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Decatur Book Festival, Day 2 – Excuses to be logorrheic September 5, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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I took the train again, read Junot Diaz again, got motion sick again, and had to book it from the train station again. At least the Decatur Library wasn’t as far from the station as Agnes Scott. Still, by the time I reached the conference room in the library’s basement, there was standing room only for Roy Blount, Jr.’s presentation. I did manage to get a seat before Mr. Blount took the stage, but it was not without luck, guilt, and blood. We’ll leave it at that.

I could feasibly see every single person in that audience as someone who would camp outside the theater in a Chicago for a chance to see a taping of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. And why would it be any other way? I had seen Roy Blount, Jr. recently on a Wait Wait segment on my favorite weekly lesson in nerdishness, CBS Sunday Morning, and it struck me then, as it struck me again on Saturday morning, that his voice sounds like it belongs to someone fifteen years older and fifty pounds heavier than he.

His theme for the presentation was chicken, and certainly he had written enough about chicken, and the eating of it, to fill up the forty minutes. (And I’m not terribly familiar with the Blount, Jr. canon, but my guess is he could have filled several forty-minute presentations with readings of his chicken-related writings.) He also took a moment to reflect on John McCain’s selection of Gov. Palin for VP – “It’s like your dad coming home and saying ‘Meet your new stepmom!’ And you didn’t even know he was dating anyone.”

The next event I attended was a panel of science fiction and horror writers – John Scalzi, Cherie Priest, Tobias Bucknell, and Kevin J. Anderson. Scalzi talked a bit about his decade-old blog, The Whatever, and how it had evolved from a personal project to an extension of his writing career. He even mentioned how he used to call it an online journal! That got a giggle out of the crowd – no, seriously, not a laugh, not a snicker. Really, a giggle. I distinctly remember reading The Whatever using the dial-up modem in my dorm room in late 1998 and early 1999.

Cherie Priest noted that you’ve got better chances of winning a lottery jackpot than having your blog writing noticed by an agent or publisher. I believe that, mostly.*

This segued into a discussion about how to break in to the publishing world. One of the panelists said something along the lines of, “If you do manage to get a contract, it’s probably without an agent, and if you do get your first contract with an agent, then it’s probably not an agent worth having.” I know I don’t have a lot of room to protest this statement, but, seriously – I PROTEST. As a rather obsessive reader of blogs written by agents, editors, authors, and aspiring authors (you see about 10% of them on the right side of the page), as well as a little-noticed well-wisher on a number of writing forums, I can say that many, if not most, new writers breaking in these days do so with an agent – quite often a well-established agent, or a new agent working with the support of a well-established agency — already working for them. And a good number of those agented authors, at least in the world of kidlit / YA lit, aren’t armed with a list of publishing credits – short stories and articles and so forth. If you want to write novels, write novels. And if you do indeed find yourself creating a good manuscript, I think it’s better to go ahead and take your shot with agents rather than a.) sitting on it for three years while you try to build up a list of short fiction credits, or b.) sending it to the few publishers who accept unsolicited submissions.

*= Every time I start to believe it fully, some other blogger with three whole months of archives and that polka-dot Blogspot background winds up with an agent and a two-book deal.

***

I spent part of the afternoon volunteering at the Emerging Writers Stage, which happened in the refreshingly breezy space inside the gazebo on Decatur Square. There were authors of all kinds and books of all kinds — self-published books, vanity press books, and micropress books, that is. Publish America books with curling covers. A small stack of handmade, hand-sewn picture books, each individually wrapped in a printed plastic bag. Mystery novels printed through a writer’s own small publishing company. Horror novels and religious tomes and poetry books and books about the untold stories of the 14th Amendment, the Atlanta Courthouse shootings, and identity theft.

What I had to do was:

  • Find the next author who’d be presenting.
  • Find his or her book on the display tables.
  • Quickly gather some information on the book and the author.
  • Run up to the microphone and introduce the author and book.
  • Watch author’s presentation and give him or her a warning when time’s almost up.
  • During the presentation, run around and find the next author and the next book so that I could be ready to introduce them when the onstage author was finished.

Once the onstage author finished, he or she went to the signing table at the back of the gazebo. Some authors had a bunch of family members and friends come to listen and buy books and have them signed. Other authors sold a few books to strangers who wandered into the gazebo. And still others stood at the signing table for fifteen minutes, pen in hand, only to slink out of the gazebo without having sold or signed a single book.

I didn’t have much time to get to know the books or the authors, but afterwards, when I flopped into a chair at the children’s books tent and remained there, sweaty and tired, for the next hour and a half, I wondered about the Emerging Authors. Some of them, like the courthouse shootings book author, had a legitimate reason to go with a micropress and try to sell their books locally. Others, like the crafter of the hand-sewn picture books, and the guy who wrote and published all of his own mystery novels, really seemed to enjoy the work that went into building their own cottage industry. But others really shouldn’t have given their novels over to AuthorHouse or iUniverse; I suppose there’s a chance they really only wanted their friends and family to read their books, but since they bought time and space at the Emerging Authors Stage, I’m assuming that they wanted their work to reach a larger sphere than that. Your write a general-interest novel, you (generally) want the general public to have access to it. I think there’s a mistaken notion among some writers that you have to work your way up through various publishing houses before you can get that first big contract — like you have to do a couple of vanity press or micropress books before you can move up to a small press and then, maybe, to one of the major New York houses. That’s about as true as the notion that you can’t get an agent until you’re published.

After listening to Sarah Prineas read from The Magic Thief, and watching Cheryl Klein’s Harry Potter trivia quiz, I resisted the temptation to spend the rest of my cash on a frozen lemonade, and instead went home to face down my most recent next-to-last-chapter writer’s block.

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