Saturday, March 16, 2013

The San Francisco writers conference.

Location: it was in the Mark Hopkins  ( a fancy, mostly tourist hotel.  Facilities were generally good and the food a cut above most conferences.  There was a lot of trouble with audio equipment, partly because many of the panelists did not know how to use the microphones, but also mics that did not work and the failure of PowerPoint presentations and the like to hook up to the projection equipment.  The schedule had a last-minute, thrown-together quality; I did not really know what sessions would occur where and when until I was handed a paper copy the first day I arrived.  It was expensive, $700.

Demographics: a majority of the attendees were women.  Most people were middle-aged but with a scattering of younger and older.  More of the younger attendees were women than men.  They were about 90% white (which may include Latino).  The 10% people of color were about evenly divided among East Asians, South Asians, and Blacks. The presenters and panelists had about the same demographics except I saw no people of color among the presenters I saw.  The total attendees seemed to be about 300.

The conference in general was in a state of disorganized conflict about the role of e-books and self-publishing, which were associated, versus traditional publishing.  Publishers' editors – there were several from New York — did not talk spontaneously about e-books or self-publishing.  When asked, about all they said was that they watch the Amazon bestseller lists, and sometimes, according to the character of their catalogs sought out books that had done well.

There were success stories on both sides.  There were several people who have done well with self-published e-books, which led to good contracts with traditional publishers.  One of the big stars, Bella Andre, I'll come back to her, had done moderately poorly with erotic romance novels for a traditional publisher, had tried the water by self-publishing an e-book and, when in a few weeks it'd sold over 100,000 copies, she chucked traditional publishers and has now sold millions of copies as e-books.

In a way it is agents that are most threatened by self-publishing.  They seemed vaguely nervous about it.  There was a rumor that some have started to help authors package self-publishing projects.

At the other end of the spectrum Mark Coker, the founder and proprietor of Smashwords (, compared self publishing through e-books to the revolution in Tunisia where the Internet had empowered authors to overthrow, the "oppression" of traditional publishers.  Guy Kawasaki (, an old acquaintance from Apple, gave a rallying speech in favor of self-publishing to a plenary session.  Unfortunately, I missed that due to a combination of getting up late and the worst possible concatenation of subway and cable car schedules.

One of the plenary speakers was an English woman who apparently writes mystery novels set in the 30s.  Her name is Anne Perry (  I really liked her.  Her discussion of writing and of her life was eloquent and thoughtful.  Somebody asked her if she thought there were parallels between the present day and the 1930s.  She answered at length, saying she thought they were quite alike, and spoke in a way that was thought provoking, informative, and pleasant to hear.  Some one asked her how she wrote such vivid minor characters.  She said that in her imagination she took each one "to the brink of the abyss" and asked them what they believed in.

Another plenary speaker was Bella Andre (, mentioned above, who went on and on about how smart she was and how much money she made, giving dollar figures.  She was narcissistic, self-centered, braggardly, self-aggrandizing, and hyperactive.  It probably says more about me than anything about publications, but I found her offensive, especially as compared to the English mystery writer.

The remaining plenary speaker was R. L Stine (  The introducer said he needed no introduction but, of course, I had never heard of him.  He writes young adult horror fiction and has sold over 400 million books.  He had been originally interested in writing humor and was the editor of a humor magazine for several years.  It showed in his talk, which was funny and entertaining.  He had stumbled into writing young adult horror when he was out of a job after the humor magazine folded and some editor and had the idea that he could write such a thing.  He talked about interaction with fans a lot, their questions about where he got his ideas and fan letters, of which reached, at the height of the popularity of his work, about 2000 a week.  They included things like "Dear Mr. Stine, I'm not very bright but I like your books" and "Dear Mr. Stein, You are my second favorite writer.”  (That was the complete letter.)  He told a very moving story about Ray Bradbury who was a hero of his growing up.  But first he told a story about his wife speaking to a writer, I have forgotten his name, , also a humor writer.  She saw him at some conference and went up to him and said something to the effect that he had always been a hero of hers and she had read all his books, to which he replied, "Madame, you are very sick woman."  So, with this rebuff in mind, Stine approached Bradbury at a conference trembling, even though by this time he was a tremendously successful writer, and addressed Bradbury as hero.  Bradbury said, "Well now you are now a hero to many people.”  I've heard other stories about Bradbury's graciousness.

