Wordstock is a weekend long literary festival that brings authors, publishers, readers, and would-be writers together in the book friendly mecca of Portland. I went last year and recorded my thoughts here but this year was special as now that I legitimately review books and am learning more about them, their authors and the publishing industry itself it potentially felt the way library conferences used to feel—like this is my job. Which basically means I had to put on make-up, wear something other than jeans, and hand out business cards. There were only three publishers I wanted to meet but one of the authors I reviewed was going to attend and we agreed to find some time to chat.
I knew my time was going to be limited so I began the morning by walking the exhibits. I should be better at this because I used to be the person in the booth trying to sell something but I still find it intimidating. I walk down the center of the aisle and avoid eye contact because I don’t want to be pitched because I know I’ll feel bad and I know how hard it is to stand there for hours and…it’s just sad. Kind of like going to the ASPCA and seeing all the kittens. I’ll buy things I can’t afford and don’t need. Still, I did manage to meet the publicity people for OSU press and Hawthorne books. I reviewed Dora: A Headcase for Hawthorne and they liked the review enough to add it to their website. I also scored contact information for another small press with a notoriously vague website (meaning it gives little or no info about their forthcoming titles) so felt like my exhibit-walking job was done. Now on to the fun part—a panel discussion.
Lois Leveen (The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel), Kim Fay (The Map of Lost Memories: A Novel), and Evan P. Schneider (A Simple Machine, Like the Lever) are all debut novelists. They comprised a panel called There’s Nothing Like Your First which was moderated by another first-time author, Sara Levine (Treasure Island!!!). The room was full of, not surprisingly, people who write and want to get published. While I don’t quite fall into that category it was a great chance to hear how authors work and their experience in getting published. It helped that all had a good sense of humor and were refreshingly honest about their experiences.
There was a lot of interesting ground covered and much of it is below but some of the main themes that were most surprising included the fact that just because you have a major publisher putting out your book does not mean you will be promoted and your book supported with all the might of their marketing power. Both Fay (Ballantine) and Leveen (William Morris) agreed that the majority of the marketing efforts for their books has fallen on their shoulders and has meant a full immersion course in social media and PR. At the same time they acknowledged this it was without bitterness, just a sense that these people were simply too busy, with too many authors and books to give the same amount of attention to each one. Leveen even said that she is unable to put the time into her current book project, despite her editor pressing her for progress, because she is so busy trying to create awareness of her current book. Very surprising to me, because it is an assumption of anyone who’s dreamt of being published—go with one of the big 5 because you’ll have their resources behind you.
Additionally, there was a lot of discussion about agents and the bottom line is, you have to have one. Publishers will not read unsolicited manuscripts so an agent is your only way in. All three authors agreed that it is critical to find one that’s a good fit but that in this electronic age it’s not as difficult as it used to be. Someone also mentioned that a great way to find an agent likely to be compatible with your work is to simply look in the Acknowledgments section of books in your genre. Authors always thank their agents. Once you sign with an agent be prepared to start editing your book. For Leveen, she submitted two rounds of revisions to her novel before it was ever sent to a publisher.
As for publishers, Schneider was a strong advocate of the small publishing houses because of the intimacy of the experience and how cared for he felt throughout the process. He quoted Annie Proux who has said that small press is the future of the industry. For Levine, who also went with a smaller publisher, she felt that the feedback she was given by the larger publishers when rejecting her work was things she already knew and not helpful.
Genesis of your book and how long it took to come together.
Kim: 14 years, lived in Vietnam as an English teacher and while there read a story about a couple who lost their fortune and went to Cambodia to loot a temple.
Lois: Working on PhD in Literature in African American literature and in one book of research came across 3 paragraphs about Mary Bowser and thought “this is amazing”. Began to wonder what it would be like to be an educated woman like Bowser but live among people who not only did not believe you were educated but that you were incapable of intelligence.
Decided to forgo tenure and teaching and write after being encouraged by a friend who said, “You should write that novel.” “How do you know I can write a novel, I’ve never written fiction?” “You write very good emails.”
Evan: Editor of a literary magazine for bicyclists. As a bicycle commuter and a reader he wasn’t seeing what he was interested in reading conceptually. Also working as a copy editor for a publisher and in a meeting with the publisher and an editor was asked “When are you going to write a book about bicycling?” which he thought was a terrible idea because there are so many books about bicycles. They meant fiction and he realized there was little or no work on the subject. The publisher challenged him to start something but he was still reluctant so only produced a few pages which the publisher said was exactly right and said to keep going. This continued until he was told “this is the next Propeller book” and was given a pub date.
At this point Sara Levine interjected and said, “That is so interesting and really unusual that somebody wants your novel. Besides your mom.”
Sara: Like Leveen she’s a professor who was writing an essay about Robert Louis Stevenson, when mentioned to someone her work and they got excited about Treasure Island. Sort of stumbled into it, which was a long and slow process but unlike Evan I thought I could take my time because no one was waiting to read it. The good side of that is you can make it as good as it can be because there is no one knocking on your door with release dates.
How did your lives change after publication?
Evan: I have one silly thing. I didn’t recognize that my book would be available in the library. And I know that’s totally ridiculous but someone emailed me and said I just checked your book out at the library. And I had thought “Oh, I’ll never be there, that’s the LIBRARY.” And I saw someone reading it on the bus and I didn’t know what to do, I wanted to watch them but also didn’t want to seem weird.
Lois: Portland is such a book lover’s town that people come up to me and start talking about the book and I have no idea who they are and they think we know each other because they’ve seen my picture in the book. It’s kind of a mini-celebrity you don’t think you’re going to get as a writer so that is wonderful and charming and a little off-putting.
Kim: I wanted to be a writer since I was ten so everybody who knows me knew this is what I wanted to do and when this book was published, the amount of people from my past who came forward and said “I am so proud of you”, I have never experienced, such genuine happiness that people felt. Everybody was cheering me on. The people that support you…that’s one of the reasons I write.
Lois: I think probably the best advice I could give is that if you know any poets spend time with your poet friends because poets never expect anyone to read their books. If they sell up to 500 copies of their book they’re ecstatic, so they remind those of us who write fiction that we write not because we think we can knock 50 Shades of Grey off the bestseller list but because we really believe our words can touch people. Poets will keep you honest.
Sara: I agree that poet friends will keep you grounded and honest. I remember poet friends trying to prepare me for publication of my book by talking about the radio silence that greeted their publication so it was startling to me that there was noise when my book was published. There was all this noise from the blogosphere, from people who read, who are passionate about books and there are typing up their reviews. I was shocked.
And it’s a gratuitous plug on my part but when the authors were talking about creating awareness and buzz for their books Kim Fay had this to say. I was shocked and thrilled and only wished I had immediately distributed business card to everyone there. Still a very sweet surprise.
Kim: I just want to mention that that is where the action is right now in the book blogging world. Catherine Gilmore is here today and has a book blog; we met online. The bloggers are out there and not only are they reading but they’re sharing what they’re reading. That’s the place now. Yes, I would love a New York Times book review but it’s really satisfying to have these people because in blogs they can really take their time with your book. The can give the book it the attention and then share it with all these other people who love books.