Writer’s Digest’s Conference In New York: Sway With Me

© Lucop / iStockPhoto.com
© Lucop / iStockPhoto.com

Every Year, New Moves

Staging national-class writers’ conferences has never been easy. Competing interests go with the territory.

In the past, organizers could lose a lot of sleep over the question of “craft vs. career” — how many sessions did hundreds of authors need on the art and skills of writing, and how many on the mechanics and moxy of good marketing?

But in recent years, new layers of complexity have upped the challenge. Self-publishing has become so substantial and viable an interest for many in the author corps that at times it has seemed that two conferences might be better than one.

Nowhere is this churn more evident than in the pace-setting assemblies produced with practiced professionalism each year by Writer’s Digest.

  • This week — Friday through Sunday, August 1 through 3 — the 2014 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference convenes at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel with, by my count, some 80 speakers and close to 55 agents and editors involved.
  • Two weeks, later — Friday through Sunday, August 15 through 17 — the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference stages a faculty of some 22 specialists in Los Angeles, in a tightly focused program for the most seriously motivated novelists.

The Confab Cha-Cha

Phil Sexton
Phil Sexton

Under the leadership of Writer’s Digest publisher Phil Sexton, these conferences have been performing a difficult conga for years now — bowing, dipping, turning, and regrouping to respond to the  industry’s quick-tempo changes of focus and mood.

When the digital dynamic is calling the tune, a good conference staff needs to be, most of all, light on its feet. Adjusting to the tenor and tone of the season can be crucial.

Just last year, for example, the lead-in to the New York conference’s main Saturday-Sunday sessions was a day-long Friday emphasis on self-publishing and its implications.

This year? Friday has been rechoreographed as Writer’s Digest Pro, an agile syncopation that embraces all paths to publication.

The savviest author today researches all options and does what’s best for his or her material. The question is simply what works: for the text, for the author’s interests and capabilities, and for the intended audience.

To understand how this plays out, have a look at the Pro agenda for Friday. Session titles include:

  • Moving The Needle: How To Boost Your Book Sales From  1,000 To 10,000 Copies Sold
  • September 2014 WD Cover Bella Andre BWAdvanced Social Media Skills For Selling Books
  • Advanced Amazon For Authors
  • Author Branding: What You Need To Know
  • A View From The Top: Publishing Insiders On Taking Your Writing Career To The Next Level
  • When The Author Is A Critic: The View From Both Sides
  • Do You Really Want To Write A Bestseller? Here’s How

Seven hours and 13 experts after it starts, the Pro program will have touched on issues that any author today may need to consider and sort out. Elements of both traditional and  self-publishing will be discussed readily and thoroughly as needed. But do-it-this-way directives are far less likely here than take-it-case-by-case guidance.

Which is not to say, by the way, that there’s any lack of interest in self-publishing. The September Writer’s Digest cover story is on indie bestseller and several-time Kindle Million Club icon Bella Andre. And the bulk of the weekend’s programming includes a track largely given over to issues that will resonate for self-publishers.

But the tacit understanding here is that only a careful, conscious approach can succeed in this deeply glutted marketplace — whatever one’s mode or approach might be — and that one writer’s place and process in that arena may in no way match the righteous rhumba of another’s.

Emily St. John Mandel, left, and Shanna Swendson
Emily St. John Mandel, left, and Shanna Swendson

My own live-interview segment in Friday’s program will feature  the novelist and literary critic Emily St. John Mandel, who has published three novels with the independent Unbridled Books and in September sees her new book, Station Eleven, released by Knopf.

Joining us will be the author Shanna Swendson whose seven-book Enchanted Inc. series was discontinued by its publisher, Ballantine, after four books; Swendson, my “reluctant self-publisher,” learned that in agency-assisted self-publishing, she could continue to write and sell her series with her original designer and editor — and she holds her rights, intact.

Different needs, different intents: every author has to be able to strategize both creatively and commercially. Nobody gets away.

The main conference kicks off Friday evening with four simultaneous tracks of sessions including three keynote addresses featuring the authors Dani Shapiro, Harlan Coben, and Kimberla Lawson Roby.

The Pitch Slam Waltzes On

One of the great tenets of the self-publishing movement, of course, is that authors can free themselves of the agent- and editor-querying process. There’s no more need to ask an “industry gatekeeper” to approve; one now can simply publish one’s own work.

