Recently I attended my first writer’s conference. The keynote speaker was a well-known Christian writer who has authored nearly two hundred books, which might explain why many people attended. However, His Royal Celebrity-ness wasn’t why I attended; I actually wanted to learn a thing or two about writing.
One of the perks of attending a writer’s conference is the chance to meet with literary agents. In order to do so, attendees must jump through a few hoops, like write a book proposal and meet a deadline. The reward is priority status during the sign up process. Naturally, I jumped through the hoops, over achiever that I am.
My first meeting with an agent went something like this:
Agent: What is your book about?
Me: Becoming His Beloved captures my journey from fatherlessness, religious deception and emotional abuse into the freedom of the Father’s affection.
Agent: There are already a lot of books on ‘father to the fatherless.’ What is unique about your story? What is the golden thread running through your book?
Me: The golden thread is the story of redemption. I self published my book and the response has been very encouraging.
Agent: Self-publishing is not lesser than. What kind of platform do you have?
Agent: Get your story out there. Target blogs. Be strategic. Build your platform.
The agent didn’t even look at my writing. She suggested that I take the next year to build my platform because without one, no publisher would consider my book, even if it was brilliant, which it just might be.
The key to success in the publishing world turns out to be platform, which is about how many relationships you have, both real and virtual, and in short, how well known you are. Billy Graham and Hillary Clinton both have large platforms, (although I think Hilary’s was built with shoddy material and is about to crumble). People with a large media presence can easily get book contracts because publishers know their books will sell even if they can’t write two intelligent sentences. All it takes is a skilled ghostwriter to turn the celebrity’s story into a best seller thus ensuring big profits for the publisher.
The next session I attended was by the keynote speaker. Many of his books have become best sellers, which as you just learned, has nothing to do with great writing. I assumed that since he was speaking at a writer’s conference, he might actually talk about writing. Instead, he talked about himself, his family and his books in such a monotone voice that, under different circumstances, could be called sedative. Many people seemed impressed with his success. However, in my never to be humble opinion, his books seem as satisfying as fast food rather than an exquisite dining experience.
In the afternoon, I attended a workshop by a man who owns a publishing company. He had two words of advice: don’t publish. That’s right. At a writing conference, his best advice was to not publish. Given the proliferation of self-published books in the last few years, he alleged that the databases are too full and “we don’t need any more clogging up the system.” Besides, he said, self-published books rarely sell more than 250 copies.
I found his advice problematic. What if someone writes a book that sells only 250 copies and those stories reach 250 people with a powerful message of God’s love that radically changes their lives. Wouldn’t that be a success? Isn’t that what happened with The Shack? No publisher would touch that manuscript since William Paul Young was a man without a platform. Now look who is taking it to the bank. God works in small, unseen ways, and maybe that is how He will work with those of us without platforms. Wouldn’t He get more glory that way?
I met with a second agent, who asked similar questions as the first: What is your book about? Do you speak? What is your platform? Do you have a blog? How many twitter followers do you have?
Then she asked how I connect with my reader. “Do you say things like ‘Have you ever felt this way?’” No, I don’t write that way, I told her. I should have said that I have my own style that isn’t sanguine, syrupy, and sweet like a lot of Christian writers who try to do the touchy feely stuff in order to “connect with the reader.” It’s the content and quality of my writing that connects the reader to me.
At the final session, an audience member asked what books on writing the faculty would recommend. They suggested Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Anne Dillard’s The Writing Life and more. Later, one of the panelists warned the audience about Anne Lamott’s use of the f-word in Bird by Bird. Really? Was this alert really necessary? Lamott used the f-word in Traveling Mercies to tell her very real and raw conversion story, which connected her to a large number of readers who would never read a Christian book.
At the end of the conference, the faculty encouraged us to keep writing. Really? Keep writing, but if you don’t have a platform, you won’t get published, and God forbid that you self publish because we don’t want to clog the system with your manuscript, but yup, keep writing. I left the conference exhausted and just a little snarky, which should be obvious by now.
The next day I edited a story and posted it on my blog…in order to build my platform, of course. One of my two readers commented, “I enjoy your writing, which is in your voice, and while telling your story has the uncommon virtue of being all about Truth with a capital T. Thank you, Geneva for the gem you ARE and the gems you work to find, polish and give away.”
Take that, all you literary agents. I will keep my own voice, thank you, even if I never sell 250 books.
God is able to multiply my story like He did the loaves and fishes, with or without a platform. If He doesn’t, I will still keep writing for all two of you.
GENEVA CHINNOCK is a writer and author of Becoming His Beloved: Journey into the Father’s Affection. Geneva has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Master in Business Administration. In her spare time, Geneva loves reading, eating bacon and attending live theater. She lives in Southern California with her husband and blogs about matters of faith at TreasuredbyGod.com.