The editors panel I attended was all about the importance of writing a first page that hooks the reader.  I understand where they're coming from.  They are bombarded by queries (One said, "I have 100 queries to look at in an hour going home on the train.") and they need a quick way to pass or fail books through their filter.  But I pondered on how different was my decision to read a book or not.  Personally, I decide to read a book based on reviews and/or recommendations by friends, before I open it.  I'm committed before I pick it up.  On the rare occasions when I glance at books or online I specifically do not look at the first page, because I believe writers are writing in a distorted way in order to hook people; I open in the middle of the book.  That's where the meat is.  One thing it made me realize is that the prose is more important to me than story.  Anyway, through the rest of the conference and talking to normal people in my life I began to ask how people decide to read a book and was the first page important.  The majority of the people I talked to, perhaps an unrepresentative sample, did not find first page important; many did however.  Most interesting to me was a young woman, a wine blogger ( and fiction writer who described her genre as "chick lit," who chose books first by following Amazon's recommendations, then the reviews of people on Amazon, then reading a bit of the book, of which the first page was quite important.  In general, I got a sense that reviews on Amazon really matter.

The editors seemed to like stories (first pages) about writers, which seemed a bit of a cliché to me, and the one they liked best was a sort of a combination of Amy Tan with a hint of Yakuza violence to come.

In the self-publishing panels, presenters emphasized covers (in traditional publishers the publisher determines the cover).  Again, I felt out of step.  I don't think I have ever considered the cover of a book in deciding to read it.

I did get a sense from the representatives of traditional publishing, both agents and editors, of great sincerity and dedication.  They said several times that no one was in this business for the money.  Some one in the audience asked the editors why they came to conferences like this.  They said partly in the hopes of finding books they wanted to publish, partly to network in general, but most strongly, they said it was because they wanted to explain the publishing industry to writers.  And I think they were successful; I came a way fro this event with an improved feel for what is going on that does not lie in details.  But the remark that struck me most was why one editor, "We are desperate to find books we love.”  I believe her, though I am not certain I would love the same books she would.

One important effect for publishers of e-books is reviving the backlist.  “The backlist is back,” ejaculated one editor.  In recent years if you didn’t buy a book within 18 months or even a year of its publication you had a hard time finding it.  But now it is so easy to "reprint” and maintain e-books that publishers are fattening up their backlists.

A continuing theme was that each writer must market him or herself; indeed, I heard phrases like “a small businessperson” and “an entrepreneur.”  This is true regardless of whether you are employing a traditional publisher because traditional publishers do little or no marketing.

But there are many different ways to be a small businessperson, and presenters delivered a great deal of scattered or even conflicting advice on how to proceed.

The situation is somewhat different for writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction.  For writers of nonfiction the basic prescription is to become an authority.  Once you have established yourself as an authority, you can sell your book.  Someone used the pointed phrase “first serve, then sell.”  Often the authority in question occupies a fairly small niche.  The most striking two people whose businesses were of this sort were Dan Poynter, a kind of grand old man of self-publishing, ( who writes books about parachuting and Carla King ( who writes books about travel by motor cycle. 

Poynter pushed getting your self written up in Wikipedia.  Several people are in the business of writing Wikipedia bios

 It’s not quite so clear how such suggestions apply to fiction.  But the idea is to develop a fan base.  Note that the two biggest sellers at the conference, Stine and Andre, both write series.  It is rather like a soap opera.  Someone told the story of another romance writer who heard complaints from her fans that a certain wedding had not appeared in her novel.  She promptly whipped out a short story about the wedding and posted it fir sale on Amazon.

There was some disagreement about whether you should promote a particular book, or promote yourself as the author.  Poynter urged promoting yourself as the author, and being careful not to promote a book before it appears, because you never really know exactly when will appear.

A whole industry has sprung up in assisting (preying on?) writers who want to self publish, mostly e-books, but secondarily print on demand books.  Too many to list and categorize.  My tote bag was covered with their logos and stuffed with their brochures including a 4-megabyte thumb drive from Smashwords loaded with their documentation and a little blue ice-like object from Archway Publishing, an arm of Simon and Shuster,  that sparkled electrically when I sipped my drink.  They offer different services: formatting for appearance, editing, formatting for the diverse file types used by distributors (in this respect Amazon is the bad boy, using a particularly proprietary format), marketing, distribution, billing, promoting you web site, recording people who visit your web site, cover design, etc. etc.

The guy that impressed me most in the marketing panels was Ron Martinez of Aerbook Maker (  He is smart, articulate, and really knows the issues all the way from low-level coding, varieties of HTML, through billing and marketing.  Unfortunately, the service he offers is primarily of interest to people with a lot of graphic content or even animation.

Here’s a piece of advice that was offered again and again: blog.  The whole notion is to build up followers who will then buy your book rather than the other way around.  One panelist pointed out that you needn’t do this alone, you could set up a website where operating authors blog in turn.  He asked people to raise hands for anyone who is involved in such a thing.  I raised my hand.  He then asked was it successful?  I held my hand halfway in the air.

In general, the presenters encouraged presence on social media.  Facebook was mentioned most often, next Twitter, and then LinkedIn.  Poynter discussed evaluating which LinkedIn groups to join, solely the basis of the number of members.  He and others suggested you do not spread yourself too thin, pick one or two and concentrate on them.

The website authority, Stephanie Chandler (left) ( advised us always to put graphics in our blogs, which, as you see, I've tried to do.

