M. Jane Ross
Just home from the annual Writers' League of Texas Agents Conference—a weekend of intense listening, learning, getting to know some warm-hearted and talented Texan writers, meeting agents, and pitching stories. In a detour from my usual topic of food, I wanted to share my takeaways (the non-edible kind) from the weekend. Three key points rose to the top in the ocean of information that was the conference.
The state of the publishing industry
In two words: upheaval and distress! Publishers, and by extension agents and writers, have been badly affected by the recession. Book buyers simply have less money to spend. And beyond that, corporatization and consolidation in bookselling and trade publishing as well as huge transitions in the way we all read, how and where we buy books, and the kinds of books we are buying have thrown the book business into disarray.
Until recently, big-name publishers were very willing to invest in mid-list titles, books by unknown authors that were likely to sell “only” in the tens of thousands of copies. Now, those same publishers are looking primarily for front-list titles (blockbuster books by high profile authors, likely to sell hundreds of thousands of copies) or back-list titles (books that are likely to develop a required-reading quality in some area of the market and to become automatic re-orders at Barnes and Noble over many years). So where does that leave the memoir writer and the typical SCN author?
The market for memoir
Alas memoir writers’ prospects in New York trade publishing are not promising, unless the story has both exceptional writing —“sparkling” was the word used by several agents—and a unique angle. Agent Jim Hornfischer gave the example of an author he had agreed to represent as a result of pitch session at a writers conference. The author worked as a volunteer in canine search and rescue. Her story was a memoir about the work she did with her dog, whether searching for the remains of the Columbia astronauts across the fields of north Texas or finding missing children in her community. Hers is a unique and poignant story with drama and a clear narrative arc as the author learns to handle loss and to work with communities in trauma.
Few of us have a story this unique or dramatic. More often, our memoirs are the stories of learning to deal with the trials and losses that are inherent in relationship and in life, within the communities (geographical, religious, professional, and other) in which we move. But although our stories may not have the drama and potential to attract a national book audience, as writers we can (and should) stay focused on crafting that sparkling prose. And we can focus too on reaching our own unique platform and audience by other means, whether through self-publishing, blogging, or a small-press publisher.
Know your platform
Agents stressed repeatedly the importance of knowing your platform. If you’re Dr. Phil, your platform is your TV show and the show’s audience. For us non-celebrities, our platforms are the communities in which we live, work, play, volunteer, pray, share, etc. If your memoir is of caring for an aging parent suffering from Alzheimers and you are active in an online forum for Alzheimer caregivers, the readers of that forum are part of your platform. If you blog and write about herbs, then your blog readers and other herbalists are part of your platform. Your platform includes both the medium by which you connect with others interested in your subject and the number of engaged readers you’re able to reach through that medium. However you plan to publish your story, you need to identify your platform. You’ll include that information in your book proposal, and you’ll refer to it as you craft the marketing plan for your book.
The best takeaway from the conference for me personally was being reminded that there is a supportive community of writers out there, sharing this journey. Beyond that, I’ve made connections with reputable agents and learned what they are looking for so I can bring that knowledge with me when I talk to my editing clients and writing circle members. I’ll soon be announcing my manuscript evaluation service. The conference experience brought me fresh knowledge and connections so I can better help writers who come to me for assistance as they take the next step towards publication.
There's so much more I could tell you about the conference. But why don't you tell me what you'd like to know. Looking forward to your questions, which I'll answer in subsequent posts.