Ether for Authors: Looking for AWP’s Leadership

In What's the Buzz by Porter Anderson

Table of Contents

  1. Looking for AWP’s Leadership: Who’s Laughing Now?
  2. Looking for AWP’s’ Way Forward: Who’s Producing?
  3. Battle Lines: SFWA Stares Down Random House
  4. Howey Gets a Decent Photo at Last
  5. Nate Thayer’s Bigger Adventure
  6. “Boys Started Showing Up, Asking To Write”
  7. EndlessConferences
  8. Last Gas: A Nash-ing of Teeth

Looking for AWP’s Leadership: Who’s Laughing Now?

 

Look for our board members at the conference. They are eager to speak with you!

BOSTON, Massachusetts: Those lines, inclusive of the exclamation point, appear in a happy-blue copy block on the board of directors display. Page 11 of the AWP Conference Program book.

Steve Heller

I’ll bet my $98 in Boston cab fares that AWP president Steve Heller, who sits at Antioch University in LA, may not be all that eager to speak with many of us.

Nor do I think the members of his board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) looked forward to finding themselves in a Sheraton elevator with you, if you were among the estimated 11,000 people in Boston for what we hashed out as #AWP13 in more than 18,000 tweets. (See for yourself: Here is the stats page of the Epilogger I created on the conference.)

Did you spot a board member during the March 6-9 conference?

Did you find that board member “eager to speak with you!” as exclaimed?

“I don’t think they even read the surveys,” said an exhausted young woman from Austin to me on Saturday. We shared a cab from the decrepit Park Plaza hotel, sliding through Boston’s endless slush to the soulless Hynes Convention Center.

It was the third and final day of the wretchedly produced 2013 AWP Conference.

This young woman, in her sixth year at AWP, was lugging a huge box of stuff back to one of the hundreds of ineffective, hapless tables of the conference’s book fair. She was trying to get her book stands and table tents into a shipment headed back to Texas, having found no takers in the “two-too-many book fair rooms,” as my Publishing Perspectives colleague David Duhr referred to the bi-level AWP Book Fair.

Duhr’s satiric pieces are here:

David Duhr

Duhr can turn a phrase with the best of us. And those who staggered through the conference with us found a lot of laughs in his articles.

But it falls to me to do something more serious here today. Laughter is no longer the best medicine for this woefully overrated and ill-devised event.

I’m hardly immune to the joys of ribbing AWP. In fact, I’ve adopted for myself the phrase “shady digital cousin,” based on a particularly ridiculous line in the description of a session called “The Dying, Essential Art of the Interview,” presented by David Everett, Ron Capps, and William Loizeaux.

But while laughing at academic paranoia that claims “digital is killing everything,” as one attendee put it, I’ve heard from colleagues and friends at the conference a deepening chorus of real trouble.

Last year in Chicago, the physical over-crowding of the Palmer House setting of AWP was so overwhelming that little else was even thinkable. We were fighting for air, unable to get an overview of what was happening on the ground.

The main lobby of Boston's Hynes Center

In AWP’s defense, I did get some direct communication back when I pointed out that some aspects of the conference had been strictly dangerous. There were too many people for the venue, hallways, staircases, and elevators choked with the crowds between sessions.

AWP’s messages to me promised more space this year in the Hynes Convention Center on Boylston. True to their word, the main public spaces were, in fact, much roomier, even if that meant spending most of the conferences on escalators in that “toilet” environment Duhr describes. Porcelain echoes aside, this was an improvement, and I want to say that clearly and gratefully.

The Hynes is like a massive bank crossed with a courthouse. I kept thinking I’d be required to sit on one of the benches built into the corridors’ walls until called for jury duty. But it isa roomier and thus safer venue, they came through on that point. Ironically, however, the added space meant a chance to get a higher view of what’s going wrong with AWP. And it’s time the organization’s governance live up to its promise and start speaking with us. Here is the problem, in brief:

  • AWP is not in the business of producing a great conference.
  • It is in the business of promoting and selling college and university creative writing programs.

The result is a problem that gets bigger each year as the attendance figures mount by about a thousand folks annually, as we get the figures from George Mason, where AWP is seated.


When I say “promoting and selling” those campus programs, what do I mean?

Think of something called MFA-Con. That’s what AWP is. Even the most esoteric panel discussion of great authors famous for going through grocery-store doors sideways is, in fact, a poster for an MA or MFA program. There is a big, big campus-based industry here. It is an industry frequently charged with wasting students’ money. (The efficacy of an advanced degree in creative writing is one of those things we’ll never prove “for a fact.”) And it is utterly dependent on attracting strongly talented and fiercely motivated, paying students to its programs.

