An outsider’s thoughts on AWP’s annual conference and bookfair

Sarah Weinman, who steps in temporarily as editor of Publishers Marketplace this week, presented to the readers of her blog a snapshot of the organizational structure of the major trade book publishers and their various imprints as they existed a few months ago. She introduced the fifth in her series of six blogposts on the topic by saying:

I’ve been saving the biggest behemoths for last because they take longer to discuss and because, frankly, they drive me a little crazy. So many imprints! So much redundancy! So much confusion! But of the two corporate bigwigs, I’d say Pearson has the edge of Bertelsmann and that’s only because the former isn’t about to run amok with weirdness like the latter will. In other words, we’re talking about Penguin Group today.

If you take the major media conglomerates, whose disparate publishing divisions were swiftly checked off by Weinman as she blogged, and you add the thousands of independent publishers that are either rising or collapsing at any given moment, and then you throw in the university presses that for the most part soldier on through the decades, the sum is nearly beyond comprehension. Yet, it doesn’t include the thousand or more literary journals, which serve as proving grounds for creative and genre-bending writers of fiction, poetry, and narrative nonfiction.

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) hosts an annual conference, in part to unite the literary presses with writers who are the products of university creative writing programs and the faculty of writing programs of all types. The AWP’s purpose is to foster a system of literary patronage.

This year, the AWP conference was held in Chicago. During the three-day event, attendees could choose from among panel discussions, readings, speeches, and other sessions, approximately 15 of which were scheduled during every 90-minute interval throughout each day. If 15 channels weren’t enough to surf, conference attendees could explore four exhibit halls filled with representatives from literary presses, magazine publishers, writing programs, agencies, and more. The printed conference program was 340 pages.

The book publishing industry is labyrinthine, precisely like this year’s AWP conference site overlooking Grant Park. The Hilton Chicago, built in 1927, is beautifully suited to the era of porters, Pullman cases, chauffeurs, and valets but absurdly impractical in an age of wheeled carryon luggage, backpacks, Starbucks, and BarCamps. Down which of the carpeted corridors is one expected to turn when the arrow to the Lake Okeechobee conference room points to the chandelier on the ceiling? What happens when the route to the Celestial Ballroom passes through the Zen Meditation pavilion at the very moment a poetry reading is in progress? How, exactly, does a writer manage to navigate the funhouse of an AWP bookfair without a deep soak in alcohol at prices only an embarrassingly disturbed, thoroughly dissembling, bestselling celebrity memoirist can afford?

Literary patronage is every metaphor that can be substituted for survival of the fittest, when fitness is neither adequately defined nor realistically predictable. The AWP conference, it seems, exists not to aid but to filter out the uninformed and the impure. For some attendees, it may be the opposite of networking.

Unless they were feigning confusion to gain a competitive advantage, many of the conference-goers were incredibly isolated from the book publishing industry. Plenty of publishers were on hand, but somehow the time-honored institutional barriers, though physically removed for the duration of the conference, remained psychologically insurmountable.

As someone who never seriously entertained the possibility of obtaining a postgraduate education, I was initially reluctant to believe that most university creative writing programs teach writers how to write and how to instruct writing students, but not how to get published. The guarded secrets of the publishing industry are the stock of mentors and agents, I suppose. There are exceptions. Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department hosts the student-run Publishing Lab, an online resource, and NYU’s School of Continuing Education & Professional Studies is known for its Summer Publishing Institute. The AWP conference could serve the purpose, and several panel sessions seemed designed to do so. I wanted to hear new opinions and strategies, or at least glowing reports about a particular publisher, large or small. Instead, I endured a lot of whining.

One particularly candid participant finally explained that graduates of creative writing programs tend to absorb the belief that if they are truly gifted, their work will automatically be acquired by publishers, and their books will sell briskly and in large quantities. For these writers, promoting and marketing themselves and their work, therefore, could be taken as an admission that they’re not very talented. Seeking publicity is considered vulgar. In other words, creative writing programs might actually be engineering new writers with whom agents, editors, and publicists find it difficult to collaborate.

