Should You Attend a Writers Conference?

Every year, many aspiring writers search for the assistance they need to break out–the agent, the editor, the publisher, whatever it is. And every year, many writers conferences offer to provide that assistance. The problems, of course, are that they are not free and they are not all in your hometown. How do you decide whether a conference is worth the investment? How do you decide which of the many you should attend?

I have some insight on these questions. As you may already know, I’ve organized a writers conference for many years now. It’s a lot of work and not terribly profitable, but every time I think about ending it, I come back to the same question: How would my life have changed if something like this had been available when I was trying to break into the business? I was a Oklahoma punk who’d never even met a writer, much less been in a hotel filled with them. Information was tough to find. I survived, but it wasn’t easy and that certainly might have helped.

And that’s why I put on the conference.

I think hard every year about how to make this year’s conference as useful as possible. Social opportunities are great, but I want the conference to provide more than networking. Information is the most valuable professional asset, so I try to provide the info people need to succeed. This has become even more important in recent years, as the publishing industry has undergone so many changes in so little time. I make sure people can find agents and editors, too. While I can’t guarantee publishing contracts, I can guarantee opportunities, information, and valuable feedback. The rest is up to the writer.

Here are the factors you should consider when deciding whether to attend a conference:

  1. If you’re hoping for an agent (or editor), examine the credentials of the people attending in advance. Sadly, some conferences will invite (or permit) agents who do not have strong track records, to fill slots cheaply or because they lack the contacts necessary to get to the top players. I’ve seen conferences with agents I wouldn’t even allow my students to pitch. If you’re going to commit to an agent, there should be a good reason. Make sure the person you’re pitching has sold books. Their website should list their clients as well as past sales. Make sure they represent the kind of book you’re writing. Make sure they’re with a reputable agency. If you can’t tell from their webpage (or they don’t have one), that should set off warning bells.
  2. Some conferences are so large they take the cattle-call approach to private consultations. Everyone is released at the same time in a large room and you can talk to as many as possible in a set period of time. You’ll like spend most of your time waiting, not talking. Some conferences make you pay an extra fee, per pitch. I recommend smaller or midsize conferences with reputable agents, so you know you’ll get to talk to the ideal people–and have enough time to have a real conversation. Plan to spend maybe 10% or your allotted time actually pitching. Spend the rest of the time listening. Go in with smart questions, things you need to know. Even if they don’t take you on, what would they recommend you do next? Instead of expecting an instant contract, view it as a learning experience, a rare opportunity for a professional consultation. Pick the brains of industry leaders. Most will be happy to talk.
  3. Give the rest of the speakers the same scrutiny. You should pick your sessions based not only on topic but also credentials. Even if the topic doesn’t address your primary need, a knowledgable speaker can impart information you may well find useful. Look for people who know what they’re talking about. If an opportunity for a chance conversation comes along, be prepared with questions. Don’t ask the obvious, stuff you could Google. Dig deeper. Take notes. Buy recordings. Then put the information into practice immediately, before you’ve had time to forget it.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that when I plan my conference, I only bring in agents I would be happy to have as my own, and I only choose speakers who are knowledgeable and know how to impart that knowledge. And I am always available to make sure people make contact with the people they want to see (or get anything else they need). I mother-hen the whole shebang, doing my best to make sure everyone is happy and everyone gets the tools they need to succeed. If you have any questions about the conference (OKC, Sept 22-24), feel free to email me:

You can register here:

Modern Publishing 101: Traditional Publishing

Once upon a time–like when I started in 1991–traditional publishing was virtually the only game in town. If you wanted to get into bookstores–and you did, because that was the primary place books sold–you needed a publisher, the bigger the better. Unfortunately, that meant you needed an agent, who would take 10-20% of your share, so you could get a publisher, who would retain 85-96% of the proceeds from the sale of your book. Unless they paid you a flat fee, in which case they kept it all.

Today we have many options, and I’ll be discussing all of them in this series of blog posts. But I’m starting with traditional publishing, because it still exists, and some argue it’s still the most desirable, or at least the most prestigious. (I’m not saying I agree. I’m just reporting.) The Big Five NYC publishers lead the pack, but there are many other prestigious publishers that have national distribution, and beyond that, many regional, small, and university presses.

