The 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference attracted more than 480 attendees to Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel from September 20-22, offering workshops on honing the craft of writing, opportunities to meet with agents, and more. Attendance was up from last year’s conference, according to the directors, and nearly 35% were first-time attendees.

The four-day conference, which kicked off with a keynote speech from bestselling author Debbie Macomber, is largely geared toward aspiring writers, but both independently and traditionally published authors also attended in strong numbers.

“It’s a place where things can happen,” said Cynthia Ruchti, professional relations liaison for ACFW. “It’s the beginning of a relationship, either between an author and editor or an author and an agent—and authors can understand just how far they have to go to get a contract.”

Publishers and agents also use the conference as a place to hold meetings, network, scout new talent, and see their authors. Raela Schoenherr, acquisition editor at Bethany House, said ACFW helps her “maintain a pulse on upcoming and potential projects and general industry happenings.”

Agent Steve Laube, who had 34 clients in attendance, said the conference “continues to be a leader in the fiction industry.”

Popular topics among attendees included the need for more diversity when it comes to both authors and characters in Christian fiction, women’s issues such as #MeToo, and questions over whether or not Amish fiction is dying. One librarian said that reader interest in Christian fiction remains, while publishers reported fewer authors in the category today.

Also noted during the conference, some houses are increasingly interested in past book sales for indie fiction authors. Tyndale and Revell each are publishing books by previously self-published authors this spring; Lulu’s Cafe by T.I. Lowe and We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels, respectively. But as Karen Watson, associate publisher, fiction, at Tyndale pointed out: “There are a lot of potholes moving from indie publishing to traditional.”

“It’s great to have a built-in audience, but to these authors, it seems things happen at a glacial speed, [and] there is a lack of control,” she said.

Sessions at ACFW 2018 included Writing a Series Your Readers Will Love, Emerging Trends (in which this writer served as panelist), Engaging the Culture Through Fiction, Business for Indies, and How Not to Lose Hope.

“Ever since the advent of the internet, everyone believes they can write,” said Cynthia Ruchti. “There is training here, through various workshops and critique groups, and it is the tipping point for authors to decide if this a hobby or a career, and to become more efficient—giving editors and agents fewer reasons to say no.”

New to the conference this year was the milestones celebration dinner, which honored bestselling authors as well as those who have published 25+, 50+, and 100+ books. And the culmination of the conference, the ACFW Awards Gala, recognized industry professionals as well as books published in 2017 with Carol Awards. This year’s winners included author Liz Curtis Higgs, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award, Jim Hart of the Hartline Literary Agency (Agent of the Year), and Revell’s Andrea Doering (Editor of the Year).

“One of the highlights of the ACFW conference is the awards gala where the writers gave full-throated support for each winner,” said Janet Grant, founder and president of Books Such Literary Management. “That spirit of cheering each other on showcases the camaraderie the conference engenders.”

For the full list of winners, click here. ACFW 2019 is taking place in San Antonio, Tex. from Sept. 26-29.