Time Management

7 Surprises from the San Francisco Writers Conference

I just spent 4 incredible days having my head filled with tips at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Amongst all the great advice from generous speakers were some nuggets and takeaways which surprised me. Here are my top seven:

  1. Many authors are completely unprepared to tell you about their book in 30 seconds. They either shy away from discussing it at all, or they give you the entire synopsis. I admit, my elevator pitch could use some polish, too… I can give a nice 5-second overview, but the next 25 are a little awkward 😉
  2. Traditional publishers are really spooked by Amazon. One New York editor barely needed prompting to snarl “Six of my friends got fired (because of Amazon). None of us are getting raises.” Meanwhile, Mark Coker of Smashwords is understandably no fan of Amazon’s exclusive KDP Select program, pointing out that when Amazon is the last retailer standing, the 70% royalty which authors currently enjoy will shrink fast. As a first-time author who would be nowhere without the Amazon ‘also-bought’ algorithm, I already know I’m contributing to a dangerous trend, but I can’t deny the boost which KDP Select has brought me.
  3. People still assume self-publishing is what you do when you can’t get a book deal. Maybe I was naive to attend a conference heavily geared towards pitching to agents and not expect this. But, at this 500+ gathering, most writers were still hoping for a traditional book deal. I’m sad they weren’t more aware of the potential benefits of self-publishing, especially at a conference so close to innovation-rich Silicon Valley.
  4. Apparently, many self-published books bring dismal financial returns, and speakers from the world of traditional publishing seem almost to relish this. Quotes included “Most self-published books make less than $250 in their lifetime.” Statistically, that might be true, but it still surprised me. And I’m living proof: write a decent book, work a little at promotion, and you’ll far exceed that. Truly.
  5. There is a middle-ground. Yes, I’m self-published and proud of it. But having chosen that path willingly, it’s natural to wonder what would have happened if I had sought a relationship with a publisher. During a conversation with Lisa O’Hara (Omnific Publishing), who was incredibly gracious with her time and answers, I learned that an unagented relationship with a smaller publisher can provide a nice balance of time-to-market and author involvement in the book’s final form. Omnific specialises in fiction with a strong romantic element (rather than the traditional, narrow definition of romance) and if your novel is nearing completion, I’d suggest you check out their guidelines as a third potential path to publication.
  6. It may not be worth doing a print edition of your book if you’re an indie author. While my work isn’t pure romance, I can tell from my own sales that readers prefer this type of book in electronic form. And with some avid readers getting through a romance book a day, it’s easy to understand why a lower price point and no bookshelf clutter would appeal.
  7. And, just for fun: did you know that agents see a huge surge in submissions in December? Some eager writers finish their NaNoWriMo effort on November 30th and submit it immediately after. I think we can all see why that’s a bad idea. But suffice to say, if you’ve laboured for years on your debut novel, you might want to avoid December for sending it to an agent for consideration.

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8 Comment

  1. Reply
    Julie Valerie @Julie_Valerie
    February 18, 2014 at 4:57 am

    Very interesting article, Pauline! I’ve been thinking of you during the conference wondering what you were learning and what interesting tidbits you’d bring back.

    I love going to writer’s conferences and there’s a FANTASTIC writer’s conference in Richmond, VA every October run by James River Writers. I always leave so happy and so pumped about the craft of writing and the joy it brings me but also, I leave understanding there are many paths to readers and we need only find the path that best suits our needs. Perhaps you can hop a plane and stay at my house and we’ll head down the road together each day (about a 20 minute drive). They are so super positive about all things writing and have great speakers and break-out sessions.

    I wonder if your proximity to L.A. and the film industry brings you a higher concentration of traditionalists to your area’s writing conference? I dunno. But I do think writer’s conferences all have their own “vibe”. I heard the conferences in L.A. and Hawaii are all exercises in name dropping and that many of the speakers do a great deal of that during their lecture leaving the audience to wonder why in the heck they paid money to listen to someone blab on about celebrity writers. I think that’s so funny because I’d probably sit there not knowing who in the heck they were talking about because I’m mostly clueless when it comes to celebrities. Just people to me. With the exception of Hugh Grant. I adore him.

    Wow. How’d I come around to THAT?

    1. Reply
      Pauline Wiles
      February 18, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      Julie, I hope I’m not leaping to conclusions if I’m now thinking that Hugh Grant is a regular attendee at your fave writing conference?
      In all seriousness, what a lovely idea to attend together and I’ll be in touch ‘offline’ 😉

      1. Julie Valerie @Julie_Valerie
        February 20, 2014 at 6:31 am

        (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you’ll take me up on the offer to come to VA in October. If you can catch a flight, I’ll give you a bed to sleep on at my house and drive you back and forth each day. We can talk ‘offline’ closer to that time. Cheers, my friend!)

  2. Reply
    Prince Snow Farm
    February 18, 2014 at 4:58 am

    Great reflection Pauline! I am no where near this point but will remember to check back here when I am!

  3. Reply
    Martina
    February 19, 2014 at 7:42 am

    Thank you Pauline for sharing your tips from the the conference. Your points 3 and 4 are very interesting and there is an illuminating report from Author Earnings that sheds some light about what self-published authors can earn from their books with respect to traditionally published authors, so we mustn’t believe what people try to tell us, to discourage us:

    http://authorearnings.com/the-report/

    It’s quite a long post and you need to take some time to read it fully, over a cup of tea perhaps. Your jaw will drop, I promise.

    Concerning point 6, in the past it was expensive for indie authors to do a printed edition of their books, but now with CreateSpace it costs nothing. I still sell several printed copies of my books every month, and that is another way for people to read my books. I’d say, if it costs nothing, you have nothing to lose 🙂

  4. Reply
    Pauline Wiles
    February 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Martina, yes, I had browsed that report and it was also mentioned at the conference; I guess the big question is whether the volume of sales from a traditional deal can make up for the difference in royalty %. And it also feels good that I can enjoy a reasonable royalty on each book, without having to charge readers $10 plus.
    You’re quite right, with CreateSpace, the only cost is time and a couple of proof copies. I seem to remember the time spent on a cover and interior was non-trivial, but it is a nice option for readers. In December, I also noticed a higher number of paperback sales, presumably people preferring to give a ‘real’ book.
    Thank you as always for those thoughts…

  5. Reply
    Head Down... | Pauline Wiles
    November 9, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    […] novel, I’m taking advice from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. I heard Constance Hale talk at the San Francisco Writers Conference and loved her approach to making powerful word choices, including saying more with less. While you […]

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