How many programs? The leadership of AWP represents what their site brags is “nearly 50,000 writers, 500 college and university creative writing programs, and 125 writers’ conferences and centers.” I’m not criticizing the academic fundament of this thing from the outside. I have both an MA and an MFA, myself. And I spent a lot of time during the conference, in fact, speaking with representatives of a PhD program I find very attractive.

Patrick Ross got this shot of street work outside the Hynes Center in Boston during AWP.

But I’m no recent graduate of anything. There are some 30 years of journalism between me and the last diploma. And that gives me, campus bug that I’ve been in parts of my life, a less ivy-green understanding of what’s going on here. The first thing that must change is the haughty remove in which the AWP leadership seems to want to operate. “Eager to speak with you!” assertions, aside, it doesn’t look that way, doesn’t feel that way, doesn’t seem possible when, year after year, AWP is assailed with the kind of profound complaints that are rightly leveled at them.

It’s hard to excuse the awful production that is the centerpiece of AWP wants to raise a $25 million endowment to sustain. $25 million. Yes. Have you taken a moment to look over the organization’s 2010 to 2020 Strategic Plan (PDF download)? You’ll find that endowment is under the warm-and-fuzzy heading “How will we know when we’ve succeeded?” Here’s how AWP thinks it will recognize success:

When the conference is the preeminent annual gathering for writers, teachers, and publishers of contemporary writing When there is an affiliated, non-academic AWP organization in every state When AWP enjoys a $25 million endowment When AWP operates a powerful online literary community When holders of the MFA who have strong records of publication receive equity with their scholarly peers in hiring, promotion, tenure, salary, and benefits When recently established programs meet the standards outlined in our hallmarks When AWP produces regular comprehensive stratified surveys of writers and writing programs, conferences, and centers When AWP utilizes the survey data in reports to membership, in balanced scorecards for each board committee, and in the development of new policies and projects

The Strategic Plan for this non-profit also lists “Five Goals 2010-2020”:

  • Promote Excellence in the Teaching of Writing
  • Establish a Robust Online Literary Community
  • Expand and Improve AWP’s Core Services—this is where the conference is mentioned in a clause that stipulates “membership services, publications, literary awards and competitions, conference and bookfair, statistical analysis of our field, and advocacy for high professional standards in the teaching of writing”
  • Strengthen Governance
  • Build a Development Program

When I say the conference exists to “promote” these campus programs which form the institutional (and driving) membership of AWP, I mean this: When you go to a faculty reading at the conference? Those faculty members are like foreign politicians. They are there to play back to their campuses the news that they performed at the big confab. This is one of the ways they burnish their personal standings in the departments at home, shoring up justification for their salary lines and/or tenure, and, ostensibly, carrying their universities’ banners into the field.

The Hynes Center's largest space, here waiting for an afternoon reading for thousands from Don DeLillo.

When you wonder why major speakers turn up with no PowerPoint, no visuals of any kind, to stand disorganized and ill-prepared at dark podiums in badly lit rooms with no riser so they can’t be seen by any but the first couple of rows, and read something they might have scratched out on the plane to Boston?—it’s because what they actually do at the conference has little real bearing on their and/or AWP’s interests. At least that’s how it’s playing out nowadays. As long as they can be credited for what will be assumed by the campus-back-home to have been a “fine showing” at the “big conference,” they’ve got what they needed, all expenses paid.

And so, when I write, as I did in Writing on the Ether as the conference in Boston began, about the astonishing imbalance of women’s issues session to men’s (23 sessions for women’s issues, one for men’s issues), that’s reflective not necessarily of bias at George Mason where the proposals are selected, but of what the member institutions put forward to stage. AWP is locked into the service of its institutional members. And they are running roughshod over the interests and needs of the individual members. The individual members—called writers, you’ll remember:

  • Are herded into vast halls to hear accomplished writers read (presented, mind you, by sponsoring campus programs)
  • Are left to fight their way through badly marked halls with too little signage for the privilege of cramming into packed rooms to hear panelists they can’t see and sometimes can’t hear
  • Are funneled through the endless channels of the bookfair, which has almost as little meaning after 10 minutes as a boat show (in fact, I’d prefer the boat show if it had some Vespoli rowing shells in it)
  • Are treated, in a phrase, like college kids. In the derogatory sense.

There are people who waited four hours for the conference credentials they’d pre-paid months in advance. There are people who were shut out of sessions presented by their own MFA programs because the rooms are so strangely assigned to various events.

