Of Pitching and Publishing

Recapping the fifth-annual Washington Writers Conference


Recently, I was listening to literary agent Malaga Baldi expound on the kind of books that pique her interest. What she described were not big-ticket thrillers, YA dystopian fantasies, or anything with “Girl” in the title.

She was talking about intimate, quirky books that had something unique to say in an appealing, engaging voice. As she spoke of what she finds exciting in the kinds of stories she represents, I thought, “Yes, exactly! I would want to read those books!”

Perhaps you were listening to Malaga, too, since she was speaking at the Friday night “How to Pitch an Agent” panel at the fifth-annual Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference, held at the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center on April 28th-29th.

I had the pleasure (and — I won’t kid you — sleep-depriving terror) of being this year’s conference chair. I’ve been volunteering at the Independent since I signed up at the second conference in 2014 — first as an assignments editor, then as a reviewer, a conference committee member, the chair, and, starting today, as a monthly columnist. Taking advantage of that impeccable timing, I wanted to recap some of this year’s conference highlights.

As always, the big draw of the conference was a powerful combination of pitch opportunities and publishing luminaries. When every attendee has the chance to pitch a manuscript or book proposal to several agents selected from a roster of 20, the electricity around the pitch room is palpable. Independent president David O. Stewart likened the buzz to “being by a nuclear reactor, there is so much energy.”

This year, the lucky winner of our drawing for a free conference registration — whose enthusiasm was truly infectious — managed to schedule pitch sessions with seven agents over the course of the day, and all of them asked to see a few pages or his full manuscript.

We also understand that one of our agents offered an attendee representation on the spot. Success stories like this emerge from every conference, which is what keeps both our attendees and our agents returning year after year.

But as great as the pitch opportunities are, they’re only part of the story. With Judith Viorst as this year’s keynote speaker, and panelists who included Washington Post Book World editor Ron Charles, fellow longtime Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, legendary children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and 2017 PEN/Bingham prize winner Rion Amilcar Scott, attendees found themselves inspired, entertained, and motivated.

Panels this year included genre focus on ghostwriting, memoir, biography, children’s literature, and short stories, and on such topical issues as bridging racial and cultural divisions through literature, writing about war — with a focus on current ongoing conflicts — and on the use of illness or disability as a literary device.

In his discussion on “the State of Books” with author Susan Coll, Ron Charles remarked that simply keeping up with the onslaught of 150 books a day arriving at the Post is “like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory,” and, at best, the Post is able to review 1,000 of the approximately 55,000 books it receives each year. His advice is to market to women in book clubs, because that’s where the high-volume sales are these days.

On the panel “Across the Cultural Divide,” classics professor and epic poetry lover Carolivia Herron shared that her children’s book Nappy Hair is still banned in New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland. On the same panel, Neely Tucker (a white man and Washington Post reporter) noted that many people mistake his byline as belonging to an African-American woman. “One reader wrote, ‘I can tell from your writing that you hate white men.’ I thought about it and wrote back, ‘You might be right. I can’t think of a single white man I’ve ever wanted to date.’”

Kelly Kennedy, author of They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq, told powerful, wrenching stories from her time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Jack Farrell, author of Richard Nixon: The Life, alluded to where he believes the disgraced president is spending eternity when he said, “I envision Dick Nixon looking up at us all…”

Finally, beyond both pitches and panels, one of the most valuable and enduring outcomes of the conference each year is the connections that attendees make. In 2016, for example, a writers’ group formed as a result of the conference and has been meeting all year; four of the six members were back again at this year’s conference.

Certainly, my own experience has been that the Independent encourages and nurtures a community of writers and readers from which we all benefit, and there’s a lovely symmetry to a book-review site holding a conference focused on helping authors find a path to publication.

Consider the Washington Writers Conference trifecta of an author pitching at the event, garnering a book deal, and having the resulting work reviewed in the Washington Independent Review of Books. That could be you. So between now and next year’s conference, all of us at the Independent wish you a productive year of writing!

Want to hear more about the 2017 Washington Writers Conference? Veteran journalist and conference stalwart Gene Meyer offers a great wrap-up on his website, and you can see photos on our Facebook page, where the video summary will soon be posted!

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