In the ad-world, conference reports usually fall on the shoulders of the account team, but since this was a writing conference—I figured I would give it a shot!
Last summer, after finishing what I thought was the final draft of my manuscript, I started looking into what exactly it would take to get published. As luck would have it, the Cleveland Writing Workshop was happening a short two-hour drive from where I was living at the time.
This conference was a great introduction to the business-side of writing and I’m glad it was the first one I attended. While a lot of writing conferences are once-a-year-events, this was part of a traveling series put on by Writers Digest and led by @ChuckSambuchino. You can find a schedule for the events and when it might be coming to a town near you here.
Since I am not a morning person, I drove to Cleveland the night before so I could get a good night’s sleep and be bright eyed and ready for the next day. But first, I stopped by the bar. Yes, to have a drink, but also to hopefully meet other writers who were in town for the event.
Once I got over the awkwardness of sitting alone at a strange bar in a strange city, two women came up to the bar next to me. We talked for a few minutes and it turned out they were both agents who were attending the conference—including one that I would be pitching the next day. The bar clientele changed a bit after that, so I decided it was time to call it a night.
The next morning, I was ready to go with one of my favorite pens, a fresh notebook and a stack of my brand new business cards! Below, you’ll find a highlight of the day and some of the many things I learned. Each session went into much more detail and if you are at the beginning stages of getting published, I would highly recommend checking out the schedule to see if there’s an event coming to a hotel conference room near you.
Your Book Publishing Options Today, 9:30 – 10:45
This session went into the pros and cons of traditional vs self-publishing and it was the perfect start for a beginner like me. What’s right for one author and one project might not be right for the other, and when it comes to elements like creative control, money, reputation and process—the two routes are pretty much opposite.
With Traditional Publishing, you get an upfront advance and have a built-in network of people who will help you with the business side of things. They keep track of the taxes and the fees and will help distribute your book. They work on your behalf at no cost, but when it comes to selling the actual books, for every $1 you make, they’ll make $4 or $5. The process can move very slowly, and you give up control on a lot of the elements of your book from cover design to price point, even the title.
In self-publishing, the process is fast, it’s easy and you have total creative control—which isn’t always a good thing. There can also be a stigma associated with self-publishing that isn’t there with books published traditionally. While you can make more money per book, you’re on your own for the business elements from the taxes to selling foreign or audio rights, and it’s a lot tougher to get your book into the places where books are sold.
Both routes have their pros and cons, and it really is a personal choice for each author and each project. There’s also a third option with Hybrid publishers where you pay the upfront costs in exchange for some of the same services that traditional publishing houses offer. Because this is relatively new, the conference didn’t cover much about this option except that it’s out there!
Everything You Need To Know About Agents, 10:45 – 11:45
While it would be impossible to cover everything you need to know about agents in an hour, I learned a lot from this session, including the fact that you need an agent if you are going the traditional publishing route. There’s no way around it—and from what I’ve learned, you wouldn’t want to go without!
Agents work for you at no cost, which is one of the reasons they take on so few new clients. They don’t make money until you do, taking an average of 15% of everything you make. But again, you won’t even get through the doors of a traditional publishing house without one.
Once an agent takes you on as a client, they work with you on edits and revisions to your manuscript until they think it’s ready to shop around to editors at publishing houses. Once a publisher is interested, they help you negotiate better contracts with the best terms.
There is so much more to the author-agent relationship that I’m still learning, including how to find the best one to represent your work. There will be several more posts on this topic as I continue to wrap my head around it all.
Lunch on your own, 11:45 – 1:15
One of the best parts of writing conferences is the opportunity to network with other writers, agents and editors. So in spite of the title of this session, it’s so important not to have lunch by yourself.
If you’re shy, don’t worry—so many other writers are, too. And if you can overcome that shyness to ask the person sitting next to or behind you if they want to go somewhere for lunch, it will be worth it!
I had lunch with a fellow member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) and one of her friends. We had never met or even interacted on Facebook before that day, but in the months that have passed, we have been Beta Readers for each other and are even sharing a room at the WFWA conference in September!
“Writers Got Talent” : A Chapter 1 Critique Fest
This was one of my favorite parts of the conference and it’s something you have to experience for yourself. It was really eye-opening, and it gave me a nice boost of confidence about my manuscript!
When you checked in for the conference, you had the option of bringing 5 copies of the first page of your manuscript with it’s genre written in the top corner. No names, no titles, nothing else. How it works is this: Four agents sit at the front of the room, each with a hard copy of the first page. As Chuck reads it aloud for the rest of the room to hear, the agents raise their hand at the moment they would stop reading.
