What I Learned in Jackson Hole

by Laura on July 7, 2011

in Indie,Social Media

Well, the first thing I learned is that Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is different from the town of Jackson itself, but the writer’s conference is still called the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference. Beautiful country up there. Gave me an expanded sense of this nation of ours. Wide spaces, huge skies, high altitudes, mountains so close you could reach out and touch them.

But enough sentiment. On to the learning.

The Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference predominately and unapologetically focused on the traditional publishing model. In that sense, it seemed like a step back in time, not only because of the Wild West setting but also the content of some of the sessions. The publishing world is changing rapidly, but this news does not seem to have made it to Jackson Hole.

To have a writer’s conference in today’s climate that does not seriously discuss self-publishing as an option or omits in-depth, hands-on workshops on social media and online platforms seemed a bit out of touch, and unfortunately some misinformation was getting play. I found myself wanting to host my own clandestine sessions on the side.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t learn anything—I did, and it was definitely worth the trip. For example, I gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the traditional publishing world, particularly of the role of the editor. I learned a ton about the role of the agent, and found myself wanting one. (More on this in another post.)

One of my goals for the conference was to come to a decision about whether I should self-publish this year or take some time to shop my now completed novel to agents. The response I got to the pages I submitted from my four fabulous critiquers, along with a general sense of intrigue about the story, has made me think I should try shopping it first. I’m starting that ball rolling now, and will give it a year. But self-publishing and building an online platform remain important options that I will continue to investigate no matter what.

So. Main points from Jackson:

Agents are helpful
The panel discussion between four agents was an eye-opener. These folks are competitive, Type A negotiators, who have your back and make all the tough phone calls. The energy crackled as they answered questions rapid-fire from the audience, talking over each other in good fun and projecting passion for their clients’ best interests.

I don’t know what I was thinking going in, but now I can see that having someone like that negotiate all the money aspects for you and make sure you get paid can’t hurt. Once you get a publisher, that is. And that, of course, remains the tricky part.

Editors are amazing
The editing panel, on the other hand, was made up of lower-key professionals who genuinely care about the quality of the books they’re buying on behalf of their publishing houses. They defend the writer’s voice and art, and they’re passionate about offering works that amaze their readership.

These are quieter people, but no less engaged. And they want you to have an agent, because they themselves don’t want to have to talk with you, the writer, about money. They only want to talk with you about your work. It’s like buffer zones—writers write, agents negotiate, and editors talk to agents about the unpleasant worldly stuff and save their relationship with the writer for the work itself. Doesn’t that sound heavenly?

Writers are confused
What I mean by this is that as writers, we are focused on writing. As such, we don’t spend much time honing our business sense—that’s why agents exist. We have a hard time evaluating our own work—that’s why editors exist. Writers just want to write, and even relatively simply suggestions like “get a Twitter feed” or “start a website,” which are old hat to entrepreneurs in any other industry, flummox the writer to the point of paralysis. We don’t think of ourselves as business people.

This, I think, is one of our weak points. We’re in a much better position to become self-sustaining as writers if we acknowledge that we’re producing a product that then needs to be sold. We ourselves are the brand. (More on this in another post.)

Self-publishing is misunderstood
The option to self-publish was dismissed out of hand throughout the conference, which I think was a disservice to the attendees.

Mostly folks were concerned that “anyone can slap something up on Amazon and say they’ve published.” But to call making an unedited, undesigned manuscript available online “publishing” is a misnomer.

What I would have done if I were doing a session on this option would be to lay out for the writer what exactly successful self-publishing entails. You have to be the publisher, which means you are yourself taking on all the tasks of editing, design, packaging, marketing, distribution, publicity, etc., etc., etc.

True self-publishers take on the whole of the thing and make it work. These folks deserve as much respect as those who have been through the traditional publishing mill. Both are hard. Both are successful. Get over it.

Social media is wince-inducing
Twitter. Facebook. LinkedIn. Goodreads. Blogs. Hashtags. @ replies. Friending. Liking. Fan pages. Group pages. Streams. From the expression on most writers’ faces at the conference, these words only made them think, “Kill me now.”

There was not a lot of talk about how powerful a tool the Web is for building a platform and getting your message out. No overarching statistics or results were shown making the case for the effectiveness of social media. It was all about how arduous the tasks themselves are, how time sucking, how irritating. This, too, seemed to me to be a disservice to attendees.

But hey, you’re already reading this blog entry, having found out about it probably on Twitter or on Facebook. I don’t have to tell you how social media has changed the face of publishing. So maybe we can just think of those writers who are still resisting it as reducing our overall competition and leave it at that.

What about you?
With the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference under my belt, I have increased the number of such gatherings I’ve attended to exactly one. So it’s not like I know everything. Teach me more! What have you learned from conferences you’ve attended? Put it in the comments. I’d also love to see recommendations for conferences to attend.

It’s a wide world out there, let’s be a part of it. Hell, let’s shape it.


Susan J Cobb July 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Great post, Laura. I have a total of one writers’ conference under my belt this year, and was totally blown away by the value received. It was the San Miguel de Allende Writers conference. It not only covered traditional publishing, but had a number of workshops on self-publishing and social media. I’ve been trying to get a link to load, but am having “trouble loading page.” Google it if you’re interested. Besides, I bet you could find someone to stay with. Am I doing myself out of a bedroom???
If you want to feel TOTALLY overwhelmed go to the Hoop ti Do Twenty First Century Book Publishing event. I’m not providing a link, because if you touch the site you will be inundated with emails forever more. Just a heads up.

Laura July 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Would be a blast to do a conference with you! We’d own the place!

Carol July 11, 2011 at 12:32 pm

I’m shocked that self-publishing was dismissed … still? – that’s crazy. I agree with Chris you should be on a self-publishing panel!

Laura July 11, 2011 at 1:49 pm

:) I might have to actually self-publish something first!

chris raymond July 11, 2011 at 11:14 am

Laura, you should be heading up a Self-Publishing panel at these conferences…oh, and also the Marketing/SM panel…you know and have lived important lessons necessary for the emerging ‘new publishing’ world….IMHO.

Robyn Bradley July 8, 2011 at 9:48 am

It’s SO true that writers need to think of their writing career as a business and they need to think of themselves as the brand. I understand — and can appreciate — the whole “But I’m an ARTIST” philosophy, but that philosophy won’t sustain a long-term career that allows you to get paid for doing the work you love.

I’m not a big conference person, but I’ve heard great things about Grub Street’s annual Muse & Marketplace event that takes place every spring in Boston. You can read more about Grub Street here: http://grubstreet.org/index.php?id=173

Agents are vital — and will continue to be. I definitely want one to help guide me with my career, and I’m going to watch Konrath’s experiment closely to see how that plays out (his agency will be handling the self-publishing of one of his novels).

Great post — and best of luck shopping your baby around! :)

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