Where Do Books Come From (part 2)?

simon-cowellEarlier this month, I had the good fortune of attending the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. The conference is part of that seemingly endless process of bringing a book from conception to life. In this particular event, authors, agents, presenters, merchants, and publishers converged on the Airport Sheraton. All of us were looking to grow books.

For many of us aspiring, agent-seeking, hope-filled writers, part of the conference was something akin to American Idol. We sat in chairs waiting for our turns to meet with agents. In the moment when staff volunteers stood before the door, announcing “two minutes,” we moaned and popped breath mints while mentally rehearsing, one last time, our pitches. On the other side of those doors sat the gatekeepers, the industry professionals who could save or destroy us.

I remember the first few seasons of American Idol. As a spectator, I loved Simon Cowell, the harsh and mostly honest judge. I waited for him to pounce on those awful singers who should be teachers and lawyers and janitors. That was part of the fun. But, standing before those doors, I wished for a room full of Paula Abduls (the only time in my life I would wish that).

It turns out that agents, at least the ones at this conference, were human. At least they were very good replicants. That isn’t to say they were falsely kind and sentimental, in a Paula Abdul way. Rather, they seemed to understand what was at stake for us writers—how much emotion and time we had invested in the books we were pitching. It’s almost like they were in the same place. And, given that these agents have to take our pitches—after they’ve polished and perfected them—to editors, maybe they really did understand: the books are part of us. As professional as this business is, it’s still personal. (Art is always personal, even when it becomes a product.)

I don’t know what will happen to my manuscript. There were some signs of agent interest —or, at least, tolerance. Whether an agent and I found each other, the critiques I received were invaluable. Every writer should try conferences and agent consults, especially when fortunate enough to find a conference as productive and constructive as this one.


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