During panel sessions, I saw attendees squirming to ask questions or share what they’d learned about publishing, book marketing, and online communities, but almost none of the sessions were structured to allow such interaction to occur. An AWP BarCamp or Unconference might be a better alternative to facilitate the exchange of knowledge rather than perpetuate the current system. Would it devastate the status quo to suggest that attendees actually be allowed to participate rather than simply ask questions? Traditional internships and assistantships groom writers and publishing professionals, but growing industries, especially in the technology sector, are more actively encouraging new voices and stimulating challenging debates about iteration and user engagement.

From my admittedly remote and distorted perspective, there are two circles of writers. One includes those who have learned how to write, and the other encompasses those who have learned how to get published and sell books. In the currently tiny space where the two circles overlap are the writers in whom I’m most interested. Wouldn’t it be exhilarating if the intersection of craft and business were larger and more dangerous?

Perhaps other attendees discovered a purpose for the AWP conference beyond the mere reunion of former colleagues and classmates. I was a little baffled by it, but I can’t say the time spent at the event was an intellectual fast. These were some of the chewy bits:

  • Anita Fore, the director of legal services for the Authors Guild, slashed and burned her way through a morning session on book contracts with such aplomb that I can only say to authors, with or without agents, “Get thee a membership.”
  • A reading by five Dzanc Books authors, including the monstrously talented Kyle Minor, confirmed that publisher Dan Wickett‘s got a good thing going up in Michigan.
  • Four writers, known collectively as Squad365, presented book marketing tips to an attentive and inquisitive audience that tellingly overflowed the allocated space.
  • The poet Todd Boss described his philosophy of marketing through generosity. Free as a business model is a difficult concept to explain, but he did a fine job. Boss, who is published by Norton, is what’s new and good about the business.
  • On the art of writing, Ron Carlson read his prose poem that efficiently sorts the exquisite from the clownish. The piece is expected to be published later this year in Glimmer Train. An appreciative audience of believers requested broadsides for their offices, classrooms, and cubicle walls, but we’ll settle for photocopies.
  • Remarkably, the narrative nonfiction authors who presented “I Used to Think This Was Boring” illuminated the process of writing about science for the pleasure and education of readers. Yes, there is that consideration. The session was not well attended, though it should have been.
  • Derek Alger, the managing editor of Pif Magazine, gave me a copy of the new edition of Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties, which was eyed covetously by a publisher and a writing workshop instructor when I returned, book in hand, to the AWP bookfair exhibit that served as my home base.

A blurb by Joan Didion is highlighted on the cover of New York in the Fifties: “A precise and moving recreation of a time and a place when the world seemed small and we knew everyone in it.”

4 Replies to “An outsider’s thoughts on AWP’s annual conference and bookfair”

  1. Great blog. I’ve always wanted to go to one of the AWP conferences, but haven’t been able to yet (work gets in my way). Although I have an MA in Creative Writing, I believe in marketing. I own an agency and do marketing for companies. You can have the best product in the world but if no one knows about it, you can’t sell it. On the other hand, if you have a mediocre product and you market it well, you can make money at it. There’s a trade-off, of course, but I agree that the overlap between writing skills and marketing skills is a very good place to be. -Terry

  2. I’ve just published a novel (Fling!), and I am considering attending the AWP 2016 conference in LA. Are there any opportunities for published writers like myself to sell books at this event?

  3. Thanks for getting back to me, Robin. I¹ll do more research

    From: “Robin Mizell: Treated & Released” Reply-To: “Robin Mizell: Treated & Released” Date: Monday, August 17, 2015 at 9:47 AM To: Lily Iona Mackenzie Subject: [New comment] An outsider’s thoughts on AWP’s annual conference and bookfair

    WordPress.com Robin Mizell commented: “I did the online search for you, Lily. You’ll find the answer to your question on the AWP Conference website at https://www.awpwriter.org/awp_conference/bookfair_overview. Additional questions about the conference are best directed to the event’s orga”

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