Confession #1: I did not want to go to the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference this year.
When the plane was two and a half hours delayed from Oregon and it looked like I would miss my connecting red-eye (I did), I called my aunt and cried.
But I was speaking on a panel, “Photography Basics to Boost Your Bottom Line,” and moderating a panel, “Nurture Your Writing Career With Parenting Markets,” and there was no not going.
Confession #2: I am a travel writer who does not like to fly.
I have an article in this month’s FamilyFun magazine about family travel to Eugene.
You can read my New York Times article about eco-luxury hotels in the Pacific Northwest.
But the older I get the more I hate to fly.[Insert image of disheveled lady paying full attention to the safety briefing, which she is actually reciting by heart in real time with the stewardess.]
Was it really worth trekking 3,000 miles across the country, being away for four days, and leaving my anxious husband home alone with a nursing toddler and three other kids and no help?
The answer is yes!
(N.B.: I’m writing this on the plane flying West so maybe I’ll qualify that answer once I assess the state of affairs at home.)
THIS YEAR’S WAS THE BEST ASJA CONFERENCE I’VE ATTENDED.
Here’s what I learned:
1. AS MUCH LEARNING, NETWORKING, AND IMPORTANT STUFF HAPPENS OUTSIDE A WRITING CONFERENCE AS AT THE CONFERENCE. I had coffee with a travel editor at the New York Times. I’ve always enjoyed working with him: he’s responsive, smart, and spot-on in his corrections. I knew what he looked like from Twitter and the Internet. But I found out from spending an hour with him that he is also someone with tremendous integrity whom I can only describe as a lovely man.
2. IT IS ALWAYS BETTER TO COLLABORATE THAN TO COMPETE: Writer-to-writer collaboration was a theme reiterated in several panels. Help a writer get started, share an editor’s name, put two people in touch. It makes you feel good and it sends good karma into the world. You get that good karma back tenfold.
Will some of the people you introduce to each other like each other better than they like you? Yes! Will a writer you pass along to your agent get DOUBLE the advance you did? Yes! Will someone steal your ideas and your photos? (Writers tend to be tremendously neurotic about this). Maybe! But does it matter?
Imitation is the finest form of flattery.
When your friends are successful it makes you look good.
What really matters is that you are being a good team player, growing your business, honing your skills, learning from others, and helping other writers dodge the holes you fell into at the beginning of your career.
3. ASK YOUR EDITORS ABOUT COMMON MISTAKES WRITERS MAKE: When this question was asked of my panelists, it yielded interesting answers. Diane Debrovner, a senior editor at Parents, shared that writers need to spend more time making sure what they submit is well organized, getting quotes from experts that are understandable to the lay reader, and matching the style of the query letter or the story to the magazine’s tone (Parents shoots to be that friend down the street whose kids are a bit older than yours. She’s compassionate, funny, lighthearted, and kind. She’s been there and done that and has wisdom to offer, but she doesn’t judge or criticize).
On the panel, “Secrets of Successful Freelancing,” Sam Greengard, a past president of ASJA, said one of the 7 deadly sins committed by writers is to only do the minimum. Greengard advises that you be the writer who cheerfully does more than you are asked.
4. WRITING IS A PROFESSION AND YOU NEED TO ACT LIKE A PROFESSIONAL. ALWAYS: In one of my favorite panels, “Inside Investigative Journalism,” Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Bill Dedman, told this joke:
A politician tells his aide to go see who is waiting outside his office. The aide goes to look and then returns to the office, shutting the door behind her. “Three journalists,” the aide tells her boss, “and a gentleman from the New York Times.”
Dedman says he always tries to be that gentleman from the New York Times. He dresses nicely for interviews. He never carries a stereotypical journalist’s notebook. Why note? Because he does not want sources to think of him as a harried reporter but rather an intelligent, educated professional interested in listening to the stories/scoop/insider information they have to share.
5. WRITING IS A PROFESSION AND YOU NEED TO ACT LIKE A PROFESSIONAL. ALWAYS: Didn’t I just say that? It bears repeating. When I asked my editor at Scribner about common mistakes authors make (see #3), she said we need to realize that our publicists are sometimes working on up to ten books at the same time.