Getting a contract with a big publisher is supposed to be the aspiring writer’s dream, but that dream is more like a nightmare if no one can find your book, or sales are poor, or they edit it poorly or give it a silly title or an embarrassing cover (fyi, I’ve had all of the above). But let’s say you’ve got your heart set on traditional publishing. Here are the essential steps:

1) Accurately categorize your book

2) Find an appropriate literary agent

3) Prepare your submission materials (query letter, synopsis, etc.)

4) Submit

Accurate categorization is critical. Even if you think your work is too deep and complex to be pigeonholed, you must be able to tell people what it is or you will never sell it. Presentation materials differ from different kinds of books. For instance, nonfiction writers can pitch with a proposal, but fiction writers will need a completed manuscript. Agents tend to specialize in certain fields, as do editors. You must know what your book it is to find the right business partner. The Big Five do best with genre fiction (romance, mystery/thriller, SF, YA), and nonfiction with a strong hook or concept that could appeal to a large audience. You are unlikely to sell the Big Five books over 120,000 words, poetry, short story collections, memoirs (unless you’re famous), literary or experimental fiction. A smaller or regional press, however, might be interested (and might not require an agent).

If you want to be published by the Big Five, you will need an agent. If your project is unlikely to draw a decent advance, an agent will probably not be interested. Today, you have the advantage of using the net to obtain info about agents, and you may be able to query them online, too. The best sources for agent information are:, (useful, but subscription required),,, and for the literary market, (also requires a subscription). You can even hire someone to find appropriate agents and publishers for you. Visit Grad Student Freelancers.

While you’re researching literary agents, find out what they want to see, because it varies. All will want a query letter, a one-page pitch letter, though today it can usually be sent by email, or possibly pasted into an interface on a webpage. You will also probably need a synopsis for a novel (1-2 pages long), sample chapters, or a proposal (especially if this is nonfiction).

And then it’s time to submit. Don’t expect a fast response. Prominent agents receive about 300 queries a week. If you get no response, you probably need to improve your premise (read Promising Premise) or rewrite your query to make it more engaging. If people ask for a manuscript but then decline, there’s something wrong with your manuscript. Come to a writing seminar or retreat and we’ll see what we can do about that.

How long should you keep querying? Obviously, there’s no set answer here. How much can you stand? I will tell you this. I sent my first novel out, over a period of about three years, and it was rejected hundreds of times by agents or publishers. No, I am not exaggerating. I heard that it was boring, unbelievable, and poorly written. And then Random House/Ballantine bought it and sold half a million copies in the first three months.

So now you know why I tell my students to be persistent. Never give up. You’ve never been trying too long.

But if traditional publishing isn’t working for you, you might consider the alternatives. I’ll post about that next time.

The State of Publishing–2017


Publishing has probably never been more confusing, in part because people hold onto long-standing prejudices and stereotypes rather than looking at the facts. Well, that’s not the Red Sneaker way. I want you to have the most satisfying and successful writing career possible, and that means keeping one eye on your work and the other eye on the world. Some long-held beliefs are simply no longer true. When you prepare to make critical career decisions, what to write, where to send it, you need facts. Accurate information can help answer a lot of your questions. For instance:

Should I seek a big New York publisher, or a small press, or self-publish?

First let me say, as I have said before, that you must do what will make you happy, what will make you feel successful. That said, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent Author Earnings report, the Big Five New York publishers’ market share is declining and will likely continue to do so in the years to come. By contrast, independent presses, self-publishers, and Amazon imprints (more on those later) comprise over 50% of all book sales. Old stereotypes such as “the best books get picked up by New York” or “bookstore books are superior” are simply no longer true. Given the small market share they have, bookstore sales have become the tail wagging the dog. Most people buying online don’t care who published a book and don’t care whether it’s in bookstores. They just want a good read.

Here’s what Jane Friedman wrote in her blog: “I think it will be a lackluster and perhaps soul-searching year for traditional publishers. The “print is back” fanfare will diminish, with Barnes & Noble continuing to remain flat or decline, and Amazon further gaining market share across formats….Without smarter ebook pricing, traditional publishers will continue to see flat or declining sales in that format.”

There are advantages to having the backing of a New York publisher–and disadvantages too, particularly in the royalty department. What is clear is that it is not the only way to go. Figure out what will be best for you and your work.

Do I need an eBook edition? Do I need a print edition?

