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.