After a 2020 conference shrunken by the coronavirus and a fully virtual conference last year, this year’s in-person AWP Conference and Bookfair, held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia from March 23 to 26, was a long-awaited return to form. Scuttling between panels, talks, and exhibitions, attendees staged reunions in hallways and embraced peers who before had seemed to exist only on Twitter or Zoom. “Oh, hi—I’ve seen you online!” shouted one attendee to another, in passing, on the first day of the conference.
According to AWP executive director Cynthia Sherman, this year's conference had 6,000 in-person attendees and 1,000 virtual ones. The figure pales in comparison to the 2019 conference in Portland, which counted 15,000 attendees, but is an encouraging rebound from the 2020 San Antonio conference, which took place at the onset of the pandemic and drew only 4,000 people.
Sherman felt this year's event was marked by an "overarching feeling of positivity." Despite challenges such as monitoring Covid variants, working with new vendors CrowdPass and SwapCard, and pivoting to online registration, she was glad to see the virtual and in-person components of the conference "ran smoothly."
Featured events included a conversation between authors Melissa Febos and Brandon Taylor; a panel discussion with authors Raven Lalami, Carmen Maria Machado, and Kirstin Valdez Quade, moderated by PW fiction reviews editor David Varno; and a keynote by Frost Medal winner Toi Derricotte. In her speech, Derricotte expressed her initial trepidation about giving the conference’s centerpiece address, but assured the audience that “if you do the thing you’re scared to do, you change.”
Programming also included a number of panel discussions that shared publishing industry insights. One group of 2022 debut authors convened to share their experiences of first-time publication, from querying agents to signing book deals. Cleyvis Natera, author of Neruda on the Park (Ballantine), emphasized the importance of “understanding the business side” of writing, encouraging first-time authors to be strategic in laying the groundwork for their careers. “We have to understand the [publishing] ecosystem,” said Natera, in order to “play the long game” and choose the agents and editors who “would be most able to sell your book.”
Agents were a frequent topic. Daphne Palasi Andreades, author of Brown Girls (Random House), encouraged writers to research their favorite authors’ agents. If an author has a career worthy of emulating, it’s good to know who their “business partners” are, Palasi Andreades said. Xochitl Gonzalez, author of Olga Dies Dreaming (Flatiron), recommended finding an experienced agent because “taking a book to market is such a process.” She was drawn to her current agent because of her clear “vision for my career” and her keen business sense. (“I’m like the chairman on your board of directors,” the agent once told her.)
Jonathan Escoffery, author of the story collection If I Survive You (MCD), agreed that experience is key; when he was deciding between agents, he chose the one who told him what she “had done,” rather than speculated about what she “would do.” He was also told that story collections were nearly impossible to sell. He partly credits his success to his query letter, which demonstrated his strong “elevator pitch” and understanding of comp titles. He recommended attending conferences such as Sewanee, Bread Loaf, and Tin House in order to be “in proximity to editors and agents who are hungrily looking for projects.”
“There are so many people that authors rely on to make a book a book,” Andreades concluded. She hoped in the future to see more agents and editors from marginalized backgrounds who would be “open to the kinds of stories that might not yet have a comp title.”
Later that afternoon, Kristen Elias Rowley, editor-in-chief of Ohio State University Press and Mad Creek Books, moderated a panel of Mad Creek authors to consider the benefits and drawbacks of publishing with a university press. Authors Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Negesti Kaudo, and Hasanthika Sirisena agreed that the experience is a trade off: while university presses have a more collaborative and equitable editing process than a trade publisher might, they provide less support for marketing and publicity efforts. Fletcher, author of Finding Querencia: Essays from In Between, said while you have “a bigger say in the book, you have to play a bigger role in promotion and pitch in more.” Still he appreciated “how much agency I had in the process,” helping to decide everything from typesetting, to cover art.
Hasanthika Sirisena, author of Dark Tourist, also appreciated that university presses keep their authors’ books in print longer, rather than discontinuing books that are not instant hits. Fletcher agreed that trade presses are “more attentive to the speed of sales and you earning back your advance” than UPs. However, Rowley said, she is still happy to see one of her authors move from Mad Creek to a trade publisher: “I take it as a compliment when our author is able to move to a bigger publisher for their next book.”
Other panels covered topics such as publicity and book tours. On the panel “All About Publicity: Publicists and Small Presses,” Michael Simms, who ran Autumn House Press for 18 years, said he always suggested prose writers “hire publicists on their own dime” in addition to the publisher’s publicity efforts, for which his press budgeted $20,000 annually. He reported that across the board, authors who hired publicists “did considerably better than those who didn’t.” He recommended looking for publicists with a “track record in your genre or with comp titles,” and discouraged poets from hiring a publicist.
