Category Archives: Writing Conferences

Hot Titles & Upcoming Trends: A Look at BookExpo America 2016

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2016-05-13 16.32.19Last week I attended BookExpo America—the largest annual publishing industry trade fair in the U.S. With an attendance of nearly 20,000, it’s a monumental gathering of publishers, editors, agents, book sellers, librarians, authors, and others in the industry. BookExpo runs Wednesday through Friday, and then on Saturday the show opens to the public through Book Con, which gives book lovers a chance to meet their favorite authors, attend panels, and go home with a suitcase full of free advance reader copies (ARCs). What could be better?

One of my favorite things about BEA is that it’s an opportunity to preview the titles publishers, agents, and booksellers are most excited about for the coming year. In this post, I’ll share a glimpse of those hot new trends.

This year’s Expo took place in Chicago, after more than a decade at the Javits Center in New York. Reactions to the new location were mixed; some attendees pointed out that attendance was down slightly and that East Coast publishers sent fewer staff members and 2016-05-13 16.04.07threw fewer parties (boo!). Others saw the new venue as a plus, since it drew larger numbers of attendees from other parts of the country than usual and brought in many first-time attendees (yes!). Personally, I love New York, but I enjoyed the energy and freshness of this year’s Windy City BEA just as much.

Among the most popular events are the “Buzz Panels,” where editors from top publishing houses gush about a book they can’t wait to see debut. There is a panel for each of three
categories: Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Adult titles. This year’s Buzz Books in YA fiction featured an eclectic mix, from high stakes fantasy, to a dark satirical tale of modern high school, to the story of a girl who finds power through rap music after experiencing sexual abuse. Here is the complete list from the YA Buzz Panel:

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CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber

STALKING JACK THE RIPPER by Kerri Maniscalco

RANI PATEL IN FULL EFFECT by Sonia Patel

SPONTANEOUS by Aaron Starmer

THIEVING WEASELS by Billy Taylor
I have to admit I’m particularly excited about that first title because I had the great fortune to work on it with Stephanie as she prepared to submit it to agents and publishers. Watch for its hardcover debut in January!

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Stephanie Garber and I get excited about her beautiful Caraval ARCs

Other upcoming YA titles that generated major excitement were Sabaa Tahir’s A TORCH AGAINST THE NIGHT (sequel to AN EMBER IN THE ASHES) and Laini Taylor’s STRANGE THE DREAMER.

In Middle Grade, the focus was on classic adventure stories with a fresh twist. Here are the titles to watch for this fall from the Buzz Book Panel:

GERTIE’S LEAP TO GREATNESS by Kate Beasley

THE LOST PROPERTY OFFICE by James R. Hannibal

FRAZZLED by Booki Vivat

TIME TRAVELING WITH A HAMSTER by Ross Welford

THE ADVENTURER’S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES by Albert White

In adult fiction, a few of the hot titles featured were Coleson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, which he describes as historical fiction with “one degree of magic realism,” Jodi Picoult’s latest work SMALL GREAT THINGS, and Louise Penny’s A GREAT RECKONING, the latest in her Armand Gamache mystery series. Another title that caused a stir among booksellers was THE GIRLS, author Emma Cline’s debut about a teenage girl’s disastrous experience in a cult in the 1960s.

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YA Buzz panel author Sonia Patel rapping a song inspired by her protagonist in Rani Patel in Full Effect

Here are the titles from the Adult Buzz Book Panel:

 

THE MOTHERS by Britt Bennett

LITTLE DEATHS by Emma Flint

A HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

THE NIX by Nathan Hill

DARKTOWN by Thomas Mullen

ANOTHER DAY IN THE DEATH OF AMERICA by Gary Younge

 

Don’t miss your chance to download FREE excerpts from some of the titles mentioned here, and many other hot upcoming releases, in the Publishers Marketplace Buzz Book collections.

