books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Literary Agents: An Endangered Species?

Publishing keeps zooming into the future:

  • This week, J.K. Rowling announced she’s self-publishing the Harry Potter ebooks, and as one agent tweeted “why [does] she need a publisher anymore? I predict Pottermore becomes her sole publisher.”
  • On the same day, Publishers Lunch announced yet another agent, Sarah Dickman, is leaving agenting for the greener pastures of social media, following the parade led by former agents Nathan Bransford and Colleen Lindsay.  
  • Also this week, John Locke became the first million-selling self-published Kindle author.
  • Every day brings more reports of self-pubbed authors making good money without the help of agents or publishers.
  • Self-published e-book authors are being approached by foreign rights buyers and film companies (and making lucrative, 100% agent-free deals.)
  • Brick-and-mortar bookstores are heading for extinction faster than anybody predicted. This means the agent/big-corporate-publisher/big-corporate-store paradigm is also slouching off to dodoland.
  • The world’s biggest online bookstore is also becoming a major publisher. Not only is Amazon’s Kindle Direct the biggest producer of ebooks, but they’ll soon be competing directly with traditional publishers when they launch their romance line, Montlake, in September. Sci-fi, mystery, and thriller imprints will follow. Amazon-the-publisher makes offers directly to its own top-selling self-pubbed ebook authors. No agent-gatekeeper required.
  • For a while now, the six big publishing houses have been paying smaller and smaller advances for fewer and fewer titles. This is the era of the predatory multinational corporation and the Big Six—mostly European-owned—are not exceptions. Many no longer trust an agent’s judgment as to whether a book is good or not—and don’t care. Nothing matters but sales numbers. Note: there's more on this at Eric's Pimp my Novel blog today (Monday, June 27) in a blogpost titled "the Vanishing Advance."


So is the Literary Agent about to become extinct?

Some of us might do some secret gloating at the thought. If you’ve spent decades knocking on agents’ doors, only to be told your work is too quirky/unremarkable, dark/light, similar/different, and “not right for us at this time,” it’s kind of nice to get your brain around this wonderful new fact: you don’t need an agent to be a successful writer any more.

But most agents aren’t leaving the profession. They’re retrenching, redefining their roles, and trying out innovative concepts: some smart; some not so much.

Here are some of the new tactics:

1) Providing flat fee services for self-publishers: 

  • Marketing: Laurie McLean of Larsen-Pomada has a side business called Agent Savant.com . For $500 she’ll help you through all the steps of marketing your self-pubbed book. I think this is kind of brilliant. You get the expertise of a literary agent for a flat, upfront fee.
  • E-coding: Another side business some agents are providing is formatting e-books for self-publishing in all the various platforms. Meredith Barnes of Lowenstein Associates offers this service. Nice to hire somebody in the business who knows how it all works. 
Bottom line for authors? Good.
This is win/win if you can afford them.

2) Only taking new clients with proven sales numbers.

  • Closing offices to queries. I recently read that only 1% of new books are by debut authors now, so a lot of agents aren’t bothering to plow through mountains of slush to find authors the big publishers won’t look at anyway.
  • Trolling the Kindle lists and offering representation to top-selling self-pubbers. I talked about this last week, and I’m hearing of more news of it all the time. I expect more agencies to follow this trend.
  • Poaching other agents’ clients. I’ve seen at least one agency that actually posts on their website they only want writers who already have representation. They suggest querying to get a better deal. Maybe 15 minutes could save you 15%, like with that insurance lizard on TV. At least they seem to have the lizard part right.

Bottom line for authors? Bad.
Authors are judged on their ability to market, not their writing. And as for the poaching—would you really want to be represented by somebody that slimy?
  
3) Adding draconian clauses to contracts.

