If I Held A Publishing Conference

I recently received a catalog for the 2007 Publishing University put on by the PMA. I was a PMA member for a couple years, contributed an article to the newsletter about a few years back, but left due to irreconcilable statistical differences:-) I have to admit the catalog is as impressive as all get-out this year, eight different tracks and over 70 individual sessions (I counted rather than taking their word for it) to choose from. I recognize many of the presenters from the books they've authored or from occasional correspondence, and in some cases, both. Ironically, I don't know the three people putting on #403 "The Truth About Print on Demand (POD)" though I see one of them is from iUniverse, which seems like an odd choice for a speaker at a publishers conference. Me thinks the dice may be loaded on this one. PMA's Publishing University is scheduled immediately before BookExpo America in NYC for those who want to attend both events. I suppose it also makes them easy to avoid for those who plan to attend neither, so it's a perfect plan. I doubt I'll make it again this year, but you never know.

The catalog did remind me that I had the subject of publishing conferences on my blog to-do list. I asked myself the question, if I was to run a publishing conference, what would it be like? Keep in mind this is a speculative post written by a guy with an inner ear problem looking at a screen that keeps moving, and bite your tongue if your rhetorical answer was "A disaster." I'm nothing is not sincere, and I don't believe that the best way to do something new is to copy something old and change it a little. So, for starters, I'd get out of the "Publishers meet in big cities" mindset and go with a writer's conference location, like a camp in the Berkshires or the Connecticut River Valley. Not by coincidence are both locations within an hour's drive.

Next, I'd only have one track. While I appreciate all the work that goes into multi-track conferences, I've always found at the conferences I have attended that the majority of the sessions in any given track are made-up topics invented to meet the track title. Conference organizers can always find speakers willing to tilt a presentation this way or another, but it doesn't fool the experts, and the beginners shouldn't be in a special track to start with. More importantly, a large array of choices will reduce the number of people who will sit one or more sessions out and socialize with fellow publishers, which is the real value of any conference. Unfortunately, it's human nature, when we've paid for something, to look for value in exchange, and with several (or eight) tracks running at once, it's hard to avoid thinking that one might be a good fit.

Besides, I'm an author as well as a publisher, and I tend to think in terms of book structure. Not some fiction work written from the perspective of multiple personalities, but a nice linear progression that takes the reader somewhere. My one track, three day publishing conference would fill in sessions around the daily concepts, "you write da book, you print da book, you sell da book." I think three sessions a day is the maximum most people can really benefit from, I'm more of a two session man myself, but three provides leeway to skip one without feeling guilty. I wouldn't plan any formal sessions at night, but I would line up "true stories" speakers to talk about their ups and/or downs in publishing and to bat around questions over the hum of bug zappers and jet skis on the lake.

Day One - You Write Da Book

Session One - Before you write the book, or otherwise commission or acquire a manuscript, you have to do the market research. My panel of experts will discuss methods of market research for publishers with different levels of resources (budgets) and do some live performances of Internet market research on an LCD projector, taking title ideas from the audience. It will be pretty funny after the conference winds up and every rushes to publish the same book.

Session Two - Before you write the book, you got to have the knowledge and the platform. This means either finding the right author, matching an existing manuscript with the market research conclusions, or finding the platform under your feet and writing the book yourself. I know a lot of authors feel they can write a book about anything if you just point them in the proper direction and give them a few competing titles to emulate. While a sincere form of flattery, it's not a path I want promoted at my conference. The panel of experts will offer tools you can use to determine if you really have the knowledge and the platform.

Session Three - While the book is being written, you got to deal with the author. I think author relations is one of the most neglected areas in publishing education, in terms of writing a contract that works for both parties, and in terms of giving weight to the author's input. Too many publishers who know their business model inside-out make the mistake of thinking this means they know more about the book being written than the author. The only way that can be true is if the author is a complete idiot, and if that's true, the publisher was a real dummy offer a contract. The panel will offer examples of author relations gone good and gone bad that illustrate this point, even if they have to stretch the truth a little.

Day Two - You Print Da Book

Session One - Before you print the book, you got to do all that production stuff. Editing, proofreading, fact checking, book design, cover design, layout, etc... Lots of publishers really get into this stuff, I prefer to hire out or do it the easiest way possible myself, but I know I'm in the minority here. The panel will include cover designer, an interior layout and page designer, and an editor. I figure one of each is best so they won't step on each other's toes and argue about whether or not you can produce a book in Word or when it's permissible to end a sentence with if. They'll all bring examples of work they've done, and take questions about the choices made.

Session Two - Before your print the book, you got to decide on the technology and any subsidiary issues, like quantities for offset and discounts for POD. I'm a big case study nut, so I think the best way to present this subject for experts and beginners alike will be with a series of case studies for trade paperbacks and hardcovers covering the whole gamut of basic choices. Keeping an eye on the dollars, everything from paper choice (if you have a choice) to box quantities and weights will be covered. This is the one session I might be inclined to sit on the panel myself, but only as a last minute substitution.

Session Three - Once you print the book, you got to store the book, pack the book and ship the book. Lots of small publishers fall into the line of thinking that marketing is so central it would be a waste of time to price envelopes or buy a postage meter, but it depends entirely on your business model. There's also the question of dealing with returns, whether you print offset or POD, and when it's better not to accept returns as a matter of policy or based on discounts. In any case, it pays to put in a weak session in the last slot of day two when people are wearing down and would benefit from a good nap or a swim and a coffee. I'll save the presenter slots for people who bug me to speak at my conference but don't have that much to say.

Day Three - You Sell Da Book

Session One - Before you can get on a bestseller list, you have to sell your first hundred books. That's sell through, not convince a chain or distributor to put them on the shelves. Most small publishers I correspond with take it for granted that they'll sell hundreds of copies just by publishing a book, they have their eyes on the tens or hundreds of thousands. My panel of experts will will tell them stories about failed publishers that will make their hair stand up, maybe I'll toss in my own hardcover disaster. The panel will then terrorize the new publishers in attendance by making them stand up and describe exactly how they intend to sell their first hundred books. The session will conclude with a handout card with a 10X10 grid for new publishers to check off the blanks. For each card with a new ISBN that they fill up, I'll give them a dollar off at the next years conference and offer them an evening story slot.

Session Two - Once a publisher proves they can sell some books, the next stage is to sell a lot of books. The panel will include an Internet marketing expert who focuses on organic growth websites, an expert who focuses on paid promotions online and in print, an expert on Amazon and the chains, and an expert on press releases and corporate (bulk) sales. After a brief introduction to how they do what they do, the panel will offer marketing advice for specific titles from the audience, and offer blunt advice over whether or not it would be cost efficient to apply a particular marketing approach to a give title.

Session Three - Once a book starts selling, it's as if it has acquired a life of its own, and the job of the publisher becomes life cycle management. Some of the biggest trade publishers are guilty of assuming that every title's life cycle should look like a wave form, with peak sales at release dropping off to a trough, at which point a new edition will be released to try to repeat the peak. Remainder issues get swept under the rug and the overhead of churning out new editions is what pays the salaries of many employees. Small publishers have the option to manage the life cycles of their titles with more personal attention and care, recognizing when downturns are due to reasons other than aging. Small publishers following the print-on-demand model also have the luxury of giving titles longer to make it in the marketplace, and often see sales rise for several years before decay sets in. The panel will take the audience through the full and partial life cycles of several published titles, after swearing one and all to secrecy. Those with an aversion to swearing will be asked to participate on the panel instead.

That pretty much wraps up my publishing conference, except to point out that friendly dogs and moderate drinking will be welcome. Please sign an insurance waiver on your way in.

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