The Great Oz
Detour, passengers. Let’s take a peek behind the curtain…
I began writing these taxi stories a few years ago as a way of keeping in touch with my aging, published author mother back on the east coast; to let her know what’s been going on in my life. (Yes, it’s been all about mom.) And like you, she’s been amused by many of these stories, and aghast at some of my actions in others. But as moms go, they forgive. And they want to see you thrive, and pay rent and stuff. So, mine sent her cabbie author son off to the 2016 San Francisco Writer’s Conference, which took place over four days last week, up at the four-star Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill.
It was all at once exhilarating, educational, and inspirational. There was a wonderful silver-haired, author-in-retirement community buzzing about, with all giving one another much needed support. The red meat of the event were various competing talks regarding the writing of pitches, book proposals and agent query letters, and, of course, tips for online marketing and the hot pursuit of publicity.
(Ah, what’s a non-practicing Buddhist to do?)
The keynote address at one of the breakfasts was delivered by bestselling author of the Ivy + Bean kids’ book series, Annie Barrows. To clanking dishes, Annie relayed to all us rapt writers stats from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, like: There were 156,000 self-described authors in the U.S. in 2013. And, there are over 4,500 books released in the United States every single day. But these overwhelming figures all washed away with Annie’s uplifting takeaways: “Don’t let ANYONE, EVER tell you that you are not a ‘real’ author.” And, “NO ONE knows ANYTHING about punctuation!”
The Goal: To secure conference co-director Mike Larsen as my agent. And to have Mike pursue a traditional book deal on my behalf.
I began the day early (and caffeinated) on Thursday morning, attending a talk by the object of my desire, entitled, The Ten Commandments for Becoming a Successful Writer. Long-time victim of weekly spam emails regarding new cabbie blog-posts, Mike has been an angel. Over the last year and a half, Mike has emailed me back numerous times with great advice and words of encouragement. He’s called me once. And THE Mike Larsen even invited me over to his home for his Christmas party! Yes, before I entered the gilded doors of The Mark Hopkins, the hook was already half in this fish’s mouth!
Seated amidst about thirty other aspiring professional authors, with pens at the ready, the aforementioned, very cool Mike Larsen opened his talk with some funny malapropisms, before punctuating his intro with the winning entry in this year’s conference slogan contest, “Writers do it on paper.”
Side Note: We’ll later learn to steer clear of -y and -ly adjectives like “very”. Apparently, they betray an author’s lack of imagination in word choice.
Just after the jokes, and right in the middle of Mike citing the many accomplishments of his, um, very impressive resume’, Mike drops the bomb.
“Oh, and I stopped representing new authors a year ago.”
Yes, the conference was all at once exhilarating, educational, inspirational… and dejecting.
Or, was it?
With conference schedule and highlighter in hand, I re-calibrated, devoting myself now to focusing on the numerous other agents attending the conference. I immediately snuck out of Mike’s Ten Commandments talk to duck into another event, currently in progress; Queen Victoria and Klaus Sherman: A Bestselling Author and Their Agent’s Working Marriage.
(Eh, I’d already read Mike’s Ten Commandments three times at home, anyway.)
It was in the Working Marriage talk that we agent-hungry attendees were let in on the rib busting tale of Queen Victoria commiserating once in L.A. with a fellow Brit. It seems Fellow Brit was purchasing the Queen’s manuscript for HBO a mini-series, which was then to be transposed into a modern take on Jack the Ripper. Well, the Queen asked Fellow Brit what he missed most about the U.K. And American marmalade was the hilarious reply. The sad state of it here in America, anyway. (Insert rattling jewelry HERE.) Something to do with oranges outside of the U.K.
Next stop, Prepping the Perfect Pitch: Convincing Agents to See Your Manuscript
Twelve agents sat all stoic on stage, as one at a time they all took shots critiquing pitches from a standing room-only crowd of insecure authors, the likes of Tokyo Jane.
When Tokyo got called, she rose hesitantly to her feet and began shaking and crying uncontrollably. Jane then began to unleash a litany of a memoir pitch, of growing up in a Japanese-American internment camp, only to see her father die nameless in the army as he vainly attempted to prove his loyalty to America by joining in the war effort. The upbringing was so scarring, it would apparently lead Jane to start tripping a lot of acid in her teens, and then running away to live on a commune with a man whom she married at San Francisco’s City Hall, in a black dress, and by a preacher named “Loveless.” The man said he would never leave Jane. But ultimately, Man did leave. And when Man left, he left Tokyo reliant on food stamps, homeless, and with their two children to raise, alone.
Needless to say, as the judges, er… agents were all passing around the tissue box, Tokyo’s pitch was shot down by each one as too “unfocused.” (I do actually have to agree. I’m not so sure there was a coherent book in Jane’s story, as much as a good “curl up with the popcorn” episode of Jerry Springer.)
Then, there was Ms. Murie, an older, well-to-do white woman, who in her retirement went off on safari in Zambia, only to end up returning to Africa many more times to fight the poaching of elephants there, armed only with her indignation and a jade elephant necklace that she made. (Ms. Murie’s pitch was shot down for lack of “arc.”)
