Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Women Writing the West 2014 in Golden, Colorado: An Eclectic Community of Writers and (...Sigh...) a Sharper Focus on Publishing

It's been a happy adventure to have joined Women Writing the West. Since I mainly write about Mexico, I might seem an unlikely candidate for membership. What prompted me to send off my application year before last was that, first, as a veteran member of several other writers associations, I was impressed with the professionalism of their outreach and their dedication via things such as the Willa Awards, the annual catalogue, and conference, to actually serving the members (as opposed to just funneling dues into who-knows-what and endlessly yammering for donations... don't get me started...) 

Second, I'm working on a book about Far West Texas, and so, among so many other things, I'm trying to get my mind around cowboy culture. I assumed that Women Writing the West would have a preponderance of members writing about cowboy culture and indeed, this is the case, though I hasten to add, there are many other types of writers in this organization open to any and all women writers living in / writing about places west of the Mississippi.

But third, a perhaps more important reason: I was looking for more of a writing community in English. In Mexico City, I've got my handful of English language writing pals, of course, and a few Mexican writer friends as well, but outside of a very occasional visit to San Miguel de Allende, a five hour drive north, I don't have much chance to hang out with a community of English language writers. 

Fourth: Women Writing the West has an active listserv. Among the multitude of friendly and helpful posts there, I have been especially grateful for those from Susan Wittig Albert who has so generously shared her experience in successfully self-publishing A Wilder Rose. Though I have published several other books with publishers as varied as University of Georgia Press and Random House-Mondadori, my current book-- very niche: Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution-- is self-published, and for this endeavor, Susan's advice has been golden.

And speaking of golden, I'm just back from my first ever Women Writing the West conference in Golden Colorado, which was splendidly organized, fun, friendly, and informative. As for publishing, I heard what I already knew, yet brought into sharper focus. More about publishing in a moment.


Literary agent SANDRA BOND, who happens to be the agent of my friend Solveig Eggerz. (Hey y'all listen in anytime to my interview with Solveig here.) We had a nice little yak about Unbridled Books, which brought out my novel in 2009 and Solveig's poetic novel of Iceland, Seal Woman.

CORINNE JOY BROWN, author of several books, most recently a collector's item for collectors, Come And Get It! The Saga of Western Dinnerware. I don't think I've ever owned and don't recall ever eating off of any western dinnerware. (Once, I almost bought an Annie Oakley mug, but then I considered the weight in my luggage.) But I got my signed copy and started reading right away because it explores the deceptively simple question, crucial to me, what makes it Western? The author and I had a little chat about Crypto-Jews, that is, hidden Jews of northern new Spain (presumably Catholic conversos but in some instances not). Turns out, Corinne is the Vice President of Communications for the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies and the editor of its biannual journal, HaLapid. It so happens that I recently ran a guest-blog post by historical novelist Claudia H. Long on that very subject-- 5 Secrets About the Crypto-Jews of Mexico-- and have in hand two books of relevance for this very interesting topic: Kaltheen Alcala's The Desert Remembers My Name, and Rose Mary Salum's visionary anthology Delta de arenas: Cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos. So what is the connection of Cypto-Jews with cowboy culture? I am looking forward to Corinne's next book...

Another signed copy tucked into my luggage was HEIDI M. THOMAS' Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women. It was especially fun to meet Heidi, as we had corresponded over her excellent guest-blog post for this blog, A Roundup of 5 Things to Know About Old-Time Rodeo Cowgirls.

At the Willa Awards banquet dinner I had the good luck to sit next to a most fascinating conversationalist and writer: ANDREA J. JONES, author of Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado.

SARAH BYRN RICKMAN, author of Flight to Destiny, a novel about women pilots of World War II.

SUE BOGGIO and MARE PURL, co-authors of Sunlight and Shadow and A Growing Season, both available from University of New Mexico Press.

CYNTHIA LEAL MASSEY, author of historical novels and Death of a Texas Ranger: A True Story of Murder and Vengeance on the Texas Frontier. (Hey, Cynthia, I look forward to seeing you at the Texas Book Festival!)

CARMEN PEONE, YA novelist based on the Colville Indian Reservation, for the Sinyekst or Arrow Lakes band of Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state. On her blog, Carmen offers 5 reasons to join WWW.

