Letters from the Real World: Confessions of an AWP Virgin

By Cait Reynolds

I went to my first writing conference this week. I was shocked.

Now, in my perilously ill-spent and ill-advised youth, I was a dot com girl. I did marketing for technology companies, and I went to some of the biggest, glitziest tradeshows around.

I saw booths that recreated German beer gartens, complete with busty frauleins and beer. I saw booths that had virtual reality rides (in the interest of research and relationship-building, of course). I know that my tradeshow budget was often larger than the entire operating budget (including salaries) of entire college departments.

Going to AWP ’14, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was still surprised by the lackadaisical feel of the entire conference. I’m not saying that was a bad thing, just that it was so completely alien to anything I’d ever experienced in terms of tradeshows before.

Then again, perhaps that was the issue. I was looking for a tradeshow and not the ‘conference’ that this event actually was. Then again, I was kind of confused as to why all those journals and publishers were there. Being the pragmatic chick that I am, I was trying to figure out what the business aim of exhibiting at AWP was.

I confess that I’m still confused. Small journals weren’t looking to be bought by bigger journals. Everybody was selling books, back issues and subscriptions, but it seemed that they were selling them to other writers and editors of indie publishers and journals. I guess if that’s your target audience, then exhibiting made sense. Still, you’d have to sell a lot of back issues to cover the cost of attending.

There were a lot of MFA programs. Now that I understood. Writers, budding writers and closet writers were all in attendance, and if you are looking for a focused target audience for MFA programs, than yes, this was totally the show to be at.

So, what was my purpose in attending the show? I had initially scheduled myself for a lot of the workshops, and there were a few people I had been talking to on Twitter that I wanted to meet with and just introduce myself to. I was there to learn, to soak everything in, to be the grasshopper.

Turns out, this grasshopper got busy with the hustle. I couldn’t help myself. I am actually quite an introverted person, and I need a reason to barge in and introduce myself to strangers. Therefore, I slipped into my old marketing ways, and I ended up selling myself and getting work. It became a game, almost, to see if I could figure out the particular journal’s hook and find out how I fit in and what I could contribute. I got addicted to it. Success is addictive.

I am coming home with a bunch of writing requests, and I am raring to go and get down to business with them. While literary fiction and creative nonfiction are not my primary business right now, like any good professional, I’m looking to expand my skill set and resume experience so that eventually, should I need or want to, I can use this groundwork I’m laying to move into other genres or get wider attention for my work.

I definitely felt a little bit like a fish out of water at this conference. There were not that many romance writers, and certainly very few people I encountered were inculcated with the same burn and churn business mentality that drives romance publishing.

One of the workshops I went to talked about how to promote your book after publication. One panelist suggested book festivals. Not to be snarky, but who goes to book festivals? To be brutally honest, I’ve never even heard of book festivals. I’m looking for a tipping point for sales, and to me that is about reaching non-writers and selling to non-writers.

The other suggestion from the workshop was to get an author website and an email address that you checked regularly. Wow. Really? Um, 2010 called and wants their author marketing workshop back.

The lack of urgency was particularly stunning in two areas: publishers embracing e-formats for their books and journals, and authors embracing marketing and business as part of the profession. For all that I lack in literary fiction credentials and am a babe in the woods of author marketing, I looked like a wizened sensei compared to these people!

Let’s not even talk about the fashion sense here. I’m still recovering from the beard-wielding flannel-wearers and the women in flowing pants with stylish orthopedic shoes and chunky jewelry.

Attending this conference was definitely the right thing to do. Everything about it gave me a sense of topography and where I am on the map of my publishing career. It also reassured me that I was right to upgrade from the old-fashioned magnetic compass of just putting books out there to the new digital GPS of having an author marketing platform.

Will I go again next year? I’m not sure. I think I’m actually going to do the mature, professional thing of waiting and seeing where I’m at in my career by the end of this year. Will I go to any other shows this year? I might, provided they are different enough from AWP to constitute a valid learning experience for me…and provided that I continue to maintain a fabulous wardrobe that avoids orthopedic clogs and linen tunics.

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