Ether for Authors: AWP’s Boston Foray, B&N’s Travails, McEwan’s Doubts

In What's the Buzz by Porter Anderson

Table of Contents

  1. To Arms, Boston: AWP is Coming
  2. What Barnes & Noble’s Tra­vails May Mean. Or not.
  3. Litte’s Look at Life After Nook
  4. How Brightly Will the Tolino Shine?
  5. Craft: Chart­ing a Narrative
  6. Clash of the Conferences
  7. Last Gas: It’s Not Just You


To Arms, Boston: AWP is Coming

At roughly this time each year, the calendar on the North American continent plunges us into a fray known as AWP.

It stands for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. As in university programs.

Although its voluminous brochure copy never, ever says so, this is a college festival. It is the writing departments of our universities from sea to What’s-A-Tolino?-Shiny sea.

AWP calls itself “the largest literary conference in North America.” Some 11,000 are anticipated, I’m told, in and around the Hynes Convention Center in Boston this week. So dense are these growing appetites that last year in Chicago, it was hard to get something to eat at times during the conference. The area’s restaurants were simply overrun, inventories consumed in the hunger of the quest-academic.

The AWP 2013 Program Book online has 328 pages.

It’s impossible to explain to those who haven’t been to AWP before how hard it will be for them to attract any attention to their own faculty reading or panel discussion on one issue or another. There are thought to be more than 500 such events in the main three days — Thursday, Friday, Saturday — of the event. Here is Thusday’s listing of sessions. You’ll be scrolling for some time. These events are proposed by the various campus programs and are selected or rejected by the conference administration, which is seated at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

The event is held in a different city each year. Normally an extremely cold city at an extremely cold time of year. The huge southerly and warmer part of our nation’s topography appears to have no appeal whatever to the halls o’ frozen ivy.


A labyrinth of tables (called booths) forms the Book Fair, always a cavernous feature of this thing. The backpacked ones roam its miles of aisles, eyes glazed by the time they reach the D’s or the E’s of university presses and assorted parasitic companies shoving bookmarks, posters, refrigerator magnets, ballpoint pens, and T-shirts at the kids-who-would-not-be-called-kids. They may talk of Seamus Heaney, but they are, as people, very YA.

And tote bags. It is all about the tote bags.

This time of year, our general lament — the industry! the industry! — is replaced most truthfully by another cry: the cluelessness! the cluelessness! Writerly ambition in the world of campus programs seems rarely a thing of this year’s business upheavals or even last year’s screaming matches.

You can find a lovely, robust excitement among the collegiate attendees at AWP, graduates and undergraduates choking hallways to move from one session to another. The problem is the naïveté so frequently found in tandem with this excitement, ignorance rarely relieved by the sessions they attend.

One session on Saturday, for example, numbered S144 in the mystical designations of the program guide, promises to be about “Agents, Editors, and the State of Publishing.” In the event’s description, that “state of publishing” is defined by “the closing of Borders and the growing influence of Amazon.” These are the touchstones for these folks of “the state of publishing.” Borders closing. Amazon growing.

Jane Friedman

In her interview with Jerry Waxler at All the Write Stuff—ahead of her keynote address at The Write Stuff conference in Pennsylvania—Virginia Quarterly Review online and digital strategist and editor Jane Friedman describes where writing sees its key transition:

The biggest change by far is the growing voice and footprint of the self-publishing and e-publishing community, and the associated explosion of services for the independent author. While some of these services are much needed and welcome, it’s difficult for a new writer, without a history of experience, to distinguish between a service that’s worth her time or money, and one that is not… Also, there’s been a greater polarization of attitudes—or more strident attitudes—associated with the revolution…This creates the confusion for any writer walking into the current environment. Should you self-publish or traditionally publish?

Jerry Waxler

So, presented with thousands of writers and would-be writers at AWP, wouldn’t you want to look extensively at what is probably, as Friedman notes, the most essential effect of the digital dynamic?

The agent Rachelle Gardner writes in Author Rights and Responsibilities that an author has “the responsibility to educate yourself about your options” in terms of agency representation and what type of publishing you pursue.

So, wouldn’t AWP be the perfect forum in which to focus less on the esoteric vagaries of poetry and literary analysis and more on the options its young charges will face as soon as they step off the campus curb into the peculiar traffic patterns of publishing today?

Rachelle Gardner

AWP’s governance, presumably reflecting its campus-program membership, seems not to agree.

