Eight hundred writers and presenters, including Augusten Burroughs, James Carroll, Mitali Perkins, Owen King, Megan Marshall, and dozens of other writers gathered at the Boston Park Plaza in downtown Boston from May 2-4 for the 13th annual GrubStreet Conference. The conference, like the nonprofit literary arts center that sponsors it, focused on craft as well as the mechanics of getting published. At the “Manuscript Mart,” fledgling writers had a chance to meet one-on-one with a literary agent, who reviewed a sample of their manuscript. For some, this resulted in requests to see more. Others, who experienced harsher critiques, spent time in a “decompression” room.
In many respects the programming was reminiscent of an AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, but on a smaller, more manageable scale with sessions on “Digital Lit: Why Online Journals Deserve More Respect” and “Corn Maze: Exploring the Line (More Like an Ever-Expanding Grassy Meadow) Between Fiction and Nonfiction.” The opening day included a town hall session on “What Every Literary Writer Needs to Know about the Digital Disruption.” Sponsored by Publishing Perspectives, it brought together executives from the digital world—Jon Fine (Amazon), Rachel Fershleiser (Tumblr), Matt Cavnar (Nook), Jane Friedman (Scratch digital magazine), Christine Munroe (Kobo), Kathy Meis (Bublish), Benjamin Samuel (Electric Literature)—and writer Steve Almond and agent April Eberhardt.
“We want to help writers figure out their place in the digital landscape,” said Grubstreet founder and executive editor Eve Bridburg at the town hall. “We worry that [literary] writers are more shy about jumping in.” That worry formed an undercurrent to much of the conference. By the final day, some writers who had been determined to sign with a traditional publisher were less certain that it was their best option and had begun thinking about working with a hybrid, or partner, publisher that combines self-publishing and traditional publishing like She Writes Press. As Samuel pointed out, Walt Whitman was a self-publisher. Almond gave an impassionate defense of the printed book, whether DYI or traditionally published. “I love the book with its one lousy app called ‘Read Me,’” he said. Fershleiser advised writers to use the digital to find their audience. “It doesn’t matter if you’re self-publishing or the lead title of Knopf, you have to do the work,” she said.
An advocate for self-publishing and partner publishing, Friedman elaborated on “Writing for Love and Money” in her keynote talk. As she discussed the history of writing and printing, she reminded her listeners that the idea that writers should earn money is only two or three hundred years old. “Rather than being focused on I need to make money on this book, this thing between two covers,” she suggested that writers t think about “how am I going to better serve this community Once you have a community, it will be easy to monetize.” As for the digital shift. “I’m an optimist and a bit of a Pollyanna,” said Friedman. “I think it will be okay. We haven’t yet attuned ourselves to this idea that we’ll have a direct relationship with readers.”
For Walter Mosley, the other conference keynote speaker, digital or no, being a writer means writing. “I believe the act of writing can be like psychoanalysis. Every day you write, you go into your subconscious. You don’t have to write eight hours a day. That’s like laying bricks.” Instead he said that to be a writer you have to write every day for one hundred days on a single piece for two hours a day. “Hardly anybody gets rich writing books,” he reminded the audience, most of whom have yet to give up their day jobs. “Rich people buy real estate.”