Less person power + more titles = busy staff.
Instead of freaking out at your publicist for a perceived slight that has nothing to do with you or your book (honest), you need to have reasonable expectations, show them you appreciate their time and go the extra mile (see #3). Don’t send increasingly frantic emails every 15 minutes all morning cc’ing more and more people when you need a book overnighted. Send one. If you don’t hear back by 3:30 p.m., send a follow-up or call and politely ask if the first message was received. No one was ignoring you. They were in a meeting. The book will arrive at the same time either way. But the frantic emails make you look bad.
“It’s really just about acting like a professional,” my editor said.
6. In the panel, “Become Every Editor’s Go-To Freelancer,” Kate Appleton of TRAVEL & LEISURE mentioned that even travel EDITORS LIKE “FRESH” ANGLES. A fresh take, a new look at an old problem, a surprise.
(Full disclosure: I’ve heard this insight so many times it’s become a bit … stale.)
Some in-production examples from the editors on that panel:
1. Spas around the world where people recover from surgery
2. Controversial statues—why visit them, why they provoke debate
3. Revolving restaurants. The food sucks and you just go for the view. Right? Wrong. A round-up of ten where the food’s actually good.
7. LONG FORM NARRATIVE IS NOT DEAD. Readers are hungry for it and it is still being printed in places like the New Yorker, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and Vanity Fair. On-line websites where space is not an issue are an exciting new venue to write long-form narrative. Atavist.com, which pays writers a flat fee and then profit shares based on how many people download the article (one writer made $80,000 on a story this way, according to Nicholas Thompson, a senior editor at The New Yorker) accepts narrative non-fiction of up to 10,000 words! Hooray!
8. NO BOOK EVER DIES: I only caught a bit of M.J. Rose and Jacqueline Duval’s excellent panel on book publicity but one point M.J. made was that with the advent of book sales on the Internet, you can continue marketing your book and people will have a place to buy it.
When books were only sold in stores, once the book was remaindered it was dead.
Some other pearls of wisdom about book publicity from the intrepid M.J.:
1. No one buys a book they’ve never heard of.
2. Some work-for-hire publicists will take your money and give you nada. Ask around A LOT before you sign with someone, no matter how pretty her pitch to you is.
3. If you’re planning to pay out-of-pocket for publicity, spend as much on MARKETING (Internet ads, for example) as on PR (where a firm tries to get you editorial mention with no guarantees).
4. Get involved with promoting your book early on, enthusiastically, and creatively. Gone are the days when the publicist does it all.
5. Don’t underestimate the power of making connections and word of mouth (see #1). “Viral can’t be bought.”
Enough drooling over the conference.
Nothing’s ever flawless.
I would like to point out a less-than-perfect aspects of ASJA this year:
Writer (and editor) friends, hello! We need to get with the 21st century!
Let’s start incorporating slides, video, drop in text, audio, and creativity into our talks.
Let’s add a little pizzazz!
There are a lot of technology tools out there to make a presentation visually interesting. There’s old-fashioned show-and-tell. There’s break-into-small-groups for two-minutes to brainstorm. There’s lots of ways to make your presentation fresh! Let’s put some new twists on an old subject (tee hee.)
I estimate fewer than 5 percent of the panels had audio-visual enhancement. Fewer than 1 percent of the panels I attended used PowerPoint.
Almost no one was brave enough to step outside the box and do something unexpected.
If we are going to be on the cutting edge of the news, sharp writing, sexy features, excellent photography, let’s start showcasing our skills at our conference.
If ASJA doesn’t jump with both feet into the 21st century, we’re all going to be pulling shots at the local café.
What did you think of ASJA 2012? What worked for you and what didn’t? What did you learn? If you blogged about ASJA 2012, please provide a link to your post in the comment section below. I promise to visit your blog, leave a comment in return, and read every word.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. She is the editor of Toddler and co-author of The Baby Bonding Book for Dads. Her new book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Baby Before Their Bottom Line, was published by Scribner in April 2013. Read a Q & A with Jennifer at the Oregonian’s Oregon News Network.