  • On Thursday at AWP, I count roughly some 175 sessions planned. The phrase “self-publishing” turns up in the descriptions of those sessions how many times? Zero.
  • On Friday, another 175 or so sessions. Mentions of “self-publishing?” Zero.
  • On Saturday, yet another 175 or so sessions. “Self-publishing?”—it’s mentioned. Once.

And even mentions of things “digital,” in fact, appear in only three sessions each on Thursday and Friday, of a total 350 sessions. On Saturday, I see five sessions with mentions of “digital,” my favorite being this line: “As the best way to gather writerly information, interviewing is being lost to its shady digital cousins.”

I hope you’ll consider me your “shady digital cousin,” won’t you?

So if not what’s going on in writing today, just what are they talking about, you might wonder, at AWP? A few session titles here:

  • “Women in Crime.” (They mean female writers who “build a crime series around a female protagonist,” apparently, not a roomful of lawbreaking ladies.)
  • “The Whole Megillah: The Jewish Experience in Children’s Books.”
  • “Lower Your Standards: William Stafford in the Workshop.” (“Overcoming writer’s block through lowered standards can help students become fluent practitioners.” Great.)
  • “Poets Out Loud Prize Series: A Reading.” (Because readings are so hard to pull off if they’re not Out Loud, don’t you agree?)
  • “Arab Women Writing in the 21st Century.”
  • Translating Slippery Dreamers: French Surrealist Poetry in the Hands of American Authors.”
  • “On Labor: Junior Women Faculty in Creative Writing Programs.”
  • “It Could Always Be Verse: Books in Verse for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers.”
  • “Women and The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.” (That’s Harold Bloom. 1973.)
  • “Progression by Digression: Multiple Narrative Lines in Creative Nonfiction.”
  • “What’s That Book About, Anyway? or, The Stealth Memoir in All Its Guises.”

Look out for those stealth memoirs. And…

From the AWP 2013 online Planning Guide, a ground plan of the first level (of two) of the Book Fair.

You get the idea. There’s a handy at-a-glance (a very big glance) look at the three days’ offerings in a page-turning graphical interface, if you’d like, located here. In this online edition of the conference program you can see the many, many ads for MFA programs vying for attention and announcing their sponsorship of this and that.


AWP is primarily a glimpse at how profoundly separate from commercial publishing interests is the academic world’s concept of book-ly interests—and the way it peddles those interests to the young scholars who will, after all, finally live in our world, not at the Hynes Center.

Literary concerns seem to override most of the events. It’s hard to spot much  comprehension of the fact that Bowker shows us more than 32 million active titles now bursting its Books in Print’s listings. That tsunami of genre writing in the marketplace (Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women, for example)? We’re whistling past it in parkas and mittens and knit caps, mortar boards with ear muffs.

Watch for the hashtag #AWP13 to follow things this week. I’ve also opened an Epilogger account to aggregate things on the fly — more than 700 tweets were waiting as soon as I set it up, days ahead of the event. Did I mention it’s very large?

It’s in Boston this year. But it sure looks like the other years.

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What Barnes & Noble’s Tra­vails May Mean. Or not.

We should be really grateful to Barnes & Noble. The company just spent the last five years driving hard into a new space, consumer devices, and while it encountered much success, over the last quarter or two that success has crumbled away and has resulted in what some might consider an embarrassing and costly mess when many of its competitors in the tablet space have seen soaring sales.

Eoin Purcell

Eoin Purcell’s post, The Three Most Important Lessons We Can Learn from Barnes & Noble’s Nook Setback, holds an interesting interpretation of the struggles of the retailer and last week’s announcements of its market-losing status. (If you need some background on what’s occuring around B&N’s new earnings report, there’s a roundup of several good writes on the situation at Writing on the Ether at

Writes Purcell, in part (I’m excerpting here):

(1) Don’t overestimate your addressable audience. In retrospect it now looks like Barnes & Noble’s great success (and its ongoing success, let’s face it, it is still selling many hundreds of thousands of tablets!) was just a very spectacular penetration of the bulk of its available customer base or addressable audience, those already friendly to B&N and its products and willing to convert from print to digital book reading, the bookish digitants if you will.

I’m partial to that phrase “bookish digitants,” it’s good, isn’t it?

(2) Books are not driving the tablet market… The reality is that even dedicated readers find the logic of buying a tablet that features any number of entertainment forms, email and web access more compelling than a dedicated ereader. Euro for Euro, Dollar for Dollar, Pound for Pound, it just makes more sense to buy a tablet than it does to buy an ereader for the majority of buyers. Which means that the space dedicated to books on-screen is dropping dramatically as a percentage of the market. It means that book readers are faced with myriad choices of entertainment forms when they fire up their tablets or smartphones and books, face competition in its rawest form.

