Night 1: I Went, But Was Unable to Schmooze

It’s a character defect. I am schmooze-deficient. Even so, I can listen, and absorb, which is what I did tonight, and will continue to do for the next two days.

Night 1 of the conference was a panel discussion with four big-name book publishers about the state of literary fiction today (yeah, yeah, I know). But first there’s little old me. I find a seat in the large auditorium—people scattered about, most not talking to each other. Then two people come sit directly behind me. Who might they be, you wonder? Two literary agents. Yes, they’ve snuck in to hear the panel too (I couldn’t help but hear them talking). They speculated who might be in the room. Students, one said, writing students. She didn’t understand why people got MFAs. What might it do for them? The other agent said “you can’t teach writing”—but then admitted when he sees Iowa on a cover sheet, it’s generally better than most. (Shit, why didn’t I apply to Iowa?! Oh, right, because it was in Iowa. Next question.) In fact, most of the people in the room would not have been students, graduates, yes, but not students. Not that it mattered. The agents proceeded to name-drop, sound important, make me loathe them, and make me wonder all the while what it would be like to be accepted by one of them, to have them like me. I kept my name tag covered so they wouldn’t see. Perhaps, by cruel coincidence, one was an agent who rejected me.

Then the big publishers came up on stage. There was one from Knopf, one from Harper, one from FSG, one from Grove Atlantic. They said many things to be absorbed, and mulled over, and reabsorbed later. I learned that sometimes paperback original is better than hardcover. I learned that some think blogging is a waste of creative energy for writers. I learned that a writer should write, the publisher should market. I learned that a writer (most likely) won’t get read without an agent. Or, worse, you won’t get read if you happened to sign with an agent the publisher doesn’t like. I learned that it can sometimes be harder to get an agent than a publisher—but that still doesn’t mean they have time to read unagented submissions. I learned that if you’re a YA writer, it might just taint you, that it’s easier to go from adult to YA rather than from YA to literary adult. (Should I be thanking the stars now for my pseudonyms?) I learned that literary fiction has no real definition, and that maybe that’s its definition, and that less people are buying it, and yet they won’t stop publishing it, and so at least there’s hope, for now.

One of the publishers seemed to be getting more and more grumpy as the night wore on—I think he didn’t like people’s questions. I loved the guy from Grove Atlantic: he was engaging, smart, funny, realistic, and sounded like he works hard for his writers. I thought the guy from FSG was stodgy at first, but I completely misjudged him. When he started talking—and it was apparent how much he loved books and writers—I liked him more and more. I suppose you don’t pick a publisher by the guy who heads it, but if I ever get a chance at publication I think I’ll forgo the huge media conglomerates that throw money at you that you may never earn out to see if FSG or Grove Atlantic wants me first.

Now that I’m sitting here I’m thinking up questions I should have asked. I was surprised at some writers’ questions. They’d talk about their own personal situations, and put the publishers on the spot to see what they’d say. There was a hunger in the room. Did anyone think the publishers would say: Send me your novel tomorrow; I’ll read it! Because not one of them did. The final question of the day was a woman from my own alma mater. She announced she got an MFA from the same place I did and was traumatized by it. She didn’t write for four years. Now she writes self-help books. Did they have any advice for her?

The four publishers looked at each other. And then one leaned in toward the mic and said—drumroll, please: “Get an agent.”

The two agents sitting behind me sniffed in satisfaction.

Apparently it’s the answer to everything. It may not be what I want to hear, but I’m afraid it might be the truth.

5 thoughts on “Night 1: I Went, But Was Unable to Schmooze

  1. Maybe the reason publishers and agents don’t like blogging is because it takes them out of the equation. For those simply interested in getting their ideas out there and having people read them, what easier way is there than blogging. There is no approval required from a publisher.

    The building of an audience, aka publicity, is also handled by the writer. If you write interesting stuff (which you do), people will find your work on the internet and return for more.

    Anyhow, these are just my thoughts. I think in a way some of these people feel threatened by the internet and blogging.

  2. Unfortunately, to get a deal, you probably do need an agent. Picking one is hard. You need to really know they will work for you – and you have to be ready for them to take their cut (which, I understand to be between 10-15%).

    Also, your social networks can be a valuable draw (well, at least in business books, which my published friend was explaining to me). For example, if you had an alumni or past company network of 2,000 that would be attractive. If you have marketing plans or angles – apparently that can be extremely attractive too. Maybe your blog is already a large network? That could be attractive as well.

    The Wall Street Journal wrote an article about “Blooks” – blog-based books that are apparently making some traction in Japan. (It was a man writing about his mean wife. . .hmpf.)

    Another way to get some attention would be to have a bigger name author review your book and comment on it – not sure how this would work in whatever genre you choose, but. . .

    I’m sorry if you know all of this already. It is certainly true that writing isn’t the hard part (for those like you) – it’s the promotion.

    Even my published friend says you’ll need to be patient – many books were out for years before reaching the the NYT lists.

    Do what you love and search for those around you who can help.

  3. Was Morgan Entrekin the guy from Grove Atlantic? If so, he is fascinating, I agree. (He was at last year’s writing conference in Richmond, VA.) This sounds just like my last writer’s conference and I love how you said, “There was a hunger in the room.” Perfect.

  4. Nova

    I enjoyed reading about the writing conference you attended. Always good to hear what the publishers across the ocean are saying. As far as MFA/MAs, I’m glad I did mine, as it prepared me for exactly these sorts of situations you mention regarding publishers and agents. I’m sure I would have picked it up along the way eventually; the post grad degree just saved me lots of time and energy (but sadly no money).

    There is much to be said about the level of increased confidence writers stand to gain by doing a post grad course in creative writing, especially with all the focused preparation and professional dialogue that comes with said courses.

    My own MA was like a warm womb I never wanted to leave. We were often told that today’s MFA/MA writing degrees not only polish a capable writer, they instruct them in the necessary fields of the publication process: editing, copy editing, contracts, submitting, marketing and overall knowledge about how it all works. With agents taking on the old role of editors; the onus is upon the writer to do more than just write nowadays.

    Btw – I did not know about the path to literary fiction via YA. I’m not writing YA at the moment, but I have given some thought. Ironically in most academic institutions, literary fiction is accepted as the norm, with some room for literary genre, followed by other respectable genres that change according to fashion and/or whim.

    Once I was released (pushed?) into the cold cruel world, reality quickly made its appearance and literary fiction (huh?) was suddenly the wrong thing to have chosen to write if I wanted to get published quickly or if I even wanted to tell another human being what my book was really about.

    I sympathise Nova, but I also applaud your constant efforts to continue being informed, learning, exploring, submitting and of course, writing your own book. Don’t give up.

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