Posted by: Kerry Gans | June 8, 2011

Closing Panel of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference 2011

by Jim Kempner

The very last event of the 2011 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference was a panel discussion titled “Publishing: The insider’s view,” which I took as code for “if you don’t go home early we will tell you how to get published.” I wasn’t disappointed though, alas, I still don’t know how to do it.

Kelly Simmons, who ran a three-day workshop on plot, struggled mightily to be published. It took a very, very (I didn’t keep track of how many verys she used) long time to break in. But she benefited from great guidance. Her third agent did the trick. (She went through three agents?) The first two are famous, representing respectively Stephen King and Michael Chabon, and were very helpful but only the third agent, an unknown, got her published. (Three agents? Really?)

Catherine DePino asked what do King, Nabokov and Anne Frank have in common? All were rejected numerous times. Catherine read some of the brutal rejections each received. (In Anne Frank’s case it must’ve been to her father.) So, DePino says, you will get rejected. A lot. You can count on it but you have to bounce back and not feel sorry for yourself. You gotta believe. You got the power. (DePino may have a future as a songwriter) Target your market as precisely as possible. Look at publishers’ websites. Order related books from the library. Look through them for tone, exposition, dialogue. And when you get a rejection target ten new markets and send five new queries. And, she suggests, get the most captivating title you can imagine. (She often starts with the title.) But also be your own critic. You need a very critical eye: will it fit in? Does the voice sound true? Does the story engage me? Does it prompt me to turn the page?

Larry Atkins is a non-fiction writer who teaches at Temple and Arcadia. He doesn’t know about what the future holds for newspapers but is optimistic about magazines. It is now a niche industry. There are no longer any Saturday Evening Posts but there are many very specialized magazines. In fact, ad pages for magazines were up 1.4% but for some specialists, like Wine Magazine, ad revenue is up 20%. So, it doesn’t pay to drink but rather, it pays to make others drink.

Keith Ashfield has been a book publisher for the past 40 some years. He asked how many independent bookstores closed in 2010. (Hint: it’s a trick question.) Actually, he said, there were more rather than less indie stores at the end of the year. But nowadays they are tightly focused. They do Brick and Mortar but also on-line business. As far as eBook sales, they have escalated without cannibalizing book sales. Pricing is a factor: Amazon might’ve sold one thousand hard bound $19.99 books before while now they sell ten thousand $2.99 books. So the revenue stream is there and the purchases are easier to make. Nevertheless, Ashfield believes, print books aren’t going away: they grossed $23 billion in 2009 and are only to slow down to $18 billion by 2014. These are numbers that support the non-cannibalization contention.

In 2009 over 500,000 books were published of which 230,000 came from publishing houses. The rest were self-published. That is a lot of self-published stuff looking for differentiation. We know some people have been wildly successful self-publishing and we know the publishing houses are on the lookout for good self-published stuff but the volume is overwhelming. So the key remains how to differentiate yourself and get people to find and read you. (Don Lafferty and Marie Lamba addressed this subject in an earlier session. Warning: Ms. Lamba self-published on the Kindle and in no time her book was buried by so many more recent books even she couldn’t find it.) So if you want to get rich, the odds are better than lottery odds (about 1 in 200 million) but then the lottery only costs one buck.

David Wilson has been writing since 1984. He spoke about his experience, how he gave up on fiction (it doesn’t sell) and started to write non-fiction and the various methods he used (workshops, interviews, etc.) until he finally achieved success. The Kitchen Casanova was his first book and Yardley Press his own publishing venue for many years, until Disney published him. Don’t give up your day job, he says.

So you still want to write? Consider that the average author in America makes between $3,000 and $6,000 a year. And this figure includes the Stephen Kings et al. (See lotto odds comments above.)

Why do you write? If it is for achievement keep going the traditional way. If it is for closure, consider self-publishing.

Jim Kempner is a multiple award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction and a former chemical industry executive. His latest mystery, Robbing Peter and Paul, is “doing the rounds.”


  1. Jim, thanks for this wrap-up. I missed it, so it was great to hear what was said 🙂

    One clarification…I haven’t self-published, yet. It was actually the post announcing the kindle version of my YA novel from Random House that got buried on kindleboards under an avalanche of other announced books by self-published novelists. Still, it was sobering. I’m hoping that when I do self-publish my sequel in about a week or so that I won’t be completely buried! By targeting our books toward our real readers, there is hope for us all…yes, better than the lottery.

    Happy writing!


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