In that point, I think Purcell reminds us of something we forget too frequently (a bit as the campus-based books world of AWP can forget that its students will live and try to work in a non-campus marketplace): outer competition, as it were, competition from the Angry Birds of the world for reading, let alone television, film, music, and more. For all the right reasons, the industry’s focus on its own issues can be stunting when it comes to seeing what else is out there.

(3) In digital and online, there are huge surprises in store for us…A year ago, it seemed to me and to others that Barnes & Noble had a nice thing going, that they were successfully making the transition from a bricks and mortar, print bound bookseller to something different, now we know that even if that is the case, the path will be a rocky one.

The key lesson I take from that is that we are still guessing when it comes to the power of the web and digital to transform our industry. I’ve felt very forcefully over the last two years especially that most big publishers feel like they have the digital problem solved, or are well on track to get there.

Purcell has written in this vein, and rightly before. It’s too easy, it seems, for many publishers to think digital is “done and done.” And the surprises, some of them nasty, just keep arriving. Back to Table of Contents


Litte’s Look at Life After Nook

Leonard Riggio

And in related reading: Attorney and reviewer Jane Litte has produced an interesting speculation on the thinking that might be behind Barnes & Noble’s Leonard Riggio’s offer to buy the retail elements of B&N.

Len Riggio’s belief must be that adoption of ebooks will level off and slight physical losses can be reduced by shedding B&N of its higher leases and unprofitable stores. Over 95% of the stores, per the earnings call, are profitable.

Her extensive look at what may be the leveling-off of ebook  market penetration growth leads her to an interesting idea of what Riggio may be hoping, in Will eBook Adoption Flatten out at 30% of the Market? Her basic thesis is here:

The most recent figures show that ebook sales for January through June have increased only 34.4% from 2011 to 2012 instead of the 100% plus growths in past years. It used to be that the ebook market would double every 6 months but now ebook growth isn’t even doubling in one year. This marked slowing growth is giving traditionalists hope that the digital adoption will level off.

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How Brightly Will the Tolino Shine?

Sometimes the cliché is correct.

The video for the new Tolino Shine may feature delicate butterflies, but officials are taking an iron line on its purpose in the U.S.-dominated market.

“Tony” at eBookAnoid (does this mean “ebook annoyed?”) writes in Tolino Shine — New Ereader From Germany, “With the announcement of the launch of the Tolino Shine a couple of days ago, Germany has entered the ereader wars with a vengeance.” The phrase “with a vengeance” for once seems accurate. Maybe more intriguing even than the news itself in this instance was the chance we all got in the announcement of the new €99 (US$128) e-reader to hear some of the phrasing with which some key movers and shakers in Europe refer to Amazon. Here’s Michael Busch, CEO of Thalia Holding, one of the consortium behind the development of the new device:

Nowadays everyone must consider what are their strategic orientation and its strategic interest and which partners are the right ones for this to be (able) to stand up to the mighty U.S. online giants in the joint development of viable national solutions especially in the digital domain.

Jeremy Greenfield

That quote, referencing the “U.S. online giants,” is included in Jeremy Greenfield’s Digital Book World (DBW) use of the press release, Leading German booksellers and Telekom put together in the future on the future of digital reading. And Laura Hazard Owen at paidContent in To battle Kindle, German booksellers partner with Deutsche Telekom on new e-reader, notes that Kobo is in the Tolino project’s sights, not just the Kindle. As the Tolino Shine is prepared for release later this week (on Thursday, March 7), Owen writes:

An ebookstore with about 300,000 German-language titles is accessible from the device. Users can also shop for ebooks from the individual booksellers’ websites. (By contrast, the German Kindle store contains about 150,000 German-language ebooks.) The Shine supports EPUB, PDF and TXT files. The Telekom cloud provides users with unlimited storage of ebooks they purchase from the partners, and 25 GB of storage for ebooks bought from other retailers.  The telecommunications provider also has over 11,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots in Germany.

Laura Hazard Owen

That hotspot availability may be, in fact, a draw, as might be the hotspots’ availability. And the staff of The Bookseller in London, putting together Germany’s Tolino is “national alternative” to Kindle, captures more of this candid expression of the problem when quoting Hugendubel bookseller’s Nina Hugendubel talking to Buchreport:

We need more force in the market to pose a real alternative to the North American competition. Therefore we are forming an initiative that is also unique in the world: great booksellers teaming up with a technology partner to build a national alternative to the major US corporations.

