21 February 2017
Dear Intrepid Readers,
Last time, I missed out on writing the editor’s letter because I was on my way to AWP (the Association of Writing Programs’ annual conference). Now that it’s over, it’s time to think about the whole AWP experience.
There are some great reasons to attend AWP. First and foremost, for those of us in the small publishing world, it’s one of the few chances we get to meet our far-flung editors, contributors, and our colleagues that run our favorite small presses. Considering that most of us are hardcore introverts, the whole “meeting all our friends” thing is a little fraught.
For those of us who attended MFA programs, it’s a chance to reconnect with other alumni and celebrate each other’s successes. It’s also a great chance to gossip about those people from your program that made everyone crazy.
Meeting the folks behind all our favorite indie lit journals is great for a few reasons. The first is that, because it’s unprofessional for a small press to publish its own editorial staff (although, let’s face it, we’ve all done it), small press editors tend to publish each other.
So, it’s a nonstop feel-good lovefest, right?
There are some genuine concerns over AWP that should be carefully considered when you’re thinking of attending or exhibiting.
This years’ AWP was an utter failure from the standpoint of accessibility. While the website states “All convention centers and hotels occupied by the conference are accessible in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). All rooms at the conference are wheelchair accessible and have seats marked as reserved for individuals with accessibility needs. Reserved seats will be located at both the front and the back of the meeting room,” the truth was that many of the conference rooms had doors that couldn’t be used by people with mobility issues, and the staff were, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, hostile to those who asked for help accessing panels. It didn’t help that the “accessibility desk” was located at the far end of the registration maze.
The website specifies that, “in order to help us better prepare, all requests for accessibility services, equipment, or accommodations, should be submitted in advance.” But when one is assured that accommodations are already in place, how can one know what to request in advance, especially if one hasn’t seen the venue and so has no firsthand knowledge of its shortcomings?
Another disappointing note was the number of very similar-sounding panels. Each year, it seems that the selection committee has a particular idea in mind of what they want to see, and they automatically accept any panel that fits that idea, and nothing else. It also means that each year, there is little variety in the content or tone of the panels. I have seen very, very few panels that discuss genre literature, writing-related careers outside academia, or writing for technology (the few writing and technology panels I’ve seen have been dominated by academic programs rather than individual authors doing new, interesting things). It means that if you’re a non-academic who writes genre literature but doesn’t work for a small press, it’s a toss-up whether you’ll find any compelling panels. Given the self-reported 12,000-14,000 yearly attendees, the number of genre-writing non-academics who don’t work for small presses is at least a few thousand, and it would be wonderful to offer those people panels that would address their needs and interests as well.
My last criticism is aimed at the Association of Writing Programs itself, rather than the conference specifically. This past year, they tried out a new system for allotting space in the bookfair. Groups who have been exhibitors at 3 or more AWPs got first choice, those who had exhibited 1-3 years got second choice, and new exhibitors were given whatever was left. This means that any new indie press, individual author, or anyone who wasn’t financially able to exhibit at least 3 years previously was given TERRIBLE choices for space. I can’t decide whether the conference organizers are uninterested in the welfare of the programs they purport to represent, or if they’re just not smart enough to design the bookfair layout in a way that gives smaller presses and programs the most visibility, while still giving large programs who want to spend a lot of money larger spaces that are easy to find. As a veteran of too many industry conferences to count, I’ve seen some thoughtful layouts that funnel attendees past the smaller tables and booths in order to get to the larger “destination” booths – a layout where everyone wins. As it is, I can see why anyone with the bad luck to be stuck in the hinterlands would look at their foot traffic and seriously consider whether AWP is a good investment.
As it is, I’ve decided that since this is the 3rd AWP at which I have seen no panels, next year I’m going as a mere attendee. I’ll still bringing some “swaps” to hand out to my friends exhibiting at the bookfair, but it’ll mean that I’ll have the energy to see every booth at the bookfair, attend at least one panel, and still have the energy to go to some offsite events.
What’s your best/worst AWP experience? Catch us on social media and tell us all about it!
And while you’re here, you should check out the sweet, sweet Valentine’s Day gift of Twenty Pounds of Brown Sugar by Tolonda Henderson.