The Slice Literary Conference

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Emma Winsor Wood, a scout at Aram Fox, spent the weekend at the Slice Literary Conference on September 7 and 8, 2013.

Attending an event centered around demystifying the publishing world as a member of the industry is like standing on the street and looking into your own house through a window. You realize the things you take for granted every day—the pink walls, the books piled waist-high on the living room coffee table, the beautiful vase you’re always embarrassed to say you bought at Urban Outfitters—are not known to everyone, not familiar, not just there. It’s comforting, looking from outside, knowing you can unlock the door, sit on the sofa, and pick up a book whenever you wish.

The 2013 Slice Literary Writers’ Conference was an energizing reminder that, for most writers, the publishing world is not simply inaccessible but opaque; not a window but a locked door. The writers in attendance—mostly local MFA students who were awarded scholarships to take part in the two-day conference—were hungry for information straight from the source. Once the panelists had spoken their part, the audience questions piled up on top of each other: How do you get an agent? What happens after your book sells? What if it doesn’t sell? If you leave New York, do you risk becoming entirely irrelevant? What makes some books “harder to publish” than others? If your advance doesn’t earn out, do you owe your publisher money? Why not just self-publish?

These eager writers got much more than an assortment of dry facts in return: the candor of the panelists, comprised of published writers and publishing professionals alike, continually surprised me. Literary agent Kate McKean spoke about the pain of telling a client that she couldn’t sell his novel. The novelist Alexander Chee laughed bitterly about the long battle he waged to get his debut published. When asked about networking, Michelle Brower, another agent, simply replied, “Be nice. After all,” she continued, “publishing is an industry of favors.”
Others observed that publishing is also an industry built on heartbreak: most of the books that are written, agented, edited, publicized, and sold—books that are beloved by many serious readers—won’t make a huge impression on the world. They can’t; there are simply too many deserving books. The key is not to give up. As the novelist Fiona Maazel said, “Success just buys us the opportunity to keep writing.” Or as Henry Holt editor Sarah Bowlin said, “I’m always happy when I see that a book I’ve turned down has become a bestseller elsewhere, because I know I wouldn’t have been able to make it one. And it’s those books that, financially speaking, can float a house for years. It’s those books that allow us to keep publishing other books, the books we love.”

In spite of the interdependence between writers and the publishing community, I often feel far removed from the arduous daily ritual that is writing, perhaps in much the same way writers feel far removed from publishing. As a member of the industry, the Slice Conference was a welcome reminder that there are faces, lives, minds behind each manuscript I read. Writers are part of our community, too. It can be surprisingly easy, particularly in the rush of submissions that comprise the fall season, to forget that.

This was the third annual Slice Literary Writers’ Conference, organized by the co-founders of Slice Magazine, Maria Gagliano and Celia Blue Johnson. Sponsors of the conference include, Book Architecture, Hachette Book Group, ICM, Penguin Book Group, and Poets & Writers. For more information about Slice, please visit their website.

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