Here’s the problem with the Kindle-trollers. Sometimes the contracts they offer the starry-eyed self-publisher are seriously predatory. Here’s some of the stuff they’re doing:

  • Demanding a percentage not just of your sales but of your COPYRIGHT. This means they will own part of your book for your entire lifetime—and, in the U.S., for 70 years after you die.
  • Making authors sign away rights to characters—so you can never write about those characters again without paying the agent a fee.
  • Adding “In perpetuity” riders: you must pay them even if you move to another agency. (I guess this is supposed to be anti-lizard protection.) This means you’ll pay 30% in agent fees: 15% to this agency, and 15% to the agency that actually sells your books.
  • Making authors sign away a percentage of EVERYTHING THEY’VE EVER WRITTEN OR WILL EVER WRITE. I don’t know if that gives them the right to ferret out your grade-school poems about “What Flag Day Means to Me” and publish them, but it probably does.
  • Demanding that you cease all your self-publishing operations immediately, even books they don’t want to represent.
Always run a contract by a lawyer. Big, well-known agencies can be as guilty of nasty dealings as smaller, obscure ones. There are a lot more horror stories at The Passive Voice and The Business Rusch. If you’re at the point in your career where you’re looking for an agent, they are a must-read.

If an agency won’t negotiate on these clauses, walk away. If this agent wants you, a more ethical one will, too (YES, THERE ARE STILL ETHICAL AGENTS!!) 

Bottom line for authors? Seriously sucky.

4) Becoming publishers

There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth earlier this year when the Wylie agency began publishing e-books of their clients’ backlist instead of selling the e-rights to the Big Six. Many people in the industry have called this a conflict of interest and a predatory practice.

Kris Rusch of the Business Rusch Blog is still frantic about it: “If your agent has become an e-publisher, fire that agent now. That agent is not working in your best interest and never will again (if they ever did). Your agent has left the agenting business and has become a publisher, so your agent now has a conflict of interest.”

And according to agent Meredith Barnes, some agencies are indeed charging way too much for the service—especially when they pay themselves 15% to “represent” the client to themselves as “publishers” who get another hefty cut—often over 50%.

But the Association of Author’s Agents refused to condemn it, saying: “There are certain activities that our code of conduct explicitly prohibits and the practice of agencies offering their authors a way to market their books directly to the reader is not one of them.”

The Andrea Brown Agency made headlines this week when they joined in the epublishing fray. But Pay it Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is repped by Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown, couldn’t be happier. CRH has a number of titles that have not sold to US publishers, although they sell well in the UK and other foreign markets. If the Big Six had their way, none of these books would ever be available to the majority of U.S. readers.

But as of this week, Second Hand Heart is now available on Kindle for $2.99, published by the Andrea Brown Agency.

And Catherine is NOT paying the agency the usual 15%. Just a very reasonable publisher’s fee—less than most of us would pay if we got the books coded and designed ourselves.

Bottom line for authors?: Depends entirely on the ethics of the agency.

Personally, do I still want an agent? I sure do. I think it’s worth 15% of possible earnings to have a savvy advocate in my corner.

But are all agents savvy advocates these days? Nope. Especially the ones who are running scared or trying to cling to 20th century ways.

This means we have to screen agents as carefully as they screen us.

For more on the role of agents in the 21st century, read agent Kristin Nelson blogpost on the subject. She warns writers not to sign “in perpetuity” agreements and cautions against other unethical practices.

But in this new publishing world, writers don’t need agents anywhere near as much as agents need writers. Be smart and protect yourself.

And remember there are still ways to be traditionally published without an agent. Michelle Davidson Argyle wrote a great blog series on this a couple of weeks ago. She’s very happy with a small publisher, as are many successful authors I know.

This just in: On Monday, June 27, the Dystel and Goderich agency announced its foray into the digital world: they will represent their clients who want to e-publish some of their titles. Again this is a slightly slippery slope, because some may accuse them of pushing clients into self-publishing. But they will walk that line by leaving the decisions up to the client. Here's what they said--

"What we are going to do is to facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first or perhaps simply set aside the current book and move on to the next. We will charge a 15% commission for our services in helping them project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work.  We will continue to negotiate all agreements that may ensue as a result of e-publishing, try to place subsidiary rights where applicable, collect monies and review statements to make sure the author is being paid.  In short, we will continue to be agents and do the myriad things that agents do."

