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Conferences: Songs from the Uproar

27 April 2013 iStock_000001525292XSmall photog Miguelito [1]

Do you go to conferences? Boy, I do.

One of the greatest aspects of conference-going is meeting people you might have known only on the ether, putting a face to the avatar.

Here, for example, is author Chuck Wendig [2], whom I’ve met several times at conferences. Both of us normally have some traveling to do, to reach a conference. Wendig writes in 25 Things Writers Should Know About Traveling [3]:

Chuck Wendig [4]
Chuck Wendig

Travel is good for us. Seeing other places and people and cultures makes us more complete as human beings. The fact that it is useful to our word-herding is almost secondary to how useful it is to us as people,  not just as people who sling stories for a living.

Whether you travel to get there or not, there’s an interesting dimension to meeting in person after initially knowing someone online. In my experience, the two personas persist, never quite reconciled. Intellectually, you know this is one person, the same person, just in two forms, tangible and virtual. In actual practice, though, there’s a subtle divide. It’s always cool to meet. But sometimes, as you shake hands, you find yourself looking forward to getting back to them online. It’s what you’re used to.

At Grub Street’s Muse 2013 [5] in Boston, May 3 through 5, I’ll have the pleasure of meeting several Unboxed colleagues for the first time IRL (in real life).

The Writer Unboxed Muses, from left, Bially, Walsh, Roycroft [6]
The Writer Unboxed Muses, from left, Bially, Walsh, Roycroft

Our Therese Walsh [7], Vaughn Roycroft [8], and Sharon Bially [9] will be speaking, and I’m looking forward to their panel, “Strength in Numbers: The Power of Online Communities.” That’s surely all of us here at Writer Unboxed—strong, numerous, communal, and powerfully online.

And like the several faces of online+offline cohorts, conferences, themselves, can be highly communal events for their attendees. Familiar, regular conferences function like Brigadoons, each rising out of the mist for a busy wearin’ o’ the nametags, then settling into memory’s vapors.

Pre-conference excitement is always interesting to watch.

At this year's AWP Conference in March -- in a colder Boston than we expect for Muse 2013. [10]
The AWP Conference in March — in a colder Boston than we expect for Muse 2013. Photo: Porter Anderson

AWP [11], the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, for example, sets up a nationwide howl of anticipation about 10 days before that massive university-campus based conclave opens. It drew 11,000 attendees this year. I’m always intrigued by Twitter enthusiasts who let out with: “So excited about going to AWP!!!!! Anybody else going????!!!???”  It’s tempting to tweet back, “No, no one else is going. Your box lunch is in the hotel fridge. You’re giving the keynote.”

It used to be that a conference had one keynote address. It set the tone for the entire conference. About the time some lazy soul decided we should all start saying “media” when we meant “medium,” it also became popular to put multiple keynotes into a single conference.

One recent gathering in New York had an “opening,” “central,” and “closing” keynote. The speaker for the “central” keynote was delayed in reaching the ballroom and sent several messages to the waiting assembly, enumerating the cross streets as she drew near.

In London, I was at a conference earlier this month, Digital Minds [12], associated with the London Book Fair. It began with three “keynote addresses” in rapid succession.

James Wood [13]
James Wood

At the Muse, we get two keynote speakers.

One is the critic James Wood, formerly with the Guardian [14] and the New Republic [15], now, of course, with the New Yorker [16].

[17]His How Fiction Works [18] is how criticism should work.

The other Muse keynoteworthy speaker is Amanda Palmer [19], crowdfunding icon and an artist whose Muse bio says she has “heaved her way to the top of the music industry.” Bring your own body paint.


Her topic: “Fear Not the Digital Present.” No word on whether her husband Neil Gaiman [21] might be along. He was one of those three keynote speakers at the London conference. His succession was less rapid than that of the other two.

Keynote trends aside, however, the really interesting thing to watch these days at publishing conferences is how they, too, are encountering the special pleasures of our digital dynamic.

