The annual conference of AWP, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, is a fun and grueling schedule of events — as novelist Jess Walter noted in his introduction to a reading by Gish Jen and Tobias Wolff, “What begins as a giant party ends as a kind of hostage situation.”
This year, the 13,000 writers present ranged from acclaimed and best-selling authors, such as Amy Tan and Sherman Alexie, to newbies who have yet to publish a poem or story. It was a good place to check in on the mood of writers, publishers, and editors in the wake of the ongoing digital transformation of the publishing world.
— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) February 28, 2014
Judging from a sampling of discussions, the sky-is-falling attitude about the decline of traditional publishing has diminished as people are now looking ahead to what the new digital landscape might make possible.
Old Guard Speaks as New Writers Share Social Media Tips
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winner Annie Proulx delivered the keynote address and served to represent the old guard’s way of thinking about publishing. She lamented the decline of bookstores and the rise of online demands on a writer’s time. She expressed particular repulsion over the feature in e-books that makes note of when readers stop reading, conducting instant market research that presumably a writer or a publisher could use to try to generate a hit-book formula.
“To regurgitate the tried and true is to become a producer of product,” she said. “In my opinion, this is not creative writing. It is bottom feeding.”
Judging from its applause, the audience agreed with Proulx, but at other events writers expressed the idea that one can at once be a fan of indie bookstores, printed works, and originality, and online interaction, e-books, and other innovations in publishing.
What’s more, several speakers suggested that although Proulx and other writers established themselves long before e-books and Twitter took off and so don’t have to pay much attention to recent changes in publishing, new writers don’t have a choice about whether or not to participate in this revolution.
On a panel discussion called “Like Sand to the Beach: Bringing Your Book to Market,” author Jonathan Evison said of writers who complain about having to interact with readers online, “If you don’t like Facebook, then just don’t do it … It’s not about broadcasting. It’s about connections.” He advised writers that instead of blasting out group emails about their books and events, they should take the time to write a personal email to each friend.
On the same panel, Rachel Fershleiser, a writer and editor who works in literary and non-profit outreach for Tumblr, displayed the many creative ways Tumblr users are sharing their love of books, from the blog Last Night’s Reading on which artist Kate Gavino shares caricatures of authors and quotes from their appearances, to a series of literary manicures inspired by books.
The Rumpus Starts a New Literary Outpost
A morning panel discussion about 5-year-old literary website The Rumpus nearly filled a room with enthusiastic supporters. Co-founders Stephen Elliot and Isaac Fitzgerald talked about the website’s beginnings, when they were making things up as they went along, launching the site for $2,000 and funding Fitzgerald’s variable salary through contributions from attendees at monthly events. Elliott said he wanted The Rumpus to offer content that was different from anything then available — Gawker “was mean,” the Huffington Post “was stupid,” and Salon and Slate seemed to dish out the same stories over and over, he said.
— Meghan Ward (@meghancward) March 1, 2014
The Rumpus’ Iowa-based poetry editor Brian Spears said, “The online world has changed the notion of community. You don’t have to be at the same place at the same time anymore.” Rural Illinois-based writer Roxane Gay, who serves as the essay editor for The Rumpus, agreed. “Places like The Rumpus have kept me from losing my mind,” she said.
The staff of The Rumpus said they’re still making things up as they go along, but now the website averages 800,000 page views a month. It helped launch the career of best-selling and Oprah-anointed writer Cheryl Strayed, who used to write the Dear Sugar advice column anonymously.
The Rumpus is now funded through such methods as selling mugs printed with a colorful enjoinment to hard work taken from a Dear Sugar column and running a popular monthly book group that gives readers access to a new book the month before it’s widely released and brings writers onto the site to discuss their books with readers. They purchase the books at the wholesale price, charge club members the regular price for them, and fund the Rumpus in part out of the difference. They also earn money from Letters in the Mail, a subscription service through which readers receive letters from writers such as Margaret Cho and Rick Moody.
When eager audience members asked for advice about starting their own websites, both Fitzgerald and Gay emphasized the importance of moderating comments to maintain a civil tone. “When someone says, ‘this is stupid,’ you’ve got to delete that comment, because that’s stupid,” Gay said. Fitzgerald said, “If you build the house, you get to decide what’s in the house.”
VIDA Calls Out the Old Boys Network
Another bright new influence in publishing that the Internet’s unique ability to amplify communication has abetted is VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, a non-profit organization that releases an annual count of the gender breakdown of bylines at major publications. In years past, their counts have revealed bias at such publications as The New Yorker, Harper’s and The New York Review of Books, which publish about triple the writing by men that they do by women.
