Long blog post warning (hey, it’s been a week, so pour a cup of coffee and let’s catch up!).
This past weekend, I went to my very first writers’ conference, Writer’s Digest Conference East (note: I don’t know how long the link will point to the conference, as it has already happened, so I apologize if you can no longer get there from here).
Let me begin by saying that this conference is not cheap. Prices started at $299 and went up from there (and that was for the 2/3-day Self-Publishing track or if you are currently a full-time student). I bought early bird, so I did save a hundred bucks, but I dropped a small fortune to attend all three days. The conference also bumped up against my daughter’s birthday, so I was literally juggling cake and kids as I tried to get in (almost) all the the sessions that were offered. It was a very stressful bit of running around.
So, was it worth it? Absolutely worth every penny!
I am not about to be a commercial for Writer’s Digest. The magazine stands on its own, but they connect with an awful lot of third-party vendors who are borderline (or not so borderline) scam artists. I hardly ever open an e-mail from WD for that reason: I know that somebody selling snake oil is “partnering” with them. I guess this is how traditional print survives in this day and age, but it’s irksome to me that an institution as reputable (and necessary) to writers such as WD takes money from charlatans just to stay in business (and if you don’t catch my drift, let’s just say you cannot make six-figures from writing while you chillax on a beach).
But I digress…
Here are 7 valuable things I learned about the conference, in no particular order:
1. Most people pay only for the Saturday conference and suffer for it.
I know that I’m at an advantage here, in that I don’t have to pay for airfare or a hotel to visit NYC. That said, if you missed the half-days on Friday (especially) and Sunday, you missed some cool opportunities to connect and network when panelists and agents weren’t being pulled in all different directions.
More to the point: Do you know Chuck Sambuchino? He’s an editor over at Writer’s Digest Books, plus an author in his own right. He presented a “How to Pitch” information session on Friday night that probably only 10 percent of the Pitch Slammers attended (the Agent Pitch Slam was on Saturday). I paid $728 for the conference, and I would have paid that amount just for those 50 minutes with Chuck.
Here’s the thing… I’ve been pitching what I believe to be a really really good book, The Truth, to agents since last fall. I’ve had zero interest. When there’s no interest, you honestly don’t know what you’re doing wrong. Am I a hack? Am I deluding myself about the quality of my work? Is the time wrong for this particular story (i.e. trends come and go and maybe I’m on the wrong side of the bell curve)? Is it a matter of industry contraction and there’s just no traditional market for this book? Is my platform too small?
You know what was wrong with my agent query? The pitch! My pitch sucked. I didn’t know my pitch sucked because I had never had anyone as demonstrative as Chuck cut through the crap and say, “Do it my way or hit the highway.” I left his session with such a clear blueprint that by 5 a.m. Saturday morning, I was writing (and memorizing) a completely new pitch that really worked. How do I know it worked? Because 7 of the 8 agents I spoke with liked it and requested pages.
Had I not attended Friday’s “Pitch Perfect”, I highly doubt I’d be talking with these agents now. Oh, and Chuck’s a lot of fun when you get a few (horribly over-priced and non-craft) beers into him. He will find a piano and lead a circle sing session. But don’t take my word for it…
2. Just because Chuck is right doesn’t mean you should listen to him in entirety.
I was rehearsing my pitch all Saturday morning (my daughter was not pleased to be hearing my not-so-dulcet tones at 6 a.m.) to get it down pat. Only to hear in the “Ask the Agent” panel how much they hated rotely memorized pitches. The agents wanted a conversational tone where you really interacted with them. In 90 seconds.
That’s not a lot of time for conversation. However, because I had that pitch “perfect” (ha ha), I was able to stick to the script through my “elevator pitch” and then go off script and back on script as the “conversation” led me. Despite profound nervousness, I came off as natural enough.
3. The industry is suffering from schizophrenia.
I attended the Self-Publishing track on Friday and met up with a wide variety of self-published authors (some were contest winners, so their self-published books had garnered them a traditional contract) and swaths of data (including data about data). By 3:30 when this track drew to a close, I was thinking, “Self-publishing is the way to go!” I was making lists of how to build my audience and expand my platform. As someone with extensive PR experience, I was undaunted by the magnitude of doing this.
