The writers who attend the Associated Writers and Writing Programs annual conference tend to do so with an evangelical fervor. It is, after all, an opportunity to network and schmooze with colleagues from whom they might solicit publication or employment. Exhibitors who are there to sell books are more likely to see it as another, albeit important, event on the calendar—less as a special occasion and more business-as-usual. But this year’s event in San Antonio was anything but business-as-usual.
In the days leading up to the conference, which ran from March 4-7, the organization debated whether or not to go ahead with the conference after a public health emergency was declared in the city due to the spread of the coronavirus there. The board decided to proceed with the conference anyway—a decision that led to the resignation of the AWP co-executive director Diane Zinna the following day. Zinna had only officially been officially appointed to that role in February.
AWP board chair Kathleen Driskell strove to present a best-case scenario, telling a plenary session of board members that the organization still expected as many as 7,500 attendees over the course of the four-day event, as well as 500 vendors, with 200 panels scheduled to go ahead. These are close to the official numbers the AWP touted prior to the conference, with only a reduction of 2,500 people from the anticipated 10,000. (No final figures had been released as of Wednesday morning.)
AWP had previously tweeted that it would offer refunds or credits toward the 2021 conference to anyone uncomfortable with traveling to San Antonio, and clearly some appreciated the opportunity: as the fair opened on March 5, traffic at the event was notably sparse, the registration area was all but empty, and fully half of the vendor tables at the fair were unoccupied. Attendees began to complain that the online scheduling tool lagged behind in noting the numerous event cancellations.
Nevertheless, some publishers—including Coach House Books, Dzanc Books, Deep Vellum, New York Review of Books, N+1, Other Press, and Scribe—still hosted tables, as did dozens of literary journals, writing programs and others. Emma Raddatz, editorial and development associate at Archipelago Books, summed up the thoughts of many as to why they decided to come when she said, “We had already invested a lot into AWP, between the travel and cost of shipping books, so we chose to see that through despite some of our concerns.” In the end, exhibitors reported having reasonable sales at the fair, once they factored in the lighter traffic.
Local bookseller Claudia Maceo, general manager of San Antonio’s The Twig Book Shop, was overseeing three different stands where books by speakers and others were on sale. She said the bookstore had invested tens of thousands of dollars in inventory to sell at the conference and even had to rent a storage container for all the stock. Though she expressed disappointment at some of the authors who had canceled their appearances at the show, such as Hanif Abdurraquib and Elizabeth Acevedo, Maceo noted that the absence would likely give a boost to the audience attending events for local authors and institutions. Indeed, San Antonio-based Trinity University Press appeared to be doing robust business at their stand and local LGBTQ charity Fiesta Youth was active in collecting book donations for San Antonio schools. As for the likelihood of lowered sales at the conference, Maceo said the bookstore had “adjusted expectations.”
Others too made adjustments on the fly. Four literary agencies—Aevitas Creative Management, Ayesha Pande Literary, Folio Literary Management and Serendipity Literary Agency—participated in a program to review 549 manuscripts and book proposals from writers attending the show. “I picked about 30 writers to meet with,” said Regina Brooks, principle of Serendipity Literary Agency, “but several didn’t make it, so I am scheduling Zoom [videoconferences] with them instead.”
Even in the midst of this year’s conference, many people were already looking forward to next year’s event in Kansas City, Mo., putting the travails of the AWP’s last several years behind them, reasserting the organization’s role and importance. Literary agent Jeff Kleinman from Folio, who joined the AWP board earlier this year, said that going forward, he hoped to help AWP forge closer relationships with all the stakeholders in publishing and literary ecosystem, from magazines and film, to public relations and video game companies. “It’s important for writers to know all the avenues available to them to pursue a career and make a living,” he said.
Poet January Gill O’Neil, who is also on the AWP board, echoed this sentiment when she said that it was essential to remember that “AWP is an organization for all writers, all voices––and it’s not just for academics.” As for the 2020 conference, she expressed hope that there was something to learn from overcoming the threat of the coronavirus and related challenges. “Maybe [it] will teach us some things and give us ideas about how to have an even better conference going forward,” she said.