DAWN WINK, a teacher based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose first novel, Meadowlark, is about early settlers on the plains of South Dakota.

SUSAN J. TWEIT, whose book of essays, Barren, Wild, and Worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert, I read earlier this year and loved. (Read her
take on the WWW conference over at her blog. Excerpt: 

"...The conference background sound was the buzz of excited voices as participants gathered to greet old friends, meet new ones, and share ideas and tips on all aspects of writing. That excitement and sharing sums up Women Writing the West for me: community, not competition. A core value of the organization is to provide a supportive community to those of us engaged in telling and publishing stories about the West from a woman’s point of view."

Well, is that an eclectic community of writers, or what? 

As for editors, I only talked to one, and not about my own work, but about Mexican writing and translation: REBECCA WEBER MCEWAN, Editor in Chief of Fulcrum Publishing.



I had the honor of introducing JOYCE MESKIS, owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store for her talk, "Publishing from a Bookstore Perspective." The intro:

"The Tattered Cover Bookstore began in 1971 as a 950 square foot space and now, after 40 years, it has three locations in Denver and the metropolitan area. It has been called "the Queen Mother of bookstores," "Denver's book Mecca." The Denver Post calls it "a literary lighthouse." It's a must for any writer on a local or national book tour. You name the famous writer, they've read at the Tattered Cover, from Barbara Kingsolver to Kurt Vonnegut, Isabelle Allende, Buckminster Fuller, Annie Proulx-- and also many of you, members of Women Writing the West, who are here today.  
 Joyce Meskis wears two hats supremely relevant for the topic of this session. She is the owner of the Tattered Cover and, since 2008, she is Director of the University of Denver's Publishing Institute, a nationally-recognized summer certificate course, which during its 39 year history has graduated over 3,000 students."

Meskis started off with a riff of quotes about books and bookstores-- mind-tokes for book folks, shall we say, and for a moment we all got pretty high there. But then, 
after some eye-opening historical perspective on book-selling, she grounded us with the financial realities of keeping the doors to a bookstore open. I recall some rather uyy-inducing talk about nickels.

Then, in a later talk that same afternoon, LIZ PELLETIER gave us an hilarious but alas, realistic overview of what it takes to get commercial fiction on the bookshelves. (No worries, dear Liz, I won't repeat what you confessed that you said to grab the sales reps' attention, but... eew.)


So, we have the Wild West of e-commerce and self-publishing, and the old-fashioned way, that is, selling traditionally represented, acquired, edited, distributed and marketed books sold from shelves in brick-and-mortar stores such as Tattered Cover. Guess which system has lower costs? Guess which one is going to suffer an ever tighter squeeze?

I'm a bit irked at all this yammering in the blogosphere about amazon.com the evil bookstore-eating monster. Yes, it's grown into a monster. And yes, Jeff Bezos is an unusually  aggressive entrepreneur who doesn't always deal as if he were the heir to Mother Teresa. But all the changes in the book business, as in so many other businesses, boil down to this:

+ Operating out of the middle of nowhere is cheaper than paying for space in a city or downtown of an upscale suburb.
+ Bots are increasingly cheaper, faster and more reliable than human workers (and notably cheaper than the average human worker in a metropolitan area).
+ Many buyers prefer to shop on-line and receive their purchases by mail or, when possible (as in the case of ebooks), by instant electronic delivery, and again, bots are both cheap and good at all the things that have to do with making that happen. And when it is technically easy and economically attractive for them to do so, many sellers prefer to go direct to the customer, and lo, that it increasingly the case.
+ Buyers prefer to pay less rather than more. Yes, Virginia, demand curves are downward sloping. And the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. And Santa may or may not live on the South Pole, but google and you can watch him hohoho on YouTube until Kingdom Come.

And by the way, bots will drive our cars and take over much of the care for Alzheimer's patients, too, and probably sooner than we can imagine. Yes, it is kind of creepy to contemplate. Oh well! I guess I'll go work on my literary travel memoir. And then get some chickens.

UPDATE: Speaking of bots, see the NYT article Can You Uber a Burger?

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