What about you, fellow scriveners? Are you still hoping to land that agent? Self-publish? Find a cozy small press to call home? Have you heard any horror stories of predatory agents and nasty contracts?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

E-Book as Query Part 2: 10 Tips for Spotting Bogus and Predatory Agents.

As I reported last month, the self-published e-book is fast becoming the query of choice for many New York literary agencies.

Rather than slog through mountains of slush, agents are closing their offices to queries and shopping for new clients in the Kindle bestseller lists.

Why not? That’s where they’ll find unrepresented authors with proven sales numbers, which is what more and more publishers require. Successful indie authors know how to write what sells, plus they’re savvy marketers—a win/win for agents and editors alike.

Whether it’s a win for writers remains to be seen.

Big name, prestigious agencies have taken to Kindle-trolling. Noah Lukeman (author of The First Five Pages) made deals for two formerly self-pubbed first-time authors last month, although he’s been closed to queries for some time. And über-agency Trident Media Group has signed at least five indies this year.

These agencies seem especially interested in the international bestseller lists—probably hoping to reel in the next Steig Larsson or J. K. Rowling. (And it helps that UK agents are showing little interest in Kindle sales—UK publishing apparently lives in some time-warp Dickensian reality.)

So it’s a heady time for successful indie authors.

Imagine: here’s you, first-time author, who no doubt self-pubbed after years of rejection—having a nice cuppa at home in Claxby Pluckacre, Firozabad, or even here in San Luis Obispo, CA—when the phone rings and it’s someone from NEW YORK. It’s that call: the offer of a contract and soon-to-come book deal (with maybe a tantalizing hint of a film option.) Opportunity has knocked: fame and fortune and glory to follow. Your dream has come true.

Only thing is: this person may not actually be an agent. Not the kind who sells books to real publishers.

Just the way agents see gold in them thar Kindle hills, so do the scammers.  

The words “I’m calling from New York” are dazzling, and most international writers don’t know the difference between a prestigious agency in Manhattan or some con-person calling from the 24-hour Denny’s in Rochester (New York is a big state.) And even a lot of North Americans can be temporarily blinded by the idea of a New York agent.

So beware. There’s a big chance this call will never lead to seeing that dreamed-of print book sitting in your local bookstore window.

It might be best to go back and finish your tea before making any decisions.

Here are some tips to keep yourself grounded if/when you get that call.

1) Be skeptical if your Amazon sales are not huge. Real agents are looking for superstars, but scammers are just going down the list looking for pigeons.

2) Ask what they like about the book. Agents read books before they make offers. A scammer will only quote blurb copy.

3) Ask where they plan to submit your work. If they are unable to name names and particular imprints, be wary. They may not be crooks, but they’re also not likely to be good agents. An effective agent will personally know editors that are looking for your type of book.

4) Find out how long they’ve been in the business. Nothing wrong with new agents—in fact they’re often the best—because they need clients and they’re hungry. But you want to make sure they’re well-connected. If they never interned or worked at an established agency or publishing house, they probably aren’t going to be able to sell your book.

5) NEVER agree to pay up-front fees, even if the fees are just for “copying and mailing.” This is a recycled scam from the 1990s. Bogus agencies would sign thousands of clients and charge them each $250 or more per quarter for “copying and mailing.” But they never made a sale. Some unsuspecting writers lost as much as $3,000 before they caught on.

NB: In the old days, some smaller agencies did legitimately charge “mailing fees” or “copying/processing fees,” (after they put your book out on submission) but everything’s done electronically now, so this is 100% bogus in the electronic age, at least on this side of the pond.

6) Be wary of agency websites with “testimonials” from happy clients. This isn’t done in the publishing business. Agencies do not advertise for clients. A good agency’s “testimonials” are their sales. (And if you see obvious grammatical mistakes on the website, run. Some bogus agencies seem to use bad grammar on purpose, maybe to weed out the savvier writers.) 