The eye-opening part came in when I realized just how fast agents stop reading and give up on a piece. There’s a reason everyone says that your first page matters! It was also surprising that so many of the entries they went through started with the cliche novel starts that everyone tells you to avoid—namely waking up from a dream. I would love to get an agent to write a guest blog post about the things to avoid in the first pages, because it really was interesting.
As soon as three of the four agents raised their hand on any given page, Chuck stopped reading. The agents gave their feedback explaining what made them stop before Chuck went on to the next one.
The agents were being brutally honest and tough. Of the first 15 pages they read, only one had made it all the way through. I had my phone in hand and was about to type out a tweet that I hoped they wouldn’t read mine when I heard the first words of my manuscript.
I sank a little deeper into my chair. But then people laughed at a line I didn’t mean to be funny, and Chuck kept reading. I sat up a little straighter as people laughed again and Chuck kept reading, right until the end. On the last sentence of the page, one agent raised her hand signalling that she would stop reading. Her reason was a matter of personal preference, another agent said she would keep reading even though it wasn’t a genre she represents and the last agent who spoke said, “Sign Me Up!” Luckily, she was one of the agents I had scheduled a pitch session with (more on that later).
How To Market Your Books: Platform & Social Media, 2:50 – 4:00
This session was interesting for me, but not quite as useful as the rest. I hadn’t heard the term platform before—but in this context, it refers to your audience. When you have something to say, your platform is who is listening.
If you’re writing Non-Fiction, the size and quality of your platform is essential. For Fiction, it doesn’t hurt to have when it comes time to market yourself, (especially if you’re going the self-publishing route) but it isn’t necessary.
While there are many ways to build your platform—on any of the Social Media platforms or by starting a blog—they suggest picking one to really focus your energy on. If you’re reading this, you can guess which one I was inspired to start after this event!
How To Get Published, 4:00 – 5:00
I wish getting published was so easy that it could be covered in just an hour. One of the more sobering facts we learned is that only 6% of books that are written get published traditionally. Which means that 94% of books don’t make it. So it’s far from easy, which I’m learning from experience.
While there is no guarantee you’ll get traditionally published (even if you get an agent), Chuck did offer a few tips to make sure you’re setting yourself up for success. Here are a few that stuck out to me:
- Keep moving forward even after you get rejected.
- You’re going to get rejected. It happens. And when it does, search for stories about famous authors and all the times they got rejected before selling their first book. You can’t take it personally because it’s a business.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
- Since a lot of first books don’t get sold, it makes sense to start writing that second one as soon as you can. Don’t just wait and see what happens with your first manuscript, keep going and try writing something else.
- Steal From Yourself.
- Just because something you write isn’t right for your current project doesn’t mean it won’t be useful for something down the line. Maybe you can turn it into its own short story. I know I’m hoping that will be true for many of the 30,000 words I cut from my first manuscript!
- Make Time For Writing.
- I’ve been listening to The Bestseller Experiment podcast and every single author they interview says it’s important to write every day. Some days that might mean doing research, other days it might be just thinking about your story or your characters. I had a good four month stretch of writing every day and hopefully I’ll get back on track as I start making revisions to my second book (and maybe starting a third!). I recently started a Facebook group called Every Damn Day Writers for writers who want help staying accountable and inspired to write every day. Feel free to join us if you’re in the same boat.
Pitching an Agent, Individual Sessions
One of the most valuable parts of these writing conferences is the opportunity to meet with and pitch an agent. There’s an extra cost associated with it, but it’s well worth it as long as the agent represents the genre you’re writing in.
When you pitch an agent via email, you send them a query letter that goes into their virtual slush pile. I’ll go into much more detail on query letters in a later post, but it’s a standardized letter that you use to tell a prospective agent about your work and yourself.
When you pitch an agent in person, it’s usually much more causal. You introduce yourself and tell them about your book. It’s good to know in advance what you’re going to tell them, but it shouldn’t feel like you memorized the blurb copy on the back of your book.
Because I hadn’t even heard of a query letter until two weeks before the conference, I decided to use my 10 minute session a bit differently. I explained my newbie status and asked the agent I met with for feedback on my query letter. It ended up being a great discussion and she not only helped me make my query letter stronger, but she asked me to send her the full manuscript!
In the end, she unfortunately felt that my manuscript was too similar to one of her current clients so she passed, which is a nice way of saying it was a rejection. But like I learned at this conference (and from experience), there’s a lot of rejection in this process and the only way to get through it is to keep going.
So that’s what I’m doing.
Coming soon to Chicago!
The Writer’s Digest is bringing their conference to Chicago on June 24th. The theme of the conference is still how to get published, but there are a lot more sessions offered throughout the day, including some on the craft of writing, which I’m looking forward to.
You can learn more and sign up here.