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Publicist Vanessa Lloyd-Sgambati, agent Regina Brooks, marketing expert Ken Smikle, and African-American Lit Book Club founder Troy D. Johnson talk about how to hook readers and drive book sales

A thread that connected many of this year’s panels and sessions was the continued need to bring diversity into our literature and the industry as a whole; yet great strides have been made. The team from We Need Diverse Books put on another fantastic panel about progress and continuing challenges (e.g. using terminology like “marginalized groups,” which connotes separation, not inclusion). In the panel “In Search of A Book Buyer: African American Women Top the List,” speakers addressed research that shows African American women represent the highest percentage of readers in the country, and how to authors can get their books into the hands of this audience. Regina Brooks, panelist and president of Serendipity Literary Agency, said, “My mantra is that as much as we need diverse books, we need people to market diverse books” (Publishers Weekly Show Daily: Day 2). One idea that come forth was the importance of getting books into community gathering places e.g. community centers, churches, and salons.

tribeBookExpo features a huge number of exciting new titles in nonfiction as well. Two must-reads that I came across focused on sociological aspects of life in the modern world: TRIBE: ON HOMECOMING & BELONGING by Sebastian Junger (May 24/Harper Collins) and THE FOUR DIMENSIONAL HUMAN: WAYS OF BEING IN THE DIGITAL WORLD by Laurence Scott. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, spoke at Thursday’s Adult Author Breakfast, where he shared his belief that books “actually are kind of sacred…. It means that every phase of the book-making process and the bookselling process is sacred to some extent in my belief.” Expressing his gratitude to booksellers, he said, “It’s one of the most profound and important things I think that a person can do; that a society can do. The hands need the books and the books need the hands.”

Another exciting aspect of BEA is its spotlight on indie authors through the UPublishU conference, held concurrently at the same location (McCormick Center). Speakers from Ingram Spark, Kirkus Indie, the Editorial Freelancers Association, and many others shared tips and best practices. Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, presented his “Top 10 Trends Shaping the Future of Publishing” (visit the Smashwords website for Mark’s industry insights and resources).

Want to see more fun shots of BEA? Visit my Word Cafe album on Facebook.

Hot Topics from the Conference Scene: Diversity in Fiction Writing + Subjectivity in the Slush Pile

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Happy Fall, Word Cafe readers! For me, it marks the beginning of conference season, and I’m just back from the Colorado Gold Conference from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It’s always a top-notch event, but this year’s offering of workshops and panels was perhaps the best yet. I’ll give a quick overview of some themes and resources that resonated with me, and then I’ll zoom in on a vital topic for writers heading into submissions: subjectivity in the slush pile and the publishing industry.

A couple of sessions that really stood out to me put the spotlight on diversity in fiction. They were “Writing the Basics of Queer Characters” by Charles Yoite, Emily Singer, and Cath Lauria; and debut MG author Judith Robbins Rose’s talk about writing characters from a different culture/background than your own. A theme that emerged in both sessions was the importance of including a broad array of experiences and viewpoints within what we consider “diverse characters,” in order to avoid what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” In other words, including a cisgender gay male character in your fiction (for example) does not begin to encompass the entire LGBTQ experience, just as writing about a young second generation Mexican girl from a tough neighborhood does not encapsulate “the Latino/a experience” in the U.S. If you’d like to explore this further, check out the website of the amazing We Need Diverse Books campaign. Now in its second year, the BeyondTheTropecampaign has made great strides toward getting the publishing industry and our literature to more accurately reflect the diversity of this country (it focuses on the U.S. book market, but hopefully the message will go global!).

Another dynamite workshop, “Tropes 101,” showed how to turn fictional tropes on their heads, and featured the team from the Beyond the Trope podcast. A few questions that arose: “Why do women warriors wear bikini-like armor–isn’t there a chance someone might try to stab the parts the armor doesn’t cover?” and “How can I subvert the ‘faithful dog/man’s best friend’ trope? (Answers from the brainstorming session: “Make the dog an alligator,” or “Let the dog think her master is an idiot.”) If you’re not acquainted with the podcast, I recommend it for excellent writing advice and a hearty dose of cerebral humor.

