With the upcoming AWP Writers’ Conference in Minneapolis, April 8-11, I thought I’d revisit last year’s conference in Seattle to show where the trend in publishing is going.
“Why are you here?” a poet at a booth in AWP’s Book Fair asked me. That could be answered a number of ways, from how and why I was conceived, to how a chance mixture of chemicals and lightning created life on Earth, to “To be.” My pause made him ask it another way. “Are you a writer, professor, or both?”
I looked down and saw the nametag around my neck, which also revealed that I taught at Santa Monica College, was obscured by my jacket. “Both,” I said. “And I'm a publisher, too.”
Still the question sat with me—or rather walked with me—much of the day. Why did I come to the AWP Conference? Did I hope to leave with something? To quote a kid on a trike in the movie The Incredibles, I came “to see something amazing, I guess.”
The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is different every year, changing with the city it’s in, with its keynote speaker, and with all the different panels throughout its three full days. Each time I go to it, I come away with new thoughts on writing and publishing. Still, I see there’s a trend in publishing emerging.
My main passion in life has always been in storytelling, particularly now in writing fiction. I’ve had two agents, and my last one in New York six years ago was having trouble finding a publisher for my offbeat novel, Love at Absolute Zero, about a brilliant young physicist who, after getting tenure at the University of Wisconsin, wants to find a wife in three days using the Scientific Method.
The agent had found three enthusiastic editors--their notes emphasized the writing and the humor they loved--but their marketing departments had said no. Since when did marketing departments get such a strong input? The answer: when big corporations bought them. “Novels with science in it is a hard sell,” I also heard.
I mention this because during the AWP Conference that year in Denver, I realized that everything about AWP was geared toward an idealized vision of publishing. The keynote speakers and others were philosophical, brilliant, and funny. They commanded long lines of people for book signings and were literary. Agents and editors believed in their work--even if science was in it. Additionally, the growing number of MFA programs, members of the AWP, stressed literary fiction.
Yet the real world seemed different. My published books may have won awards, but if I called an independent bookstore to ask if might I speak there, I was always asked if I had a lot of fans in that particular city. I had sensed quickly the market for literary fiction was like the snow on Kilimanjaro, ever shrinking, making it ever more challenging for writers with my sensibilities to get published or speak. Best as I could tell, the big publishers, looking at the bottom line, wanted genre fiction i.e. novels that would bring in money.
I have nothing against genre fiction, mind you. Heck, thanks to my own curiosity, my two latest novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas, are thick in crime. I’ve loved the challenge of making stories that need to be read. I also published Love at Absolute Zero through White Whisker Books, a company I created. I was once a senior editor for a publisher, so I simply did what I learned there. I hired my own top editor, proofreaders, and designers.
Last year in Seattle, panels and booths galore focused on alternate methods of publishing. Heck, one of last year’s sponsors of the conference was Amazon and its publish-it-yourself wing, Createspace. At the Book Fair on the fourth floor of the Convention Center, I came across a group of people who had another approach. They’ve created the Kickstarter of publishing, calling itself Inkshares. You write a proposal for your book and add it to their website. If you can crowd-fund your book and generate over $10,000 within two months for the cost of publishing your book, the company will then edit, design, print, and market your book, and you get to keep 70% of the royalties.
I’d asked Larry Levitsky, the CEO of Inkshares, what if someone’s novel is terrible—just atrociously written—despite having a good proposal. Would Inkshares still edit and publish the book? Levitsky imagines that will never happen, that the marketplace will not fund such a book.
Another panel, “All Publishers Great and Small: Reexamining the Book Business in the 21st Century” sounded promising—and for many people there it was. The young panelists all told of how they were published first by micropublishers and worked their way up to bigger publishers.
At first, I was heartened by all these stories and choices, but as I heard people talking and asking about using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, and asking how many books can one sell, and, essentially, how does one get famous, I felt drained. I had to get away from the mechanics of publishing.
I soon was re-energized by other panels. One had five authors from Grove Press who read sections of their novels. Margaret Wrinkle, Patricia Engel, Pablo Media, Dani Shapiro, and Josh Weil reminded me of why I like narrative fiction so much. Great writing read aloud is like lightning, quickly gone but beautiful.
Another Grove Press event had author Sherman Alexie (see photo above) on painskillers from a fall, and he was funny. He said he could be super-depressed, paranoid, resentful, OCD-impaired, unsure of his talents, feeling slighted, and never delivering work on time. Yet he could be ecstatic, in awe of life, and in awe of his editors Morgan Entrekin and Elizabeth Schmitz, who encourage him and put up with him.
It was clear Entrekin enjoys the offbeat and isn't afraid to go with great stories, no matter what a marketing department might say. Maybe my manuscript should have gone to him. Still, my books have sold well, won awards, and I'm happy. I left thinking how the panelists love what they do. The writers love their agents and editors, and the editors feel lucky to work with the talent they've found. We're all in good spots.
A panel about teaching Flannery O’Connor in the classroom invigorated me, too. The five panelists spoke of O’Connor’s passion, humor, and ways of throwing off the reader. For instance, the young mother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is described as having a face “as broad and innocent as a cabbage.” That’s why I give O’Connor’s stories to my students: to focus them on her mystery and power. I want people to feel and see and taste some of what I find in this crazy life.
I also saw Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) speak with writers Monica Drake (Clown Girl) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruin) and HarperCollins editor Calvert Morgan. It reminded me that there are passionate people working for the big publishers, too.
My day ended with seeing three poets read their work. Lucia Perillo, Natalie Diaz, and Dean Young gave lively performances then joined in a conversation with Copper Canyon Press editor Michael Wiegers. They spoke not on how to become famous (how many poets are famous in America?) but on such topics as laughing in the face of sadness and living with the delights and betrayals of one’s body.
This is the reason why I go to AWP—to be surrounded by great writing and leave inspired. To see about this year’s show, go to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) website. #AWP15
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.