7) Check client lists. If there’s no client page on their website, you know you're in scammer-land. Agents don’t keep client lists “confidential.”  If they represent a literary star, they’ll scream it from the rooftops.

8) Check recent sales. Even if somebody in the agency can claim to have represented Stephen King or Nora Roberts, if they haven’t made a sale in the past few years, they won’t have the contacts to sell your book today. There's a fast turn-over in editorial departments.

9) Pay attention to where their clients have been published. If they’re all at the same handful of presses—none of which you’ve ever heard of—this is very likely a vanity publishing outfit. This is a common publishing scam these days: the agent “sells” your book to one of several “imprints” of a publishing company—which he owns—charging an agent’s cut of 15%. Then (his) press will charge you to print the book, or require you to buy a certain number of copies at inflated prices.

10) Check them out with respected writers’ watchdog groups:

    

However, as I said above, not all agents who contact a successful indie author will be bogus. They may very well be big-time, big-name industry superstars.

So you can put down the tea and pop open the champagne, right?

Uh, maybe not.

Some Kindle-trolling agents are asking that indie e-publishers take their books off Amazon as soon as they sign--that’s ALL of your books, not just the one the agent wants to rep.

This means you have to give up your income and remove your briskly-selling, successful books from the marketplace while the agent shops your new manuscript around.

And that may take years.

If you’ve ever talked to an author whose work is on submission, you’ll know this can be a soul-crushingly long, slow, and miserable process, with no guarantees. I’ve been through it with three different agents. And not one of them made a sale.

Meanwhile, you’ve lost all your sales momentum and brand recognition. If you finally do get a contract with a Big 6 publisher, your marketing plan will have to start over at square one when your book comes out—two to four years from now. (Yes, the publishing industry still moves at a horse-and-buggy pace.) Plus you’ll have a much more expensive product to sell.

And chances are there will be no bookstore window to put it in. Bookstores are dying off  faster than any of us expected.

The marketing thing is no big deal for the agent or publisher: writers are expected to do all our own marketing these days—or so they keep telling us.

But it’s going to be a big deal for you.

So even if an agent is for real, I strongly suggest you resist any requests to remove all your inventory from the marketplace. Maybe some agents can make a hiatus in your career worthwhile, but be aware they’re asking you to take a huge gamble.

Most of us are stuck in the old paradigm of “I need an agent to be a REAL writer.” (I’ve got to admit I still send off the occasional query myself after I’ve polished up a new ms--ever the deluded optimist.)  But this is a whole new publishing universe, and agents are still trying to figure out how they fit into it.

But if you’re an indie author with good sales, you fit in just fine, and you might want to stay right where you are. As exciting as it feels to be wooed by the people who once spurned you, don’t welcome all comers with hugs and kisses.

When former Big Six editor Ruth Harris guest blogged here a couple of weeks ago, she advised all authors to have a lawyer look at any agency contract before signing. I was surprised at her lack of trust, but since then, I've discovered that many of today’s agency contracts have become downright predatory. They can leave you destitute and enslaved, while the agent owns your book and even your characters--for lifetimes to come. Scary stuff.

I’ll be blogging more on the subject of some of the dangerous new agent practices over the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

Do any of you know Kindle writers who have been approached by agents? How would you react if it happened to you? Do you have any scam-agent horror stories?

Announcement: My friend and mentor Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward and so many other fantastic, award-winning books, is offering one of her limited intensive workshops on the weekend of June 25th at her home in Cambria CA. It will concentrate on dialogue. This is a fantastic chance to work one-on-one with a great American author (which looks great in your query letter!) Contact her at ryanhyde (at) cryanhyde (dot) com.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How to Blog: Seventeen Tips from Elizabeth S. Craig

Today we’re lucky enough to have a guest blogpost from social media guru and mystery writer, Elizabeth S. Craig, who writes the Memphis-set Riley Adams mysteries. Elizabeth’s blog has been voted one of the Writer’s Digest’s Top 101 Sites for Writers for two years in a row, so she knows what she’s talking about.