 

Duhr, at a moment in his second article in which he dropped the humor, got in touch with a very potent reality. I ran into this, too. He writes:

I spent most of Day 2 wandering around the two-too-many book fair rooms, asking people why they’ve come to this event. The majority, after thinking for a moment, replied with some version of “I just don’t know.”

Never mind his reference to the fact that AWP’s arrangement of the bookfair spaces (three exhibition halls) meant that the booths on the second floor got much less traffic than the first-floor booths. Think about that “I just don’t know” line. It was everywhere at the conference.

I’m in a fortunate position because I’m beholden to no one and no entity at AWP.

In fact, I was able to say, point-blank, to the leaders of the biggest campus sponsor, Bath Spa University, that they deserve much better. (I’ll be writing more about Bath Spa Uni, a compelling story from a source as remarkable as the Roman springs that give Bath its name in the West Country of England.)

I was able to escape — to dinner with friends and colleagues, to some of the receptions that ring the conference each year. Most notably, I enjoyed the good offices of the non-profit Grub Street program that overlooks the Boston Common and trains some 2,000 writers a year in Boston, it was a pleasure to be their guest and I’m continually impressed with what Eve Bridburg and her group are doing. I enjoyed chances to speak with the NEA’s Ira Silverberg, Amy Stolls, and Eleanor Steele (whose presentation did have visuals and was terrific). I had a chance to welcome author Emily St. John Mandel home from her Australian tour. Virginia Quarterly Review’s Jane Friedman and I had a pleasurably useful dinner meeting, something we try to do each time we’re in the same conference venue’s Ether.

But I’m an exception, in a rare situation. Let me play back a couple of short excerpts for you from posts and articles starting to appear in the aftermath of the conference.

In one of the three exhibition halls housing hundreds of tables and "booths" for the AWP Bookfair

From Patrick Ross, a senior communications official with the Department of Commerce in Washington and, himself, an MFA student, we have, for example, at least six posts relative to his experience. You can find them here. Ross is not only a government official but also a journalist. Like me, he tries to measure his commentary. This is a voice you can trust. I want you to read some short snippets from his posts on AWP here, and I urge you to look at his writes in their entirety.

AWP likes to brag about being the largest literary conference in North America. Maybe that doesn’t make it the best. The highlight of my day on Friday? A stimulating conversation with a first-time attendee and fiction writer I met. How did we meet? After fleeing the Bookfair floor for the first time, I went to the Sheraton Hotel bar and ordered a martini…The only way she and I could meet was to actually leave the conference.

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At a noon panel…It got more crowded…people squatted on every inch of floor, standing against the walls, crammed in door frames. Hey AWP, why does this happen every year with you? Book bigger rooms!

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The second time I ventured into the Bookfair on Friday I did so because I was locked out of a panel discussion featuring my Vermont College of Fine Arts mentor Sue William Silverman. Why? The room had reached capacity. A VCFA alum and a VCFA faculty member stood outside with me in frustration. This has happened with regularity to attendees here. I just managed to get into one session Thursday that maxed out, and sat on the center aisle floor with us three wide in the gap. This despite their being about fifteen to twenty sessions per time block, far more than one could possibly choose from.

A professor based in the UK was aghast at the conditions in which the conference is produced, and the paucity of sheer production value in the session settings, saying that AWP “gives these people nothing for their money.”

The cost, of course, is why you can find students six to a hotel room. We’re almost always in an expensive city fighting awful winter weather. And most such students don’t know what a real conference looks like. They won’t have been to O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change or its superb Author (R)evolution Day, certainly, the top of the line, nor to Digital Book World, nor a Writer’s Digest Conference, like the New York event at which I’ll be teaching in April. This is most of these writers’ one experience of a conference. And, driven by the recruitment-and-promotional engine of AWP’s institutional basis, this is what they get.

So… 

 

Looking for AWP’s’ Way Forward: Who’s Producing?

Responsible, industry-aware production of an event of his magnitude doesn’t seem to be within the capability of even so large a consortium of campus programs as this. Maybe it’s time to spin the conference off into a separate production hub. One single example: As the conference sat in Boston, what is clearly the loudest, most potentially pivotal fight over author contracts caught fire and raged all around it. I’ll have more of this below. It’s the case of the Random House imprints now being refused by the Science Fiction Writers of America as appropriate markets for its membership because of perceived damaging clauses to writers. Virtually nothing of this furious, formative moment was being played back at the conference. And that’s flatly unacceptable. How can you have 11,000 writers gathered in one place and glide right past woods burning so brightly?

From left, authors Vanessa Veselka, Christopher Boucher, and Emily St. John Mandel, with moderator and Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson. Notice that the reasons we can see this panel in this room are two. (1) I stood up to take it. (2) The people in the front row are bending over, perhaps going into a decline.

