August 3, 2009

Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference

One attendee’s perspective.

This was my second writer’s conference. I wasn’t able to attend as many sessions as I wanted because my family tagged along on the trip to Seattle, but those sessions I did attend were enjoyable and informative. We didn’t stay at the Hilton, but the conference center was nice. My only complaints, and they’re mild, were the butt-numbingly average chairs—nothing ergonomic there—and the conference rooms air conditioned to within an inch of freezing (however, I’m sure the men in attendance found the temperature perfectly comfortable). Oh, and some of the rooms were too small for the crowd. The chairs were set so close together, I spent one session squished at an angle up against the wall while the man next to me enjoyed the space I created for him. After that, I got to the sessions early to get an aisle seat.

In between sessions, I usually hung out in the large, windowed room beyond a prominently placed sign with the words, “The Writer’s Café,” where they’d set up tables by genre for the attendees to drink the provided coffee, nosh on the good eats and chat up the competition. There, I met a wide range of writers: retired folks with stories to tell now they no longer had a day job; newbies young and old with no idea what they were doing; aggressive, business card-carrying scribes hungry for that first sale. I didn’t see any editors or agents mingling at the Writer’s Café (which is not to say none of them ever ventured bravely inside), and when I happened to run into someone in the ladies room or in the hall whose face looked familiar (because I’d heard them speak or saw their photo in the brochure), they invariably refused eye contact. I didn’t mistake this for unfriendliness. The prevailing undercurrent at a writer’s conference is desperation. Just because I wouldn’t stoop to waylaying conference royalty in the bathroom, doesn’t mean it never happens.

The attendees who had appointment interviews with agents or editors received a numbered instruction sheet (rules) in the mail before the conference. In it, we were given advice such as, “Speak clearly, pleasantly and loud enough to be heard, but not so loud as to disturb other interviews,” “Listen to what the agent, editor or book doctor says and answer concisely,” and “It is perfectly permissible to take two pages of your finest writing with you to the interview. Hand it over ONLY when asked to, not on your own initiative.” This guidance might seem so obvious as to be insulting (who doesn’t need to be reminded not to mumble in a surly whisper?), but it isn’t. I wish I’d gotten such an instruction sheet prior to attending my first conference (in San Diego) with one of my early manuscripts. I was such a newb I broke rule number eight, “DO NOT thrust a sample of your work at the agent/editor.” At that conference, I handed an agent my entire manuscript the instant she expressed interest. It would have been great if she’d have smiled kindly, handed it back and asked me to email her preferred sample length. Instead, I never heard from her again. It simply didn’t occur to me that she might not want to haul reams of paper on the airplane back to New York.

Since I’m newly agented, I canceled the appointment interview with the agent, but I did attend a group meeting with St. Martin’s Press editor Rose Hilliard. Even though one of my fellow attendees tromped all over rule number five, “Be considerate of others. Don’t take over the conversation,” Rose was gracious and charming.

The following are a few of the tidbits I jotted down, bits of advice from the pros, in no particular order:

Know your fan base.

Read your competition. Know who they are and what they’re doing.

If you make a book trailer, make it something someone would want to watch outside of your
book. The goal is to go viral.

They work hard for you, so don’t forget to send your agent a Christmas present.

Contact blogs and websites in your genre and ask them to review your book.

Lawyers charge by the hour to review your contract. If it takes your lawyer more than two hours to do so, find another lawyer.

75% of all books are sold in Nov-Dec, so go for a fall release.

Get a hardcover deal, since libraries mostly buy hardcover.

If you’ve written a non-fiction book and speak about the topic regularly, self-publishing may benefit you.

A book event is theater. Learn how to make it an interesting experience for your audience.

Put free content on your website.

Don’t tweet unless you say something that matters.

People smell BS a mile away. Shameless self-promotion is bad.

Agent Verna Dreisbach got a hearty laugh from the audience with, “Friends don’t let friends read first drafts.”

Agent Michelle Brower is BIG on zombies right now.

Editor Celia Johnson loves anything with a bit of science in it (science-based fiction).

I mostly attended sessions on author/book promotion, and came away with some solid ideas on how to find and retain a readership once I’m published. The dessert reception with Terry Brooks as keynote speaker was delicious and Terry was amusing and inspirational. All the speakers were well-versed in their craft and willing to answer even the most perplexing questions from the audience with frank honesty and humor.

Verdict: the PNWA conference is a class act.