San Francisco Writers Conference 2015 recap

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This year we celebrated Valentine’s Day with several hundred fellow book lovers at the San Francisco Writers Conference. It was Girl Friday’s first time at the conference so we weren’t sure what to expect. Conferences require a huge amount of time and energy, and the SFWC made it well worth it.

We attended AWP last year, which is a terrific conference in its own right, but what I remember are rows and rows of exhibitor tables stretching as far as the eye could see. It was an amazing panoply of publishers, writing programs, chapbooks, and literary magazines, but the level of overwhelm was high.

At the SFWC, we were tucked in a cozy table in the reception area with only a handful of neighboring booths, and we had ample opportunity to get to know our fellow exhibitors during the lulls. There were some familiar faces from the EFA, to our right were the gals from Pubslush and to our left Jennifer (who wins my award for subtly on-message outfits) from Bookhive, a new company that offers reader focus groups to help authors hone their market. Across the way was the Blurb booth, who had my favorite marketing device of the conference: a chalkboard where you could write what your next book was about.

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On Friday, I did a panel with my dear friend Lucy Silag, who was there repping Book Country. Our talk was packed to the gills with folks who seemed incredibly receptive to our message about honing and marketing their work by building book communities both online and off. During the Q and A, someone asked if filming himself jumping from a plane while reading his book would make a good marketing device. It might, I told him, it’s all about the audience. Would his audience be charmed or simply confused by such extreme antics? Book Country filmed us during the panel; did interviews with Christina, Meg, and me about our work; and got some footage of us chatting with folks at the Girl Friday booth. We’ll share all of these soon! 

For me, the highlight of the conference was meeting Judith Curr, publisher of Atria Books, who was the conference’s keynote speaker. The Girls Friday and I were feeling a little star-struck after she came by our table; she’s warm and smart and incredibly glamorous, like someone Hollywood might cast to play a powerhouse lady publisher. As luck would have it, Atria is publishing my debut novel next year and as we listened to Judith’s show-stopping keynote on Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but think how jealous I would be if I wasn’t lucky enough to have landed with them. She told the rapt audience (no small feat at 8 a.m. on the fourth day of a conference) about her own fascinating background growing up as one of seven siblings in Queensland, Australia, and how she came to work in New York just as Amazon was launching and upending the whole system. She took us through the questions she asks each editor who wants to acquire a book for Atria: Why this book? Who will read it? How will they buy it? One of the things she said in her keynote that stuck with me was that every author has to decide what will make them happy and to celebrate each milestone along the way. Will it make you happy to get published? To sell ten thousand copies? It’s no good to simply say that you want every book to be a bestseller. Set realistic goals, celebrate when you reach them, and then move the bar. It seems like a good formula for not remaining in a constant state of writerly angst.

If I have any regrets about the conference, I wish we could have gone to more panels. The two I went to were dynamite: one featured the aforementioned delightful Judith and bestselling Atria author John Lescroart. On Sunday I went to a talk featuring the dynamic and insightful Penny Sansevieri, who did an incredibly engaging mini-class on Amazon marketing. Never has someone made keywords so much fun. Our own Kate Chynoweth moderated a fascinating panel on heroes and villains, where we gained insight on creating nuanced characters that readers will want to come back to again and again. And we heard editors deconstruct their methods—one of whom was advocating a twenty-two-step process.

Conferences are a rare opportunity to meet hundreds of your fellow writers and connect, drink wine, and learn about all of the newfangled things folks are coming up with to sell, promote, and create books. Until next year San Fran; up next, PNWA!