So here we’ve got seventeen (count them: 17!) great tips for making your blog successful. You’ll notice that, ahem, I’ve now added #2—a posting schedule--to my own blog here. I agree with pretty much all of these, especially #3: PLEASE have a follow button, or visitors will never find you again, and #6: a white font on a black background is going to drive away about half your traffic before they finish reading your post.

17 Tips for a Great Writing Blog—by Elizabeth S. Craig     

Starting a blog can feel overwhelming.  The internet is brimming with writing blogs—how can you find readers when everyone has their own blog?  Or, if you already have a blog, you might wonder how to get more readers or broaden your platform.

I currently follow more than 2,000 blogs, and I’ve found that some blogs are definitely easier to follow and visit than others.  Here are seventeen tips for your writing blog—for either setting it up for the first time or to use as a checklist for your already-established blog. 

Important elements for your blog:

1) Bio:  Your bio is one of the most important things on your site.  Blogs are all about developing online relationships and readers like to know a little about you, first.  What do you write?  What’s your name (or your pen name)?  It’s also nice to have a picture with your bio. If you’re shy about having your picture online, you could substitute a book cover or avatar that fits the image you want to convey.  Fiction Groupie and 99% both have nice posts on writing your bio.

2) Your posting schedule:  If you don’t post every day (and you don’t have to), consider putting your posting schedule in your sidebar.  For readers who don’t use an automatically updating Google Reader, this will let them know when to expect a new post from you.

3) A way to belong:  People like to feel like they belong to a group. You could either add a Networked Blogs widget or the Google Follower widget for your blog readers to click on and join your blog as an official follower.

4) How to contact you: Post an email address.  There have been many times when I’ve wanted to contact a blogger and couldn’t find an email address anywhere…and Twitter isn’t great for sending longer messages.  You can always type your email address in your sidebar as _________ (at)____(dot)com so the bots won’t grab your email address and spam you.

5) A sales pitch—Have a book out?  Make sure to have your book cover hyperlinked to a bookstore for sales.

6) An easy design for reading: I wince when I come across a black background blog with white lettering.  Although it doesn’t bother everyone, it definitely bothers enough potential readers for bloggers to avoid that design scheme.  A light-colored background with black letters is easy for most people to read.

7) A way to subscribe to your updates—Make sure that your blog has a way for people to easily receive your updates (without having to check your blog several times a day to see if there’s a new post.)  Some readers still prefer receiving posts by email, so make sure that option is available.  Feature an RSS feed button prominently in your sidebar with the word subscribe underneath. RSS is basically just an easy way for someone to add you to their blog reader in just a couple of clicks. (Blogger now has a “subscribe by e-mail” widget, too--ed.)

8) Connect to Facebook or Twitter: If you’re already on Facebook or Twitter, add buttons to your sidebar to increase interaction with your blog readers.

9) Share buttons: Make it easy to share your posts.  With a share button under each post, your blog readers can quickly share your article with friends via different social media apps.

10) Blogroll:  It’s a great idea to have a blogroll in your sidebar featuring the blogs of both readers who’ve visited your blog, and blogs that you enjoy reading. Not only is this a great way to direct traffic to your blogging friends’ sites (and possibly get them to return the favor by listing your blog in their blogroll), but it’s also helpful to writers who are looking for other writing blogs to follow.

Tips for getting blog readers:

1) Visit blogs—The most important thing you can do to attract readers to your blog is to read others’ blogs.  When you leave thoughtful comments on other writers’ blogs, they’ll be encouraged to visit yours, too.  After a while, you may end up with many blogs that you visit in a day. Google Reader is a great, free tool to help you know when your friends’ blogs have updated, and to organize those blogs. I love reading writing blogs. If I had my way, I wouldn’t do any work and I’d just read blogs. Obviously, this isn’t a good way to get books written. So I organize blog subscriptions into days of the week and then read those blogs those days. This way I can be sure to read everyone at least some of the time and still get some work done. :)

2) Have consistent posting: Being consistent in your posting can really help bring visitors to your site.  Don’t launch your new blog until you have a backlog of posts and an idea journal for future posts.  Although it’s best to have an emergency supply of posts before you start your blog, it’s easy to do a marathon blog-writing session and build up a backlog of posts at any time.

