Ether for Authors: Do All Conference Roads Lead to Writers Now?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

1 October 2013 iStock_000016421102XSmall photog Lisay texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Con­fab Collisions
  2. Jon Fine heads for CONTEC: “Don’t Write Sh*t”
  3. Phil Sex­ton: “You, the Author, Are Your Own Best Advocate”
  4. More Con­fer­ences Ahead
  5. Last Gas: The Author Web­site Debate


Con­fab Collisions

Maybe it’s thought to be sport in some parts of the publishing world. Each autumn, there seems to be a kind of reckless pleasure in scheduling conference events pretty much on top of each other. I’m not sure this worked for the seven cities of Troy, either.

The plenary room at Writer's Digest Conference West in Los Angeles.

The plenary room at Writer’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles.

Last week, for example, saw the Publishing Business Conference & Expo and followed immediately by the DBW Marketing and Publishing Services Conference & Expo (#DBWMP) in New York, with those giving way to the Writer’s Digest Conference West (#WDCW13) and Screenwriters World Conference West (#SWCW13) in Los Angeles.

And while there are only a few of us mad enough to get to all or most of these events, there are certain interesting points to be gathered in such a cross-country stagger, especially as pertains to writers in the industry.

Note, for example, that on November 21, The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference (#FBook13) in London is listing “Authors: The Real Powerhouses of Publishing” as one of its key themes. Frankfurt Book Fair 2013 logo

And at Frankfurt Book Fair (#fbm13), a simple search for “self-publishing” on the Calendar of Events yields some nine pages of ten hits each. Some of them are repetitive, of course, but, as a whole, they’re representative of many angles and approaches being taken to one of the most compelling dynamics of the disruption at this point: writers.

A few more quick notes on this pertaining to Frankfurt:

Matthias Matting

Matthias Matting

    • For those interested, journalist and author Matthias Matting of Berlin—who is one of the specialists joining us at the CONTEC 2013 Conference (#contec13) “town hall”-style session I’m moderating on October 8 at Frankfurt—is offering a running list of events of interest to authors at his Self-Publisher Bible site. (If you prefer reading English, Google’s translation provides a fairly serviceable rendering of these useful listings, I find.)
Hugh Howey, who appears in the CONTEC self-publishing "town hall" session October 8 in Frankfurt, has seen the first book in his Silo Saga trilogy, "Wool," issued in some 30 countries so far. This is the Greek cover.

Hugh Howey, who appears in the CONTEC self-publishing “town hall” session October 8 in Frankfurt, has seen the first book in his Silo Saga trilogy, “Wool,” issued in some 30 countries so far. This is the Greek cover.


    • The CONTEC event is the conference panel, of course, on which hybrid author Hugh Howey joins us, as well. The increasingly central role of the entrepreneurial author, as he discusses in his Publishing Perspectives interview, is simply framed so well by the examples of the more articulate and industry-engaged figures in the field like Howey.


                  • Publishing Perspectives’ Hannah Johnson has produced a useful, clear-eyed Authors Guide to Frankfurt for writers, especially those coming to the Book Fair for the first time.

What you see in these events is a gradual move at trade shows toward programming for and/or about authors—self-publishing, traditionally publishing, or “hybrid.” We’ve written about how this direction is playing out at BookExpo America and at London Book Fair, as well.

The German cover of "Wool."

The German cover of “Wool.”

And while the trade-show setting can be a more dramatic one for an annually intensifying “arrival” of author presence (as more than autograph- and speech-givers), this is an interesting time in the world of writing conferences, too. A couple of points came to light this past weekend in Los Angeles at the Writer’s Digest West gathering in a couple of standout sessions. And by the time we reach today’s Last Gas, you’ll see another incident in which a conference not meant to focus necessarily on authors?—ended up squarely on a point of marketing very close to the writer’s desk. Back to Table of Contents


Jon Fine heads for CONTEC: “Don’t Write Sh*t”


See, today, everyone can be an author. (Beat, beat.) Which means that everyone can be an author.

Maybe a rimshot would have helped.

Amazon's Jon Fine, left, talked Saturday with author Boyd Morrison, a fellow speaker on the Writer's Digest Conference West lineup in Los Angeles.

