There were dozens of readings and panels at this year's Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference in New York, but the real action took place at the book fair: three floors of booths from more than 400 exhibitors, ranging from bigger indies like Graywolf and Milkweed to university presses like Wesleyan and the University of Georgia, distributors like SPD to prominent and obscure literary journals, writing programs and literary service organizations. For the first time this year, many of the trade houses—including Random, Penguin and HarperCollins—also had a significant presence. Drowned in the din of huge trade conferences like BEA, indie presses, it turns out, go to AWP to meet their audience, find new writers, pitch the media and reviewers, and display and sell their books; it's become an indie publishing expo.
This year's conference, held at the New York Hilton, January 30—February 2, was the largest ever. AWP closed registration for the first time, capping it at 7,500 attendees. David Fenza, AWP president, confirmed that, including visitors on Saturday, when the book fair was open to the public, over 8,000 people attended.
“For the longest time,” said Fenza, “our conference was 300—400 people, then in the late 1990s, it began to grow incrementally every year. Over the last five years the growth has been pretty robust.” Now, the gathering has become so central to the lives of indie presses that Fiona McCrae, publisher of Graywolf, thinks of it as “the one week of the year where we feel like we are on the right path after all. For most of the rest of the year, we don't have such direct contact with our audience.”
In fact, at AWP, Graywolf is one of the biggest players. During the three days of the book fair, the publisher sold about $9,000 worth of books, 50% more than last year, according to McCrae. Beyond that, McCrae and associates also met writers, agents and reviewers: “A few agents came by, because it was in New York. We were all pitched, and I encouraged people to send their synopses depending on how the conversation went,” said McCrae.
Tupelo Press, another prominent indie, had a similar experience. According to Margaret Donovan, Tupelo's managing editor, “We sold a lot of books. We shipped in 11 boxes and we sent back four.” Tupelo actually avoids BEA: “We don't go because we're too overwhelmed by big guys, who,” Donovan said ironically, “are now coming to AWP.”
Penguin was one of the “big guys” who made its first appearance at AWP in a while (it last sent reps in the mid '90s). Naomi Weinstein, the manager of Penguin's academic marketing department, said that the company had a great response to a reading from the Penguins Poets series, organized by Viking/Penguin editor Paul Slovak. “I had some people come and buy books from everybody that read and even a few that didn't,” said Weinstein; readers included Phillis Levin, Robert Wrigley and Joanna Klink. “This is definitely our audience,” said Slovak. “And these aren't just people who buy books, but people who recommend them.”
New Directions had a booth at the fair for the first time. Senior editor Declan Spring took advantage of the writing professors in attendance and handed out catalogues in hopes of nabbing course adoptions. “A lot of people came by and said it's about time New Directions was here,” said Spring. For indie presses, AWP is a homecoming.