I like print books too, particularly hardcovers. I’m old-fashioned and I just get more out of that reading experience. But since our goal is to be successful, not just to please ourselves, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent DBW White Paper, in 2016, over 70% of all adult fiction sold in the eBook format. That is expected to grow, not diminish, in the years to come. eBook reader sales also continue to grow, and more readers means more digital sales. So no, if you’re writing adult fiction and you’re hoping to reach readers, you can’t skip the ebook. You might be okay without a print edition (though it’s not hard to set that up at CreateSpace, whether you think it will be massively profitable or not).

If you’re writing for children or writing nonfiction, your situation may be somewhat different–but I still wouldn’t skip the eBook.

Is Amazon a major publisher?

A strong argument could be made that Amazon is THE major publisher in the US. It now has thirteen different imprints, covering virtually every imaginable genre, and the Kindle Scout program opens the door to anyone who can mount a successful campaign. In 2016, 7 out of every 10 books on the Kindle bestseller list were published by Amazon. Overall, Amazon’s market share grew last year by 4%. No other publisher even comes close.

This just makes common sense. Like every other publisher in America, Amazon favors the product in which it has a vested interest, both in its promotions and its positioning. If you can make Kindle Scout “crowdsourcing” work for you, do it. If not, tie your book to a similar successful Amazon-imprint title in your marketing, so in time it will appear on that book’s page as a “People Who Bought This Also Bought” title.

With all the books out there today, how do I draw readers to mine?

Two answers here, both obvious:
1) Write it well, and
2) Market.

This may seem simplistic, but those are in fact the correct answers. As the Amazon store is increasingly filled with eBooks, the books that attract the most attention will be the ones that please readers (because they are written well) and the ones that have authors willing to spend time and occasionally money on marketing.

Once upon a time, every successful writer wanted a personal assistant. Today, the smart ones hire a book marketer. Using email, search engine optimization, and social media is more effective than any previous book marketing ever was–but it does require time and knowhow. Most writers would rather be writing. But I suspect that in the long run, this is what will separate those who sell well from those who don’t. So I’m going to devote the next several entries in my blog to marketing. Get the app and check it out. And follow what my wife Lara is doing with her new novel, The Wantland Files. She’s mapped out a six-month marketing plan that’s a virtual textbook on modern-day marketing, starting with the online launch party on January 21. Click here to see how it’s done.

(A longer version of this post appears in the most recent edition of the Red Sneaker Newsletter email. If you’re not on the distribution list, sign up here.)

Myth #3: Writing is Easy if You’re Any Good at It

Alternately, I could have titled this post something like, If you think writing is hard, you must not have any talent–because that’s how I often hear people phrase this idea at conferences and retreats. Either way, it’s completely untrue, though I can see how people might come to believe it.

It’s easy to become discouraged when the words aren’t flowing right, when you’re stuck in a fictional morass, when you know there’s something wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. It’s particularly easy to become discouraged early in your writing career, because until you’ve got some practice under your belt, the work is never as good as you want it to be. I’ve read wonderful books all my life, you think. Why can’t I write one?

Here’s the reality: Writing is hard. I’m not sure why, but it is. Like all acts of artistic endeavor, creating something out of nothing is challenging. There may be other things that are as hard, but I don’t think there’s anything harder. We rarely have any trouble expressing ourselves verbally. So why is it so hard to put words down on paper? Perhaps a neurologist could explain it. I can’t, but I know it’s true. My next novel (Challengers of the Dust, out September 9) will be my 43rd book. So at this point, you might imagine I have this writing thing down, right? Wrong. It’s still a struggle. The first draft is always a fight to wrestle onto paper, and even then I’m typically so dissatisfied with it that I bury my face in my hands and think, When did I forget how to write?

Of course, the secret is to not stop there. Take a brief break, and then start on the next draft. Each time, if you’re putting in your maximum effort and working consistently, you should begin to see improvement. This is what writing is all about (and also the subject of my most recent Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing). Your first draft will never be publishable. Writing is a process–and no steps in that process can be skipped without diminishing the final product. Good writing is the result of relentless editing and revision and reconsideration.

I will say this–I do believe that with practice you may find writing getting, not easier, but a bit faster. That is, once you have your writing process down cold, you may find the time it takes to produce a first-rate book decreasing. It will never be fast, but it may become faster. What causes some experienced authors to be labeled “prolific” is not that they find writing easy but rather that they’ve made writing a daily habit and they’ve got their process down.

So if you’re out there thinking, writing is so hard for me, I must be a terrible writer–you’re wrong. Writing is hard for everyone. You may need more practice. The more you do, the quicker it will get. Just don’t give up. Don’t become discouraged. And whenever you have an opportunity to learn more about this challenging quest you’ve undertaken, go for it.