On the panel “Book Tour Revolution: Strategies for the Current World,” hosted by the Authors Guild, authors debated the merits of the traditional book tour. Tim Herrera said that “book tours don’t sell books,” and therefore was glad that virtual tours have become more common, as they keep personal expenses low for authors. Chloe Gong agreed that “book tours don’t move sales, so it’s not like you’ll get a return on your investment if you put in your own money.” Instead, she found that TikTok allowed her to “take the reins of promotion,” creating a kind of “prolonged tour in which I was constantly available for readers to reach.”
At the Bookfair, which ran from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. ET every day of the conference, thousands of attendees visited the booths of more than 500 exhibitors. One of them was Eric Lorberer, editor and executive director of Rain Taxi Review of Books, which has had a booth at AWP for more than 20 years. He noticed that the caliber of the event hadn’t diminished despite having fewer attendees and exhibitors (the 2018 Tampa conference had more than 800 registered exhibitors), noting that he the fair had a feel of “quality over quantity.” 2019 exhibitors who did not return this year include Bloomsbury, Europa, Graywolf, Haymarket, Macmillan, Soho Press, Tin House, the New York Review of Books, and the Paris Review.
Attendees were required to be masked at all times during the convention. Michael Czyzniejewski, editor of Moon City Press, sensed that no one seemed bothered by the rule, as “masks are a small sacrifice to make to get this event back.” Sabrina Adams, PEN Across America program coordinator, agreed that attendees were socializing safely, being “reasonably cautious while still maintaining familiarity.”
Margot Atwell, the new executive director and publisher of Feminist Press, felt “such good energy” emanating from attendees who were excited to be back in person. “Sometimes publishing is so focused on its own challenges,” she said, “but right now people are just filled with gratitude that events like this are possible again.” First-time attendee Shaquetta Nelson, a debut author with Day Eight Books, had heard a lot of buildup about the event, and found it to be a “wonderful opportunity” to build a professional network as she begins her career.
At Kickstarter’s booth, Laura Feinstein, senior design and technology editor, and Kate Bernyk, senior director of communications, said that many attendees were eager to speak with them about Brandon Sanderson, who as of this writing has raised a record-breaking $36 million through Kickstarter to publish four new novels. After the “ghost town” that was AWP 2020, Feinstein said, this year was a return to the convention’s “summer camp vibe.”
After attending the 2020 convention, which took place at the advent of the pandemic, Emily Cook, who runs the U.S. office of Coach House and Scribe Books, wondered if AWP would ever be able to return in person. Having returned, she feels that the organization “has done a great job ensuring a safe and vibrant space,” and noted a special “attention to accessibility” that was much improved over previous years.
The issue of accessibility was at the front of attendees’ minds this year, as previous AWP conferences have garnered criticism for not being disability-friendly. At a meeting of the AWP Disabled and D/deaf Writers Caucus, led by Jess Silfa and Molly McCully Brown, a dozen participants evaluated their experiences at the conference thus far. They expressed concerns about unmasked attendees, inflexible cancellation policies, in-person events not being archived digitally, and a lack of automatic doors at the convention center. There was, however, appreciation for the event’s accessibility hotline that, AWP board member Jeff Kleinman explained, anyone could call or text should they see a “barrier to accessibility.”
The AWP Bookfair is also an important opportunity for bookselling. The official bookseller of AWP was Uncle Bobbie’s, a Black-owned indie in Philadelphia's Germantown area; the brick-and-mortar location is located about six miles north of the convention center. Uncle Bobbie’s bookseller Deandra McCants was pleased to report “great vibes and great sales,” as well as “gracious” authors and readers.
Most exhibiting publishers with booths also set out large displays of books for attendees to peruse and purchase. Anitra Budd, executive director and publisher of Coffee House Press, decided to take a different approach this year: instead of bringing books to AWP, Coffee House hosted a virtual sale with book fair pricing, as well as free shipping.
From a booth adorned only with posters, stickers, and informative flyers, Budd emphasized that the press’s “experimental” spirit applies not only to their books but “also how we run the business.” She hoped the virtual sale would ease pressure on staff to pick, ship, sell, and restock books, giving them the opportunity to go out onto the floor and into bookstores, “talking to folks and building relationships.” Budd also hoped to avoid the stress of having to “strategize about which books to bring to sell,” which would likely exclude backlist titles. “Revitalizing the backlist,” she said, is a major goal this year. “AWP is experimenting with a hybrid model,” she said, “so why shouldn’t we?”