I'm back from the Cape Cod Writer's Conference, the first such event I've ever attended. Not surprisingly, the majority of the attendees I spoke to were unpublished authors, though a few had worked as journalists or published professional papers of various sorts. My greatest fear before going was that the entire conference would be dominated by elderly women who were writing memoirs, but they turned out to be a minority.
While the conference was very profitable to me in terms of gathering material for future blog posts, I left on a sour note, as the instructor of the one full week course I took was unable to keep his politics out of his lectures. I made it a point to pay for a session with both of the agents in residence, an independent non-fiction agent and a fiction agent from one of the name NYC firms, just to improve my understanding of how they operate. Also took a two hour class on poetry translation, in honor of the three years I put in translating my great-grandmother's works.
The main impression I took away from the conference is that the unpublished writers there fell into two broad categories: those who were planning a long and potentially unrewarding grind in their efforts to become published authors and those who were looking for short-cuts. We all know about the former group because we've probably all been part of that group at one time or another, but while I've hear from the short-cut crowd by e-mail on a regular basis, this was the first time I'd ever met any of them in person.
Continuing with the oversimplification that groups can be naturally divided into two logical parts, I'd say the unpublished writers looking for a quick in could be further divided into those who were planning to buy themselves a shortcut and those who were hoping to do it through networking. In both cases, those authors (and budding movie makers) didn't appear to have done very much homework about the publishing industry. I heard one unpublished author (a retired professional) practically bragging about how he didn't have the patience for any of that stuff. He'd been a big man in his professional life, he had a fat bank account, and he was ready to scratch checks to get it done. Not surprisingly, he'd settled on perhaps the worst subsidy press in the industry to print his book, and was currently embarking on a five figure publicity campaign with a PR firm that was all too glad to take his money.
The larger number of unpublished writers were hoping to find their big break through networking. While the conference was a reasonable place for them to be trying this, and most of the instructors and guest speakers seemed willing enough to help if something made sense, it struck me that most of these authors were making their pitch prematurely. If your goal is to reach somebody with solid industry contacts and get them to pass along a manuscript, you better have the manuscript finished and handy when you approach them. Trying to network with nothing more than an idea in your pocket is a waste of everybody's time.
Somewhere between the shoestring networkers and the retired general types who figure that the way to land a trade contract is by giving the right orders to the right people with the right inducement, fall the the pay-to-read crowd. These are unpublished authors who are convinced that it's worth paying thousands of dollars to "name" authors or editors providing a vague evaluation plus service. In other words, they'll read a manuscript and offer feedback for a fee, backed by the idea if that if they think it's up to snuff, they'll get it in front of some decision makers. I'm highly skeptical of this model, smells as bad as agents who charge reading fees. I think it's fine to pay an editor or agent "in residence" at a conference or workshop a nominal fee for their time to look over a manuscript AND meet with you about the prospects. But I would actively discourage anybody from spending thousands of dollars for a chance at maybe getting a foot in the door. For that kind of money, all you're going to get is lied to.