The 2019 San Francisco Writers Conference… And an Argument for Self-Publishing

It used to be that obtaining an agent and a publisher was a lot like climbing this mountain: hard work but worth it when you reached the top. Maybe not so much anymore. (I took this photo of Mt. Shasta on my way home from the 2019 San Francisco Writers Conference.)

I’ve been AWOL from my blog, playing hooky at the San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC). I’d been before, way back when obtaining an agent and a publisher were the primary options for being an author— the gold standard. This time, I packed my bags and headed off to the conference with that objective in mind, but I was also open to self-publishing, which is what I did with The Bush Devil Ate Sam. I bought a book by Andy Ross on how to write a book proposal and went to work. I like Andy, he fights hard for the people he represents. I also like him because he managed Cody Books in Berkeley for several years. 

Cody’s was one of the nation’s great bookstores. I can’t count the number of times I walked through its doors, the hours I spent wandering the aisles, and the great books I bought— even when I could barely afford them as a student at Cal in the mid-60s. The bookstore was always on my to-do list every time I returned to Berkeley, until one day I hiked down Telegraph Avenue eager for a bookstore fix and discovered it was no more. It was like learning that a good friend had died.

Andy’s book, The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal, is packed full of good advice, but it comes with a surprise ending: He self-published it. In fact, I quickly learned that a major thrust of the conference was on self-publishing. It has come of age since I had attended the SFWC in 2010. Still, there was plenty at the SFWC for those following the traditional path.

A number of agents were present and they ran workshops on how to pitch books to them during the agent speed-dating part of the conference. Think query letter with a lot less time. “You should be able to sell your book with one sentence.” Good luck with that. It’s the old Hollywood elevator pitch idea. When you catch a producer in an elevator, you have one floor to sell your movie script. Something like, “My movie is about Godzilla and Lassie teaming up to save Timmy.” 

I sat down with Andy for 15 minutes to talk about my book, It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.I had a one page, carefully-thought-out summary that introduced the book, my writing style, and relevant background. Andy liked my writing and even more my sense of humor, but, he noted, travel memoirs are hard to sell and Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed had already written the books on the PCT and Appalachian Trail. (I don’t agree with that, obviously.) He did suggest that I seek out agents who focus on adventure travel, and made several other good recommendations.

I listened carefully to presentations by the other non-fiction agents who were attending the conference and none seemed particularly interested in adventure travel books. I wasn’t particularly disappointed. Finding an agent and a publisher are incredibly difficult, even more so when your book is a memoir. Rejection is the name of the game—unless you are incredibly famous, or have a ton of good luck. Being a decent writer with a good story is rarely enough. There are millions of us. Too bad my name isn’t Curt Kardashian. Wait, I’ll pass on that. I’d much prefer to self-publish. 

The battle between print books and eBooks is a lively one. Pundits were ready to pronounce the print book industry dead for a while. But it has come roaring back. People still like the feel of a book. The 3000 or so in our library and scattered throughout our house certainly endorse the hands-on approach. But we also use our Kindles extensively. Travel, poor light, tired eyes, easy access to millions of titles, and cost are all factors. Both industries are here to stay, at least for now.

Writers have a different perspective on the issue. Having a publishing house print your book still has a certain prestige to it. And the advantage of getting your book into book stores. An agent and publisher also help assure that your book is well-edited and has a good title and cover. But the odds of getting a publisher, especially one of the big five in New York, are extremely low. They are now owned by large corporations who have one criteria: profit. Their only concern is will your book make money, lots of it. And that’s the tail that wags the dog.  

There is more. 

Publishing house contracts are notoriously one sided. A small advance with minimal royalties and maximum control are what first time authors can expect from a publisher. Time is also a factor. The project can easily take two years, and that’s after you have landed an agent and a publisher, which might take another year or so, if at all. Shelf-life is another concern. Yes, your books may get into bookstores, but if they don’t sell quickly, off they come. Bookstore owners have an agreement with publishers to take back unsold books and space is limited. Three months seem to be the outer limits. Your book is then destined for the burn pile— ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Marketing is part of the answer. Publishers used to take this on as part of their responsibility. No more. Unless your name is J.K. Rowling, or David Baldacci, or Catherine Coulter (she spoke at the conference), etc., you are expected to do your own outreach. In fact, most agents and publishers won’t even consider your book unless you have a ready-made platform. Jane Friedman, who is a guru on authors’ platforms (and was also at the conference), defines platform as “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” A blog, for example, is a platform. Having one was highly recommended by just about everyone. There was a slight catch in the fine print: It helps to have 100,000 followers. My 5,600 followers, 530,000 views and 20,000 comments count as something, but not much. Get to work, Curt!

It is easy to see the appeal of going the Indie route and self-publishing. Your digital book has a virtual shelf-life of forever. From start to finish, you can have it up and out in months instead of years. Your profit per book sold comes in at between 50 and 100% as opposed to 15 and 20%. Modern print on demand capabilities mean your readers can still get the book in print as well as digitally. And, finally, you are in total control. Whether your book is published or not doesn’t depend on a 15 second decision by an agent or editor, who may be having a bad day.

None of this might matter if the publisher handled all of the marketing and used their considerable expertise to push our books. The effort and rejection that goes into obtaining a publisher would be worth it. But they don’t. If our success is going to depend on the energy and skill we bring to marketing as well as writing, then self-publishing becomes a viable option, and may indeed, be the preferable option.