Beyond the inadequacy of the physical arrangements, the organization is failing to connect its existence to that of the contemporary sea changes in the industry. Why can’t the central organizing body ask for elements it needs to put together a designed program? It’s clear that the sessions being proposed aren’t preparing commercially oriented students for the upended industry they’re going into. So when does the governance recognize that need and solicit the missing sessions?

If such a coordinated approach were in place, then the conference could be “tracked,” by which I mean an attendee could follow a selection of sessions that related to a focused approach—an orchestrated series of panels on the publication of contemporary poetry, or a sequence of sessions on the potentials of electronic literature, or a line of events on that almost entirely missing topic this year: self-publishing.

One of the attempted performance spaces inside a Bookfair area. Deliver your poem in Bedlam.

As it is, the AWP Conference and Bookfair is, for the average attendee, a disjointed, stressful, needlessly expensive, endlessly frustrating, and exhausting affair. The quality of what one person sees is a crap shoot among some 500 sessions. Happy yelps are everywhere, of course, even in the stony hallways of the Hynes. The resilience and ignorance of young people who don’t know what they’re not getting has carried AWP for many years. Grinning kids holding up their tote bags. #Cmonson. Many of us do know better. I wonder if Amazon.com, one of AWP’s prime contributors (as named in its 2010-2011 Annual Report), might not like to see a more coherent program come together at the conference. It was great to see Jon Fine again, Amazon’s excellent Director of Author and Publisher Relations. He was in Boston during the conference — his personal, avid interest in the work of Amazon’s beneficiaries is a major strength of his work in supporting our writing community, and it’s especially good that he’ll be involved in the Writer’s Digest Conference East in April, too.

I believe that Heller and his board members, all highly regarded, accomplished people, know their conference-goers deserve much better. And I’d bet they know, as we do, that it’s time to address the sorry state of AWP’s conference operation now, openly, as the not-for-profit, publicly indebted organization it is. The annual conference is its most expensive effort. In both 2010 and 2011, it showed a profit, per the latest Annual Report (PDF) offered on the site (Page 16 of this PDF). The conference cost $1.1 million to stage in 2010, and $1.2 million in 2011. It’s reported to have made made more in 2010—$355,752—than it did in 2011—$211,810. It would be good to see some 2012 figures.

The AWP 2013 Bookfair, one of two halls on first floor.

Running an overall reported budget of some $2.7 million in 2011, AWP needs to show all of us something that says it’s working in good faith to turn what is little better now than an intramural carnival into a conclave of substance, of instruction, and of collegial progress. It’s time to stop and reconsider how this gigantic festival is put together, who it’s benefitting, and how it might be raised to something worthier of its default position as the largest literary conference in North America. It’s time to question who’s producing it and to what end. And the responsibility to call out the administration of AWP probably lies with professional, working writers. As we’ll see in the next section of the Ether about the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s standoff with Random House, the community of authors is being called on today not only to learn new avenues and modes of work and career for itself, but also to form up into aggressive, activist positions in defense of the new central power in publishing; the author.

I am not convinced that AWP’s Heller and company fully grasp the implications or importance of that new central power. I’d like to see the AWP board prove me wrong.

It’s time for AWP’s leadership to stop hiding behind glib “eager to speak with you!” palaver of its publicity materials and start talking about the problem its conference has become.

We’re waiting to hear them so eagerly speak with us (!).

Back to Table of Contents

Battle Lines: SFWA Stares Down Random House

As part of their adaptive strategy, some big publishers are offering digital-only contracts. Thomas Nelson, Little Brown UK and Random House are three examples. I know a couple of authors who have entered into such contracts. Both were no advance and a 50/50 royalty split. The publishers offered an editor, publicist and all the prep work (cover design, formatting, etc.) However, these costs (which are at the sole discretion of the publisher) are borne by the author, deducted from the author’s cut of the revenue right off the top.

James Scott Bell

Author and instructor James Scott Bell’s summation of the growing furor over Random House imprint contracts is less encumbered than some with emotion. In the wryly headlined Field Report From the E-Book Revolution #3: The New Equilibrium, he writes:

Can the big publishers offer authors the “best opportunities” in the digital world? Is there some form of marketing they have that authors cannot replicate or surpass on their own? If there is, is it worth giving up a book for the “life of the copyright” (a term in one of the contracts) and half the net income?

That’s maybe the last civil, reasonably stated airing of the issue you might find. The moment seems to be getting only more contentious.

