Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Santa Barbara Writers' Conference

Bob Zumwalt kindly agreed to share his experience of his first writers' conference. I've yet to attend a conference so I found his thoughts particularly interesting. I think you'll agree. Thanks, Bob.

Writers Conferences and Snake Oil Salesmen

In June 2001, I attended my first writers conference, a week-long affair in Santa Barbara. I'd recently finished my first novel and the conference organizer, former night club owner and author Barnaby Conrad, offered a glowing response to my advance submission. I was ready for the Yellow Brick Road. What I found was something much different, though I do understand Dorothy's sentiment that she was not in Kansas anymore.

What I learned that summer is that the business of writing has no parallel in the real world, except perhaps in the mercurial capriciousness of the art world -- particularly show business. Talent is a plus, though not essential, with marketability a far more weighty factor for success. During that first conference I learned about "platform" and "legs," which are quaint terms for personal characteristics and accomplishments that make you saleable. If you have those, you may well be able to market your grocery list. Familiar, I thought, straight out of Marketing 101. While the marketing workshops tell you this applies mostly to non-fiction endeavors, I suspect it is of almost equal importance to first-novel fiction, as well. Cosmic balance is not totally absent because a flashy platform seldom convinces the reader to buy that second book, if they fell asleep reading the first.

The Snake Oil

The publishing industry in the United States is a nineteenth-century dowager desperately trying to reinvent herself. But institutional inertia, like gravity for the well endowed debutante, has created a sorry sight. In economic terms, publishing is a restricted market because access to the top tier publishers is filtered through agents. And ingenious devils that they are, agents have found their own way to weed out supplicants. This leaves the writer with few options, but they are well addressed at conferences: panels of agents to answer questions, advance submissions to agents (for a fee,) and workshops on how to approach an agent. In the last couple years, short pitch sessions with agents have become the rage -- and of course workshops are available on how to be most effective in these encounters where every second counts. Considering the circus atmosphere, it's no wonder that people are looking for ways to circumvent the dowager and find different ways to get their wares to market.

The internet and e-commerce were still new for many people in 2001, but since then, we've seen Amazon come to dominate the book-selling world and even the delivery format of writing is changing with proliferation of IPods and cell phones with readable screens, and more recently the Kindle. The internet is becoming an alternative, not only to the conventional book store, but also the book itself. Slow on the uptake, conventional publishing is adapting by offering copy-protected digital delivery of some titles, but this positions previously-unpublished and unagented writers to capitalize on this egalitarian access to the market via the internet. Conference workshops devoted to self-publishing through conventional print-book means, print-on-demand, and electronic delivery have grown in number and credibility in concert with the internet's growing foothold on commerce. This February, in San Diego, I saw a breach in mainline publishing's well-fortified wall. An agent on one of the discussion panels said she would consider representation of a successful self-published title if it sold enough copies -- if the book, for instance, had sold well to a small demographic segment, but still had a waiting market with other significant demographics untapped. In 2001 this would have been heresy. Agents, true to form, follow the money.

Craft Still Happens

We writers spin our tales in a solitary fashion, and often have no clue how our work is perceived until some stranger sees it and comments on its malformation. Conferences still devote a good third or more of their time slots to read-and-critique workshops. Sign-up sheets circulate in the meeting places as people walk in the door. Workshop leaders with a reputation may end up with a list of readers too long to do them all justice. First chapters are customary for the critique, and time constraints prevent detailed analysis, so it comes down to listeners' first impressions. In spite of the kamikaze nature of these sessions, the more experienced can see problems and the talented listener might even suggest a cure. These clinics have the unwritten mandate to give the writer kind words. Fortunately, the emotional truth usually prevails -- if only through the critiquer's omissions -- and a writer experienced in deflecting flattery can spot it and come away with valuable useful information.

My favorite critiquer was a Hollywood screenwriter who billed his workshops with the question: "Where does the story start?" The logistics of getting my chapter read was messy, and there was no charity in this workshop leader's comments, but after several days of sitting through his classes I came away with concepts that added to my toolbox for story construction.

This February's conference in San Diego featured a psychologist who had written an amateur-detective mystery based on the shrink-helps-cops premise. His presentation revolved around personality types: how they function, what they are likely to do, and most importantly, what they would not do. He and I have corresponded since the conference on character motivation, and I've added one more reality check to my writing tool box: the reader needs to see why a character acts the way they do, and the need for laying the groundwork increases exponentially with odd-ball characters: that serial killer needs some serious back story to make him believable.

These conferences continue to have a lot in common with the old fashioned county fair -- or a trip to Oz. I haven't seen Barnaby Conrad for a couple years, and I wish him well. He appreciated the theatrics without being taken in by them. In that spirit, I return every year to get an update on the industry's trends and witness the erosion of the absolutes offered by the insiders. Good writing still happens, the tools to do it keep getting repackaged and retaught, and readers still read.


