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Weekly Wrap: How We Make Use of Conferences

by Susan Henderson on February 23, 2007

Thank you to Enrico Casarosa for what came in the mail. Gorgeous! I’ll share soon when things aren’t so crazy. And Lance, we’re all thinking about you in Rock Creek.

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Okay. The Question of the Week concerned the AWP conference. AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and each year they have a conference in a different city, where writers and editors and publishers congregate. Not the big guns – not Random House and The New Yorker and those types – but the medium to small guys, like Ploughshares, Tin House, Other Press, and so on. And what do they do when they congregate and how useful is all of this? Well, it depends. What I can do is share my experience of attending the AWP conference in Vancouver, and maybe that will shed a little light.

When I went to AWP two years ago, I was the managing editor of a little literary magazine called Night Train. We paid some reasonable fee to have a table at this conference, and the senior and founding editor, Rusty Barnes, went, as well. If you’ve ever run a small literary magazine, you know that there is always the issue of a miniscule budget. So with Night Train covering the expense of two tickets to Canada, two hotel rooms, and the cost of getting several boxes of the magazine there, as well, we did not want to waste our chance to make something of this trip. What did we want to accomplish? Basically, we wanted more people to know of our magazine, and we hoped they’d find that it was better than the others. And maybe, rather than meeting more people who wanted to submit their stories and add to our workload, we’d actually meet people who wanted to subscribe or even help fund the magazine.

Now imagine a long and hopeful plane ride in which small-time editors feel important and feel as though their time in Canada will lead to a new level of glory in the business. Also, imagine that they have brought along two things they do not get paid to do – one, to write the novel that is never good enough to send out, and two, to read about 70 stories that have been submitted to the magazine that week for potential publication, though all of them will get rejection letters.

When I arrived in Canada, and waited in a customs line filled with hundreds of editors, I experienced what would be the beginning of my understanding that I am not really the introvert I always thought I was. In fact, I found that I was a closeted extrovert. And worse, later, when I told this to Mr. Henderson, I discovered that I was maybe the only one who ever believed I was shy.

Let the networking begin! In line, I chatted up editors, talked about Night Train, exchanged cards, and found that every editor there believed they were publishing “the best and edgiest fiction of our times.” We all looked slightly shocked and annoyed with each other when we said the names of our literary publications and heard each other say, “Hmm, I don’t know that one.” This theme is going to become increasingly important (and depressing) as my story of AWP continues

On to the conference. Now my focus, clearly, was on the bookfair portion of the conference, but when you sign in, you’re given a press-pass looking name tag and a catalogue of the most ridiculous number of overlapping panels. They had everything from panels of debut novelists talking about what they learned to readings by people I considered literary gods to absolutely trivial stuff that reminded me of joke Ph.D. dissertation topics. I moved right along to the bookfair.

Imagine a giant room, the size of a ballroom, and now make a mouse maze within that room, using folding tables, and on each table are books containing “the best, edgiest fiction of our times.” Say there are thirty rows and in each row there are 20 folding tables touching, and the tables that don’t fit into the ballroom are lining the hallway. Okay, and now I sit at table 400-something while editors and conference goers wind their way through the mouse maze. Here we go!

Rusty preferred to sit at the table and talk geeky deep-sixed literature with those who stopped to say hello, and I ventured out, visiting every single table to get the pulse of each editor and magazine. From a writer’s perspective, that was probably the most useful thing I did in Vancouver because right away you learn which magazines are arrogant and clique-y, which are run by stodgy or just-this-side-of-the-mental-institution editors, and which ones are compatible with your own style. Once I went to every table, I found myself making frequent return-trips to Agni, Post Road, Bloom, Ninth Letter, and CLMP because, frankly, some people are way more fun to hang out with than others.

The idea of standing out became secondary to enjoying time with people who share your passions. The other thing was to get the best swag without looking greedy. “Swag,” for those of you who’ve never gotten any, means the free things (rulers, clocks, t-shirts) given to you with hopes that you’ll remember a particular publication. My kids, for example, got One Story tattoos from the Vancouver AWP. That is swag.

I roomed with my good friend, Gail Siegel, and staying up talking and eating and being overwhelmed together was really the best of the trip. Because, by day two of the conference, I definitely began to experience this “We’re all going to die” feeling. And by that, I mean the overwhelming sense that everyone is a writer and no one is a reader, that our dreams of making a profit were stupid because we couldn’t even give the magazines away. And who reads these little publications? And what of the poor fools who are there to hand-sell their genius novels and will be lucky to sell five?

It was really really depressing, because as each person left the conference, you started to see piles of brand new books (the books we’d all given away in hopes of our publications and our writers being discovered) lying all around the trash bins in the lobby. People were dumping books on the way to the airport – and I’d do the same – and it felt bad in ways that were deep and lasting.

Also lasting were friendships, of course, but it’s a mixed bag, and it puts a visual on the uphill journey of the writer. Maybe for some of you, it’s better not to have that visual weighing down your hope and confidence, which are the things we absolutely must hold on to in order to keep going.