I always like to attend the agent/editor panels at conferences to stay current on what the publishing world is looking for, and this year’s RMFW sessions did not disappoint. For me, though, the prevailing message was one you have (hopefully) heard before:

In the world of publishing, it often comes down to individual tastes and opinions.

AgentEditorReadsSlushPilePanel croppedCase in point: the “Agents/Editors Read the Slush Pile” panel. It featured two agents and two publishers/acquiring editors, who were to listen as Angie Hodapp (my friend and former colleague at Nelson Literary) read the first two pages of audience members’ manuscripts. The panelists were to raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading if these were submissions in their slush pile, and then explain why. Talk about a nail-biting experience for the participating writers! But there was a twist: Angie had mixed in the opening pages of four New York Times bestsellers to add a little nail-biting on the other side of the table as well. Here’s how it played out:

Every participant received genuine praise from the panelists, and nearly every one made it to the end of the two-page read with at least one panelist still interested. The agents and editors were clearly impressed and noted that this was not at all typical during such an activity (or in the slush pile); the pool of submissions was exceptionally strong. Some things the panelists liked:

Elegant prose. They noticed when the writing was flowing beautifully, and if it ever started to feel over-written or stilted, hands went up (the “stop reading” signal).

Questions raised in the reader’s mind. There were cases where panelists said they might have stopped reading, had there not been a compelling question raised in those first two pages, ensuring they wanted to hear more in order to find out what would happen next.

The panelists did find room for improvement in each submission. Here were the most common pieces of advice:

Trim, trim, trim. For at least half of the submissions, panelists recommended tightening the writing on the sentence or paragraph level. Several authors were told their story started in the wrong place; that they should trim the first couple of paragraphs, the first page and a half, etc.; start the story in a more dynamic spot, and then weave in any relevant information from the cut material later. Some stories had an overload of descriptive language. Others contained too much thinking/ruminating from the main character, preventing the story from really taking off.

Clarify who the main character is (in the context of the story) and help readers get to know her/him better, right off the bat. Some of the submissions had excellent prose, but the panelists were left with a vague notion of the POV character. More grounding was needed.

Infuse the story with more emotion or a reason for the reader to care. Some of the submissions flowed nicely but left the audience feeling apathetic about the characters (often a precursor to yawning). Tackle the “So what?” factor early on.

Now, here’s the kicker. Remember those four NYT bestsellers? Can you guess how they fared?

The four published novels received reviews ranging from “good,” to lukewarm interest, to “no thanks.” None of them gave the impression of blowing the panelists away. Two received a stop sign from all or most of the panelists before the end of two pages. They were novels by…drum roll…Philippa Gregory and Nora Roberts. Yes, really!

Each of the four bestsellers received suggestions for improvement; the most common was again “I could see room for a bit of trimming/tightening.”

Are you surprised? I wasn’t. After hearing the samples, I agreed with those critiques and suggestions, but on a big-picture level, it’s something I’ve seen over and over in the publishing industry. In writing, as in any art form, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there is such a thing as incontestable good writing, just as there is cringe-worthy writing. But in the middle is a vast gray area, where it often comes down to individual tastes, preferences, and opinions on the part of industry professionals. It has become an axiom: Every agent has rejected a book that went on to be a big hit.

During this critique session, there was definitely overlap in the panelists’ feedback, but not a single submission received exactly the same assessment from all four agents/publishers. And though they appeared a little sheepish at rejecting those bestsellers, the panelists stuck to their guns and delivered what I think was the most important take-away: Publishing is a subjective business, and debut authors have the hardest road. You have to get your foot in the door and prove yourself before you’re allowed a few missteps or a saggy opening scene. Then, once you have established yourself as a master storyteller (AKA sold millions of copies), you just might get away with murder.

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My workshop at the conference was titled “A Layered Approach to Worldbuilding: The Macro, the Micro, & the Unseen.” You can read some of the content in this blog post.