What AWP’s Bookfair Taught Me About Submission Guidelines: Getting Beyond “We’re Looking for Good Writing.”

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When I learned two years ago that the 2016 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference was going to be in Los Angeles, many of my local and far away writing friends asked if they’d see me there. I had never attended AWP mainly for the practical reason that with only two or three weeks of vacation a year at a corporate j-o-b, I used my time off to write in workshops instead of listening to panels on craft or pitching my projects. But as friends checked in and announced their AWP plans, it was becoming a local (to me) mini reunion from writing workshops and grad school. I registered for AWP.

Publishing has always been a ritual fraught with peril and is woven tightly into AWP’s conference program and bookfair. If a writer tells you that they never had any anxiety about getting their work published, they’re not working hard enough.

The first panel I attended was a conversation of poets who just published their first books. After an hour of their stories and insight, Richie Hofmann, a friend and panel member, noted they had only discussed the part the writer controls, which really only is about 10 percent, and that one of the biggest factors had not been mentioned. He called it out — Luck.

Talent and hard work are simply not enough.

I’ve returned home feeling discouraged after panels like these at other writing conferences.  With support from my writing community, I’d walk it off, but I’d still feel bad.

I was at AWP 2016 for all three days, meeting friends for meals, attending panel discussions, so in my downtime, I wandered over to the Bookfair, a large trade show floor of booths featuring graduate writing programs, book publishers, literary magazines, writing retreats, and other services for writers. It represents a significant cross-section of the literary community.

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Yep. Anne Corbitt nailed it.

But here’s the other thing I learned first hand.

Every writer, every publisher, everyone at this conference has the tough story about the bad timing of a manuscript or the stinging rejection, but here was the first time in my career where agonizing over how difficult it was to get published was such a small part of the publication conversation. The focus was on the opportunities.  AWP was my chance to talk with humans at these booths, about what they were looking for, what they liked, and what they wrote. I took good notes, collected sample copies. 

This was far more helpful and quite different than just reading the submission guidelines on a website that say “send us your very best work” or “we just like really good writing.”  These vague remarks remind me of when a boss at a j-o-b says “Bring me a rock” and you do and s/he says, “Not this one.” Repeat this for 26 years then retire.  

It’s easy to be cynical in isolation or even over a post-workshop beer with colleagues. And this is what I carry from AWP (along with my nifty new tote bag from the University of Nebraska Press) — I have a plan based upon these new connections at the Bookfair, I have done the groundwork for placing my work, and for the first time, I’m looking forward to sending out my work this year. 

It’s true in publishing as it is in life that you don’t know until you go.

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