25 July 2017
Dear Intrepid Reader,
I’m wrestling with a fairly large question right now.
To AWP, or not to AWP.
AWP is in Tampa in 2018, and while I had already decided not to get a table or booth this year, the new rules call into question whether Zoetic Press will participate in the future at all.
Last year, the Association of Writing Programs changed the rules for AWP exhibitors so that groups who had exhibited in the 3 years prior got a 1-week jump on everyone else when it came time to pick exhibit space. Zoetic Press had only been participating for 2 years, so that by the time we were able to choose a space, everything in the center of the exhibit hall had already been claimed, and we were limited to booths on the very outside rows. As a result, we got much less foot traffic than we had in the two years prior, guaranteeing that we didn’t recoup our cost for the booth.
This year, they’ve changed the rules AGAIN so that those programs who have participated for 10 years get first priority. Which means that even if I did decide to exhibit again, I’m still relegated to the hinterland, and still guaranteed to lose money.
While I could waste a lot of time complaining about who makes these rules and whom they’re made to favor, for me it’s bringing up a much more basic question – why am I exhibiting at conferences in the first place?
Every time I get into a discussion about AWP, I hear from smaller presses that there’s no value in it for them. Sending even one person to a conference — flights, hotels, food, conference admission — is expensive (thousands of dollars if you stay at the conference hotel), and most indie presses don’t have that kind of budget.
There’s the expense, but what about the conference offerings? Is there anything at one of these huge conferences that would make it worth the outlay?
AWP has historically had a litany of problems — accessibility issues, lack of representation in panels, outright racism. And those are the ones people have complained about online. For me, there are other problems (and I’m sure these are issues for plenty of other people).
- As the head of a small press, if I’m going to attend, it means that a lot of other responsibilities get put on hold, and I have a backlog of work facing me when I get back.
- And because I’m an introvert, the first week after AWP is spent sleeping 16-20 hours a day to recover from the non-stop human contact, meaning that my real downtime is not just the 4-5 days of the conference, but 3-4 days beforehand and a week after — two weeks of productivity lost.
- The conference itself is hell on introverts. Enormous, crowded spaces; back-to-back events; lots of noise, stimulation, and interaction. Every year I have to make the hard choice between necessary self-care and attending the events of friends I love and respect, and even that isn’t enough to keep me from succumbing to at least one emotional crisis.
- Because so many panels and events are scheduled in such a brief time, it’s inevitable that attendees will have to choose between two things they’d like to see for nearly every session.
So what’s the answer?
There are lots of answers, including holding smaller, regional conferences more often; accepting fewer panels and presentations (AWP currently accepts roughly half of proposed panels); break the conference into two conferences, one focused on the academic side, one focused on the general-interest side.
But regardless of how the conference itself is re-structured to make it possible for attendees to get more value with less stress, there are still some pretty substantial obstacles for the conference to overcome to redeem its reputation. At this point, the best thing the conference organizers can do is to recognize that the bulk of the 12,000-14,000 who attend each year aren’t academics, and that a radical re-think of how the event is organized, including people who can speak to issues of inclusivity and accessibility.
Oh, and an ombudsman to help address attendee issues during the conference wouldn’t suck either.
Have you been to a conference that didn’t suck? What did they do differently? Tell us on social media!
And don’t forget to check out our new podcast: The Literary Whip
While you’re at it, go listen to Lincoln, Kennedy, and Me by Christina Dalcher.