It was a great conference. I felt I learned a lot. Now it’s time to get back to blogging and writing the book. The decision to self-publish or not can wait until the book is finished.

NEXT POST: I came home to snow. Not much but it was pretty. It’s time for my annual snow post!

41 thoughts on “The 2019 San Francisco Writers Conference… And an Argument for Self-Publishing

    • Hi Tim. First sorry I missed slipping up north to see you. I was going to go home via the coast but simply ran out of time. I’m not at all discouraged. I write because I enjoy the act of writing and because I like story telling. (And, in relation to the blog, enjoy photography.) Fortunately, being ‘retired,’ I don’t have to worry about making a living. What I do is for fun, but I want to be professional at it. –Curt

  1. Dear Curt – Whether an agent, small time, big time publisher or independent, please know that you have brought great pleasure within your skillful writings and photographs. I will continue to enjoy your wonderful journeys. You are a man of great accomplishment. Thank you!

  2. I wrote a book and tried to find a publisher. It did not work out. The publishers that were interested were mainly after a payment to publish and often were full of lofty praise. I was suspicious. My book wasn’t that good!

    I then self published through Amazon and after a complicated trail with the US tax department went to self-publish. The POD (print on demand) was what I chose to try and sell them by. I published two of my books available all over the world through Amazon and lots of other similar outlets.

    I hardly sell any books but I loved going through the process, especially the writing of the words. I now put my books at book exchanges in Hospitals, shopping centres and in libraries.
    Each time I run out I order again my own book which is not expensive.

    On hindsight I could have spent more money on editing, but the language I use is simple and considering English is not my mother tongue, I feel very proud.

    • And you should be proud, Gerard. You had a story to tell and share, which is what you have done. Writing a book is a huge challenge in itself. At our ‘esteemed’ age, even more so. I write mainly because I enjoy writing and story telling. I’m interested in the challenge of publishing and self-publishing, but not particularly bothered by the results. It’s a topsy-turvy world out there. –Curt

  3. A comprehensive and in-depth article, Curt! Excellent feedback on your book proposal but I wouldn’t either be disheartened by the remark – there is always plenty of room for a good book in a similar vein as others and each one is unique and original. Blimey, so a blog is only ‘worthy’ if one has over 100,000 followers! Big sigh … luckily my blogging is for enjoyment and friendships! Many thanks for sharing your experiences and good luck completing your book.

    • Thanks, Annika. And not disheartened at all. It’s the name of the game. 🙂 I started blogging with the idea of a platform, but it quickly evolved into the enjoyment/friendship experience. I blog primarily because I enjoy writing and photography. The friendships have been a real plus. –Curt

  4. Good to see you back, and quite an interesting post. I’d forgotten Cody’s. It was good, and then sad, to be reminded of it.

    I laughed at that 100,000 ‘followers’ business. I’d have half a million by now if I hadn’t taken the time some years ago to cull out the obvious spam follows, and begun a daily process of dumping the ones who aren’t real. Anyone with a screen name like 36dkirxx832, who’s using an alphabet I don’t recognize, is fair game for a ‘delete.’ There are other clues, of course.

  5. Since you’re out there on the west coast, and with Bay Area roots, you might want to join BAIPA (Bay Area Independent Publishers Association.) They are a great group, sharing stories and experiences in the world of self-publishing. They’ve been aournd forever, with their fingertips on the pulse of what’s up. I’d still be a member, but it’s a bit of a stretch from Michigan.

  6. A beautiful shot of Mt Shasta! Wishing you great success with publishing. The title ought to be good for click bait I suspect! It certainly has me wanting to read of your close encounter. Perhaps it could get you to the coveted 100,000 followers! 😉

    • Thanks, Gunta. My thoughts exactly on the title. I’ve always let my blog grow organically and have never worried much about the numbers. I’m interested in playing around a bit. We’ll see. –Curt

  7. Glad I don’t have any great desired to publish an ebook. Maybe someday I’ll collate and organize the blog posts and give it to the nieces and nephews. I’m sure it would hold a place of honor, buried in some folder next to last year’s tax return, never to be seen again. 😉

  8. While reading your post I enjoyed your observations, how you came to understand what’s involved in publishing a book, however one chooses to do this. I experienced an absence of judgments which I liked and at the same time heard the advantages you find in both holding a book and reading from a Kindle, which I too find easier for traveling. I wonder if there was a feeling of detachment on your part, thoughts along the lines of ‘take what you like and leave the rest’, ‘whatever works’…
    I smile at “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”, and look forward to reading it in whichever form you choose to publish.

    • The publishing business is a totally different world than it was 20 or even 10 years ago, Arati. As is everything connected with the Internet. I am pleased that I can ‘sort of’ keep up.
      My book should be out in a year or three depending on whether I go the self-publishing or traditional route. I think readers will find it amusing and hopefully informative. Thanks for your comment. –Curt

      • Terrific piece, Curt, by the way – almost feel I went to the conference myself! You report on it in the same way you write – a measured style, great attention to detail, many touches of humour and a desire to take the reader with you. As for publishing, you are both realistic and optimistic which sounds right.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Dave. It was a good conference with a lot of emphasis on the importance of social media in marketing today’s books— given that today’s publishers no longer consider it their responsibility. –Curt

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