Understandably, this idea can be a great balm to authors whose work has been rejected by such “gatekeepers” in the past. Without any actual numbers available, the standard guess is that roughly 98 percent of manuscripts submitted to agents and/or editors in the traditional business are rejected. Whole scrapbooks have been made of rejection slips, frequently form letters on which an agent might scrawl simply “not for me” or the more cordial but still maddening “we find that we don’t have sufficient enthusiasm for this work to properly represent it.”

Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro

Many authors today never attempt submission to agents or editors. They self-publish outright. Proponents of such an approach point to the long waits for swamped agencies’ responses and to the slim odds of a query getting a good reception.

The contrary view is that going directly to self-publishing leaves the writer without any sense for how the industry might see her or his work. Without testing the response, the writer has no sense for what kind of reception might have been waiting, nor how an industry observer would expect it to fare in the marketplace.

This is all the more reason that at Writer’s Digest’s conference New York, the Pitch Slam is still a compelling experience that many attendees readily reckon with. In fact, so popular is the Pitch Slam among many attendees that they pay a premium for the chance to meet as many agents as they can during the Slam.

Preceded by Chuck Sambuchino’s pre-event session, “Pitch Perfect” (3:40 p.m. Friday), these writers stand in line, waiting their turn to make a 90-second (yes, 90-second) pitch to an agent who then has 90 seconds to respond. And at the sound of a bell — switch dance partners! — everybody moves to another position.

At the end of a Pitch Slam session the hallways echo with “I got five full-manuscript requests and one partial”…”I got to all four of the agents I wanted to see”…”he told me that it’s not the kind of manuscript he’s looking for but that my pitch was super.” Nobody comes away without learning something.

And while from time to time you can hear someone say that it’s rare for an agency to land a real catch at a pitch session, there are more than 50 working agents signed to listen to pitches at this year’s conference. Obviously, the agency community still is willing to listen.

The Very Full Dance Card

Attendees this weekend in New York will find several sessions specifically titled in reference to independent publishing:

Harlan Coben
Harlan Coben

“Getting Real About Self-Publishing” is a panel of authors — Jeremy Robinson, Kane Gilmour, Robert Swartwood, Judith Gille, and Ember Reichgott Junge — who will review lessons learned in their personal experience as entrepreneurial authors

“Methods to the Madness! The Latest, Coolest Developments in Indie Publishing” is a panel of author-services representatives — Amanda Barbara, Dan Dillon, Keith Ogorek, Dara Beevas, and Seth Dellon — who will talk about their companies’ offerings.

Overall, some 45 additional sessions are tracked into general areas of writing craft, business matters, discoverability, crowdfunding, and more.

Agent April Eberhardt will offer her pathways-to-publishing programming, for example, in both a “Boot Camp” (three hours) format and in a one-hour session.

Amazon’s Jon Fine will speak to Friday’s Pro audience, then join Bookigee’s Kristen McLean and author Michael J. Sullivan on Saturday on a panel relative to independent authors’ marketing strategies.

In a track based in craft-oriented material — probably the most applicable of all material to authors of all publishing paths — there’s essayist Aine Greaney on making revisions; Jeffrey Somers on “pantsing,” and plotting in fiction;  and Reed Farrel Coleman on description and setting and when they can overpower the rest.

Kimberla Lawson Roby
Kimberla Lawson Roby

One of the most rewarding sessions is Sexton’s own “Dirty Little Secrets: Learn How the Publishing Industry Really Works in Order to Become a More Successful Author.” His rendition of this course in Los Angeles last year was a study in empowerment when it comes to authors knowing what they can ask their publishers, what answers — or non-answers — can mean; and how to avoid being intimidated when it’s time to assert their side of the partnership of publishing.

Addressing marketing: Nina Amir, Gina Panettieri, a panel of independent bookshop experts, Tim Grahl, and Ryan G. Van Cleave.

Special-case scenarios come under examination in sessions with Nancy Davidoff Kelton on “Writing from Personal Experience,” and with Susan Shapiro and “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones on “The Secrets of Selling First-Person Pieces.”

From networking and branding to metadata management of your book listings and red herrings in your plot, Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference this year doesn’t dwell on who’s who in terms of how one publishes or where one’s fondness might lie for one approach over another. Instead, it’s about getting it done.

And in an industry weary of animosities between one camp of creative workers and another, that’s good news.

Because when you’re working on your own slides and glides, you don’t worry so much about everybody else’s samba.


If you’re in the New York area and would like to look into a late registration for Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference at Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hotel, August 1-3, be aware that registering before Friday the 1st can save you $50. Registration details are here. In Los Angeles, the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference, August 15-17, coincides with Screenwriter’s World, both at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.  

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