San Francisco Writers Conference

I spent a productive few days at the San Francisco Writers Conference, attending for free after winning the Grand Prize in their 2022 writing contest. Highlights were the many informative “breakout sessions” with agents, acquiring editors, independent editors, writing coaches, and book publicists. Aside from a few useful contacts, the conference gave me good ideas for honing my book proposal, which I continue to carefully craft.

As a full participant (last year I attended as a volunteer) I could schedule eight-minute consultations with editors and other industry professionals. Every fifteen minutes a group of attendees with appointments were ushered into a “holding room” consisting of a single long row of chairs. At the appointed time we swept into a hotel ballroom dotted with dozens of experts spread twenty or so feet apart, each seated at a little white-clothed table with a vase of flowers. At the time of my first appointment the arrangement of tables was random; we had to recognize our consultants from head shots set up on boards by the registration table. This led to people wandering about calling “Linda?” “Mr. Jones?” By my next session, fortunately, they had arranged the tables alphabetically.

I found I could get a surprising number of questions usefully answered in eight minutes. I had a good session with a guy who would be an excellent choice for an agent, once I decide to send out pitches. He thought I had a good subject and had made a good choice in a “comp” (a successful book with similarities to mine. At the top of my list is Salt by Mark Kurlansky.)

The advice I heard was not always consistent. I asked one “book coach” and literary lawyer about permissions. I have a few epigraphs to which I may need to track down rights, including a D.H. Lawrence poem (set to enter the public domain in about three years) and a couple verses from the 1948 song Ghost Riders in the Sky (“’Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky/on horses snorting fire/as they ride on hear them cry…”) He advised that not only would I need to secure the rights to all of these creative excerpts but also get permission from every last scholar from whose works I include a quote. That surprised and dismayed me. I could risk not doing this work, he said, but that would not be his advice. “It depends on your tolerance for risk. We lawyers are conservative.”

Many careers ago I had experience on the other end of the permissions game when I briefly worked for a well-known literary agency in Manhattan. Among my early responsibilities were lugging home fat manuscripts of bad novels from the slush pile and handling permissions. Requests would come in for permission to use a story by Ken Kesey, say, or Erica Jong, and I would write back saying how much it would cost. Here was a chance to shine! $100 for a chapter in an anthology? No! I’d ask for $200. I doubt I impressed anyone by driving hard bargains as the Permissions Department, but now, with some trepidation, I imagine someone like my 22-year-old self reviewing my requests.

I brought up the same issue later with the acquiring editor of a publishing house that would be a good home for my book. To my relief, she thought there would be no problem quoting scholars without permission. Even short quotes in epigraphs should be OK, though for an entire poem or a song lyric I might err on the side of caution.

I learned a lot from workshops with book publicists, a role I had not looked into much before. These days, even if you do find a traditional publisher, most authors are expected to do a lot of (even all) a book’s promotion themselves. Some experts gave advice about how to choose, hire, and work with a professional publicist, others on the sorts of things you can do yourself. One tip produced a flash of inspiration: I plan to design a custom Fire in the Mind matchbook, like the ones restaurants once gave out to their “matchless friends.” Now that smoking no longer takes place inside restaurants you don’t see this much, but dozens of vendors still make them, for weddings and other events. Something fun to give out in lieu of business cards.

A little ceremony after the Saturday “banquet” honored us writing contest winners. Here I am with honorees in various categories (poetry, adult fiction, young adult, etc.) Yes, we guys were distinctly in the minority at this conference.

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