April 27, 2014

Writers Wrestling On The Conference Circuit

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image - Ekspansio / iStockphoto
image – Ekspansio / iStockphoto

Snarling Over the Flatware

Seated, as we were, between the crab cakes table and the bananas Foster corner, it was hard for me to believe this conference-goer was that upset about anything, really. But upset she was.

That agent said that if you self-publish, you could ruin your career!

This woman beside me at the PubSmart Conference in Charleston last week was not to be deterred. Each time I came back to the table from another station of the culinary cross in the Francis Marion Hotel’s Colonial Ballroom, she revisited her anger at a literary agent from an 11 a.m. panel that day:

That agent said that if you self-publish, you could ruin your career!

I pointed out to her that by the time I’d hit the table offering the steamship round of beef (it was indeed the size of a small steamship), she’d repeated this line eight times. That got me a ninth iteration:

That agent said that if you self-publish, you could ruin your career!

So that was at last week’s conference. Cocktails, dinner, litmus test.

Let’s look at this week’s confabulation.

Pining for “Publishing Agnosticism”

I started to wonder what being publishing agnostic might mean to us as an organization, and to writers everywhere. When the world is changing fast under your feet, you need to find your footing before you can decide where to go.

That’s Eve Bridburg, executive director of the Grub Street writing center in Boston.

On Friday, May 2, Grub Street opens its annual conference, The Muse & the Marketplace. Hash it #Muse14.

And in an interesting precede at Writer’s Digest (WD), “Publishing Agnosticism” — What It Is, Why It’s Important, and What It Means for Authors, Bridburg discusses a term she credits to our good colleague, the author Barry Eisler. He not only publishes traditionally but now has self-published much of his backlist with new covers and titles to overtake some of the original publishers’ titles and artwork he never cared for. (Eisler talks about this in a #PorterMeets interview I was glad to have a chance to do with him for The Bookseller in London.)

Bridburg’s article is about her organization’s effort to provide publishing agnosticism in Grub Street’s year-’round courses and in the upcoming conference. The conference is expected to draw more than 800 people:

This year, we’ll be welcoming A-list literary agents, editors from Random House and Penguin, along side e-publishers like Vook and Amazon. We’ll have an editor from Ploughshares and another from Electric Literature. As we always do, we’ll have a bookseller on hand selling the books of our visiting authors, but we’ll also be running an independent author shop for any participant or small press attending the conference. In short, we’ll be hosting a hybrid conference, inclusive of the many choices and pathways available to authors today.

Bridburg is ready for some pushback:

Most of our writers seem to want the traditional path and that’s great, but it’s our responsibility as a professional development organization for writers to educate them about all pathways, especially since the industry is changing before our eyes. In our own work and what we bring to writers we now preach agnosticism and save our blind faith for the power and necessity of words

One way the Muse will work to cinch both the possibilities and limitations of today’s publishing options is with a town-hall style debate on how literary-fiction authors are faring in a digital disruption that so far might be kinder to genre work.

You can see that debate in a live stream provided by Muse media partner Publishing Perspectives on its site on Friday (May 2) at 1:30 p.m. ET.

In this special two-hour session, What Every Literary Writer Needs To Know About the Digital Disruption,” I’ll moderate a large panel featuring Bridburg; Amazon’s Jon Fine; Kobo’s Christine Munroe; Tumblr’s Rachel Fershleiser; author Steve Almond; Scratch Magazine publisher Jane Friedman; literary agent April Eberhardt; Electric Lit’s Ben Samuel; Vook’s Matt Cavnar; and Bublish’s Kathy Meis.

Friday’s Town Hall, seated in the round, is not an attempt to decide what is “literary” and what is not. That little debate could keep us in Boston until the 2015 conference. If you don’t know that, have a look at the excellent job done by our readers in the comments section of Our Star Authors: Special Victims Unit, here at Thought Catalog.

No, what our Muse Town Hall is looking for is a way forward for les entrepreneurials outside genre specifications.

And as it happens, one of those panelists, Kathy Meis, was a key organizer of the PubSmart conference…where I got such an earful from the attendee who didn’t like what she’d heard.

When the World Won’t Ratify Your Opinion

Back in Charleston: In truth? “That agent” really did say that. If you self-publish, you could ruin your career.

While I don’t know the name of my repetitive dinner companion, I was present and heard literary agent Brandi Bowles of Foundry Literary + Media agency in New York say just that. No lives were lost. Electrical power to the room was uninterrupted. Strong men did not cry, women did not faint. It was perfectly appropriate for Bowles to speak her mind. She’d been brought to Charleston to do that, and she did it well.

Bowles was one of several members of a panel, “Literary Agents: From Gatekeepers to Creative Marketers to Publishers.” She was joined in that session by moderator Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management; Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such; Rachel Sussman of Chalberg & Sussman; and Tracey Adams of Adams Literary.