Then Saturday came around and all I heard was how self-publishing is still a dog, garnering no respect and—worst of all—potentially precluding self-published authors from getting an agent. Apparently no one had shown these agents the data I had seen the day before that showed hybrid authors (i.e. those who have traditional publishing contracts plus self-publishing) are making the most money. With a couple notable exceptions, agents are still interested in the traditional path to book publishing.
Now I was sure I wanted to eradicate any online mention of my book (I went so far as to delete my Author Profile over on Amazon). Then came Jon Fine’s presentation on Sunday (he’s Amazon’s Director of Author & Publisher Relationships), and I felt compelled to hop back on Amazon and reestablish my author page.
The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing, and I had whiplash as a result.
However, this is to be expected. The industry is changing much in the way that music did. Once upon a time, you couldn’t take a picture at a live concert (forget about recording the whole damn thing and posting it on You Tube). Now, however, the music industry has figured out which fights to fight (i.e. those that involve actual piracy as opposed to fandoms). Once again the music industry is booming (no pun intended).
Traditional agents are invested in traditional publishing. They have worked years (sometimes decades) to be in the position to leverage their connections for their clients. But change is coming, and this conference probably reflects the uncertainty of that change.
The only real consistent message I got from WDCE is, “Keep writing.”
4. Eric DelaBarre is possibly the coolest dude ever.
I immediately connected to Eric because he worked on Law & Order, a show my daughter appeared on. Although they were there at different times, I felt comfortable approaching Eric. I was fascinated by his history of migrating from all-murder-all-the-time to middle grade novelist, whose book Saltwater Taffy is about empowerment and using one’s imagination to unlock the secrets of buried treasure.
Because of his industry connections, Eric never really had to stress about finding a traditional publisher. However, they did want to change the book, which was something he would not do. He self-published and then kept looking for a distribution channel (hint: he used saltwater taffy as packing peanuts for his mailer). He’s now working his own film deal out of it. He has no agent and doesn’t give a flying fig whether or not he ever publishes through a traditional publisher.
He’s the poster child for “Never take no for an answer.”
5. I am cautiously optimistic that the industry is coming back.
While tips on how to monetize one’s writing were fairly limited, the conference presented trends that are hopeful, to say the least. I’ve been a working writer since 1997. I get to take that coveted home office deduction, but that’s not really the point, since I make less than half what I did 11 years ago (my last in-house paid writing job). However, print seems to have settled into a model (see above) where they can start paying writers again. I learned of several opportunities that I plan on pursuing, where hundreds of (and occasionally as much as a thousand) dollars are the payout. I haven’t heard those numbers in at least five years.
6. Writer’s Digest staff run one hell of a conference.
When I first arrived at the check in, I wasn’t impressed. I got a lanyard and a plastic file folder with the program inside. And WiFi access. No pen. No notebook. No totebag. For the price of admission, they went cheap. Hell, even the National Action Network (running concurrently, see below) had more swag. The boxed lunch was good, but nothing extraordinary. The coffee voucher was nice, but the one-drink ticket for the reception where a bottle of Bud set me back $13 (reminder, I am from NYC, so I know how much an expensive beer costs, and this is so far beyond outrageous, I’m not sure how to label it) seemed skimpy.
But then I got to the meat of the conference: the panels and keynotes. With the exception of one panel (I used my new phone to read the New York Times for pitching later), all were excellent and superbly run. The Agent Pitch Slam could have benefited from a few more volunteers—no one was working the room like Chuck, who saw me standing still at one point and wrote down three agents I needed to talk to right now!!!—because many of the writers did not move when the bell rang, meaning the person behind them had less time to do her own pitch. However, considering the palpable tension in the room (agents seemed relax, but the rest of us were nervous as hell), things went quite smoothly.
And the WD moderators (chiefly Jessica Strawser and Phil Sexton, among others) were among the best moderators I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to a lot of conferences, so I know what I’m talking about!
7. The Rev. Al Sharpton is really really enthusiastic.
And loud. Whenever he was preaching (figuratively) next door at the NAN conference, our speakers could barely be heard. But that just made us all more excited to be there. Enthusiasm is contagious.