 

Two RH imprints now have been de-listed by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), declared inappropriate as markets for its 1,800 member-“authors, artists, and allied professionals” to engage. And the organization finds itself in a highly charged, sharply acrimonious exchange of views with the publisher.

The first of the RH imprints to be de-listed is named, ironically, Hydra. Describing the no-advance, author-pays-the=costs contract Hydra put forward, Victoria Strauss at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Writer Beware column writes in Second-Class Contracts? Deal Terms at Random House’s Hydra Imprint:

It seems to me that digital imprints require authors to embrace the limitations of digital publishing, without providing any of the offsetting advantages that are available to digital self-publishers–namely, control over format and pricing, and the freedom of not being tied to a restrictive contract. Meanwhile, the publisher can push books into a growing marketplace at a much lower cost than with a conventional imprint, and reap the profits.

John Scalzi

Author John Scalzi, currently president of the SFWA, has been far less reserved in his commentary. In Note to SF/F Writers: Random House’s Hydra Imprint Has Appallingly Bad Contract Terms, he writes:

This is a horrendously bad deal and if you are ever offered something like it, you should run away as fast as your legs or other conveyances will carry you.

Concern over the Hydra contract has precipitated the de-listing of the imprint for the author-membership of SFWA.

And that, in turn, has drawn an open letter from Random House. A story without byline at Publishers WeeklyRandom House Responds to SFWA Slamming Its Hydra Imprint, sums it up well:

In a letter to the SFWA, Random House’s digital publishing director Allison Dobson said that while it respects the organization’s stance “we strongly disagree with it, and wish you had contacted us before you published your posts.” The letter went on to say that Hydra “offers a different–but potentially lucrative–publishing model for authors: a profit share,” and that “as with every business partnership, there are specific costs associated with bringing a book successfully to market, and we state them very straightforwardly and transparently in our author agreements.”

Victoria Strauss

And then, the defining moment. In perhaps the most significant move of the sequence yet, the SFWA established this as what is probably the most open, formal power struggle mounted yet between the new entrepreneurial-author community and the staggered legacy publishing industry: The SFWA not only didn’t blink; it fired back in SFWA Response to Hydra Letter:

Dear Ms. Dobson:

Thank you for your letter regarding Random House and Hydra, and your interest in speaking with us.

Unfortunately, there is very little to discuss. SFWA has determined to its own satisfaction that Hydra does not meet our minimum standards for a qualifying market, as its contract does not offer an advance. Additionally, your attempt to shift to the author costs customarily borne by the publisher is, simply, outrageous and egregious. The first of these things alone would disqualify Hydra as a qualifying market. It is the second of these things, however, that causes us to believe that Hydra intends to act in a predatory manner towards authors, and in particular toward newer authors who may not have the experience to recognize the extent to which your contract is beyond the pale of standard publishing practices.

The letter goes on to inform Dobson that Scalzi has obtained a copy of the contract offered by Hydra’s sister imprint, Alibi, and that the SFWA has, in fact, de-listed Alibi, as well. Ante upped. Why? Scalzi again is relentlessly disparaging, this time in a new write, A Contract From Alibi, a fast classic in the peculiarly ribald terms with which writers talk to each other about their business. The caps are his:

There is no way I can conceive of any minimally competent literary agent looking at this contract without wanting to immediately set it on fire and then piss on the ashes. So much would have to be changed in this contract that I don’t see a competent agent bothering; they’d just send it back with the note “please send me a contract written by someone who is not currently mainlining Nyquil.”

A third way to put it: THIS IS A HORRIBLE AWFUL TERRIBLE APPALLING DISGUSTING CONTRACT WHICH IS BAD AND NO WRITER SHOULD SIGN IT EVER.

Plenty of serious, material criticism is bolted onto Scalzi’s rant. Among elements the writers see as most heinous in these contracts is the signing over of all rights for the full term of copyright. It’s tantamount to a terrifying phrase I remember well from contracts in another industry: “in perpetuity throughout the universe.”

Scalzi writes:

The contract notes that Alibi takes the exclusive right to print, publish, sell and license the contracted work, in every possible format, in whole or in part, in every language, in the entire world, for the full term of copyright…This is an egregious rights grab, breathtaking in its scope.

It’s hard to see how Random House can come out of this one with its pants anywhere but around its ankles.

Suw Charman-Anderson’s headline at Forbes is flatly instructive: Beware Random House’s Ebook Imprints. It’s probably not the place of a news outlet to so color its titular take on such an issue. But there you go: it just happened.

Richard Lea’s write for The Guardian is more appropriately pitched: Random House accused of ‘predatory’ contracts for new ebook imprint.