Finally, a middle-aged Chinese woman stood and gave her pitch — in badly broken English — for her non-fiction book about mixed-race child rearing. Suddenly, all of the agents JUMPED to their feet, gawking and climbing over each other in a SCRUM to get Tiger Mom to “query” them after the conference. (Apparently, odd ways to raise a kid is today’s hot topic.) But this time, it was the agents’ hopes that were dashed, as Tiger Mom said she was going to (GASP!) SELF-PUBLISH!!
Horrified, Great Mike the Moderator said he had never in all of his years, seen so many drooling agents shut down so hard. (Tiger Mom explained that it was “unacceptable” to lose control of her book to a traditional publisher.)
It was here that the epiphany landed on me with a great THUD! It was the sudden, stark realization that self-published authors are as good as lepers in the professional literary world. This, as evidenced by the ensuing emphatic cringes, winces and gasps of the panel at every new mention of the cursed phrase in Tiger Mom’s exchange with the agents. And the agents punctuated their aversion with gory stories of former clients who had gone rogue and (GASP!) self-published, and quickly found themselves excommunicated by the “big, New York publishing houses.”
I did not get a chance to pitch at this talk. The competition for the agents’ limited time was just too steep. But with the revelation of my deal-breaking status, any pitch now would seem to have been rendered moot.
However! There would still be another chance to at least get some feedback on my pitch! Weeks ago, at registration, ma had splurged the extra sixty bucks to sign me up for the next day’s, more personal, Speed Dating with Agents.
This event would see slightly less desperate authors get a whopping three minutes at a time to pitch their manuscript to a glazed-over agent, sitting one-on-one at a table, with each agent clinging tight to their conference-supplied travel-size bottle of hand sanitizing anti-bacterial. It was thrilling. Every three minutes a bell would ring, and an author would be ejected mid-sentence from a given agent’s table, to then dart off and pitch another.
When I’d reached Klaus, Queen Victoria’s agent, two of my three minutes were spent standing there behind an empty chair, waiting to be invited to sit. Klaus couldn’t really be bothered. He was too busy with his head stuck in his phone updating his Facebook status. Once finally seated and trying my pitch on Klaus, “Dad taught me-” Klaus immediately cuts me off. And I am dismissed with, “We are not a match.” (Did I mention Klaus is based in L.A.?)
And Klaus ducks back into his phone, as another author meekly steps up and stands waiting behind the chair.
I knew now that it was, again, time to re-calibrate. Break out the highlighter and the schedule, and focus, Alex… on the online marketing and publicity talks for self-published authors!
It’s here that I learned that I must up my “platform”. And that my once a day Tweet has been completely insufficient. (I must Tweet at least seven times a day.) And Facebook is nice when “Liking” and “Sharing” the hell out of “Friends.” But, it’s ultimately worthless when one has not paid them for ads; as their new-ish algorithm buries your updates, otherwise. I also learned in these DIY talks that I am to offer YOU, the reader, a free download of something at my website. But what the hell do you all really want?? Anyway, please, I’m to surreptitiously procure your email address with some kind of download (as accumulated email addresses are “king”). Oh, and I confess; I have been remiss in not partaking in Pinterest. (And here, I thought I was supposed to be writing!)
On the publicity angle, it was confirmed that I am supposed to be an “expert” on something related to my field, so long as it’s today’s hot topic. I guess with respect to taxi stories, this would mean me pursuing TV, radio, and print interviews so I can talk shit about Uber. (Shoot me now!)
Next for my homework is working on my SEO, checking my website’s analytics, and honing in on my demographic (YOU) so as to nurture “super fans” — readers who will go out and spread the Gospel, and get me reviews on Amazon. Additionally, I am to pay undisclosed thousands of dollars to a publicist who will promote me as an author. But! “Do NOT expect this to translate into book sales. This is a LONG game we’re talking here.”
Along the way, I did find my groove, even going so far as to repeatedly steal copy paper out of the printers in the Mark Hopkins’ over-priced business center, to bring home each night for the printing of author promo sheets, which I would stealthily leave around the hotel lobby’s coffee tables each morning.
All in all, this, my first writer’s conference was a warm and wonderful event. Mike even arranged for me to play jazz drums on Friday night, alongside a pianist, during the conference’s Gala Party, held in The Mark’s, um, very ornate ball room. Each attendee got a drink ticket. And I played drums in front of what must have been 500 people!
But, after all is said and done, I’ve come out of the 2016 San Francisco Writer’s Conference pretty much exactly where I’d started: With no agent. No book deal in the works. Solidified as an independent, self-published author. And broke.
However, this cabbie author remains steadfast and unfazed.
I mean, I just write these stories ’cause I love my mom.
Photo by Alex SacK
Check out Alex’s Book 1 — San Francisco TAXI: A 1st Week in the ZEN Life…
& Book 2 San Francisco TAXI: Life in the Merge Lane…
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