Marymount Manhattan Writers’ Conference Examines Industry Revolution
The impact of rapid changes in the world of communications was a major theme at the 2009 Writers’ Conference at Marymount Manhattan College. Writers are finding themselves in a new, fast-evolving universe. The blogosphere is growing exponentially. Newspapers and magazines are downsizing; many are failing. Editors’ roles are becoming redefined. Writers face the challenge of finding their place in this new environment.
One of three keynote speakers during the information-packed conference, J. Peter Scoblic, Executive Editor of The New Republic and author of U.S. VS THEM, discussed the future of written media, acknowledging the “wide perception of a dark time for publishing.” He explained that newspapers and magazines, formerly the very profitable main channels between consumers and advertisers, are reeling as large, staple vendors hit by the recession find more efficient advertising opportunities on the Internet. Magazines—tactile, visual, collectible, covering topics “less of the moment”—have done somewhat better. News magazines have fared poorly. Meanwhile, the Web and blogosphere are exploding. Today, 40 percent of the public gets its news online. Trying to adapt, newspapers and magazines have added bloggers and Web departments.
The Web has pros and cons. Positives include speed, efficiency and global reach. Locals can help report events. Essentially derivative, the Web is efficient at distributing information, not gathering it. To Scoblic, “the Web does things better shorter, and magazines do things better longer.” Considered by some to be the “Wild West” of journalism, blogs are very slowly becoming more responsible and credible. Still, spontaneity and speed are blog advantages, and there is “enormous danger in not having an editorial filter between writer and reader,” advises Scoblic, especially if a blog is written “quickly and emotionally.” Scoblic expressed concern that with “so much enthusiasm about this new medium, the losses have been overlooked.” Newspapers provide an “incredibly valuable public service,” he explained, noting that investigative reporting and “journalist intellectuals” (experts with contacts) provide essential, authoritative information and analysis. Blogs largely depend on them for content.
In this new world, opportunities to write have increased dramatically as people read and demand more information, but opportunities for careers are decreasing. Traditional paths of entry, advancement, decent salaries, and benefits are disappearing. The blogosphere, a wide-open field, offers a broader opportunity to be published, but often very low pay.
After the keynote addresses, conference participants were offered twelve excellent panels that covered a range of publishing issues. Experts, including many well-known figures, were generous with advice and tips.
The current difficult environment in publishing was on the minds of the Publicity Panel. During this “stressful time” of overworked editors and fewer venues for publication, it is “really important when making a pitch that writers have a specific game plan, talking points, and a Plan B,” advised Gabrielle Brooks, vice president and director of promotions for Alfred Knopf. Joannie Danielides, president of Danielides Communications, advised, “Do your homework…Your work is an investment. You spent time writing it. Now you must spend time selling it…Prepare a press kit including a bio, list of media ‘friends,’ wish list, and target audience…Be creative and clever in dealing with editors.”
Generating “buzz” on the blogosphere has also gained importance. A writer can reach a vast audience through the “viral effect” of linked blogs. Brian Rohd, an Internet marketing specialist, recommends major immersion in new technology. He advised that, as a writer, you should own your own domain name, have a Facebook page and Twitter account. Get familiar with new media. Build networks of groups with common interests. “It is all about sharing and helping,” says Rohd. “Don’t just talk about yourself and your work…Help others as well.” Customary venues are still important, though. Depending on the subject, a 50/50 split between use of old and new media was suggested.
In addition to new technology, more traditional issues were also debated at the conference. Critic John Simon aroused the Poetry Panel, saying, “This is a terrible time for poets. They don’t exist.” Discussion followed on whether words that move the reader qualify as poetry, or whether structure, rhythm, metaphor, and imagery are required.
The Humor Panel, which included Patty Marx, Bruce Jay Friedman, Tony Hendra, and Ben Cheever, grappled with how to create a funny character. (There is no answer.)
Suspense Panel author Jeffrey Deaver quoted Mickey Spillane: “People don’t read books to get to the middle. Suspense is the best medium for dragging people through to the end.” Superstar Mary Higgins Clark shared her formula: Take a true case. Ask “Suppose,” “What if,” and “Why,” and turn it into a story.
Writer and editor Kenneth Whyte of the Memoir Panel made a case for biographies, explaining, “Between the lines of a biography you can learn a lot about the author. One reveals about the self when writing about another.” Another panelist, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Connor, a scion of both the Vanderbilt and Whitney families, and herself a talented artist, illustrated as well as wrote her memoir, Those Early Days.
The Religious and Spiritual Markets Panel tackled the difference between religion and spirituality, as well as how to appear authentic and not “preachy.”
Essential nuts and bolts of getting a book published were shared by the Birth of a Book Panel, as professionals took attendees, step by important step, through the process, including finding and working with agents, editors, and sales reps. A first chapter is often the decisive critical basis for assessment of “level of writing, tone, and atmosphere.” Fiction writers discussed “voice” and whether “salability” should influence a writer. Popular author Meg Wolitzer advised, “No one knows what will sell. You have to trust that if you are engaged in the world, the world will be engaged in you.”
Two lunch keynoters, Joseph O’Neill and Christopher Reich, each acknowledged the importance of “luck” in their writing successes (O’Neill’s highly praised book Netherland is reportedly being read by President Barack Obama, and Reich’s Rules of Deception made The New York Times best-seller list), and each also had a prior career (O’Neill as a business lawyer and Reich as an investment banker). Otherwise their personalities and attitudes represent divergent models of the writer. O’Neill spoke of writing as “lonely,” “solitary,” “a life of obscurity,” and an “almost fictitious existence.”
Reich, who writes thrillers, seems to enjoy the process—the adventure of coming upon an “inciting incident” (what mystery writers need) and turning it into a “page turner.”
Lewis Burke Frumkes, the indomitable director of Marymount Manhattan’s respected Writing Center and organizer of the annual conference, was pleased with the day. “The recession has not quieted the enthusiasm of participants,” he reported. Difficult times have not squelched the hopes of aspiring writers. #