Nowhere is the collision of literary expression and commercial endeavor more evident than at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference (AWP). Alongside the week's controversies and contentions, including Claudia Rankine's powerful speech confronting racism within the creative writing community, the book fair in the L.A. Convention Center was jammed from March 31-April 2, with attendees checking out the offerings of a record number of exhibitors—over 800, primarily literary, university, and small presses. Though some larger entities—publishers and publications more likely to take a booth at BEA—showed up too.
This year, for the first time, Penguin Random House had a booth and joined other publishers who talked to writers about publishing and/or promoting their work, and sold titles from their lists to attendees. The New York Times was there as well, with a display showing off their new virtual reality films, which are viewed through a set of cardboard goggles made by Google. Viewers insert their smart phones into the goggles and view the films on a special app. Conference attendees were offered demos throughout the three days.
In meeting rooms and theaters throughout the sprawling convention center, speakers on more than 550 panels spoke on topics ranging from the esoteric ("Reverberant Silence: Making and Meaning a New Silence") to the practical, such as "Publicity and the Independent Press" or Saturday's "Business of Publishing Your First Novel: Author and Publisher Perspectives," which was moderated by Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson, who also moderated Thursday's "Independent Bookselling: Opportunities for Authors," panel with five L.A. booksellers.
Johnson told PW he's been putting together such panels at AWP for years. "Writers are not conscious that they are part of an eco-system," he said, "They need to know how to work with booksellers. And first-time authors are terribly ignorant about the business they are entering. When I was in a writing program, they never talked to us about the business side of writing. We need to correct that."
As crowds swarmed by his booth on Saturday, Johnson noted with approval that AWP has grown dramatically in recent years, and that the conference and book fair's transition from hotels to convention centers has made AWP a vastly improved experience for all. "It was terrible [in hotels]. Now it's great," he said, noting that this year's book fair layout—all in one open, airy room with larger publishers' booths facing smaller publishers' tables—was the best one yet in his estimation.
"I love the idea that people visiting Two Dollar Radio have to walk by Melville House and vice versa," he said, "That is fantastic. We're all in this together. After all, we're not here just to promote Melville House, but to promote the business of independent publishing."
At least one couple had an amazing conference for reasons having little to do with books: Adam Wetch of Avondale, Ariz. will never forget what happened at this year's AWP: he got engaged in front of hundreds of people. Wetch, a winner of poetry publisher and AWP sponsor BOA Editions' "Share Your Story" campaign in honor of its 40th anniversary, proposed marriage to his girlfriend on Friday evening during a reading and panel BOA Editions hosted to celebrate its anniversary. Wetch's winning essay, for which he received a signed copy of Li-Young Lee's new chapbook, The Word From His Song, was the story of how his girlfriend's passion for Young's poems brought them closer together as a couple.
The chapbook was presented to them on stage by Lee, who had just read on the panel, and who served as a decoy to allow Wetch to get down on one knee while his soon-to-be-fiancé had her back momentarily turned.
"We'd been scheming with Adam for a few months," Jenna Fisher, BOA Editions' publicity and marketing director told PW, "This was a gorgeous event: it showcased the love of poetry and the written word – and the people who are part of it. The entire evening was leading up to that moment: she said yes immediately."
Next year, AWP is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Washington, D.C., which is the organization's hometown. AWP 2017 will take place February 8-11, at the Washington Convention Center and the Marriott Marquis Hotel. It was announced earlier this week that Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and most recently, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, will be the 2017 keynote speaker.