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Thanks to this week’s guest, Jeff Lependorf, who is the perfect blend of hopeful and practical in the world of indie publishing. And thank you to those who answered the Question of the Week: Gail Siegel, Robin Slick, Juliet, Carolyn Burns Bass, mikel k poet, Kim Chinquee, Lori Oliva, Terry, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Marcy, Daryl, Alexander Chee, bruce hoppe, and J.D. Smith.

Finally, if you’re going to AWP and you take some good pictures, I’m happy to post them.

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Jeffrey Lependorf

by Susan Henderson on February 21, 2007

I probably throw around the name of today’s guest more than any other. I’m thinking of starting my own indie publishing house. Who should I talk to about this? Jeff Lependorf. Is there a way to tell the legitimate small presses from the scams? Yes. Ask Jeff Lependorf. Is publishing poetry a futile effort? No. Ask Jeff Lependorf. We can’t seem to keep our literary magazine afloat. Lependorf. Quick!

Jeffrey Lependorf is the executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) as well as the executive director of Small Press Distribution (SPD). And I don’t know of a more knowledgeable advocate for literary and non-profit publishers. If you’re going to the AWP conference in Atlanta next week, be sure to say hello to Jeff. Or you can say hello right here, right now!

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An assortment of literary magazines.

Talk to me about the current state of publishing, as you see it. First with mainstream press and then with small, independent press.

Lots of ways to answer this question! All of publishing finds itself in something of a crisis: will most people chose to read a book or watch a DVD? The National Endowment for the Arts‘ “Reading at Risk” study indicates that literary reading is on the decline, particularly among younger readers. From the perspective of committed readers, more than 700,000 books appeared last year; even if we do already love to read and buy books, how do we sort through all of that? The publishing of a book…bringing a work from a writer to a reader…requires many steps through a labyrinth of entities well beyond the actual publisher, including distributors, wholesalers, booksellers, and a variety of marketing means and media that let readers know about a book. Readers are out there, and many of them want to read better books, but how do we reach those readers? All publishers face this same dilemma. Because most books find their way to readers through a single, giant marketplace, literary books face considerable challenges in competing for attention, and whether a press be large or small, commercial or non-profit, most of the books they produce will only have a chance of reaching readers if they do enter this highly competitive marketplace and make themselves known.

Because there are so many books, and because there are so many other things competing for the attention of potential readers, in some ways smaller presses may be better positioned these days to reach their potential readers and, within their own scale, to fare better in the marketplace. From a financial perspective, because there is less financial risk in publishing smaller print runs and marketing budgets tend to be smaller, smaller publishers can sometimes fare better in a competitive marketplace than their larger, commercial counterparts. Here’s why: books from the largest publishers generally exist unto themselves; a book sells because of the interest in that book, not because a particular house publishes it. With a small press, however, each publisher represents a particular, focused sensibility (it’s easy to talk about a “Copper Canyon” book or an “Ugly Duckling” book or a “Soft Skull” book), and readers in the know recognize that those “brands” mean something well beyond the size of a budget. Also, because the audiences for things like poetry, experimental fiction, works in translation, etc….the kinds of books most likely to be published by small publishers…often know each other (be it through reading/writing groups, blogs or online communities, MFA programs, etc.), “viral” or word-of-mouth marketing can be quite effective as these readers may be more likely to seek out the particular books and publishers that specifically serve their needs. One a small press identifies and reaches its community, that’s a community likely to remain loyal. And of course, a book that doesn’t fair well represents less of a financial loss. Small Press Distribution had a fantastic year, experiencing an impressive increase in book orders, and this reflects a healthy marketplace for small publishers, even given the many hurdles that must be traversed along the way.

2007 Small Press Month Poster

Define small press. What kind of budget and distribution are we talking about?

I prefer to “officially” use the term “independent literary publisher.” Some are very tiny, with budgets well under $10,000, who may produce only a title or two a year, and some have budgets well over a million dollars with catalogues boasting more than 75 titles a year. The great majority fall into the former category. What makes them unique is that they are mission-driven to publish literature (poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction), as opposed to bottom line-driven, and obviously they are not part of a larger conglomerate.

In what ways can CLMP and SPD help small press publications?

Both organizations help small publishers through the business of publishing. CLMP provides technical assistance and advocates on behalf of small publishers. Technical assistance can come in the form of one-on-one help, through workshops, publications, re-grants, or through a variety of activities that allow our community to use each other as resources. We help with things like non-profit or small business management, distribution, marketing, and fundraising. We advocate on behalf of the field to potential funders, and other sectors of the publishing ecosystem, and hold a number of public events, such as small press and literary magazine fairs, to raise the profile of independent literary publishers to readers. Small Press Distribution similarly serves independent literary publishers, primarily as the last remaining non-profit distributor of small press books. It’s through SPD that many of the books produced by our community physically find their way into readers hands. SPD also advocates on behalf of publishers through public programs and provides them with technical assistance to better maneuver the marketplace.