In his roundup of several news items, Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch bundles the developing story well, hard-lining the issues to help bring us back to the point, not the palaver:

After some questions were raised on the Writer Beware blog about the boilerplate contracts for Random House’s new digital-only genre imprints Alibi, Hydra, Flirt, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America has told members in an email reported on by DBW.com that Hydra “is not an approved market” and “has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable.” Among the stated objections are that “Hydra contracts are also for the life-of-copyright and include both primary and subsidiary rights” and that the contracts “require authors to pay — through deductions from royalties due the authors – for the normal costs of doing business that should be borne by the publisher.” (The Writer Beware post had cited “deal terms” they had seen that included “out of pocket title set up costs” for ebook editions and a “sales, marketing, and publicity fee” of 10% of net sales, and a charge of “6% of gross sales revenue to cover freight and warehousing costs” for print editions (if any).

Nothing in the digital dynamic tends to drive cars over the cliff as definitively as we might wish, unfortunately. This kind of contretemps frequently plays out in erratic, coming-and-going ways, lurching along, maybe imprint to imprint, publisher to publisher, writers’ organization to organization.

But short of honking off the Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women industry, Random House cannot have run afoul of a more participatory and involved sector of newly empowered writers than the sci-fi and fantasy team. Mark it in your memory, Ethernaut. This will have been a key turning point. Back to Table of Contents

 

Howey Gets a Decent Photo at Last

Speaking of science fiction and fantasy:

It’s a sign of how far the balance of power has shifted toward authors in the new digital publishing landscape. Self-published titles made up 25% of the top-selling books on Amazon last year. Four independent authors have sold more than a million Kindle copies of their books, and 23 have sold more than 250,000, according to Amazon. Publishing houses that once ignored independent authors are now furiously courting them.

A thumbnail excerpt of the Getty Images photo the Wall Street Journal has used of author Hugh Howey in South Florida

And it’s a sign that Hugh Howey is now achieving heroic status that the Wall Street Journal, in the person of Alexandra Alter, has written Sci-Fi’s Underground Hit (nice headline for those silos in Wool, get it?). The U.S. hardcover edition of the first book (the omnibus of novellas 1-5) from Simon & Schuster — the publisher that blinked and settled for print-only rights to Howey’s growing trilogy — releases Tuesday (March 12). Alter writes:

“We would have preferred to own all the rights, but that wasn’t going to happen,” says Simon & Schuster President and Publisher Jonathan Karp. “It was a very unusual circumstance.”

 

Oh, but not as unusual as Karp might have us think. Alter:

In the past year, more than 60 independent authors have landed contracts with traditional publishers. Several won seven-figure advances. A handful have negotiated deals that allow them to continue selling e-books on their own, including romance writers Bella Andre and Colleen Hoover, who have each sold more than a million copies of their books.

Mike Sodal is the illustrator behind the Wall Street Journal's contribution to the conceptualizations of a Wool silo, the central facility in Hugh Howey's Wool trilogy.

And she’s clear on what’s being watched this week as Howey’s hardcover hits:

When “Wool” hits bookstores next Tuesday, publishing industry insiders will be watching the experiment closely. Simon & Schuster will release a $15 paperback and a $26 hardcover simultaneously, competing directly against Mr. Howey’s digital edition, which costs $5.99.

 

 

I’m perfectly happy with my Kindle edition, but I’ll be watching, too, to see if S&S’ bid for the print side pans out. Alter:

The publisher is sending Mr. Howey on an 11-city tour, and has planned a bold six-figure marketing campaign that will capitalize on the film news and online reviews. They are releasing the book simultaneously in hardcover and paperback in an attempt to capture both the library and first-edition collectors market as well as retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. Much of the online marketing will fall to Mr. Howey, who has proved himself to be adept at digital self promotion. He’s still selling 50,000 e-books a month.

But meanwhile, the WSJ story comes with—finally—a really good shot of Howey, seated in the tropical climes of his Floridian home.

And it’s a strong writeup from Alter, complete with details on how Howey surpassed author George R.R. Martin, and a fine silo artist’s conception Mike Sodal for the WSJ. Back to Table of Contents

Nate Thayer’s Bigger Adventure

In Writing on the Ether — When There Is No Good Answer — I went over the difficult case of online journalism as highlighted by Nate Thayer’s displeasure at being asked to work for no money.

Nate Thayer

Now, I’d like to call your attention to an article from Mathew Ingram for paidContentPlagiarism and the link: How the web makes attribution easier — and more complicated.