3) Guest post—be a host and a guest: Hosting a guest on your blog not only provides you with fresh content, it also brings your guest’s readers to your site. And being a guest on others’ blogs is another great way to find new readers.

4) Respond to comments:  Don’t make your commenters feel like their comments are going into a black hole—keep the comments section a place for conversation. Sometimes the comment section can actually be more interesting than the post itself.

5) Keep your posts short. Or, make them easier to skim by offering bulleted points.  None of us have as much time as we’d like.

6) Use post titles that describe the post’s content. You’ll have much better results if you list your specific topic du jour instead of writing titles that are too clever for the search engines to drive traffic your way.

7) Have good content. At the end of the day, providing interesting content is the best way to find and keep readers. What should you write about on your writing blog? Some writers focus only on craft, some touch a lot on writing motivation and fitting writing into their day.  Some focus on writing process and challenges.  Some focus on writing-related topics some days and different areas of interest for others—I’ve seen Wordless Wednesday memes where the blogger posts an interesting picture each Wednesday. 
One thing that does seem to work out best is writing about topics that most writers can relate to—keeping it universal instead of focusing only on your individual story.  Everybody gets stuck from time to time, trying to think of topics.  There are a few posts I’ve found very helpful when I’ve brainstormed new post ideas:  this one from The Abundance Blog, this one from Copyblogger, and this one from the Traffic Generation Café.

If you’re looking for a straight-shooting run-down of dos and don’ts for the new blogger, you can’t go wrong with Anne’s tips on her post, 7 Dos and 7 Don’ts for New Bloggers. (aw shucks--ed.)

Have any blog tips that I’ve missed?  What do you like to see when you visit a blog?  And—thanks so much to Anne for hosting me today!  I appreciate it.

Bio:  Elizabeth’s latest book, Finger Lickin’ Dead , released June 7th.  Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.
Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers

Twitter: @elizabethscraig

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Writer’s Conferences—Are They Relevant in the Internet Age?

The summer writers’ conference season is upon us, and wordsmiths everywhere are packing up laptops, manuscripts, and literary dreams to head for those idyllic retreats where they can polish their craft, learn the latest publishing trends, and hang with successful authors, agents and publishers—for a hefty fee.

At some of the bigger conferences they’ll even get a chance to book a personal pitch session with an agent—for yet another fee.

But are expensive conferences a shortcut to publishing success? Are they still relevant? What role does the writers’ conference have in this fast-changing publishing world?  

Most agents and editors do recommend them. Many suggest attending a conference or two before even sending a query. However, most also admit they don’t discover many new clients through conferences.

Especially when the pitch comes from the next stall in the ladies’ room. Don’t do this. There’s a hilarious video on how not to pitch at a conference on Janet Reid’s blog this week.

Besides, a lot of writers are bypassing the endless, frustrating agent-hunt system these days and going indie—either with small presses (once called indie) or self-e-publishing (the new definition of indie.) They’re totally over pitching to agents.

So is a conference worth your time and money in the electronic age?

Yes and no. As Sherrie Petersen said on her blog yesterday, all the information you can get at a conference is available in the blogosphere. I agree with her that if money is tight, you should save your money, read blogs, and spend your time finishing that manuscript.

On the other hand, I love going to conferences and I always learn a lot. As a veteran of over a dozen, I can say each one was worthwhile for me—but not because they helped me land an agent or publisher.

What I did get was solid instruction in how the industry works. I also received some painful reality checks and a couple of ego boosts. But for me, the major benefit was networking with fellow writers. We scriveners are solitary animals, so connecting with other members of our species in the real world helps keep us healthy.

But a word of warning: if you’re thinking about attending a conference, choose carefully. Writers’ Conferences come in all shapes and sizes—and one size does not fit all. 

