Today I went to a small press/independent press book fair. It's been a good six months since the Book Expo of America, so I guess I'd forgotten that most small presses that rent booths at book fairs seem to be lower quality fantasy, erotica, Christian fantasy, or erotic Christian fantasy. There were some Marxist and/or conspiracy nut presses, legitimate translation presses, and the few remaining children's books not produced by Scholastic. Personally, I think if South Park took an entire episode to make fun of your conspiracy theory, you should probably call it a day.
But seriously - small presses are important. Yes, Barnes & Noble has made sure that their hopes of widespread distribution will be squished like that weirdo bug near my bathtub drain, but the internet has made it so that if they manage to correctly title the books, they might be found by a search engine and actually bought. I did recognize some titles, but only from Amazon browsing. I am a small press. I published a book last year using Lightning Source that was a public domain work and made a few thousand bucks by doing my own distribution. In 2008 I'll do it again with another book that hasn't seen the light of day in 100 years. It's a labor of love, not a career.
Unlike the BEA, which charges a steep admission fee and makes you have to come up with some industry job on their form to be admitted, this one was open to the public, which meant to say the talks were geared towards unpublished writers. As an unpublished writer myself (the book's in development but it's not on shelves), I've tried to stay away from writer's conferences, because I find the information provided in them to be misleadingly optimistic and the air of desperation to be stifling. The speaker on how to query agents, who shall go unnamed, was not only there, but hocking her own book on the subject, which made me glad I wasn't her client. She did give good advice. It was obvious advice, but you gotta start somewhere. I was actually sort of surprised that I agreed with most of it, because it is true that agents have differing opinions.
The really sad part was, of course, the writer's questions. It takes something to stand up to a crowd of desperate people longing for that one nod of approval from an agent or that one call from a publisher that changes their lives, much less tell them the truth, so she softened her answers to the point where they became totally useless answers that didn't address the main problem, which was that the author was a pretentious asshole or has written a book that no one would ever want to read. (How did I know? Oh, trust me, you know. If they say they're too unconventional and fantastic for normal publishing and that's why 70 agents rejected them, you know)
I don't have a huge fear of public speaking, but I tend to be much nicer in person, which I think would eliminate my ability to say anything useful. Yes, there are people who just need to be pointed in the right direction, or assured that no, the agent will not get pissed if they send 52 pages instead of 50 because that's when the chapter ends, and no, we don't throw out an entire query letter because of one typo, and yes, if you have written an excellent book, our job is not to crush your hopes and dreams. It is to fulfill them. The bad news is that most people haven't written a good book.
She did draw the line at endorsing self-publishing. That was for the next speaker to do.