New York Round Table Writer’s Conference

On April 24 and 25, 2009, the New York Center for Independent Publishing hosted its fifth annual New York Round Table Writers’ Conference at The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen at 20 West 44 Street. I suppose that, like many other writers who attended, I had half a hope that I would make connections in the publishing world—with agents, editors—people who would help advance my career and get my work to the reading public. But because of my day job, I could only attend the Saturday sessions, and as I studied the schedule on my way to the conference, I realized that the agents had convened the previous day.

It was a hot spring morning, with a brilliant blue sky, air fragrant with blossoms, and the trees leafing out vigorously as if to make up for lost time. Those tender shades of  chartreuse yellow-green have quickened my heart since I was a child in Alabama, and I thought, Anyone with any sense of enjoyment would be outside on a day like this. Yet my steps quickened as I walked down West 44 Street, and I thought of the ghosts of the Algonquin Round Table and the old New Yorker and those sophisticated, heavy-drinking, wise-cracking writers of decades past.

In those days, a writer’s job was to put the words down on paper and deliver them to the agents, editors, and publishers, who took care of the rest. Maybe that’s why they had so much time to meet and drink. Today non-best-selling writers often have to be their own agents, editors, and publishers, and publicists. This is what I learned at the New York Round Table Writers’ Conference this year.

Given the current state of publishing and its inhospitability to writers, how do we writers reach our potential audience? How do we connect to readers? We don’t have to look far to see the media we’ve come to take for granted collapsing all around us. Television, film, radio, newspapers and magazines, printed books, recorded music—the traditional ways of distributing these media are no longer viable as businesses. They are becoming obsolete because they are not profitable. The Internet and electronic global communication have changed everything.

The upbeat message at the conference was that this state of things offers the enterprising writer tremendous opportunities.  The entire world is in a huge economic recession, the likes of which we have not seen for 75 years, and the resulting chaotic environment offers possibilities for those who know how to take advantage of them. Granted, the traditional media avenues are dying or dead, such as the publishing industry, but the publishing industry hasn’t served writers well for many years, noted Mike Shatzkin of Idea Logical at the panel, What’s Next: The Future of Publishing, and the other panel members, Laura Dawson of The Big Picture, Paul Biba of TeleRead, Jeff Rivera of GumboWriters.com, and the moderator, Christopher Kenneally, of Copyright Clearance Center, concurred.

It’s been a long, long time since publishing companies were independent entities dedicated to nourishing the literary careers of their authors. Those Maxwell Perkins days. They were mythical to me long before I ever thought of being a writer. Ever since the publishing companies were consolidated into media corporations, they have been devoted to the bottom line. “This translates to writers have just a couple of months for their books to take off in the bookstores, and then, if they don’t sell, the valuable shelf space in the bookstore gets taken up by another book,” noted Laura Dawson. “There’s no room for the book that sells 6,000 copies one year, 5,000 the next, 3,000 after that, and maybe 6.000 the following year.”

The model of blockbuster or nothing has killed the publishing industry and the intricate and supportive web of relationships that used to sustain literary endeavor.  But in its place are enormous opportunities for writers to connect with audiences on a truly global scale, in an instant. Thanks to so many visionaries who have done so much to make the sophisticated possibilities of the Internet available to even non-techies like me, I can communicate directly to readers, as long as I can find them.

It is in this spirit, inspired by the American can-do attitude that I cherish above all our other national qualities that I have decided to inaugurate my own blog, at http://www.blogger (whatever) in which I will explore the writer’s life and our contemporary culture, offer my own observations and those of others, make comparisons to times close and distant, and discuss subjects that engage me and that I think will be of interest to others.

In my next installment, I’ll introduce two savvy authors who made it happen for themselves and how and why they did it the way they did. I’ll also discuss my thoughts on the business model and how its influence has made itself felt through every fabric of our society.