Here are the basic categories you’ll have to choose from:

1) Scenic-Destination Literary Retreats

These can last a week or two and are the Maseratis of conferences. Held in lush resorts and exotic locales, they offer workshops from literary superstars and MFA professors. The emphasis is on Literature with a capital “L”, and applicants can be screened with Ivy League selectiveness.  

But some turn out to be more like fantasy camps for Scott and Zelda wannabes than training grounds for professional writers. I’ve heard it’s cleaned up its act, but the oldest and most revered of the “selective” conferences, Vermont’s Bread Loaf—which rejects 78% of applicants—is also known as “Bed Loaf” for a reason. In a famous 2001 article for the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead said, “The triple compulsions of Bread Loaf have, traditionally, been getting published, getting drunk, and getting laid.”

These big, luxurious conferences seem to be dying out in our belt-tightening age. The grand old Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference—where I got to stroll on gorgeous beaches between lectures by the likes of Charles Schultz and Ray Bradbury—is no more.

If you ever have a chance to go one of these, and money is no object, you’ll probably have a memorable time. I’ve heard the one in San Miguel de Allende is great. (And they promise hardly anybody gets beheaded by drug cartels.)

But will these fabulous vacations help you get a book published? Probably not.

2) National Genre Organization Conferences

These usually run three to five days and serve as the annual meetings of national organizations for writers of genre fiction like Mystery, SciFi/Fantasy, Christian, Children’s, Romance, etc. With professional organizations like RWA, MWA, SCBWI, SFWA you have to become a member of the organization to attend. Others, like Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime are for readers and fans as well as writers. Some are moveable feasts that set up camp in a different large city each year and others, like Washington D.C.’s Malice Domestic, have a permanent home.  

These aren’t cheap, especially if you don’t happen to live in the city where they’re held, but they often provide a crash course in the publishing business in your particular area of the market. You’ll also have a chance to meet agents who are specifically looking for books in your genre.

One of the most important aspects of these national conferences is the awards. Being a finalist for an Anthony, Agatha, Nebula, or RITA award can make a career.

3) The Intensive Big-City Weekend Conference

More and more conferences are of this type—equally emphasizing “craft, commerce, and community” as the San Francisco Writer’s Conference advertises. Like the genre conferences, these are usually held in big city hotels.

The conferences themselves will probably cost between $500-$800, but on top of that you may have pitch-session and extra-workshop fees—and of course, your hotel bill. (And the tab from the bar from the night you tried to schmooze that agent.)

These can be exhausting and stressful—agent Betsy Lerner says she usually walks away from a conference “quasi-suicidal”—but you’ll meet fascinating people, learn a lot about the business, and the agent you treated to all those shots of single malt may remember you when you send your query.

4) Marketing Seminars

You’re not going to find any get-in-touch-with-your-muse writing workshops here. It's all about selling.

a) Agent pitch-a-thons. New York’s Backspace Agent-Author Seminar is the pioneer in this cut-to-the-chase style conference, where you get “two full days of small-group workshops and panels with ONLY literary agents on the program.” At $500+, it’s a little pricey for just two days, but if you’re shopping for an agent, this is the place to meet them up close and personal.

b) Indie publishers’ conferences. New conferences that address the marketing needs of self-publishers are now springing up. The Brave New Trail Conference in San Diego is a two-day conference aimed exclusively at helping e-book self-publishers learn the basics of internet marketing. I expect a lot more of these conferences to be sprouting all over the country. They look like great places to network with other indies to swap reviews and get notice for your e-books.

c) “Boot Camp” sales-motivation talks. Some marketing conferences are mostly marathon sales pitches by direct marketers. These may have “boot camp” or “university” or “summit” in their name. They tend to be less like writers’ workshops and more like Amway Conventions or “Become a Real Estate Zillionaire with No Money Down” lectures. Their websites are often flashy and loud—and their approach is hard-core/hard-sell.

             BEWARE. I recommend staying away from the "c" type.