  1. Thanks for the blog, Bob. BTW, did they happen to say how many sales is respectable for a self-published book?

  2. Bob certainly covered lotsa ground. Thank you Mr. Zumwalt.

    Much of what Bob describes serves to confirm my general suspicion about conferences. I've been tempted to sign up & attend one but can't come up with the answer to that nagging question 'what's in it for me?'.

    There are countless ways to waste time & part with hard earned money. Would I pay an agent to look at a submission? No way. Do I want to be coached by someone that I don't know. Hardly. Do I crave validation from 'experts'? Nah.

    I also read a recent agent post where he stated that he would consider the offer of representation for a self pubbed book if it had a record of decent sales. What happened to the rules? The importance of the gatekeepers? Aren't self pubbed authors, like me, really just talentless shortcut takers? Marketability vs talent is the key (more difficult for fiction - & kid fiction is even tougher). That says quite a bit about the industry dontcha think? Unless there's an opportunity to sell my book at a conference, I think I'll invest my resources elsewhere.

    BTW - Walked into a Barnes & Noble or Borders lately? Lots of empty shelf space & close out tables. Thanks but no thanks. Selling online & in specialty shops is working out just fine for me & I don't have to worry about returns & earning out.

    Great post.

  3. The one thing about them tho, is the contacts you can make that you wouldn't otherwise. Plus, it's one thing to correspond thru email, another to be face to face.

    BC holds a Surrey Writers conference every year at the end of October. Every year I swear I'm going to attend. It's a bad time of the year to travel in this province. But that may be just one of my many excuses.

  4. Having attended a few of the Surrey Int'l Writers' Conferences in a suburb of Vancouver, BC, I have to say my experiences have been significantly different from those of Bob Zumwalt. But conferences can't just be lumped into one barrel. Organizers often target different levels of writers and have different goals in mind. If someone attends a conference that isn't aimed at meeting their needs it's quite possible to come away disillusioned and/or disappointed.

    At the SiWC I've been in awe of the variety of workshops (60+ over the three days, of which you can usually select 8) that focus on just about any subject you want in both writing techniques, presentation and marketing. Speakers are high visibility authors, agents, editors, publishers, screenwriters, etc., all successful in their fields as well as being good communicators. And behind the scene throughout the entire weekend free consultations with the professionals run continuously. You can pitch your work to an agent or publisher, get the first three pages of a ms critiqued by an editor, chat with an author, etc.

    Perhaps the greatest benefit I find, however, is the "schmoozing"... the many opportunities for informal encounters with all the speakers as well as aspiring writers and award winning authors. Spending a weekend immersed in a writing environment where everything is devoted to better equipping me as a writer is awesome. I can't imagine anyone coming away from that particular conference less invigorated and inspired than I always am! I wish I could afford to go every year, but I save up my $$$ and plan for every second year.

    Do I sound enthused or what???

  5. P.S. - I meant to add that info from the 2008 SiWC is still up on their website ( ) and maybe your readers would find it interesting to look through the list of speakers and the schedule of workshops for a taste of what the conference offers each year as a comparison to other conferences they may be aware of. I don't think the October 2009 info will be posted for a couple months yet.

  6. Thanks, Carol. That's a great idea. I'm interested, so I'm sure others are.

    A friend attended a few years back and said Don Maas's course was worth the entire event.

  7. To answer Joylene's question about how many book sales to get an agent's attention: I can't offer hard numbers, but I suspect if a self-published book sold several thousand copies it would be a contender. If it only sold 500, then probably not.

    In response to JaxPop, I don't want to diss conferences, just put them in perspective. They are full of self-interest, cupidity, and if you look for it, good marketing info that you won't find anywhere else. It's an atmosphere where people 'talk out of school' and say things they might not otherwise.

    Careann's point about the different kinds of conferences is well taken. No two conferences are the same. The Southern California conferences at Santa Barbara and San Diego are in the shadow of Hollywood and reflect that. The conference in Portland is less SoCal-centric. My interests are historical fiction, and one of these years I hope to go to the Historical Novel Society's conference. I'm sure the focus will be quite different. However,the marketing epicenter for the book business is New York, and I expect this will be true for any conference. Change is coming, but it's glacial.

    Just for fun, I once dumped the AAR database into Microsoft's Streets and Trips. (Yes, I have a dominant geek gene.) Manhattan looked like a full pin cushion because 90%+ of all agents operate there -- Midtown, mostly. This says a lot about the publishing industry, and this is partly why I referred to it as an aging dowager. It sorely needs a reality check.

  8. I suppose I'll attend a conference to see how it turns out. Thanks.


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