Amazon’s Jon Fine( left) talking on Saturday with author Boyd Morrison, a fellow speaker on the Writer’s Digest Conference West lineup in Los Angeles.

If Jon Fine, Amazon’s Director of Author and Publisher Relations, uses that line—with his vaudeville-caliber timing—in Frankfurt when he appears in the CONTEC town-hall session on “Self-Publishing and Its Implications for the Industry,” it just may get a bigger laugh than it did at Writer’s Digest West. The CONTEC session is devised for the industry leadership, rather than for the writerly throng with which Fine met in Los Angeles. While in Germany, Fine will be talking with colleagues on the panel about implications for the industry of the growing self-publishing phenomenon Amazon helps support.

By contrast, when he’s among writers at one of his many conference appearances, Fine’s “Amazon for Authors” presentation is always a favorite. He packs them in and laces his PowerPoint slides with wry humor and a clear concern for what many authors are up against these days.

When he doesn’t get the laugh he deserves? It’s not a lack of appreciation for his wit; it’s angst among nervous writers waiting their turn to offer their projects to agents in the coming Pitch Slam.

Fine’s intent at writers’ confabs is to roll out the growing array of services Amazon makes available to authors, to clear up points of confusion, to reassure all comers that they’re welcome and respected. He animates the company’s trademark smile with friendly, efficient information.

From the seats? A Fine session in a setting such as Writer’s Digest West is an intriguing snapshot of the range of capability and savvy we don’t always see when we talk about the vast authors’ community come-hithered by digital tools. 

A modest percentage of Fine’s audience in Los Angeles appears to follow easily—a few attendees are  published already; one talks during Q&A of having had a book orphaned in staff changes at a major house. By contrast, others are far behind in sorting through the myriad publishing options available to them; these are the legion of struggling newbies for whom every scrap of guidance is important.

Fine talks up KindleWorlds and Singles; KDP and CreateSpace; the imprints of Amazon Publishing and specific tools including Author Central and “Look Inside the Book,” which renders the whole text of a book searchable, effectively part of its metadata. You wonder how long it will be before a majority of these entrepreneurial authors realize just how valuable the “Look Inside” full-text SEO factor can be for discoverability.

The rationale behind Seattle’s success with authors glimmers right into view—this is no mystery, after all—when Fine puts it this way:

About five years ago, authors became customers at Amazon. Now, it’s about ‘what we can do for authors.’ We’re customer focused, we work backward.

At Writer's Digest Conference West's 2013 Pitch Slam in Los Angeles.

At Writer’s Digest Conference West’s 2013 Pitch Slam in Los Angeles.

One of the projects Fine likes to mention is the Amazon Gives grant program he administers for Amazon to 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations that support writing and authors. Knowing that grant-proposal writing can be a 60-page nightmare in some cases, he has deliberately trimmed the application process for eligible groups to what he describes as “three paragraphs in an email.”

From A Contemporary Theatre’s Young Playwrights Program and Girls Write Now to Archipelago Books, the Best Translated Book Awards, and PEN American Center, more than 50 literature-related organizations have benefitted to date from the Amazon grants program.

Maybe Fine’s best-received line Saturday in Los Angeles?

A quarter of the top 100 books on last year were self-published.

At that, pulses quicken, the crowd leans forward, and Fine has the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza’s Santa Monica Room’s hushed attention. Another:

Kindle owners tend to buy almost five times the number of books they bought (before having a Kindle).


Fine’s role as an accessible, personally engaged ambassador for Amazon both to publishers and authors has made him a favorite on the conference circuit. The personality carries and writers get new context about using the tools made available to them:

My point is know your audience. That will drive how you write, it will drive how you market…You want your book accessible in as many ways as possible so folks read it instead of playing Angry Birds…We pay monthly. You get daily sales reports. And because we’re focusing on authors, other publishers are, too…

In 90 minutes, a roomful of writers has learned about options from choosing narrators for audiobooks of their work (that’s the ACX program created with Amazon’s to the Kindle Owners Lending Library. But, Fine reminds them, “You don’t have to sign up with just one provider,” including Amazon. “And you keep your rights. If you get that deal,” with a Big Five publisher, “then you can pull down your self-published title on Amazon.”