             Humor writer DC Stanfa said this about one of the “publicity summits” she attended, “After a night of pep talks with other wannabees…I added an M.B.S.A. to my resume: A Masters in Bullshit Administration: tuition price $6,000.” That’s right: $6000. In her hilarious piece in the Erma Bombeck Conference newsletter Ms. Stanfa listed some other things she learned at the “summit”:

  • The money is in your email list (database).
  • We have some really good lists you can buy.
  • There is a proven formula to become a bestseller on Amazon.
  • We can sign you up for the program, at a nice discount. 
  • When it comes to pitching, it helps if you have some balls.
  • We have some to spare (for an additional cost).
 If a conference charges more than a few hundred dollars a day—outside of room and board—run. These people give ridiculous expectations of how much money can be made selling books. They promise to teach how to hook agents, editors, and readers—but surprise: the fish on the line here is YOU.

6) The Literary Agency-sponsored Conference

Some agencies are now conducting their own conferences, like the Unicorn Conference in Connecticut, sponsored by Black Hawk Literary Agency, and the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshops, run by the Andrea Brown Agency. They are usually only a day or so in length and can be valuable in helping you polish your manuscript and query. Because they’re short, they can give you a lot of bang for your buck and may give you an “in” with that agency.

7) The Regional Weekend Conference

These are often held at colleges during vacation breaks. Most are friendlier to beginners than the big city conferences. There may be a few New York agents or editors in attendance, but most of the faculty will come from closer to home

These can be genre-specific, like the Erma Bombeck conference I mentioned above. It’s a three-day conference for humor writers held at Dayton University in Ohio. RWA, SCBWI, Sisters in Crime, and many other professional organizations also hold local conferences,

These shorter, less intense conferences are usually cheaper (especially if they’re close enough to home for you to commute.) They’re also smaller and less stressful.

Only a handful of agents and editors may attend, but you’ll only be competing with a couple of hundred other writers for their attention, so your odds will be about the same for meeting faculty as a big city conference.

I have a fondness for these, because I’ve been attending our local Central Coast Writers’ Conference—held at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo—for ten or so years. This year I’m on the faculty, teaching “social media for the anti-social.” Yes, that’s a live link, and so is this. A little shameless self-promotion.

This year’s CCWC offers a balance between traditional workshops for developing craft, and up-to-the-minute info on the big changes happening in our industry. Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords will be there, as well as acquisitions editors from several small presses, agent Laurie McLean, plus novelists, screenwriters, playwrights & poets. Also, a number of us will be teaching social networking skills and Internet marketing. At under $140 for earlybirds, it happens to be an especially good deal, and it meshes with the free Central Coast Book and Author Festival the next day.

But I’m not telling you all to fly out to California to hear me. Look around your home state and you’ll probably find a dozen or so similar conferences that might be well worth your while. They’ll only cost a couple of hundred bucks or less and you’ll come away with renewed energy, industry savvy, and a few more friends in your address book.

So should you choose a big name writer’s conference or a local one?

Blogger Nina Badzin offered some great advice after attending the prestigious Muse and the Marketplace Conference in Boston this year:

 “I could get some of the same instructional experiences out of a local conference with the added benefit of making new connections closer to home. I’m so happy I went to The Muse, but any conferences in the near future will have to be local for reasons of budget and practicality.”

For a full rundown on writer’s conferences, check the Shaw Guides for a comprehensive list.

What about you, scriveners? Have you attended any writers’ conferences? Do you feel you got your money’s worth? Anybody feel “quasi-suicidal” afterward?
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I’m guesting today on the Mark Williams International blog: How Blogging Turned my Career Around, Improved my Life and Left my Hair Bouncy and Shiny. (OK, I’m lying about the hair.)

Coming Next Week: Elizabeth S. Craig , social media guru and author of the Riley Adams mysteries is going to guest here on June 12th. Her blog “Mystery Writing is Murder” has been voted one of Writer’s Digest’s top 101 sites for two years. She’ll give a lot of really great tips on successful blogging.