One more note about the forthcoming Rose State Writers Conference: This year, for the first time ever, a VIP Dinner will precede the Friday night program. This will give you a chance to dine with and have photos taken with the Guests of Honor. Since there’s food involved, there’s an additional charge, but I encourage you to take this opportunity to rub shoulders with the people you hope to emulate. You might even have some fun!

Excellent Editing link

Rose State Writers Conference link

When Do You Get Your Rights Back? Never?

For a law student studying contracts law, this principle is axiomatic: You don’t give away your rights unless you get something of value in return. Sadly, though, writers historically have done that all too often. Because they hunger to be published, preferably by a large corporate publisher, they sign contracts with poor terms and pitifully low royalty rates. In the past, however, they at least knew that if the book went out of print, those publishing rights would revert to them.

Not any more.

When does an eBook go out of print? Never. When does a print book go out of print? If the publisher sets it up for print-on-demand, never. So today, writers face the possibility of granting licenses that will never revert.

The Authors Guild and other organizations have proposed various contract provisions to alleviate this situation, but the sad truth is the Authors Guild has little to no clout. The Big Five publishers are cogs within large corporations and large corporations do not give up anything of value if they can avoid it. Why would they?

Some have advocated contract clauses providing that if a book doesn’t sell a certain number of books, say, 200 copies a year, the rights revert. But a publisher can easily circumvent that. Make the book available online for 99 cents (or less) and it will cross that threshold. Some have advocated clauses providing that if an author doesn’t earn a minimal amount, say, $200 a year, the rights revert. But the publisher can easily circumvent that. Even if the publisher has to pay a small fee to an author, it might be willing to do so to hold onto the rights. Bottom line, I don’t think clauses based on sales or money are the solution.

Here’s what I recommend: whenever possible, limit the term of your licenses to a number of years. License the rights for five years, or ten years, long enough to make it worthwhile for the publisher. But when the term is over, the rights revert, or the publisher may request an extension based upon the same or better terms. Something like this:

The Author grants and assigns the Publisher the following rights (insert rights)The period of this license shall be for five years, at which point, the contract may be renewed on the same or better terms, provided both parties agree.

You may be thinking, no publisher would agree to that. But I’ve gotten it and I know other writers who have as well. If you’re a first-time writer dealing with a Big Five publisher, it may not happen. But you can still ask, or tell your agent to do so. And if you can’t get it, you might think twice about signing that contract. Are you getting enough value to justify giving those rights away forever?

And just so you know, Amazon Publishing traditionally offers contracts with term clauses.

What’s Really Going On in Publishing

If you keep up with the publishing “news,” you may be confused by recent contradictory indicators. Some sources claim that eBook sales are declining, but any popular-fiction authors who’ve looked at their royalty statements lately sees a different story. The NYTimes consistently suggests that Amazon is the Antichrist and destroying literature, but a growing number of independent authors credit Amazon for the ability to work without a corporate overlord. Who’s right?

Good numbers are hard to come by in the book world, because the Big Five  play their cards close and Amazon won’t release sales figures at all. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the statistics coming from are, while perhaps not perfect, the most reliable statistics we have. Why? Because by using computer data-gathering bugs to collect sales information, they take into account Amazon sales, which is currently more than 50% of all books sold in the US and about 75% of all eBooks. Those articles about eBook sales declining are based upon data from the AAP or Neilsen–so they include the Big Five but not Amazon. EBook sales are declining at the Big Five, because they’ve raised their prices, which you’ll recall they fought hard for the right to do. At Amazon, the far bigger share of the pie, eBook sales and independent authors are increasing.

Image 1

So gross unit sales are rising, but…

Image 2

…the books that are selling are increasingly those from independent authors, not the Big Five. The Big Five have (somewhat) larger gross profits, due to the higher prices, but of course most of that money does not end up in the hands of authors:

Image 3

As a group, independent authors are taking home more money than Big Five authors. Remember, an independent author can claim a 70% royalty at Amazon, whereas a traditionally published author will get somewhere between 4-15%. So you can sell far fewer books but still take home more money.

I urge you to visit, read the report, and draw your own conclusions. Read May 2016 Author Earnings Report: the Definitive Million-Title Study of US Author Earnings.


At Last! A Cure for Writer’s Block!

