AWP panel discussions and l’esprit d’escalier

My biggest fear about contributing to Christina Katz’s panel discussion of author platforms at the AWP conference this year was that I’d leave some terribly important point unsaid. Well, it’s inevitable. Wisely, Christina suggested that her panelists blog brief recaps and provide links to online resources that we mentioned at our session on Thursday afternoon. Many, if not most, of the audience members seemed to be on the same page as the panelists, which was comforting and also indicated that much has changed in the past year.

Following the 2009 AWP conference, I wrote: “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.”

Venn diagram
Illustration: “Venn-diagram-AB” by SilverStar is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

This year, I wanted to emphasize that I still see two groups of writers who, if depicted with a Venn diagram, include A) those who have spent the time needed to learn their craft and become excellent writers and B) those who have learned the business of how to build their platforms, get published, and market themselves and their work. The authors who fall in both categories, where the circles intersect, interest me most as prospective clients.

In considering whether to work with authors, I prefer to see they’re already capable of handling themselves in what can be contentious online conversations. Without an existing Web presence to examine, I can’t rapidly assess how a writer will behave publicly, online, or in an interview, particularly in the heat of the moment. My clients need to be better at it than I am! Other matters that deeply concern me are libel, copyright infringement, and privacy violations.

There are more ways than I could mention for writers to gain exposure and expand their networks, or build their platforms. Most are obvious:

  • Publishing internships
  • Volunteering at writers’ conferences, book festivals, reading events, etc.
  • Hosting a local literary salon (Sunday Salon offers encouragement, instruction, and a web presence)
  • Interviewing an author for a feature article or a blogpost, as well as guest blogging and blog book tours
  • Contributing to a multi-author blog covering author events, providing book or litmag reviews, etc. (Paul Biba recently told me he was seeking new contributors to TeleRead, the ebook technology blog)
  • Online social networking (with the understanding that each site’s popularity will rise and fall just like brick-and-mortar nightclubs and retailers do)
  • Mentoring
  • Responding to calls for assistance/submissions through services like HARO and sites like the NewPages Blog
  • Maintaining an individual blog and/or website (today, this goes without saying)

No writer should provide free content or services when it feels as though nothing worthwhile is gained in exchange, although the return on the investment of time and effort is usually intangible, taking the form of increased recognition, potentially valuable business contacts, friendships, and an enviable reputation for generosity. Simply put, the volunteering/giving should stop if it makes a writer resentful.

Quick links to some of the other resources I mentioned, or forgot to mention, during our panel session:

Enjoy the final day of the conference!

5 Replies to “AWP panel discussions and l’esprit d’escalier”

  1. Thanks for this post, Robin! It’s interesting to hear that agents and publishers are looking not only for an existing platform, but like you said how we’d handle ourselves in public in response to interviews and book signings, etc. Just like a 9-5 job interview, our image and personality is also important in making the decision to work with someone.
    ~Mary Jo Campbell aka Writer Inspired

  2. I definitely want clients who are enjoyable to work with, and I’ve been very lucky in that regard, Mary Jo. I think a manuscript reveals something about the writer’s personality and values, although the writer might not realize it.

  3. What you say here and what you mention about the AWP panel seems to go in the direction that I am feeling: we are currently living a true cultural revolution that is very difficult to grasp, but whose symptoms are quite obvious: people want to share, even illegally, the culture they love (peer to peer, for example), artists and writers are more and more willing to short-circuit traditional publishing/distribution patterns (creative commons, for example) and less and less people vote. The crisis of our system is very acute and interesting – and, in many ways, also promising, if we are willing to change our conventional views and (maybe) make a few sacrifices…

  4. Hi, Seb. It’s doubtful that we’ll understand the times we’re living in until we can look back on them, and it’s most difficult for people who don’t have the luxury of time to contemplate the cultural transformation. It’s “adapt or be eliminated” for many of us.

    On Facebook, Russ Donda posted a link to an article by Umair Haque in the Harvard Business Review,The Case for Being Disruptively Good,” which might reveal some of the promise you mention. Providing universal access to information is a noble endeavor. The companies that give us the free tools to communicate the way we are right now — in our case, Google, Facebook, WordPress, Lulu, and Hautefort (if your blogging platform is free) — deserve more credit than we give them.

    By the way, I’m looking forward to learning more about your nonprofit press. I like the way you’ve described its objectives.

    [Added on April 18, 2010] On this subject, I’m reading an article in today’s New York Times, in which Michael Kimmelman notes, “What’s new is the power available to wide swaths of the populace, thanks above all to cheap travel and the Web, to become actors in the production and dissemination of culture, not simply consumers.” I hope he’s right and people use that power for good, but I’m also mindful of initial reports that the iPad is a device designed for consumers of content, not creators.

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