies for on-site registration; and troubleshooting the glitches that invariably crop up. The week before the conference, the core team is onsite to ensure everything goes as planned.
As anyone who has ever attended a HNSNA Conference knows, the three-day conference is packed with a variety of programs and events for the over 400 people who typically attend. The Board takes its responsibility to put on a stimulating conference quite seriously. We strive to put on the very best conference we can within our resources. Fortunately, we have a healthy treasury from the 2017 conference and access to great talent in our attendees.
So, please consider attending an upcoming conference—and if you’re interested, in getting involved there are always opportunities to volunteer at the conference or be considered for Board membership. This is a conference set up by volunteers; without new volunteers we run the risk of stagnating. So keep an eye on your email, our blogs, and the HNSNA Conference website. And reach out if you want to learn more!