Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Week Twelve: The Company of Writers

RNA Conference 2014. Yes, that's me in the foreground. Photo by Anita Chapman.

My apologies for the late posting of this blog. I recently returned from a long weekend at the annual conference of the Romantic Novelists Association and have been recovering. Since the conference is what's uppermost in my mind right now, my blog post this week will be about the key reasons for novelists to attend a writers' conference, plus some associated thoughts.

Richard Lee (Waterstones, at podium) and Matt Bates (WHS Travel) talk sales to a packed lecture theatre, RNA Conference 2014

Conference-going can be exhausting. It does not have to be, you can always duck out and spend a few hours alone in your room, or go for a walk or drive to clear your head. But I spend so much of my life locked in a small room with my thoughts, I prefer to suffer exhaustion and not waste a moment of the conference experience napping or walking. When I am not much older, I suspect slipping away to my room will become a necessary part of staying the course, because it is genuinely tiring to get up early, go to bed late, move relentlessly from one session to coffee break to another session, chat with fellow writers, and perhaps attend the odd kitchen party, all for two to three days in a row. But for now, I'm still pushing through the pain barrier to make the most of my time there, albeit with a rictus grin on my face ...

So here are the chief reasons why a writer, especially one new to the industry and hoping to be published in the future, should attend a writers' conference. At a conference, we can:

  • Swop horror stories about writing and publishing
  • Allow ourselves fresh hope
  • Develop a feel for the market
  • Take the opportunity to show our work to agents and editors
  • Bare our souls
  • Drink deep
  • Take (and compare) notes
  • Learn from experts
  • Give presentations and share our knowledge
  • Become part of a community
Coffee time chat with fellow authors, RNA Conference 2014

At this year's RNA conference there was much talk of 'the death of the midlist', i.e. the increasing erosion of those writers and titles which are not expected to sell mega bucketloads, but normally sell a reasonable amount, and so get published but do not enjoy the kind of massive promotional push from their publishers that a writer such as Stephen King or Philippa Gregory might expect. (Ironically the kind of writers who desperately need that push are the ones who rarely get it, the financial risk being considered too steep.) Advances for midlisters are dwindling along with their sales, and publishers are dropping huge swathes of midlist authors in favour of brand-new faces or top-notch commercial hits. This cull is not about talent or market fit. It's simply about money and there not being enough of it to go round. So the new and the sure-fire get it instead of the cannon fodder.

There is no easy answer to this dwindling of earnings. Some writers have called for publishers to pay their authors larger percentages as royalties, and there is a case for this; the 8-10% we traditionally enjoy on paperback retail sales was fine back in the days before the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, when discounted sales were not permitted and most successful writers made a good living. Now though, with piracy and supermarket discounts and multi-media competition working against us, and our much-beleaguered books selling in far smaller numbers at knock-down prices, that meagre 10% barely allows us to earn out our advances - if we got one at all. Digital royalties are improving and approaching 30-40% in most places now, but of course digital prices are even lower. So we lose out both ways.

A drinks reception sponsored by Kindle Direct Publishing: some famous faces here ...

Conferences are places where the open discussion of such problems can happen in a wide arena packed with industry die-hards and newbies alike, some traditionally published, some self-published, some unpublished but ever-hopeful of success. But success has become a moveable feast. Success for writers used to be six-figure contracts and all the trimmings: book launches, posh dinners with agents, international tours. Now, for the midlist at least - the stalwart foot soldiers of publishing - it has become about selling enough to stay in work, even selling enough to stay alive. And it feels as though nearly everyone below superstar level is suffering, even those who seemed unassailable ten years ago.

So a conference not only gives us a chance to talk to our heroes and press our latest manuscript into the hands of agents and editors, it also allows us to discuss these industry failings en masse, and hopefully suggest remedies to each other.

Not that the remedy to publishing's current sickness lies in our hands alone. But we can suggest ways to continue making money from our art, to diversify, to seek new outlets for our writing, perhaps to leap into the wind and become publishers ourselves. And even though the outlook is bleak, there is still the solace of the company of other writers, other creative souls trapped in the same impasse, passing the bottle at some late night party in student accommodation ... just like the old days.

QUESTION: do you attend writers' conferences, and what do you hope to gain from them? Has attendance at a conference ever improved your writing and forwarded your career?


  1. An excellent post, as always, Victoria! I believe the company of other writers is essential. And as to the state of the publishing industry, I keep thinking of that Disney cartoon, Finding Nemo: "Just keep swimming" is my motto (and hope there's no shark on my tail! x

  2. Great post (and photo bien sur!). I was at the conference an thoroughly enjoyed it. What a wonderful, warm community the RNA is. For me as an unpublished writer, it's a good excuse for a weekend off from mothering, to see friends, but also an opportunity to mix with those who know what they're talking about-which leaves me feeling inspired and ready to plough on with getting my current WIP done.

  3. Thanks, Louise and Anita! It's a great photo, I'm so glad you took it, Anita. And you're quite right, escaping from mothering or other responsibilities is an excellent reason to go to a conference, so I've popped that into the list. Thanks!

  4. I love writers' conferences. They are full of brilliant speakers, you glean loads of great advice and ideas and they're a chance to get out of the (very solitary) office and talk to writers in the same boat. Literary festivals are great too.

  5. What an excellent article Jane. For me going to the Conference is an opportunity to talk to all those other people who have characters in their head, plots lines running through veins and think its all completely normal.


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