DC Author Festival: Best Advice on the Business of Writing I’ve Ever Heard

I didn’t know what to expect when I filled out the registration form on Google Docs. I knew that the DC Author Festival was organized by the DC Public Library. And I knew that this year’s event would take place in the James Madison Building at the Library of Congress. But as far as what to expect, I don’t know. I tend not to think much of events that are marketed as free.

As I navigated around the hordes of tourists on Capitol Hill, towards the festival on April 27th, I thought to myself, why not? What have I got to lose? I took an elevator up six flights of stairs and followed signs through what felt like a Kafkaesque maze of dark, ill-lit hallways before appearing in front of a registration table. There, I was offered a presentation pamphlet along with free pens and notepads emblazoned with the DC Public Library logo.

I chose to skip the scheduled talks on “Genre” and “Structuring a Novel” and instead sat in on a panel discussion led by the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts (WALA) titled “Tales from International Publishing.” And I am glad I did. It was the first time I ever listened to anyone talk in-depth about copyright law, or about how royalties from book sales work. I learned about what language to look out for in publishing contracts, and all about legal issues related to books in translation. Did you know that under German law, translators have ownership rights under the copyright? Did you know that all the major publishing houses in the US are owned by German companies?

While infringement issues in the world of publishing are rare, I learned, they happen from time to time. From a legal standpoint, and as a practicality, writers looking to protect their manuscripts should look to register their copyright—which can be done online for $35 at copyright.gov. Writers should be wary, I also discovered, of language like “agency with an interest” in agreements they sign. This language could give agents ownership stake over their client’s work (Agents should have a right to a commission but never ownership to a creator’s work).

In later afternoon panels led by various local authors and agents, I was introduced to the ins and outs of literary marketing and publishing. I found out that when writers sign on with small publishing firms, they shouldn’t expect to have any help with marketing. I also discovered that when agents submit their clients’ manuscripts to big-name publishers, they often attach them with marketing “brag sheets” that include information such as: where the author has already been published, and high-profile names of people who can blurb.

As far as shopping for literary agents goes, don’t delude yourself into thinking they’re looking for diamonds in the rough. Most writers under-estimate the level of polish agents expect to see in manuscripts submitted to them. In other words, agents only want to see work that is in tip-top shape before it ever ends up in their inbox. And if you haven’t heard from an agent in over six months, that means no—don’t expect to see an automated rejection form like you do on Submittable. In fact, most agents find their clients through references so, learn how to network.

Speaking of networking, social media can offer new writers a great way to build their own platforms and reach out to others in the publishing world. A word of caution on this note— no reputable agent ever expects to be paid up front. If they do, they’re probably trying to scam you, so beware.

Just by being in DC, writers have access to a supportive literary community. At conference tables set up at the festival, I met people from all over the DC literary scene. There was a table from the monthly literary reading group called Inner Loop. There was a table from the DC Area Literary Translators Network (DC-ALT), which, I learned, offers support to local literary translators. There was also a table from MoonLit, which is a group that offers low-cost writer’s workshop and sponsors other local literary events.

If you’re ever in town for the DC Author Festival, and find yourself in need of literary business advice, I highly recommend you stop by.

 

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