Telecompaper reports:

The device weighs less than a paperback book, has capacity to store an entire library and has a battery life of up to seven weeks. The E Ink HD display and integral lighting allows comfortable reading in sunlight or in the dark.

And, back at DBW, here’s Caral Halff, chairman of Weltbild’s comment, drawing a remarkably clear line in the international sand: “The future of the German book industry should continue to rest with us and not listed in the hands of American corporations.”

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Craft: Chart­ing a Narrative

There’s a time when you must exist, submerged—alone and drowning—in the world you’ve created… But then there are times when you come up for air. When you are taking those steadying breaths again, and this might be the time to approach your work, chartingly.

Julianna Baggott

And author Julianna Baggott at Writer Unboxed in Musicology of the Novel: A Lesson in Structure and Pacing (with some charts…) offers one of the most interesting exercises in narrative charting I’ve seen in a while.

A long intro tells you that this comes from her childhood in a musical home.

During my childhood, while my mother coaxed me to throw around the phrase “My mother is a concert pianist,” she was mainly a piano teacher. And when I came home from school, I heard a lot of counting. “One, two, three, four, and HOLD, two, three four….”

Chart: Julianna Baggott / Writer Unboxed

All that counting, it seems, led to an appreciation of beats. And Baggott today, while claiming not to be fond of charts, nevertheless has a useful type of structural graphic to recommend.

If it’s a novel with one narrative voice, the X axis is narration, the Y axis is page numbers. By drawing a line, with chapter breaks, I can tell where the novel’s chapters extend — holding a note — where they uptick in tempo and chapters are coming quickly. I can play that against my own ideas on the novel’s pacing — the pacing that exists in my Platonic version of the novel, held solely in my head.

One of the least-recognized factors in long-form work, of course, is the difficulty not just of managing narrative structure but of recognizing it in your own work. It’s a lot harder than many realize simply to get a high-view handle on what your own book may look like in structural terms.

This approach brings a book’s voicings, even its points of view, to a highly visual, simplified interpretation, making this one of the more useful craft blog posts I’ve come across recently. As Baggott writes:

This is a way to make the intangible shape of the novel tangible…If the novel has many points of view, the juggling of narrative voices is part of pacing — it becomes orchestral.

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Clash of the Conferences

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.

March 6-9 Boston AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs: AWP last year drew 10,000 attendees to icy Chicago, and, per its copy on the site this year, AWP “typically features 550 readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums, as well as hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings.” The labyrinthine book fair is said to have featured some 600 exhibitors last year. The program is a service-organization event of campus departments, hence the many readings by faculty members.

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 Bridberg’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: It’s Not Just You

Like a late victorian clergyman sweating in the dark over his Doubts, I have moments when my faith in fiction falters and then comes to the edge of collapse. I find myself asking, “Am I really a believer?” And then, “Was I ever?”

Ian McEwan

And like the early-21st-century author he is, Ian McEwan writes about a cyclical dark night of the soul in When I Stop Believing in Fiction at The New Republic.

When the god of fiction deserts you, everything must go. The book-lined church and mic-ed-up pulpit, the respectful congregation, the interviewer’s catechism, the confessions disguised as questions, the reviewer’s blessing or curse. I confess, I’ve been on those panels with fellow believers as we intone the liturgy, that humans are fabulators, that we “cannot live” without stories…(Oh, yes we can.)

He’s talking about the times between the books.

Such apostasy creeps into the wide gap that separates the finishing of one novel and the start of the next. It’s less a block than a matter of profound indifference. Happiness is elsewhere.

Peculiarly (for us reading, each of whom may have our own secret, cherished tennis shoes to get going again), McEwan finds his salvation at some point, he writes, in shorter work. “There’s persuasiveness in brevity.” In short stories—and he tells us which ones—he finds “prompts, not revelations,” an “illustration of fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity.”

And then, he gets at us with a surprise: a boyhood recollection of a moment in which he finds that a magazine image referenced in a story is real, not fiction.

I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but I had seen how realism could be bolstered by the actual. Twenty years later, I tried it out for myself. Things that never happened can tangle with things that did, an imaginary being can hold hands with the flesh-and-blood real.

He and we take heart once more. Because what pulls McEwan out of his lost affection for his fiction is the knowledge that, on some level, it never is. Fiction, that is. “The atheist may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem.”

The fears that our stories might fly off, unmoored, into those realms of nonsense (or worse) are calmed by their nearness to the life they reflect.

Everything absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months—science, math, history, law, and all the rest—can be brought with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.

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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 More at

Main image / iStockphoto: sphraner

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.