AWP 2014: We Came, We Saw, We Conferenced

As many of you writerly persons know, AWP, the grand conference for All Writerly Persons (fine, “Association of Writers & Writing Programs”), took place in Seattle last week. Girl Friday had a table festooned with our hilarious new t-shirts (for sale soon!) and featuring a rotating cast of Girls Friday from all over the west coast. There were writers, editors, poets, literary journals, professors, and a variety of other tattooed, bearded, wondrously coiffed book folks.  Someone even copyedited one of our live tweets—we loved it! Here’s what we learned:

It’s a terrifying time to be a writer

With over thirteen thousand attendees, upwards of ten to twenty panels going on simultaneously at any given moment, over six hundred tables at the book fair, and approximately 587 cocktail parties happening each night of the conference, it was easy to get overwhelmed at AWP. On the one hand, how glorious to be amongst so many thousands of like-minded people at once! On the other hand, it was hard not to gaze upon the zillions of novels, anthologies, literary journals, chapbooks, memoirs, and catalogs and not think “just who is reading all of these?” This glut of choices speaks to the problem of discovery that plagues readers and writers in today’s climate. Which is why:

Community matters more than ever

The accepted wisdom when it comes to marketing books is that word of mouth is what counts. Sure, certain media can move a book, but as often as not, the media follows readers rather than guides them (Fifty Shades of You Know It!). Basically, we read a book because someone we trust told us we ought to. This means that being an active part of your book community is crucial. This was echoed in many of the panels I went to. “Go ahead and substitute the word ‘community’ for the word ‘platform’. For every one thing you write about yourself, write ten things about other people,” Molly Gaudry from The Lit Pub said during an incredibly energizing panel on the subject. I wanted to stand up and cheer. My absolute pet peeve is when authors think that using social media to promote their books means going on social media and doing nothing except talk about their own work. The publishing industry is growing ever bigger, but social media has made the world smaller in a crucial way. Conferences like AWP are hard to beat for face-to-face interaction, but you don’t have to travel far and wide to connect with other writers and readers anymore—you don’t even have to get out of your pajamas!

Read others as you would have them read you

On the above note, I went to a fantastic panel on Independent Bookselling that featured, among others, Janis Segress from Queen Anne Book Co. and Rick Simonson from Elliott Bay Book Co. The discussion was illuminating for me as a reader, a writer, and a book publicist on many levels. The big takeaway here was that if you want indie bookstores to support you—to host an event for you, to hand sell your book, to tell other booksellers about you (FYI, they all know each other)—you had better be supporting the hell out of them. (I sat smugly thinking of the percentage of my income I have spent in the last two years at Elliott Bay and QABC alone). So what does supporting your indie boil down to? First of all, buy your books there—this seems obvious but so many people don’t think of the customer side of the equation. Get to know the book sellers, not just the store owners but the wonderful, well-read, passionate souls who work on the floor. Link to Indie bound on your author website if you’re a writer and instead of giving your author copies away to friends and family (i.e. your core audience), direct them to your local bookstore.

Also encouraging was the fact that no one on the panel copped a ‘tude about self-published books, just the ones that aren’t high quality: so don’t even think about bringing them a book until it’s been properly edited, copyedited, etc.

Doom and gloom are out

Much as I love my tribe, book people are a little in love with being morose. I sometimes feel like some sort of psychotic cheerleader in comparison, but there seemed to be a palpable excitement in the air at this year’s AWP. Does this mean we’re over the hump of Chicken Little–style melodrama that has consumed the industry for the better part of the past decade? Probably not, but there does seem to at last be a recognition that with the big, scary shift in everything from the way books are produced and distributed to the way they’re consumed and discovered comes a dazzling number of opportunities for writers that has never before existed in the history of books. Not to say that I didn’t come across a handful of writers so dissolute that my cheerleader-y best couldn’t dissuade them from their torpor. But while publishing will always have its Eeyores, unlike the misery-loves-company collective book industry bellyaching of yore, most of us just don’t want to hear it anymore. Things are changing, get on board or go home. Because really…

It’s an absolutely thrilling time to be a writer

No one knows what the future holds for publishing, but more so than ever before, we can all be part of where it goes from here. As I often tell authors about marketing their books, you don’t have to do everything, just do something, do it consistently, and do it well. There’s no end of the line for authors anymore. The power and the responsibility to create great work lies with you. Yes, things are changing, maybe not all for the better, but it benefits us all to face the new book world with a sense of excitement and adventure.