The Literary Road Show: Giving Writers Feedback and Support, not Statistics and Hype

After writing several articles about the merits of self-publishing, I was invited to moderate a panel on self-publishing at a prestigious annual writers' conference at Hunter College in New York City. The conference follows three days of writing workshop intensives. For the last two years my panels included leaders in the self-publishing industry, as well as successful self-published authors.

This year when Lewis Frumkes, founder and director of the Hunter College Writing Center and Writers' Conference, again asked me to organize a self-publishing panel I suggested an alternative. "Enough about self-publishing," I said. "What authors and wanabe authors crave is feedback on their manuscripts and proposals from publishing professionals -- mainly literary agents and editors." Frumkes agreed.

Writers reeling from repeated rejections are enticed by rags to riches self-publishing stories, but are soon discouraged by statistics on how few authors break the bank, or even start an account. Yet writers who follow the traditional publishing route must face the fact that the landscape of publishing is rapidly changing, and not to the advantage of new or even previously published authors. That was made clear to me when during a break in last year's conference several well known authors queried me about self-publishing, with obvious interest in testing the waters.

Not surprising. Authors of every ilk are worried. Publishers are increasingly narrowing their focus; many only seek "big books." Several literary agents have told me they wouldn't touch a project unless it could draw at least a hundred thousand dollar advance. Also, in line with the big book trend, midlist authors and debut writers are vanishing or shrinking from the offerings of many large publishing houses. There are smaller publishers that set more modest goals -- but they are still cautious about what they publish. And publishing with a small press -- even a prestigious one--may mean little or no advance, a limited print run, a bare-bones marketing plan, and the possibility that your book will not be carried by bookstores in significant numbers. One of the downsides of self-publishing is that retail bookstores like Barnes & Noble and even independent stores rarely stock self-published books. However, it is a well-kept secret that many traditionally published books show up on bookstore shelves only in tiny numbers and often disappear within weeks of publication.

So where does all this leave the average writer who is not a candidate for the National Book Award? Confused and in the dark. Enter, my panel at the Hunter College Writers' Conference: "The Literary Road Show: Pitch to the Experts." A number of randomly selected attendees will have the opportunity to make a brief "elevator" pitch of their book or proposal to a panel of three editors of major publishing imprints, a prominent literary agent, and the director of a school of journalism. Feedback from these experts in the trenches will provide sound guidance on the merits of a project, its publishing appeal, how to create a book proposal that will attract a publisher, and the best publishing route for a particular project -- traditional or self-publishing.

Those attending the Writers' Conference will also have the added bonus of an opportunity to schmooze with some of the leading authors, editors and literary agents who Lewis Frumkes consistently assembles for the panels. This year's conference, scheduled for June 7, is no exception. Many panelists and speakers are recruited from writers who appear on the long-running Lewis Frumkes author-interview radio show. This year's lineup includes leading editors and agents, as well as literary luminaries such as a former New York Times book review editor Chrstopher Lehmann-Haupt, author and screenwriter Bruce J. Friedman, memoirist Malachy McCourt, mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark, bestselling author, musician and screenwriter James McBride (keynoter), award winning author Nicholson Baker, humorist Dan Greenburg, talented writer in several genres Ben Cheever. And the list goes on.

Last week Lewis Frumkes called: "I've thought a lot about the 'Literary Road Show' and decided to make it a regular event during the year at the Writing Center." He added, "a forum for expert feedback is just what writers need."

I hope that other writing programs and conferences follow suit so that authors can see a light at the beginning of the tunnel.

For more information visit the Hunter College Writers' Conference website.

Bernard Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and college professor. His latest book is Jesus Uncensored:Restoring the Authentic Jew..