Now in its 13th year, the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference, held annually in July at the Corte Madera, Calif., store, has not only earned a reputation for helping wannabe writers become published authors, but it is also a big part of the store's business and its identity as a community center.

Through its "university," Book Passage conducts more than 100 writing classes throughout the year and runs three other conferences, in travel, children's and food writing. But the Mystery Writers Conference is the largest of such events run by the store and is responsible for getting dozens of students' work published. Store owner Elaine Petrocelli said that this year's conference drew 81 students and 30 faculty experts, its largest to date. The organizers change the faculty each year, but always include a variety of authors at various stages of their careers, drawing from the plethora of mystery writers in the Bay Area, and also attracting several nationally known authors. Law enforcement and publishing professionals make up the remaining faculty.

"Elaine is smart enough to know that there are certain kinds of readers who want to be writers," said Larry Kirshbaum, former CEO of Time Warner Books and now a literary agent. This was his second time in attendance. "For independents to survive, they have to reach out to their communities."

Petrocelli said she stumbled into this part of the business about 18 years ago, when she heard that Anne Lamott (who was a struggling writer at the time) was waiting tables; Petrocelli suggested that Lamott teach a class at the store to earn some money. "Now [the classes and conferences] are a big part of Book Passage, not only as an income stream, which it is, but it's part of who we are."

Several faculty members who were once themselves Book Passage students attribute their success to what they learned there and the unique interaction between faculty and students. The mystery writer's conference fee is $525 and covers four days of sessions on everything from the nuts and bolts of writing to understanding the publishing world to an FBI investigator's walk through a mock crime scene. For an additional $95, attendees can have one-on-one consultations with authors, editors or agents.

Authors attending this year's conference included Martin Cruz Smith, Robert Crais, David Corbett, Denise Minna and Kathy Reichs, along with BP alumni Cara Black, Tony Broadbent and Kirk Russell. Sheldon Siegel ('98 conference alumnus) and Jacqueline Winspear (who took nonfiction writing classes at the store) were conference co-chairs. Hyperion publisher Bob Miller, Hachette v-p and publisher Jamie Raab, Midnight Ink acquiring editor Barbara Moore and agents Amy Rennert and Kimberly Cameron were among the publishing professionals participating.

Cornelia Read, whose A Field of Darkness was published by Mysterious Press in May, and Tim Maleeny, whose Stealing the Dragon will be published by Midnight Ink in February, are the most recent alumni-turned-authors and are now faculty members.

Read's experience offers a perfect example of the conference's ability to help an author get published. Two years ago, Read had a consultation with author Lee Child. "He looked up and said, 'You had me from the second sentence,' " Read recalled. She stayed in touch with Child, he wound up blurbing her manuscript and she landed a two-book deal with Warner Books. At the following year's conference (her third) Read met up with Child again and he invited her to go on tour with him. "Without this conference, I never would have met him," Read told PW. "It allows people to connect in ways that they could not anywhere else."