Nate Thayer, the writer who touched off a debate this week about how freelancers are compensated, found himself embroiled in another controversy on Friday when he was accused of plagiarizing large parts of the piece that The Atlantic wanted him to re-work for free. In his defence, Thayer and his editor said links weren’t included in the original version due to an editing error, a mistake they later corrected. This failed to satisfy some of the writer’s critics, however, including the author of the piece that Thayer based some of his reporting on.

Mathew Ingram

One good issue deserves another, and here we see the question of how journalists are to make a living in the online age morph right on into the question of how journalists are to adequately use the Internet’s networking apparatus to properly offer credit and attribution where it’s due.

As with so many elements of change in the industry! the industry! some of us seem to have no problem whatever knowing what’s right and what’s wrong. Others, not so much. As Ingram writes:

If nothing else, the incident helps reinforce just how blurry the line is between plagiarism and sloppy attribution — and also how the the web makes it easier to provide attribution via hyperlinks, but at the same time makes it harder to define what is plagiarism or content theft and what isn’t.

And finally, that “no good answer” stuff I was doing last Thursday? Just comes  around again.

Here’s Ingram’s deft finish to Thayer’s latest bump on the ride:

It seems that when it comes to making use of someone else’s content, linking as a way of providing attribution and credit is enough — except when it isn’t.

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“Boys Started Showing Up, Asking To Write”

When I started Dream Keepers, my writing program for at-risk children in the city, I envisioned working with girls. And for the first two years I did. But then the program transitioned to the library—and boys started showing up, asking to write. (At first I thought it was the treats we served—and it may have been—but even now when we don’t have goodies, the boys keep coming.)

Rochelle Melander

This is Rochelle Melander in a guest post at K.M. Weiland’s great site for authors who’d like to get a handle on the mind of an editor. In 5 Things Children Teach Us About Writing, Melander has a section called “Accept What Shows Up.” And in it, she describes how boys picked up on her program and want to participate. My interest in bringing this to your attention is in offering yet another counter to these ruinous things you hear said about guys not wanting to be involved in reading or writing. I believe this is not true. And I believe the general disparagement of men by the wider writing community is hurting both our community and our potential audience.

 

Melander helps us stop lying about this in her piece when she writes:

At one after-school library program, when it was raining so hard I thought no one would show up, nine boys bounced into the room, dripping wet and eager to write. At another event, a boy whom the teacher described as a slower learner, wrote an amazing poem with juicy words.

The overall points of her article involve much more than just her experiences in finding boys so ready to participate. As she tells us:

Oddly, I found my writing community when I started a writing group for young people in my city. The lessons they’ve taught me about writing and life fuel my work every day.

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EndlessConferences

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term.

April 5 New York City Writer’s Digest Conference East Boot CampJoin me in a participatory special-focus workshop, Public Speaking for Writers: How To Turn Your Readings Into Book Sales. Learn what a public reading is really about; what an audience wants from an author at a reading and how to give it to them; how to choose what to read, rehearse it, prep your listeners (it’s not about “setting the scene”), and how to present yourself to your audience. Bring a couple of pages of a manuscript, we’re going to get you up on your feet for this one.  (Note: The Writer’s Digest Conference Boot Camp sessions have an additional charge, check for details.) Discount: Writer’s Digest is allowing those of us speaking at the conference to offer $50 off to registrants using the code WDSPEAKER.

April 5-7 New York City Writer’s Digest Conference East: Author James Scott Bell, who knows the value of coffee, gives the opening keynote address this year at “one of the most popular writing and publishing conference in the U.S. Writer’s Digest Conference 2013 is coming back to New York at the Sheraton New York Hotel. Whether you are developing an interest in the craft of writing, seeking an agent or editor and publisher for your work, or a veteran hoping to keep current on the latest and best insights into reaching a broader readership, Writer’s Digest Conference is the the best event of its kind on the East Coast.” (This conference’s hashtag is #WDCE. I’ve started an Epilogger account on it, which you might find useful in keeping up with materials in one spot.) Discount: Writer’s Digest is allowing those of us speaking at the conference to offer $50 off to registrants using the code WDSPEAKER.

April 5-7 New York City Screenwriters World Conference EastLed by Jeanne Bowerman, this is the East Coast iteration of the Los Angeles conference held last fall. Complete with a “pitch slam” like that of the Writer’s Digest conference, Screenwriters World is, the material tells us, “your chance to meet and learn from professionals in every aspect of the entertainment industry. Our panels, sessions, and workshops are hosted by leading experts that can help you improve your craft, find and agent, and sell it to the people who make movies and television shows. You’ll receive real feedback from successful screenwriters, agents, execs, actors, filmmakers and more.” (This conference’s hashtag is #SWCE. I’ve started an Epilogger account on it,  which you might find useful in keeping up with materials in one spot.)