And in the course of the panel’s comments on self-publishing and how it can play into an author’s career, Bowles offered the opinion that if one self-publishes a book and it doesn’t do well in terms of sales, then some publishers might look askance at that disappointment if asked to consider publishing that author.

Bowles is joined by others in the more traditional corridors of the industry! the industry! in suggesting that if there’s a chance that self-publishing could make an author appear to be “damaged goods” to a publisher, then self-publication is, at least, a very serious option, a route not to be taken lightly.

As Rachelle Gardner from the same panel has said many times in her agency-demystifying blog posts, her job and those of many agents have not changed that much during the digital dance. Many agents are still serving clients whose main interests are getting and managing traditional contracts.

Surely, the counterbalance, after all, was right there with us. PubSmart keynoter Hugh Howey’s best known success, the Wool trilogy, comprises three books that he originally self-published in the States. (In the UK, they were published, both print and digital, by Random House from the outset.) The fact that Howey now has more than 30 contracts with publishers in many parts of the world is the result of his having made a very conscious decision to self-publish at first. In his case, it paid off very well.

What Bowles was saying — without referring to Howey, she was speaking in the hypothetical — was that such an approach may not always produce the kind of sales numbers that publishers want to see before they take a risk on an author who has been self-published.

And yet, the problem is not that our dinner-table companion disagreed with Bowles. The problem is that she seemed to hold it against the conference (let alone “that agent”) that she had heard a comment not supportive of the self-publishing approach. She was thoroughly peeved that her view hadn’t been upheld by a member of the agents panel.

More Misconceptions on the Confab Circuit

I’ve heard it said by some attendees of PubSmart that its focus on the business of writing for publication was a first for a conference. We all had a great time in Charleston, despite Jane Friedman’s excellent keynote breakfast starting at 7:30 a.m. without open bar.  But the idea that this conference broke new ground with its business focus is incorrect.

There are more examples, and it’s hardly to PubSmart’s detriment that it wasn’t first to an entrepreneurial movement that began years before its debut outing, is it?

Agnosticism and Antagonism

PubSmart, if anything, seemed to me to be weighted a bit in the direction of self-publishing.

You can always disagree with me. I disagree with me several times a day.

But I came away from the comforts of Charleston feeling that if we’d heard more from the traditionalist camp, my dinner companion might have been less distraught. She’d been given very little industry-thinking context in which to couch “that agent’s” comment.

And this entire confusion may have been no more than presentation: maybe we needed a big opening statement at PubSmart — a little string music swelling up for atmosphere — in which “publishing agnosticism,”‘ to borrow that term from Bridburg and Eisler, was actually announced as the intention.

I may suggest it to Bridburg as something to Muse on for this week. Get right out there and say it.

The problem was that the woman who felt so eager to talk to me about it over dinner was treating that moment — that one line in a conference that spanned three days — as a litmus test. She was angry about the whole conference. She was, as I pointed out to her (how nice of me, right?), so fixated on this one opinion that she seemed to be recalling nothing else from a long day of many sessions on many topics with many speakers. The fact that she’d heard this heresy (in her mind) from Bowles was insulting to her self-publishing sensibilities. She felt herself to be such a proponent of the DIY doctrine that she was unable to hear a cautionary comment from the other side of the aisle without feeling the whole event had somehow turned against her.

That’s actually her problem, not PubSmart’s and not Bowles’.

If you’re that sensitive to everything said in a conference program, you’re going to be cross with something, no matter what.

PubSmart’s maiden voyage would have done well to feature more representatives of the traditional industry and at greater length. Some speakers from the New York community appeared only once and on panels with five or six colleagues, giving no one much time to develop and expand on a point. But look, a first outing with one of these events is extremely difficult and we all were grateful to the organizers for pulling it together.

Grown-ups on Parade

In her WD piece, Bridburg — now about to enjoy that conference hot seat with her good colleague Chris Castellani — articulates five points that she and her team came up with when they looked for what “publishing agnosticism” might mean at Grub Street. Those points are all good, I commend them to you.

But I submit to you that the best of the five is this one:

We are grown-ups. It’s up to each of us as writers and as the professionals supporting writers to understand and own the entire publishing process. It’s incumbent on each of us to engage in honest self-assessment to determine goals and objectives, strengths and weaknesses.

That’s good, isn’t it?

I love the expectation that we will all “understand and own the entire publishing process.” I love the idea that we each must take responsibility for what we see and need in the business and the art. Such an enlightened viewpoint could have triggered a Deeply Southern “well shut my mouth” at dinner that evening.

Next time I’m at table in Charleston, I’m bringing Bridburg with me. TC mark

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