Professional conferences. We’ve all been to them, and I’ve probably attended more than my share. When I was in graduate school and then on the job market, the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference created both excitement and dismay as we newly-minted PhDs sent out our many applications and then compared notes on our interviews. In our first positions as assistant professors, we continued to attend, hoping to make our names as scholars and writers. Soon after I got my first tenure-track job, I returned to writing poems, and the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) annual meeting quickly eclipsed MLA, where writers could hear panels on the craft and individual readings, meet editors, find books from new or small presses, and connect with other poets and fiction writers. I would go to meet other poets and to seek out editors of journals I liked, had been published in, or aspired to be in. The book fair in those days was a highlight, because, well, we were there because we loved books and writing, right?
Not always. I found, as the years went by, that these conferences became monstrously large and that the presentations on offer were too many in too short a time. Too many panels, too many readings: I couldn’t see them all and often ended up frustrated and exhausted. Rats in a cage. It wasn’t the mood I wanted to return to my writing in. And the book fair, especially at AWP, was so sprawling that finding anyone or really seeing anything among the packed tables and narrow aisles was practically impossible. Like MLA, AWP seemed to devolve into just another “look and veer” meeting, at which attendees encounter others, look quickly at their nametags, then veer away rapidly if the person isn’t famous enough.
This weekend, I found myself at a new kind of conference, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association meeting. I sat at the book fair table of Knox Robinson Publishing, with whom I’ve published two novels, The Altarpiece (2013) and City of Ladies (2014). My third, The King’s Sisters, comes out next August. My previous books were all poetry collections, and I had no idea how different it is to market a novel, but I had sat at tables during AWP and thought this wouldn’t be too different.
The book fair was full, to be sure, but all of the publishers could fit into one large ballroom. Even though Knox Robinson is a small independent, we were given a good spot near a couple of the big publishers, and instead of being squeezed together, we could all see—and walk—easily across to the other side of the room. The fair was only open for one Saturday, which was perfect, as it concentrated all of the energy into a short time. Our table held Dana Robinson (founder of Knox Robinson), as well as KR authors Victoria Wilcox, Michael Oates, Hilary Holladay, and me. Booksellers kept us busy, and we talked to a steady stream of store owners from the eastern seaboard. We handed out advance review copies of our books (ARCs) as well as copies of our earlier novels to anyone who was interested, and they shared with us stories of the independent bookstore business. We talked history (Knox Robinson specializes in historical fiction), business, travel, and, of course books.
It was pleasant, friendly, yes, a bit hectic for a while, but energizing. I was having a great time, but it wasn’t until the middle of the afternoon that I was struck with the reason. We were all talking frankly and openly about the reason we were there: books and the business of books. There was little posturing and less pretentiousness. It was all about the books and not about who seemed personally cool and who did not. People certainly checked each other out, and introduced themselves to people they wanted to talk to, but they did it without the charade—so obvious to anyone who’s been at these meetings—of pretending to be too important to need to ask someone’s name.
Nobody who writes, publishes, or sells books needs to be told that the industry is hierarchical, but at this conference that stratification didn’t seem to govern the social interactions at meals, panels, or the book fair. I spoke to everyone I wanted to—and met many people who tirelessly work at promoting books in their stores. Many of them received their first Knox Robinson books from us—but they remembered who we were later that day and wanted to talk more about our books. Colleagues of our distributor, Midpoint Books, came over to say hello and meet the authors of the books they help get into the market.
NAIBA was informative, exciting, and (there’s no better word) fun. We didn’t have a big dance and no one got sloppy drunk and misbehaved. We didn’t pack the hotel. What we did, however, was talk, plan, and work toward our mutual goal of getting new hardcovers and paperbacks to readers in the most sensible, mutually beneficial ways possible. And in these days of talk about the death of print and the inability of American children to concentrate, I found the conversation both stimulating and optimistic. Publishing is a business, yes, but the product is unique—the source of our ideas, fantasies, and information—and many small bookstore owners are little short of heroic in their efforts to connect authors with their customers. This weekend, I saw that the business is thriving, and readers do still exist. They’re mostly not at conferences, however, either academic or “creative.” They’re mostly at home, curled up quietly in chairs, enjoying their books.