Houston, TX Literary Magazine and Small Press Fair (a sampling, before the buyers arrived)

You’ve talked before about the difference between printing a book or magazine and publishing one. What are the common mistakes folks make in thinking they’ve published something when they’ve merely printed it?

Simply put (perhaps this should be printed on my shirt by now”¦), as far as we’re concerned, until a book reaches a readers’ hands, it hasn’t really been published. “To Publish” means “to make public,” so that incorporates the full gamut of activities from editing to printing to marketing to distributing to bookselling, etc. Many publishers and writers make the mistake of thinking that the mere existence of a book constitutes publishing. It doesn’t! Potential readers are unlikely to buy a book if they’ve never heard of it or can’t find it in a bookstore (or online, etc.). Again, books exist in a sea of possibilities, and part of the publishing process is narrowing those possibilities for a particular reader. Not putting an emphasis on marketing is one common mistake (a similar misconception is that marketing requires a large budget), another is not paying attention to good design and layout (to many readers a book can really only be as good as its cover), and another is for the writer to not be actively involved in the process of getting a book out there.

If someone wants to start a literary magazine, what advice would you give them? And how about if someone wants to start a new indie publishing house? (Maybe “house” is a silly word to use.)

A good place to start would be to visit www.clmp.org, where there’s a treasure trove of basic information (such as a monograph called “How To Start a Magazine”). We’ve been helping small publishers through start up phases since 1967, so there are a multitude of wheels that don’t need re-inventing. Secondly, be clear on a focused mission. A common mistake is to simply want to publish good stuff; it’s much better to narrow that focus and be clear about exactly who your potential readers will likely be. You’ll get more attention and have a greater impact. Also, talk to as many other small publishers as you can. We’re a helpful and generous community, so take advantage of that…those of us who care about literature are all in this together. Finally, start modestly and then grow. Cash flow can be a major issue for start-ups (and in fact for publishers at any stage)…plan ahead and don’t over-project potential income; there may not be any for a while. Try to gather support and identify your audience first.

Flyer for panel discussion and poetry karaoke event as part of Hudson, NY Literary Magazine and Small Press Fair.

Thoughts on self-publishing and print-on-demand?

Self-publishing if done well can be terrific, but unfortunately it generally exists, as described above, more as mere printing. If you are an ace guerilla marketer, go for it, but if not, you’re probably far better off putting in the work to be published by an experienced press. They will have a catalogue, the work will be more likely to be reviewed, and most writers benefit from a professional editor, among the many things that a real publisher provides. Print-on-demand (POD), which is simply a way to print, gets better and better; in fact, to most eyes, when done well, it will be fairly indistinguishable from traditional offset printing. For many small publishers, particularly poetry publishers, POD provides a cost-effective means toward real publishing.

What plans do you have for AWP?

There are more independent literary publishers at AWP than at any other one place in the entire year. CLMP has a full roster of roundtables, panels, and workshops planned for independent literary publishers, including how to market experimental titles and how to develop a business plan. SPD will also be there representing hundred of publishers who can’t be there in person. I think the best aspect of the conference is a chance to meet each other and experience in person the wonderful scope of our community.

What are some ways publishers, editors and writers can take advantage of AWP?

The best thing to do is make sure that you meet each other…there’s no substitute for spending time with colleagues.

2006 Small Press Month poster

What are you reading these days?

I’m just finishing a book from Graywolf Press called The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story, by David Treuer, which I absolutely love; it somehow manages to be a good old-fashioned read and groundbreaking at the same time. I also just read The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography from Mode A/This Press, a collection of writings by San Francisco language poets that makes for a wonderful read through an important poetry movement by some unique voices that were a part of it. My favorite book of last year was one from Archipelago Press, called Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury, a stunningly beautiful novel in translation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a love letter to the art of storytelling.

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On another topic, those of you regulars who know and love the giant-hearted Lance Reynald, would you leave him a note to remind him how adored he is around here? Lance’s dad just died, and he has some business to sort out. Some of us come into the world with a host of supportive family members and others rely on the family they adopt along the way. Don’t underestimate how important you are to him.

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Question of the Week: AWP

by Susan Henderson on February 19, 2007

What do you know about the annual AWP conference? Have you gone in the past? Are you going this year?

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Wednesday, we’re hanging with Jeff Lependorf before he leaves for AWP. In my opinion, there is no greater champion of literature and indie presses. So, if you are a poet, a short story writer, a reader or an editor of a literary magazine, an author or a publisher of a small press, this is the most knowledgeable and influential person you can possibly know. He’s a good egg, and I hope you’ll be back to join the conversation.

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One last thing. Back in September, when I started LitPark, I kind of tricked my amazing O. Henry Award winning webmaster, Terry Bain, into giving the first interview. But it wasn’t really an interview. It was more of a public pestering, and I’ve decided to add a proper interview to his link. So click here and read the new (and also the old, if you want to) and remember to thank Terry for doing all the hard, technical work of keeping LitPark running.

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