When Fine joins the CONTEC team on October 8 in Frankfurt, he’ll arrive as one of the speakers most closely in touch with authors who are learning to navigate the plethora of new moves they can make and publishers working with Amazon retail. And perhaps one implication for the industry at large that’s embedded in so many of his cautions is wrapped up in the terse line he keeps returning to:

Don’t write sh*t. One of the big points of criticism (of self-publishing) has been that the quality isn’t there. The point is that with this capability to publish yourself, you need to use it responsibly. Get it right. Don’t write sh*t.

Back to Table of Contents


Phil Sex­ton: “You, the Author, Are Your Own Best Advocate”


Don’t let your relationship with a publisher turn into work-for-hire. It’s a partnership with a publisher, make sure that’s what you have.

Phil Sexton

Phil Sexton

Mild-mannered Writer’s Digest Publisher Phil Sexton gave a session at the conference in Los Angeles unlike any I’ve heard him deliver previously.

Sexton has been the bringer of welcome and detailed survey data gathered by his organization and its sister F+W Media vertical Digital Book World in its “What Authors Want” study and updates.

But his new seminar for authors was as long on sharp, unvarnished advice as it is on title: “Dirty Little Secrets: Learn How the Publishing Industry Really Works in Order To Become a More Successful Author.”

Sexton’s purpose here was to encourage traditionally published authors and those considering contracts to work against the sometimes parental “we have it all under control” tone such business relationships can take on for writers.

One of his key admonitions: “Ask questions. You have the right to ask questions” of your publisher. Some questions to ask:

– Ask to see your (book’s) catalog listing. See if it’s bigger than a quarter-page. If not, your book may just be filler to this publisher.

– Ask about co-op. If they tell you they don’t have co-op for your book, it’s bad news.

– How big is their list each season? How many books in your genre or category?

– How many sales people do they have? Do they have a library sales team?

– Ask how your book is being categorized. Does your metadata help the book get sold?

– Ask how many copies Barnes & Noble took. A 200-copy buy means no presence and a dead book.

– After publication, ask, “Can we come up with something the sales people can use to re-pitch the book?”

– Ask if they can get a bigger name (than you) to write a foreword for the book?

– Ask for consultation rights in your contract on titles.

– Ask to see the front and back cover so you can see what the publisher is doing.

– Ask to see the spine.

Another take on Jon Fine’s joke about the double-edge of “everyone can be an author” might be Phil Sexton’s message that both the good and the bad thing about digital publishing is that entrepreneurial authors both can look into so many aspects of their work—and must look into so many aspects of their work.

The emphasis in Sexton’s session in Los Angeles was empowerment: authors working with publishers need to shake off an older-world reticence to challenge; they need to question every move a publisher is making with their work and—echoing Fine here—take responsibility for their work, not just in its writing but on the market. As Sexton said, publishers may feel they’re overworked and unable to stop and explain things well to writers. So writers must ask. And then be sure they get answers. Back to Table of Contents


More Con­fer­ences Ahead

Among the more than 60 speakers from 20 countries appearing a week from now at the October 8 Frankfurt Academy CONTEC 2013 Conference, are, left to right from top: Publishing Data Network's Sebastian Posth; Mendeley/Elsevier's Jan Reichelt; HarperCollins' Nick Perrett; CONTEC Program Director Kat Meyer; IDPF's Markus Gylling; Ingenious Ventures' Patrick Bradley; First Source's Robert Kasher; Bookigee's Kristen McLean; and Off the Page Ideas' Sheila Bounford.

Among the more than 60 speakers from 20 countries appearing a week from now at the October 8 Frankfurt Academy CONTEC 2013 Conference, are, left to right from top: Publishing Data Network’s Sebastian Posth; Mendeley/Elsevier’s Jan Reichelt; HarperCollins’ Nick Perrett; CONTEC Program Director Kat Meyer; IDPF’s Markus Gylling; Ingenious Ventures’ Patrick Bradley; First Source’s Robert Kasher; Bookigee’s Kristen McLean; and Off the Page Ideas’ Sheila Bounford.