Publishing’s so-called “conference” events divide, like all Gaul, into three parts:

  1. The teaching conference
  2. The analytical conference
  3. The trade show

There’s overlap. These days, to get into a trade show—which is mainly for publishers and vendors—you have to crawl over several conferences that ring the main floor.

Analytical conferences are presented primarily for publishing-business folks.

Writers’ conferences traditionally are the teaching events.

Mr. Amanda Palmer gives a keynote address at the Digital Minds Conference in London, earlier this month. Photo: Porter Anderson [22]
Mr. Amanda Palmer gives a keynote address at the Digital Minds Conference in London, earlier this month. Photo: Porter Anderson

In the past, those teaching conferences have concentrated on writing craft: “How To Keep Your Protagonist Dry When It Rains.” But savvy organizers these days are introducing more and more industry analysis into the mix: “All Wet: Only 42 Percent of Survey Respondents Are Reading Your Dry Protagonists.”

Many conference organizers are realizing that as authors become initiators in the publishing process, letting them in on the study data and market appraisals means smarter heads doing the driving.

I would argue, in fact, that there’s an ethical imperative here. A conference programming committee in 2013 that tries to schedule only the sort of writing-craft syllabus that was the norm for decades—nothing more business-y than a synopsis-writing session—regrettably will have to be shot.

As every publishing bolshevik will tell you, there are thousands of books, videos, audio courses, webinars, workshops, and probably holographic transmissions on craft. Especially plotting. We’re up to our aspirations in weepy inspi-vational columns and “writing prompts.” You don’t want to read what that stuff prompts me to write.

Responsible conferences today incorporate sessions responding to:

Grub Street’s program labels “Muse” and “Marketplace” sessions to delineate creative and business topics. Smart.

Most importantly, we need to encourage our conference organizers to evolve their programming along with the times.


Authors pitch their projects to agents at Writer's Digest Conference East in New York earlier this month. Photo: Porter Anderson [23]
Authors pitch their projects to agents at Writer’s Digest Conference East in New York earlier this month. Photo: Porter Anderson

Writer’s Digest Conference East [24] in New York earlier this month did an especially good job of asking, as I put it in one column, “Who is pitching whom?”—the balance may soon shift so strongly to a seller’s market that agents and other author-supportive personnel might regularly pitch their services to entrepreneurial authors.

A different elevator ride.

And, speaking of agents, when a group of them tweet-assaulted author Barry Eisler [25] for his viewpoints in his keynote address at Pikes Peak Writers Conference [26] last week, the conference organizers had done nothing wrong, quite the opposite. (If you need background on this important event, I have pieces on it here [27] and here [28].) It was a pivotal moment for two reasons:

  1. Barry Eisler [29]
    Barry Eisler

    It brought to light the turmoil in parts of the agents’ corps. Agents have a potentially crucial role to play in the work of entrepreneurial authors. I’m ready to see more of them come to terms with the New Queasiness and stop stuffing their flak jackets with old-world queries.

  2. It triggered a gratifyingly respectful, reasoned debate, which, as you know, has not always been our strong suit in the industry! the industry!

While I’m sure the Colorado conference organizers didn’t anticipate such hue and cry, it was a healthy outing for us all. I want to be sure the Pikes Peak folks realize that. Good job.

Missy Mazzoli [30]
Missy Mazzoli

Do you know the composer Missy Mazzoli’s [31] masterwork, Song from the Uproar? It’s about the Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt. She died in the field in 1904, tragically young, the victim of a flash flood in Algeria. You can hear some of it here [32], courtesy of my good colleagues at Q2 Music.

When you get to your next conference—and I hope to see you there—what I want you to listen for is that song from the uproar. Our conferences, of all kinds and with however many keynotes, have not only a right but also a duty to reflect, explore, and interpret the upheaval disrupting publishing today.

Can you agree with that? Or do you prefer the older style celebratory-therapeutic conference format? Have you found your recent conference experiences reflecting the tumult of the business? Or have you run into the kind of confab that hunkers down in a retro-chummy glow of camaraderie instead? 

Main image: iStockphoto / Miguelito

About Porter Anderson [33]

@Porter_Anderson [34] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [35], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [36] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [37]