Over the weekend, I went to my first ever writing conference.
The Writers’ Conference, organised by Writing East Midlands, is an annual event held in the East Midlands to celebrate, nurture, and educate writers.
I learnt so much in the seven hours that I was there! I thought I’d share some of what I learnt to help you decide if it’s worth going to a writing conference yourself.
If you’re not based in the East Midlands, there are loads of similar events across the world. Local libraries are great places to get information on events like this, as are creative organisations (which most cities or counties will have), colleges and universities, and of course, the internet.
Here’s a breakdown of the sessions I attended and the key points from each of them.
Keynote Speaker – Richard House
Unfortunately there were a few cancellations and last-minute changes because of the snow.
That meant that the advertised keynote speaker, Pat Barker, couldn’t make it. She was replaced by Richard House.
I really enjoyed his speech about his writing process, and how he uses different forms of digital media to tell his stories.
He talked about how his next project, Murmur, will be two books connected by a podcast. This creates challenges for Picador, his publisher, but it sounds like they’re fully supportive of what he does.
More publishers need to take this approach if they want to stay relevant and attract younger audiences with short attention spans to their authors.
‘If there’s an opportunity, I will find a way to use it.’
‘I don’t mind if people don’t like my books.’
‘I’ve never met a period where people are so hungry for content.’
Session 1 – De-Mystifying the Publishing Process
The first session I went to was a talk between Society of Authors’ Head of Communications, Martin Reed, children’s author Jonathan Emmett, and creator of ‘storytelling lifestyle brand’ OWNIT!, Crystal Mahey-Morgan.
Out of all the sessions I attended, this was the one where I learnt the most.
It made me realise that I’ve chosen the right publishing process for me. I may only make 29p if I charge 99p for an ebook, but that’s not far off what some authors make from traditionally published books that cost the reader much more. Sure, I have to put more work in, but all the profits go to me. I also have full control over any offers, which means I don’t get caught in special sales, where authors can get as little as a couple of pence per book sold. That’s right—there are some deals where authors get just 1p for every book that’s sold. That’s all they get after years of hard work, despite shareholders getting 16% of profits. It’s inconceivable.
‘Don’t assume that bigger is better when it comes to publishing houses.’ – Jonathan Emmett
‘Books are now competing not just with other books, but with other forms of entertainment [like films and games].’ – Crystal Mahey-Morgan
‘Don’t just play to the UK market if you have the chance to go wider.’ – Jonathan Emmett
‘We have a responsibility to have long-term relationships [with authors].’ – Crystal Mahey-Morgan
Writers NEED to build their platforms. Traditional publishers are much less likely to take the risk spending big marketing budgets on up-and-comers than they used to be. They’re more likely to send an author on a course to help them manage their own marketing instead. If you don’t like/want to market yourself, you’re going to struggle.
The publishing landscape is changing, and fast. OWNIT! know this and have found innovative ways to tell stories and launch books, helping them to reach a wider audience and sell out a 1,300 person venue for a book launch.
Authors can make as little as as a penny for every copy of their book that’s sold.
Read contracts carefully, and get advice from the Society of Authors. Be very careful about what’s in your contract, as they’re designed to benefit the publisher first.
Session 2 – Novellas – Finding a Fit in the Shifting Landscape of Publishing
I missed the start of this one as I was talking to people outside! 🙈
It was a bit different to the others that I attended in that it was part-talk, part-writing exercise.
Nicola Monaghan talked us through why she chose to self-publish her story, The Troll, as three novellas, and why her next pseudo-series will be a novella, too.
I wanted to attend this one as I plan to write more novellas after finishing What Happens in Barcelona.
Setting is important.
I really, really want to work on my fantasy/crime novella. I’ve been working on it for over a decade. The writing exercise really helped me to narrow down on the protagonist.
Session 3 – Synopsis Surgery
The importance of writing a synopsis can also never be understated.