April 17 New York City paidContent Live: Riding the Transformation of the Media IndustryBrisk and bracing, last year’s paidContent Live conference was efficient, engaging, and enlightening, not least for the chance to see many of the talented journalists of Om Malik’s GigaOM/paidContent team work onstage — Laura Hazard Owen, Mathew Ingram, Jeff John Roberts, Robert Andrews, Ernie Sander, et al. Among speakers listed for this year’s busy day: Jonah Peretti, Jason Pontin, Chris Mohney, Erik Martin, David Karp, Mark Johnson, Aria Haghighi, Matt Galligan, Rachel Chou, Lewis D’Vorkin, John Borthwick, Andrew Sullivan, Jon Steinberg, Alan Rusbridger, Evan Ratliff, and, of course, Dominique Raccah and Michael Tamblyn.

May 2-5 Oxford, Mississippi Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference & Workshops: Susan Cushman follows her Memphis Creative Nonfiction confab with this year’s gathering at the shrine. Among faculty members: Neil White, Leigh Feldman, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Beth Ann Fennelly, Bob Guccione Jr. and Lee Martin. Pre-conference workshops or just the creature itself, your choice.

May 3-5 Boston The Muse & the Marketplace 2013 is a production of Eve Bridburg’s fast-rising non-profit Grub Street program. Its material tells us that organizers plan more than “110 craft and publishing sessions led by top-notch authors, editors, agents and publicists from around the country. The Manuscript Mart, the very popular and effective one-on-one manuscript reviews with agents and editors, will also span three days. We expect nearly 800 writers and publishing professionals to attend, while maintaining the conference’s wonderfully intimate, ‘grubby’ energy that we love.” Back to Table of Contents

Last Gas: A Nash-ing of Teeth

The social thinker Clay Shirky has a rule named after him: “An institution will tend to try to preserve the problems to which it is a solution.”…Look at all the crap out there, says the editor, you need me to fix it, sort it, curate it.

Richard Nash

Typically agile of thought and quick of wit, Richard Nash proved to be among the livelier panelists at AWP.

In a panel titled “Books in the Age of Reader-Centric Publishing” on Friday (March 8), he easily ducked and wove his way through the conversation, driving Matvei Yankelevich of Ugly Duckling Presse to throw up his hands.

“I think it may be a problem that I don’t understand what you mean by reader-centric,” Yankelevich said to Nash.

“We are creating context as we talk about books now…it’s not happening in a void,” Nash said to Yankelevich.

It was easily one of the more animated and spirited panels I found at the conference, made worthwhile by the fact that Nash, as usual, was unafraid of registering serious disagreement with his fellows.

Now, in a long-form piece, On the business of literature for VQR, Nash brings his experience from Soft Skull Press, Red Lemonade, Small Demons and elsewhere to bear on what he describes as a paucity of “sociohistorical awareness.”

That it should be so with the Internet is unsurprising, prone as so many popular tech commentators are to triumphalist or progressive teleologies—one technology replacing another, one company killing another, IBM’s dominance unquestioned, then Microsoft’s unquestionable, followed in turn by AOL, MySpace, Facebook, etc.

As in most things for Nash, however, the truth is far more nuanced.

Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.” Current accounts of publishing have the industry about as imperiled as the book, and the presumption is that if we lose publishing, we lose good books. Yet what we have right now is a system that produces great literature in spite of itself.

And off he goes, setting right that problem of our collective lack of sociohistorical awareness.

Kingdoms come and presses roll, and Nash stacks up through time, the modulations in what it is a writer does, what it is that “publishing” means, what it is we think we’re talking about…until “The economics of the analog reproduction of culture lead inexorably to the exhibitionist. It is far better, economically, to have the fewest number of authors, the fewest titles.”

Well, we have only big numbers of authors, of course. And so, on Nash goes, knocking down myths on all sides.

Publishing has no particular ability to discern what is good or not, what is successful or not. This is true not just at the level of predicting commercial success, but also at predicting critical success.

 

And eventually:

Selling a book, print or digital, turns out to be far from the only way to generate revenue from all the remarkable cultural activity that goes into the creation and dissemination of literature and ideas…Recall the average feted poet who makes more money at a weekend visiting-writer gig than her royalties are likely to earn her in an entire year. You begin to realize that the business of literature is the business of making culture, not just the business of manufacturing bound books.

His stopping point is not unlike the velvet-gloved fist he offers fellow panelists who cross him at a bloated conference.

Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is…The business of literature is blowing shit up.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com. More at PorterAnderson.com

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About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.