First Time at AWP

Last week I attended the AWP (American Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Washington, DC. It was my first time at AWP, which was an overwhelming affair: six sessions each day with up to 35 choices, a monstrous book fair, evening meetups, and events throughout the city.

view inside the convention center

Inside the DC convention center

The first day, I attended all six sessions, each of which included a panel of four or five experts. The morning sessions were filled with practical information about how to land an agent, what it is like to have a book deal, what residencies are looking for in a writer, and how to give and receive feedback effectively. The afternoon sessions were less helpful: the panelists read essays they’d written on the subject, told personal stories, or read excerpts from their own books as examples. This was less interesting to me, or maybe I was just exhausted from the day’s nonstop activity.

While I gathered lots of information, I didn’t speak to a single person all day. The conference format, with only 15 minutes between sessions, made it hard. After each session, people would line up to speak to the panelists, who often included published authors, agents, editors at presses, and bookstore owners. While I would have welcomed an interaction, I didn’t have anything to pitch or a clear goal, so I didn’t join these lines. Late in the day, when I stepped into the book fair, I began to suspect that this was where the networking happened.

view from the convention center

The view at the quiet table where I had lunch on Day 2

I met a writer on the metro who’d spent the first two days navigating the book fair, pitching her book to presses she had selected ahead of time. This surprised me; I’d thought the presses were only there to sell books. I resolved to spend more time in the book fair. At first, it was hard: my natural aversion to talking to people, particularly people trying to sell me something, kicked in. Thankfully, I’d been tasked with bringing home pencils, so I forced myself to talk to anyone who had pencils at the table. I gradually came to understand the types of vendors in the book fair:

  • Small presses selling books and, apparently, looking for authors
  • Literary magazines selling subscriptions and looking for submissions
  • MFA programs, which include low-residency options
  • Residency programs, which include competitive programs that are sometimes free to attend, and programs that anyone can attend for a fee
  • Other: Groups for writers, groups of editors looking for writers, a service to help writers submit to literary magazines, and more
Emma Straub and Ann Patchett onstage during their event

Emma Straub and Ann Patchett with the moderator

I also spent one session listening to “a conversation with Emma Straub and Ann Patchett,” which was delightful. Both women are successful writers, and they talked about their lives, how they became writers, and which 2017 books they are looking forward to.

I had noticed that the conference seemed very academic: some sessions had super-specific titles or focused on teaching writing, and the assumption seemed to be that we writers were all writing literary works. (I had hoped to meet a romance novel publisher but didn’t see a single mention of romance!) I also noticed a dearth of information about self-publishing. This struck me because I’d heard panelists (including successfully published authors) talk about the disappointments of book deals, the number of good books that don’t get published and the luck involved in successfully publishing, and the inability to live off of one’s writing royalties, even as a successful author. On the third day, I encountered outright hostility toward self-publishers in one panel, where a bookstore owner who won’t work with self-publishers made the assumption that people self-publish only because they’ve failed to publish traditionally. I was happy to find some booths in the book fair, such as the Authors Guild, that supported self-publishing.

Attending the conference helped me see its possibilities. I hope to go next year, perhaps with a book to pitch to presses, or perhaps as a panelist discussing the trials and joys of self-publishing (one can dream!).

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