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. Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013 with dateOctober 8 Frankfurt Book Fair: CONTEC Conference: “A new, highly-engaging event experience created by the Frankfurt Academy to address the complexity of the needs of today’s publishing business. CONTEC gathers stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem – from STM and trade publishers to service providers and tech startups – in one arena to redefine and redesign the experience of publishing.” (Hashtag: #CONTEC) Save 20% on registration with code CONTEC13KPTW20 at checkout.  Note our interviews with author Hugh Howey on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing and the “Big Data / Little Data” session panelists here at Publishing Perspectives, as well as a feature on the interactive learning lab, “Self-Publishing and Its Implications for the Industry.”

Frankfurt Academy All Access Ticket And consider the Frankfurt Academy’s All-Access Ticket, which includes unlimited access to events including CONTEC Frankfurt 2013, Publishers Launch Frankfurt, Rights Directors Meeting (RDM) 2013, First Timer Seminar, Rights Express, Digital Resume, Frankfurt StoryDrive, Experience the Exquisite, Business Breakfasts and more.


Publishers Launch Frankfurt 2013October 8 Frankfurt: Publishers Launch Frankfurt 2013: “Publishers Launch returns to the Frankfurt Book Fair for the third year in a row, now moving to the natural pre-Fair ‘conference day,’ Tuesday, to make it easier for you to attend. This packed event will continue and expand upon today’s key themes of scale and consolidation across the publishing world, while also looking at scaling strategies for vertical publishing – a natural way to prosper in the shadows of publishing and retailing giants. We’ll also look at the implications (and opportunities) of the explosion of digital publishing from non-traditional players and authors and agents publishing directly.” Note this week’s interview here at Publishing Perspectives ahead of the conference with Charlie Redmayne, HarperCollins UK CEO.

October 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

Books in Browsers 2012 2October 24-26, San Francisco: Books in Browsers: Produced by the Frankfurt Academy and, this is among the most advanced of conferences dedicated to bringing designer and code savvy into contact with editorial and content leaders, Books in Browsers is produced for a fourth time by Peter Brantley in generous association with the Internet Archive and Swissnex San Francisco, produced and sponsored by and Frankfurt Book Fair. Speakers include Kate Pullinger, Baldur Bjarnason, Bill McCoy, Justo Hidalgo, Richard Nash, and more. (Hashtag: #bib13) General registration now is open.


Get Read conferenceNovember 13-14, Online: Get Read – Marketing Strategies for Writers: Dan Blank’s We Grow Media presents this two-day Internet conference for authors, “focused on helping you ensure your books get read.” Speakers are to include Jason Ashlock, Claire Cook, Elizabeth S. Craig, Jane Friedman, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Ami Greko, Rachel Fershleiser, Richard Nash, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, Chuck Wendig, and more. (Hashtag: #GetRead)


November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Details as they become available. (Hashtag: #fbook13)  Now open for bookings.


February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

Back to Table of Contents


Last Gas: The Author Web­site Debate


It got me thinking more deeply about why publishers (in this case, Open Road Media, a progressive media company focused on e-books, founded by The Other Jane Friedman) would advise authors to forget the website, or what I consider the No. 1 calling card for a digital-age author.

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

One of the reasons conference organizers are learning to have dedicated live-social-media networking as part of their confab plans is that sometimes the least expected point can raise the visibility of a conference very high.

In my experience of having a website *and* being active on social, I would feel hobbled if either piece went away. Social is more powerful with my website, and my website is more powerful with social. That’s not to say there can’t be varying strategies and tools for execution (and there have to be—every author career is different), but to say “no” to an author website for most authors? That seems like an opinion formed in 2005 that hasn’t been seriously revisited or challenged.

This is Jane Friedman, Digital Editor with Virginia Quarterly Review (and host of Writing on the Ether). She caught a tweet coming out of the DBW Marketing and Publishing Services Conference & Expo in New York last Thursday.

Rachel Chou

Rachel Chou

A speaker, Rachel Chou of Open Road Media, had mentioned that she’d seen so many authors’ sites become quickly outdated by comparison to other avenues of promotion authors might take on. The busy give-and-take that followed led to Friedman writing Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites? And before you assume this was an immediate bashing of publishers, catch what Friedman wrote:

Publishers aren’t stupid or inexperienced. They shepherd thousands of new and experienced authors and know what sells books. What’s going on here? Am I horribly wrong in continuing to advise authors to own and control their own website as a long-term priority?

