Monday, February 15, 2010

Indie Author's Experience at the San Francisco Writers Conference - Reviewed for 2010 by Jason Matthews

San Francisco Writers Conference logo
Whew, I'm home! Feels nice letting bare toes scratch carpet in my office as I catch up on backlogged emails and drink my own excellent tasting and nearly free coffee. I slept soundly for 10 hours last night, along with Jana in our comfy Cal King. The Mark Hopkins hotel was mostly delightful, but the only one who slept well was our 11 year old daughter in her own double bed.
The San Francisco Writers Conference. Now I can say, been there done that. Folk in this writing business insisted that it was the biggie, the one I had to do. Being a mere 3 hour drive from Truckee-Tahoe, I really had no choice. Especially after forking over even more money and a longer drive for Mark Victor Hansen's Mega Book University in LA (which was mostly a medium-pressure sales pitch from one presenter after another inc. Mark, but that's another story). Fortunately, the SFWC was far from sales-pitchy. There were some, a few offers from presenters tastefully mentioned towards the end of their 45 minute segments.
The conference had extra sessions on Thursday and Monday, but I chose to be there from Friday am through Sunday around noon. I enjoyed a wealth of brief lectures and keynote speeches from best-selling authors, all of which allotted ample time for Q & A. It was run by Michael Larsen, Elizabeth Pomada and Laurie McLean of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency, and although I sensed a constant effort into making sure everything went smoothly from the quality of the first time presenters to the number of yogurts in a breakfast basket, they also seemed to enjoy it and get benefit.
This review could be quite long so I'll just share highlights and note areas I thought might be improved on.
Highlights:
-Alan Rinzler and his 46 years of editing, publishing, everything book related experience. I was in awe of the guy, and fortunately he looks a bit like Einstein which really completes the package. Rinzler is witty and razor sharp. He worked with greats such as Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Shirley MacLaine, John Lennon and a slew of other best-sellers... so listening to Alan for 45 minutes simply wasn't enough. I assume Alan is in contention for world's greatest editor, so being in a small room with someone of his caliber was inspiring. Side note, Alan is way old school and recommended perspective authors spend time writing and not networking online more than an hour a day. This was the only thing he said that I found humorous in a bad way.
-Dan Poynter, self-publishing guru, and Mark Coker, self-publishing guide and founder of Smashwords.com. These guys were my heroes even before the conference. Both have helped me immensely, Poynter teaching and pointing me in right directions and Coker getting my ebooks made for free and selling them long before I knew the term epub. (I got Coker's autograph 'cause I think he's going to be huge someday, and he almost refused to give one out of embarrassment over the first autograph he's ever given.) Each of them is all about helping authors like me, Indies who know there has to be a better way than getting an agent/publisher when that is extremely difficult and time consuming no matter how awesome my books are. It's the 21st century people, come on, let's go.
-Jacob Morgan and Stephanie Chandler, two of the shining examples of blogging, social media, and how everything online can work for Indie authors to create an audience and manage relationships. The overwhelming message I heard repeated from Jacob, Stephanie and others was the importance of regular blogging, having something useful to say (not just noise), providing quality over quantity, and building/maintaining online relationships.
-Location. The Mark Hopkins is a fantastic hotel and priced reasonably for attendees. It's in the heart of the city, located on Nob Hill which makes for stunning views and easy access to major attractions. My wife and daughter had quite the SF vacation while I was fortunate enough to enjoy the sights from my 14th floor room (thank you, front desk!) and from the famous Top of the Mark restaurant. I didn't get my Martini though, so an excuse to return.
-Speed Dating with Agents. For an additional $50 this was well worth it, a real treat. I sat with about 6 extremely well-connected agents for 3 minutes of one on one time, and I ended up batting .500 for agencies requesting my work and remembering me. That's quite useful! I did want to spend time with Elise Capron, but that girl was so popular she had a 15 minute line just to see her, and I couldn't limit my 45 minute window to only 3 or 4 agents. Ah, Elise, some other time...
-Meeting dozens of other perspective authors. This was excellent in terms of making connections and getting feedback for where they are in their pursuits, and where I am. I must admit surprise at how few of them have most of the basics for an online platform. Many do not have a blog, a website, ebooks for sale on Smashwords or Amazon Kindle, and some either didn't have or barely used Facebook and Twitter. I found myself almost mentoring at least a dozen authors on how they can have all of these things for FREE and can start selling their ebooks while they continue the traditional approach for an agent and publisher. I believe some of these people are just starting out and some have yet to write very much or complete a manuscript, totally understandable. (The SFWC is a fine place to start if you can swing it.) Yet others are stuck hoping an agent and big publisher is going to whisk them off their feet and do all the real work to turn their words into best-sellers. IMO these people are dreaming, but I suppose it could happen.
-Pacing. I thought the conference was timed very well in terms of class length (perhaps could have been ten minutes longer with the good ones), and distance into the evening. I've been at some conferences that had me starting at 7am and going until 10pm or longer, while this one allowed me to go to dinner with my family and enjoy Malaysian food in Chinatown and a nice Italian place.
-Little to improve upon. A few of the classes were just moderately helpful. 2 in particular on Twitter did very little to give me knowledge as to how to use it better than I already am (which I know I can improve immensely). Unfortunately the presenters spent far too much of the limited time telling us their histories, which were each fascinating but did little to advance the beginner/intermediate Tweeter to become more of an expert. Perhaps I had my hopes too high. Oh well, guess I can always fall back on the do it yourself approach which seems to be my life calling in just about everything.
Overall, I give the SFWC a big thumbs up. Would I do it again? Perhaps. I'm hoping I won't need it next February, that my momentum will keep climbing to the point that I'm succeeding nicely in this tricky business. I'm also hoping (dreaming maybe) they might consider me to give the class that several of the attendees mentioned I should be giving. The class on how to make, market, and sell your own ebooks on your own sites, blogs, Amazon, Smashwords etc... ALL FOR FREE. You all can do it, I know, because I am doing it.
All in all, a rewarding and pleasant experience and worth the money. It's pricey by some standards ($450 for early birds and around $695 for latecomers like me with speed dating), but it's still less than I've spent elsewhere and of more value. And who knows, I just might move forward with one of these agencies or connections I made and traditionally land the next blockbuster book and movie, which I am convinced my novels are capable of doing.

Thoughts or comments?
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