I spent the first weekend of August at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York. I heard about the conference a few weeks before it was due to happen and because I like to procrastinate in new and unusual ways, I decided to book a place.
The cost was a little prohibitive – for someone trying to save, anyway – but I figured I’d do whatever I could to keep the costs down. I travelled by Greyhound bus, stayed with a friend and barred myself from 5th Avenue.
The trip turned out to be an incredible experience. Here are 5 things I learned at the Writer’s Digest Conference.
1. Always pack business cards
I had some made up the week before I left and I’m so glad I went to the trouble because handing out cards is so much easier than trying to scribble your details on scraps of paper. They came in particularly useful at the Lulu sponsored event on Saturday night when I plucked up the confidence to speak to the black, female writers in attendance. I get very used to being the only person of colour in writing groups and at events so it was wonderful to make some new friends.
2. Self-publishing has upsides but definite drawbacks too
There were a lot of workshops addressing aspects of the self-publishing/traditional publishing debate. It’s a very topical issue for writers right now and it was useful to hear from experienced writers who have opted to go either way or take a hybrid, middle path.
The panel of writers said it can take a long time to build volume sales and distribution of print copies is very limited. However, they felt it was worth it to retain control and work on their own timeline.
My big take away was the cost. The figures for outsourcing cover design, editing (development, copy, proof), marketing, file formatting, etc ranged from $5-$10k. It seems of you want to self-publish to the highest standard possible, you have to be willing to invest in your work.
3. Every writer struggles with the white page
Writers hear this a lot but we’re a self-depreciating bunch so we don’t really take it in. I know I often feel like I have the monopoly on crumbling before the blank page. But our day two keynote speaker was bestselling author Harlan Coben and he was unequivocal and clear, we are all scared when we create but it’s about discipline, he said. It doesn’t matter if you’re nervous or uninspired or think this is your worst writing ever, you sit down and get on with it.
4. Make sure your pitch is airtight
The conference’s main draw is the optional Pitch Slam. Basically you pay a little extra for one-on-one, three-minute meetings with agents. In those meeting you have 90 seconds to pitch your project and they have 90 seconds to respond, possibly even handing you a card and requesting full chapters. I didn’t sign up for this, I know my big YA project isn’t quite there yet, but most of the attendees did and it was so interesting hearing their stories. It just reiterated the importance of knowing exactly what your novel is about and being able to convey the plot and themes in a few sentences.
For an personal account of Pitch Slam from one writer who did participate, read Cina Pelayo’s blog post.
5. Brick by brick
Everybody from bestselling self-published author Michael J Sullivan to bestselling traditional author Kimberla Lawson Roby stressed the slow path to success. “I built my career one reader at a time, one bookclub at a time,” Kimberla told us during her keynote on the last day of conference. Everybody wants to be the next E L James and release a book that zooms straight up into the stratosphere. But for the average writer you go step-by-step, gathering readers one at a time. I imagine once you have them hooked, you have a fan for life. Which seems a good trade off.