But the results of VIDA’s most recent annual count, released in late February, showed some improvement. Amy King wrote, “A couple of giants in the original VIDA count have begun to move.” The New York Times Book Review posted more equal numbers this year, and recently hired a female editor. The Paris Review, Tin House, and the Missouri Review publish roughly equal numbers of men and women. A lot of this change came about due to the noise VIDA has been making, amplified by its members and supporters through tweets, Facebook posts and emails to editors.
During AWP, VIDA threw a raucous party and fundraiser at the Hugo House in Seattle on February 28. Many members of the audience dressed in ’50s-housewife-style dresses, which one woman accented with jeweled rubber chore gloves. The available seats filled with chattering literature enthusiasts an hour before the reading was to start, and accomplished writers including essayist and fiction writer Pam Houston, poet Natalie Diaz, and novelist Alexander Chee put on a good show to appreciative catcalls, whistles, and whoops, while representatives from VIDA raffled off fresh pies. The energy of the crowd in the Hugo House that night suggested VIDA has started a real movement that continues to gain momentum online and off.
Digital Literature at the Book Fair
Booths for literary magazines printed in the traditional style dominated the book fair, but there were plenty of displays that showed how the digital transformation is taking root on all levels of the book industry.
Amazon’s CreateSpace sponsored a large booth, and their representatives always seemed busy chatting with passersby about how they can use the service to self publish. Submittable, an online submission management system that seems to be used by more magazines and websites every day, had an outpost at AWP, as did Byliner, a website that offers an online or tablet-based subscription to curated content consisting of original stories and those culled from other publications. Users can follow their favorite writers to learn every time they publish a new piece through Byliner.
The friendly people at the Lit Reactor table were eager to explain how their website grew out of a Chuck Palahniuk fan site, through which he offered writing tips. Lit Reactor, which now has 30,000 registered users, has writing tips too, but also reasonably priced online classes, peer workshops through which writers provide each other with feedback on their work, a magazine, and more.
The four people at the Lit Reactor booth demonstrated how the Internet can form communities out of like-minded people who are widely dispersed geographically. Co-founder and technical lead Kirk Clawes lives in Chicago, class director Rob Hart lives in New York, co-founder and editor-in-chief Dennis Widmyer lives in Los Angeles, and literary agent Bree Ogden, who teaches classes for Lit Reactor, lives in Seattle. Hart said the classes Lit Reactor offers are useful for writers with busy schedules who “can only participate in a workshop at 3 a.m.” or who don’t have a local workshop they can attend.
In Case You Didn’t Notice, Publishing is Nothing Like it Was 20 Years Ago
Over and over at AWP, presenters mentioned how 20 years ago, publishers didn’t seek any feedback or reaction from their readers, and now they’re immersed in it, using social media to help spread the word about books. In the panel discussion titled “The Business of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century,” Jill Bialosky, a vice president and editor at W.W. Norton & Co., said, “There’s a greater opportunity for community in this literary landscape. The Internet has helped promote that dialogue between writers and readers … I’ve been impressed with how new writers are using their fellow writers to create an audience. There’s been a huge growth in that kind of generosity among writers.”
Rick Simonson, the senior book buyer at The Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, observed that indie bookstores comprised a third of the book market 20 years ago, and now are only 8 percent of it. He and others on the panel stressed that bookstores still offer a lot for readers that they can’t find online, such as a sense of community, a place to gather, a venue that can introduce new writers to audiences, and personalized book recommendations. Many of them mentioned the problem of “discoverability,” or how readers find books.
Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, said, “We have seen a concentration in the flow of information in our society that dwarfs anything we’ve seen before. Google, Apple, and Amazon are all doing exciting things, but it’s not healthy that we don’t have diversity in the distribution channel … We’ve created the largest library in the world’s history and you’ve been dropped into the middle of it and given a pen light.”
As for writers trying to convince readers to notice them amid the onslaught of traditionally published and self-published books, author Dani Shapiro said, “There’s more of a sense of doing it for ourselves. Ten or 15 years ago I never would have dreamt of sending an email to a magazine editor by myself. But now I get more results contacting someone directly than when a publicist does it.” She mentioned helping a fellow writer by providing a contact at the Today Show, and said, “There’s less of a sense of competitiveness and more of a sense of … this is hard, what we do, and we can help each other.”
Simonson said, “Larger publishers have more trouble navigating around what’s going on than midsized publishers.” And this, if anything, was the main theme I derived from the sprawling literary carnival that is the AWP conference. Major publishers and old ways of doing things in the book business have disappeared or faltered, but there’s always an upwelling of enthusiasm from the next generation of writers, who are ready to launch new publications, try new things, and get their work out there any way they can.
At one of the final readings, novelist Gish Jen noted, “It’s harder and harder to make a living actually writing,” and said that she sees authors going 10 years between books instead of three or four as they struggle to make ends meet. But the truth is, very few people ever made a living writing books. For most of us, things can only go up from here.
Jenny Shank’s first novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, McSweeney’s, The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, The Rumpus, and The Onion.