Discussion of ways to get publicity never ended.  The talking heads opined that press releases are no longer so important.  What you want to do is send email directly to reporters, who are hungry for material.  Another praised Internet talk shows.  Of course, I didn’t know there were such things but, since, I have seen that, for example, the old-line literary magazine Prairie Schooner offers one.

It reminded me that Steven Crane sought publicity for his self-punished novel Maggie Girl of the Streets by hiring people to read it, or appear to read it, on public transportation in New York.

The presentations were in toto about half about marketing and half about how to write.  The subjects of the how to write included three sessions on poetry and two sessions, one for fiction and one for poetry, about how to present social issues in your work.  I only attended one writing session.  It was on character-driven plot and a mystery writer named David Corbett ( talked very effectively.  He started with Oedipus Rex, which is, after all, the first and foremost character driven plot, and he even discussed Anna Freud’s theories of the change and evolution of defense mechanisms.  I was impressed.

I chatted with a lot of people and had several interesting conversations.  None were ones would be of any practical value to me, partly because I was not quick enough to snap up opportunists to talk to agents and editors, and perhaps also because of prior commitments I missed all but one of the evening sessions, whihc are good for schmoozing I suppose.

For example, I had two conversations with people who were writing self-help financial planning books.  One was a black woman who wrote fiction, but what she talked about was a book she was trying to get published of advice for people handling their personal finances, things like not having too many credit cards and not taking out a bank loan you can't repay.  Interestingly, she volunteered that she was not personally a social activist but someone who is providing material that social activists could use.  I also talked with a guy who was a VP of Merrill Lynch and trying to publish a book about how to handle your personal investments.  He was pleasant guy and you can risk controversial questions in such contexts, so I asked him to comment on my notion that the central banking system is incompetent, corrupt, and, even if that were not true, orders of magnitude too expensive.  Unflustered, he responded by pointing out things like that the people who worked for him gave good financial advice to their clients and that you could use your credit card in Tokyo at trivial cost.  When I granted all that but said there was stuff like massive insider-trading, the fundamentally stupid and dishonest business of derivative tranches, not to mention fixing the LIBOR rate and the London Whale, he said all human institutions included corruption, that he was very fond of Merrill Lynch, "a company man," and gave Merrill Lynch credit for having hired Irish immigrants like his father when no one else would.

A well, but conservatively dressed white guy in his 50s, asked the editor’s panel if the fact that editors tended to be left-wing affected the publication industry.  The editors did not really answer his question; they tended to say things like their publishers were conservative but they got on with them okay.  I chatted with him afterwards.  He was conservative and had started to write a novel from the viewpoint of a Latino, but had given up because he felt he could not get the voice right.  I said perspective altered perception, for example, some people on the left (e.g. me) saw the New York Times as mostly representative of the establishment, whereas people on the right saw it as liberal.  He agreed that he saw it as liberal.

I had a long conversation with a woman, which turned out mostly to be about the difficulty her mother had adjusting to America as an Australian immigrant.  She is writing a historical novel based on the life of a 19th-century French woman impressionist painter.  Later my wife asked me if I had heard a of a book that I wanted to read.  At first, I said I hadn't, but then I thought of her novel.  I had not registered her name and looked around for her the next day but never found her back.

Maybe by chance that I missed references, but I was impressed by not hearing about certain things.  Graphic novels were never mentioned, not even by Martinez whose software seems ideal for them.  The only mention of translation was Andre boasting at having hired the most expensive translators in certain countries.  She was also the only person who mentioned audiobooks, which in fact for me amounts to about half my novel “reading.”  The mention of Oedipus and occasional perfunctory nods to Shakespeare were the only mentions I heard of books published earlier than the late 20th century.  Oedipus, Shakespeare, and the works of the English mystery writer who was a plenary speaker were the only mention of writing out side of the US.

My web page gets about 600 hits per day, mostly from bots and inscrutable and possibly predatory sites in places like Chengdu and Kiev, but on the first day of the conference, it got over 1200 hits.  I don't understand why that should be so, but it does not seem likely it was a coincidence.

I've been thinking for a while about what writers think they are making a piece of fiction for.  Mostly I have contemplated the standard answer given in Western European criticism, to delight and teach, Horace' dulce et utile.

For example, I was talking a while ago to someone who had just published a mystery novel.  I asked him what the book was for.  He shrugged his shoulders modestly and said, “To get someone from one airport to the next.”  Then he paused and added, “And maybe teach them a little about how society works.”  There it is, dulce et utile.

Of course, these days there are other reasons offered such as self-expression.  Other cultures have other traditions and, in Indian theory, the purpose of art is to create a mood, as well in prose and drama as in ragas.  I note that the big sellers I heard about created a mood, Stine horror and Andre erotic love, each a standard mood that is a goal of drama and poetry in Sanskrit theory.

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