Writer’s block is the bane of the creative scribblers, so you will be pleased to hear that there is a cure. And of course, as you probably expected, the cure comes from modern technology.

Designer Manuel Ebert has released “The Most Dangerous Writing App.” The title is not hyperbole. The goal is to eliminate stalling, procrastination, and window gazing. How? Once you start writing, you are not allowed to stop. If you stop typing for more than five seconds–the app deletes everything you’ve written.

Draconian? Yes. Effective? I don’t know. But a desire to eliminate writer’s block definitely exists. The app has only been out two weeks–and it has already been downloaded more than 100,000 times. I’ve heard other writers say they work best under a deadline, but this must be the harshest deadline of all time. Ebert says, “MDWA means I don’t need coffee to make my heart race.”

I suppose if you want to play with this app while you’re writing your daily journal entry or something nonessential, fine, but I can’t recommend anything that could cause you to lose a day’s work due to an inopportune phone call or a sudden attack of colitis. Let me suggest some more practical approaches to writer’s block.

  1. Go to the Library. What does “writer’s block” actually mean? Assuming you’re not just indulging yourself, it probably means you don’t have anything to say. The best authors write because there’s something they want–perhaps need–to share. What’s your message? If you don’t have one–go to the library. A good bookstore might work too, but why not support your local library? I don’t know how you could walk through those aisles and not be inspired. Read the plot descriptions. Try unfamiliar genres. Think about what made your favorite books memorable.
  2. Prepare an Outline. Yes, I know being a “pantser” is more fun, but in real life (not the delusional writer’s life often portrayed in author interviews), pantsers typically have fun for a few days but don’t finish their project. Eventually they run out of steam and don’t have a plan to keep them moving forward. Or they have fun letting their characters “take over the book,” but it doesn’t lead to anything cohesive. I know, outlining is not fun and you’d rather plunge right into the story. Do it anyway.
  3. Set a Goal. I don’t mean a time limit. No one can predict when they will be published or meet other publishing-world goals. But everyone works bests when they have a clear and designated purpose. What’s your purpose? Why are you writing? There are easier ways to make money or achieve prominence, so there must be something more. What is it? When you know you’re doing something worthwhile, something that matters, it’s easier to force yourself to sit in that chair and write.

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Publishing a Lie?

Conspiracy theories may be common with Mulder and Scully, aliens, the Illuminati, and Bigfoot, but we don’t often get them in the erudite world of books and publishing. This week, however, we did.

As you are probably aware, in 2014-2015, Amazon engaged in a negotiation showdown with Traditional Publishing, most prominently Hachette. The common view was that the Big 5 wanted the right to set prices for their products when sold on Amazon–agency pricing. Everyone thought the outcome was that the Big 5 won the right, increased their prices, and made more money.

This week, several stories broke suggesting that everything we thought we knew was wrong.

Mike Shatzkin is a prominent publishing analyst who writes the Idea Logical blog. Based on conversations with publishing executives and even a source at the Department of Justice, Shatzkin claimed that although the Big 5 publishers wanted agency pricing in 2010, by 2015 they realized it was not to their advantage but were forced to accept it–by Amazon.          “[T]he big publishers had no choice about sticking with agency. Amazon insisted that they stick with agency.” Amazon also wanted and got a more favorable split of revenues.

Another analyst, Phillip Jones, agrees. Quoting other industry sources, Jones says that since Amazon dominates the eBook market, allowing publishers to overprice their books was a smart strategy that shifted sales from Big 5 eBooks to Amazon eBooks, allowing Amazon to rapidly grow its self-publishers and Kindle Unlimited market. Conversely, another blog, The Passive Voice, says this “revelation” is just propaganda designed to smooth over an imminent publisher reversal on agency pricing.

Perhaps even more startling is Shatzkin’s claim that the articles claiming “print sales rising in the US” last year was simply based on the fad for adult coloring books–which some people wouldn’t even consider books.

I will admit that Shatzkin’s “revelation” makes sense to me. I expected Amazon to fight to the death for what they wanted and to have the clout to win. Instead Amazon seemed to grant agency pricing to any publisher that wanted it. The story makes more sense if Amazon wanted the Big 5 to set their prices (higher) and focused instead on revenue stream. In any case, one thing seems clear–the agency pricing that seemed like such a must-have before looks like an albatross now.

What do you think?

See the debate continue at Idea Logical:

Nate Hoffelder:

Philip Jones: