Thirty years ago, if you were in a creative writing program, in all likelihood you were a Stegner Fellow at Stanford or you were sitting in Iowa City feeling grateful to Frank Conroy. The 15 M.F.A. programs with degrees in writing that existed in 1975 have zoomed to well over 100 today. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs has had a lot to do with that growth. Now 40 years old, the AWP is roundly credited with key fund-raising and community building, bringing writers from various programs together in spirit, and once a year in a hotel. The annual conference, held early this month in Atlanta, is also a magnet for the independent publishing community—small presses, literary journals and the hordes of writers looking to find a place to publish.
According to Stacy Livingston, the conference coordinator, about 5,200 people, including publishers, editors, writers and teachers, took in the four-day event, which featured a hall of book exhibits surrounded by dozens of panels and readings.
This year, 373 presses and publishers exhibited, the vast majority of them independent houses, from Norton and Graywolf down to tiny shops like the newly minted feminist poetry press, Switchback Books. Joseph Bednarik, marketing director for Copper Canyon, said this year's AWP "was the most satisfying and successful conference yet. We sold a dozen cases of books and talked with hundreds of poets and teachers about Copper Canyon titles." Michelle Wildgen of Tin House magazine and Tin House Books has a similar take: "AWP is an extremely effective way of reaching our true audience in terms of readers and contributors."
Literary magazines, such as the poetry journal Jubilat and the independent book review Rain Taxi, also had a presence, looking to sell issues and subscriptions and make contact with writers they might like to publish. Also spread throughout the fair were representatives from prominent literary organizations—including the Academy of American Poets and the PEN American Center—as well as many M.F.A. programs.
AWP, already a mainstay of the independent publishing community, is especially important to poets. It is one of their only chances to talk face-to-face with book publishers and magazine editors, as Martha Rhodes, a poet and director of Four Way Books, confirms: "The conference affords us the time to meet potential authors." Panel topics ranged widely, from the esoteric ("Post-Avant: Strategies of Excess") to the practical ("Do I Have to Work the Book Fair?: A Look at the Art of Self-Marketing in the Publishing World"). In a panel on subscription models for literary presses, CLMP's executive director, Jeffrey Lependorf, moderated a discussion with Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press, Lori Shine of the poetry press Wave Books, and Teresa Carmody of West Coast indie press Les Figues about the benefits of subscription programs for small presses. Nash called subscriptions "self-perpetuating," and Lependorf encouraged editors to employ strategies usually associated with big, glossy magazines, such as "renewal at birth," which means giving subscribers the best discount possible on a renewal just after they've subscribed. Les Figues claimed that 46% of its revenues came from subscriptions, Wave cited 40%, while Nash said subscription revenue for Soft Skull was negligible.
Another panel—"Who's Really Reading This Stuff?"—addressed the NEA's "Reading at Risk" survey on the decline in literary reading in America. Panelists contended that while the survey said reading is down, their literary publications—including some online journals—have growing readerships. Failbetter.com's editor Thom Didato claimed that as many as 60,000 people read each issue of his publication, a number that continues upward.
The many readings on the schedule provided opportunities for presses to feature authors of new titles and to sell books, and for attendees to find new writers in new contexts. Over the four days of the conference, there were readings of all kinds in all categories, including tributes to recently deceased writers, such as the poet Barbara Guest, showcases from Wesleyan and Graywolf and readings by many individual writers. The finale of the conference on the evening of Saturday, March 3, was a pair of readings. For poetry lovers, there was C.D. Wright and Rumi translator Coleman Barks. Across the way, novelists Kaye Gibbons and Tayari Jones read from their work.
Next year's conference will be held in New York City.