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“Publishing is a process made up of multiple partnerships.” This is the thesis that guides the annual Literary Writers Conference, sponsored by the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) in New York City.
Executive Director Jeffrey Lependorf explains that the conference is entirely devoted to giving writers tools to maneuver the complexities of publishing, including insight into the relationships that authors have with their literary agent, editor, publicist, and bookseller.
“The people who attend this conference are those who have been through an MFA program or are completing one now, or have been out there honing their craft in literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry,” he says of the two-day event held in December at the New School.
What you’ll learn
Attendees will learn how to submit work to literary journals and find funding and residencies. One of the conference sessions focuses on how to find the right agent for your work – a process Lependorf likens to dating.
“We offer tools to help you find the kind of agent that’s best for you,” he says. “Do you need one that will do a lot of editing on your manuscript or respect it as it is? Do you need more or less hand holding, a younger up-and-coming agent, or a well-established agent who may be retiring soon and who has amazing contacts?”
A session titled “Winding Up for the Pitch” allows writers to practice pitching a manuscript to agents in front of staff and participants. “You meet a whole bunch of agents and see how different they are as human beings, with different tastes and personalities,” Lependorf explains. “But the purpose of this conference isn’t to get an agent. It’s to learn how to get one and what makes a good agent for you.”
Still, Jennifer Kitses, author of the debut novel Small Hours (Grand Central, 2017), met her agent at the Literary Writers Conference and returned in 2017 as a featured speaker to talk about her experience working with agent Lisa Grubka on publication and marketing.
Though the focus of this conference isn’t on craft, a clinic allows writers to get feedback on the opening lines of their manuscript from a panel of agents. “It’s really exciting to hear people read their work,” Lependorf says, and to get feedback from agents who aren’t focused on whether the writing is good or bad, but how they’d react if they received the submission in their office. “They’re saying things like ‘This seems beautifully written, but it’s not the kind of fiction I represent, so I might send it onto a colleague of mine.’ That’s always cool, and it really happens.”
Potential attendees can check CLMP’s website for the current list of 2018 presenters. “Case Studies” presentations feature a poet, fiction writer, and nonfiction writer talking along with their agent and editor – and sometimes the book designer and publisher – about how they achieved publication and how they work together to ensure a book’s success.
While these presentations used to focus on internationally famous authors, attendees suggested to staff that it would be more helpful to hear from writers who’d published perhaps just one or two books. “Now, we give you a chance to hear the story of a publishing process from someone just a few steps ahead of you,” Lependorf explains. “It’s like seeing a peer up there presenting in an intimate session.”
One of this year’s presenters in a session titled “The Author and Her Team” is Amanda Stern, whose memoir, Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life, describes growing up with panic disorder, shuttled between an affluent father and a bohemian mother in New York City. “It will be great for folks to hear from Amanda about her long path to publishing this memoir, knowing all that she knows about the business and how she’s engaged with her team,” Lependorf says of Stern.
Advice for first-time attendees
Lependorf asks conference participants to come prepared with a query letter and a polished first page of manuscript. Sit up close during presentations, he advises, so that people get to know you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be present, engage, and attend each session with the desire to become part of a larger writing community.
Color-coded nametags make it easy to find attendees working in your genre. Networking opportunities abound during the two-day event, and staff organize meetups after hours as well, so that people get to know each other and exchange contact information in more casual settings.
“Publishing is a partnership process, and it’s important to be a good literary citizen,” Lependorf says. “If you’re the first person to get a book out, be the first person to blurb others’ books when they get published. If one of your friends from the conference gets an agent, they might recommend you to that agent. The community-building aspect of this conference is so valuable.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and the forthcoming Better with Books: Diverse Fiction to Open Minds and Ignite Empathy and Compassion in Children (Sasquatch, 2019). Web: melissahart.com.