Jason Allen Ashlock

Jason Allen Ashlock

As a healthy round of comments ensued at Friedman’s site, content specialist Jason Allen Ashlock, who was at the conference on Thursday, wrote a piece for Digital Book World—the co-producer of the conference with Publishers LaunchThe Truth About Author Websites.

He writes, in part, a particularly effective lead from the writer’s viewpoint:

For some writers, their author website is a thing of pride of beauty. It’s an active well of new material, a place of engagement and connection, an extension of their books, even an invitation into their writing life. It gathers email addresses, expands audience, benefits SEO, and is their personal beachhead on the Web.

For others, the author website is an annoyance, an obligation, and a static reminder of all they hate about digital media’s encroachment on their writing life. The landing page is three books old, and the author photo three years outdated. The blog page whose latest post is dated 6 months ago makes them feel both guilt for not updating weekly as they’d promised, and resentment that anyone would expect them to.

From left, DBW Marketing and Publishing Services Conference co-producers with main sponsor Biztegra's Murray Izenwasser.

From left, DBW Marketing and Publishing Services Conference co-producers Peter McCarthy; key sponsor Murray Izenwasser of Biztegra; and co-producer Mike Shatzkin during a breakout session in the program.

Ashlock weighs the arguments from his experience as a key literary agent and architect of book campaigns, and hits an important conclusion:

While the two perspectives seem to be in contrast, they agree on one point: whether you think author websites are must-haves or time-sucks, if you’re going to have one, you better do it well. As overheard at DBWMP, “a bad website does more harm than a good website does good.”

Which brings us back, finally, to more author responsibility. And the debate has continued in a healthy round of comments at Ashlock’s DBW article, as well.

Some of the most interesting of the input on the debate comes from Peter McCarthy.

He co-developed the program from Thursday’s conference (#DBWMP) with Mike Shatzkin and Michael Cader.

And McCarthy’s point as a marketer is interesting and nicely parsed in his response to Ashlock and others on the issue. He points out that the presence of this issue within the conference setting last week wasn’t something that could be handled “in a nuanced way”—his apt phrase—in the context of a larger panel titled “What Matters, What Doesn’t, and How to Know the Difference.”

And to some degree, he echoes the author-control issues that Friedman brings to the table with her support of sites for authors’ command of their sites over the vagaries of social-media platforms.

McCarthy on author websites:

In a vacuum, I believe in them (ownership of presence, future-proofed against changing publishers/markets, etc.) but, because we occupy a space of limited resources and clear hierarchies, only if and when they are the next best thing that can be done. Also worth noting here that \author site\ is a terrible moniker for the these — they can range from highly engaging, time-consuming efforts in which the authors are genuinely involved to splash pages that offer a blurb and link to retailers. Either end of the spectrum — and the mid-points — may be just the right thing to do. So there isn’t really such thing as an \author site.\ There is the absence of an owned online presence and then there is…limitless…

Good points. There are many here and it’s worth your time to read Friedman’s post, take in some of the comments there, and then look at Ashlock’s work and the response to his piece.

To get us back on that “conference road to writers,” I’ll just note that a question about marketing in publishing…at a conference about marketing and publishing…not at a writers’ conference at all, but at an industry event…ended up with perhaps its highest-visibility element turning on…writers. In fact, writers have participated in the comments-debate that has followed, and rightly so.


The centricity of the entrepreneurial writer in publishing circles still comes and goes as a focus these days. We’re in the early days, yes.

But Jon Fine’s line about starting with the author as customer and working backward makes even more sense when you see an issue play out as the author-website question spun out from McCarthy and Shatzkin’s well-received DBW Marketing show.

Here it is, the author emphasis. And conferences may, better than most destinations, show us just how fast we can zip down so many roads and find ourselves again at the creative heart of the matter: authors.

Back to Table of Contents


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. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at, and he is a regular contributor to His London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at Find him at Google+

Main image – iStockphoto – Lisay

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.