where the writers are
Button-down DC Writers Can Really Run a Conference

Last Saturday’s “American Independent Writers’ Conference” in Washington DC was focused.  They didn’t try to teach us to write in a day, they stuck to the business.

Preparation was excellent; before we’d gathered we knew which agents we’d meet with and who we’d have breakfast with.  Each agent had a roundtable for breakfast, a great informal way to kick the day off.

Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books gave a tip-filled presentation of how to jump-start a writing career, especially in nonfiction.  To gain a foothold, he recommends three words:  Short (How hard can it be to place a two-paragraph article?), Local (Can you ‘localize’ a good article you come across?), and New (Shorter slush piles?).

From there I selected the Fiction Agent’s Roundtable, where they answered such questions as “If I address my query to a specific agent, will they actually read it?” The answer was that the more experienced agents have readers but the good ones review and sign off on the readers’ work.   This was followed by an enlightening talk on publicity where the panel emphasized that no one cares more about getting the product out there than the writer, so the writer must take the lead.

The Keynote speaker at lunch was Jill McCorkle, a writer of great Southern charm, who had such insights as “The first draft is a whirlwind romance, full of excitement and risk-taking, while re-writing contains the hard work of relationship-building” (that’s a paraphrase; she said it much better (and is much better looking J)).  She has been blessed by having a successful career with one agent and one editor at one house, and many books.  Her talk was peppered with warm personal anecdotes that had the audience smiling.

In the afternoon I gravitated toward the wonky world of what they still call ‘self-publishing’ on the East coast, and small presses, and electronic distribution, which has become non-negotiable with the big publishers.  I heard none of the glory-talk of Independent Publishing (we eschew ‘self-publishing’) you hear on the West Coast.  No rah-rah excitement about Lightning Source and Lulu and the like where you can go from a MS Word file to ‘up on Amazon’ in a matter of weeks and still own electronic rights.  Obviously, Washington is closer to the publishers in New York than the Bay Area is.  The only agent who mentioned having success selling successful self-published books to mainstream publishers was from the West coast.  It takes roughly ten thousand in sales to pique their interest, I hear.

Mussolini’s success—making Italian trains run on time—was nothing compared to getting a gaggle of agents and writers to hook up productively.  Estate lawyer Emory Hackman managed to pull it off.  He attracted enough agents that the ten-minute sessions could often extend to fifteen without the schedule falling apart, which allowed more meaningful conversations.  The buzz from the participants was very positive.  American Independent Writers, who put the conference on, did a great job all day.