Multimedia readings and craft discussions were among the more than 350 on-site and 250 off-site events at this year's Association of Writers and Writing Programs meeting in Seattle. At any given hour, attendees could meet kindred spirits invested in writing speculative fiction, comics, or experimental poetry; coalition-building and decolonizing their writing workshops; or mulling the questions posed by a session on “Literary Fame: Should We Strive for It? Should We Care About It?”

Practical sessions with agents, editors, and small presses facilitated connections between writers and those who shepherd books and stories into print. For instance, AWP’s annual Writer to Agent Program, established in 2017, attracted 887 hungry applicants with completed manuscripts or nonfiction proposals in hand, and five literary agencies—Aevitas Creative Management, Ayesha Pande Literary, Folio Literary Management, Serendipity Literary Agency, and Trellis Literary Management—held 142 in-person and virtual meetings. At a session called “From Slush to Sale,” Trellis cofounder Stephanie Delman and agent Danielle Kukafka talked with Annie Hwang of Ayesha Pande and Iwalani Kim of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates to demystify the traditional submission process.

Some 200 audience members turned up for another panel, “Kind of a Big Deal: Emerging Agents on the Path to Publishing,” featuring five early-career literary agents. Asked about the merits of signing with a “famous or fancy agent” versus a fresher talent, panel moderator Maggie Cooper of Aevitas felt that “popular editors want to know what the cool young agents are doing,” but those cool young agents need to demonstrate strong networking abilities.

Lauren Scovel of Laura Gross Literary Agency agreed: “You want an emerging agent attached to an agency or being mentored.” Serene Hakim of Ayesha Pande added that a famous agent has “name recognition out on submission, but you might have to fight for their attention. An early career agent wants to develop your work—you just have to remember that they might be working a part-time job or assisting” those better-known agents. Hakim said that she asks her colleagues to introduce her to rock-star editors.

Cooper prompted the group to discuss queries, trends, and publication goals. Scovel reminded the audience that no matter how special, “your book always has comp titles,” while Amy Bishop of Dystel, Goderich and Bourret remarked that specificity matters: calling a manuscript “upmarket book club fiction” is not as persuasive as making accurate comparisons. Mariah Stovall of Trellis urged everyone to “please be reading other people’s work,” and be up front with agents about potentially awkward subjects like advances and financial goals. Cooper suggested that the audience think about the question, “Do you want to be a writer or do you want to be a published author? It’s an important distinction.”

Along the Way to Publication

Depending on how they answer that question of identity—“do you want to be a writer…or a published author?”—some people apply to MFA programs or join critique groups, while others hire independent editors for focused, one-to-one feedback. Independent editors complement an agent or editor, said co-panelists Will Allison, Liz Van Hoose, and Alexis Washam in another session about professionalizing.

“Writing groups are nurturing, but not necessarily informed about the industry,” said Van Hoose, who has worked with authors including Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and Fiona Davis. Allison, a former executive editor of STORY, added that the cost of an independent editor is comparable to “the value of what you’d get from a workshop.” Washam, a former PRH editor and now an executive editor at Verto Literary Group, explained that hiring an independent editor can signal to an agent that an author is “almost there but wants to go the extra mile.” They offered another strategy for getting a manuscript into the hands of gatekeepers or, as one agenting panel put it, “gate-openers.”

In a session on publicity—“Your Book Is Signed, Now What?”—Copper Canyon Press publicist Ryo Yamaguchi echoed the agents’ statements on an author’s goals. Yamaguchi encourages authors to think about the life of their book in the public eye. He distinguished between “the author who wants to be famous and the one who wants to engage in conversations about their work. It’s about you participating in a much wider discussion.”

Sarabande Books publicist Joanna Englert and managing editor Danika Isdahl talked about making that wider discussion happen through events like local readings. Freelance publicist Alyson Sinclair urged authors to think of conversation partners or sponsors likely to support their book events (“If you threw a dinner party in that town, would 20 people come?”). And Copper Canyon digital content manager Marisa Vito shared tips about how she collected data and strategically expanded the poetry publisher’s social media presence: “People ask, ‘Where’s the Copper Canyon TikTok?’ I get that question a lot.”

Affording the Writer’s Life

Amid the talk of famous agents, fancy editors, and data-savvy publicists, AWP23 also provided opportunities to consider the paths—and significant barriers—to publication, via panels like “Show Me the Money: New and Creative Ways to Fund Your Writing Life.” Teaching, coaching, freelance editing, and ghostwriting support many of AWP’s attendees.

Conversations among authors and small independent publishers also indicated a spirit of mutual support and collaboration. At the panel “No Agent? No Problem!,” editors with Northwestern University Press, University of North Carolina Press, Hub City Press, and Sarabande Books reassured writers that they might find a home for their book at an academic, literary, or niche publisher. Panels like “Wonderfully Weird and Small: How to Build a Thriving Small Press” introduced attendees to even more indies, including 7.13 Books, word west, KERNPUNKT, and Publishing Genius.

AWP23 attracted trade-publishing insiders, nonprofit leaders, and small press enthusiasts. Because so many of its members are students, adjunct faculty members, and others with limited resources, AWP strove to make the conference affordable. Of the more than 9,000 registered attendees, almost 1,800 accessed a discounted student rate and 60 received full scholarships to attend. More than 400 individuals opted into a work-exchange program, receiving free registration for four hours of conference support. Idealism and love of art notwithstanding, budgeting was on AWP participants’ minds, ahead of their future book deal.