Unfortunately the original speaker for this talk, Oliver Munson, couldn’t make it because of the snow, but he sent all his notes to Alex Davis, who stepped in at the last minute.
Alex combined Oliver’s notes with his own and delivered an insightful, helpful talk.
Sometimes writing a synopsis at the start of the writing process can help you to narrow down your idea and work out what the key scenes are.
Synopses should be neutral. They shouldn’t have all the little details that make your story special. They should be pure plot, nothing else. If several writers were to write a story based on a synopsis, they would all come out very differently. That’s the level of neutral we’re talking.
Different agents want different length synopses, so read guidelines carefully. It can be anything from 300 words to 1500 words.
Not all agents read synopses. Some read them before they read the sample chapters, others read them afterwards. Some don’t read them at all.
Let your opening chapters speak for themselves.
Synopses go against everything you’ve been taught about writing – you should tell, not show.
Session 4 – Understanding Literature Festivals
As a member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio, I thought this would be a useful talk to help us come up with events of our own.
‘The fabric of literary organisations is the community.’
To work in a literary festival, you need insurance. They won’t touch you if you don’t have it.
Events need to be tailored to the audience. How you market them is really important.
When organising a literary event, you should contact writers directly. Publishers often don’t even pass the message on.
Plan long-term – think years ahead. Where do you see the festival going?
Keynote Speaker – Malika Booker
Malika Booker has had a long and varied literary career. She talked about who gives us permission to write, and the importance of having the right group of people around you.
She was a compelling speaker with a lot of stage presence and a lot of wisdom to share (that I didn’t write down because I wasn’t fast enough to keep up!).
‘You never make the journey alone.’
‘Community, discipline, craft, confidence.’
‘Everything goes back to confidence…and the hands that help us.’
‘Strive not to be isolated writers.’
‘The thing writers fight most with is time.’
Nottingham Writers’ Studio meets the Society of Authors
After the conference, a few of us headed out for burritos then made our way to Nottingham Writers’ Studio for a networking event with the Society of Authors.
There was a panel discussion (pictured above), chaired by Nottingham Writers’ Studio Chair Sarah Hindmarsh, and featuring Martin Reed and Anna Ganley from the Society of Authors, Crystal Mahey-Morgan from OWNIT!, and children’s author Jonathan Emmett.
This was followed by some readings from members of Nottingham Writers’ Studio (myself included), and some discussions over wine and nibbles.
Throughout the day there were a few common themes that emerged.
Publishing is a risk-averse industry
This is something I heard several people—including Crystal Mahey-Morgan and Alex Davis—mention. They both come from very different publishing backgrounds, so hearing them reiterate each other’s points was interesting.
A prime example of this (used by Alex) is the ‘Girl’ books. When Gone Girl became big, suddenly every book seemed to have ‘Girl’ in the title.
These were publicised everywhere from social media to the tube.
The market became super saturated, we all got bored, and publishers moved on.
Publishers run with a bandwagon until it runs out of fuel. This means they’re less likely to take an innovative approach—they would rather invest in what they know will sell.
Special sales are risky
This was something Jonathan Emmett mentioned a few times during the day.
I’d never heard of special sales before, but it was fascinating to hear his take on them.
He was offered a special sale where he earned less for every book sold than he would from a library loan.
Read contracts carefully to ensure you’re getting a fair deal. Exposure is great, but you’ll never make a living writing books if you’re earning 1p for every book sold. (Especially when you factor in that most books only sell 3,000 copies in their lifetime.)
Jonathan’s written a great blog post about special sales if you want to find out more about them.
Authors need to market their own books, regardless of how they publish
If authors want their books to reach a wider audience, they need to spend almost as much of their time marketing (if not more) than they do writing. It’s the only way you’ll stand out in the crowded literary market.
I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much in a single day.
Thanks to everyone for making it the inspiring, thought-provoking day that it was 🙂