10 Takeaways from the 2016 San Francisco Writers Conference

All photos used by permission of SFWC16 photographer Melanie E. Rijkers, whose work you can see at artstudio23.com.

If you are a writer looking to build a community, pitch your work to agents, get advice from experts, and learn about the full spectrum of publishing options, then this conference is for you. Go to sfwriters.org to learn about the 2017 conference.

Below are my top 10 takeaways from the conference. You can find additional tidbits from me and other participants on Twitter by searching #SFWC16.

Photo courtesy Melanie E. Rijkers, artstudio23.com

1. Create a clear author message. 
One of the easiest ways to build your author platform is to start telling everyone you meet about your book. To do this confidently and effectively, you need a clear author message—the equivalent of the entrepreneur’s elevator pitch. Beth Barany led writers through her formula: “I write + genre + for [adjective] audience + desired impact.” (Read more here.) One participant got it exactly right on the first try: “I write contemporary romance novels that give hope to readers with dysfunctional families.” 

2. Write with strong nouns and dynamic verbs.
“If you choose good nouns, you won’t need many adjectives,” says Constance Hale, author of the excellent Sin and Syntax. Consider, for example, the difference between “house” and “mansion.”

  • House = house
  • Mansion = house + size + wealth + showiness 

It’s the same with verbs: when you choose dynamic rather than static verbs, you pack more meaning into your sentences. Compare:

  • Connie is at the front of the room. 
  • Connie stands at the front of the room. 
  • Connie grabs the microphone from Ethel and takes her place at the front of the room.  

3. Self-publishing authors can and should put out a professional product.
“Our mandate as self-published authors is to play at the level of traditional publishers,” said author coach and publisher Brooke Warner. Indie authors need to take their work seriously in order to be taken seriously. What does that mean? Writers need to be willing to spend time learning the process, and they need to be prepared to spend money on professional editing and book cover design.

4. There are 7 processes indie authors have to get right.
Want to follow Warner’s advice? Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, gave a clear breakdown of the processes self-publishing authors need to master: 

  1. editing
  2. design 
  3. production
  4. distribution
  5. marketing
  6. promotion
  7. rights 

As Ross put it, “indie authors are the creative directors of their products, and they should pull in any and all resources they need.”

5. Your book cover should sing, but your book formatting should whisper.
Book designer Joel Friedlander reiterated Warner’s point about putting out a professional-looking product: “As a self-publisher, you have to be prepared to be on the shelf with those from the big publishers.” Your book cover must scream for attention (in the right ways), but your interior design should just disappear so it doesn't interrupt your reader's experience. Friedlander’s latest venture, a book project manager called BookPlanner.com, may be worth checking out for indie authors feeling overwhelmed by the details. (I haven’t had a chance to evaluate it myself yet.)

6. Judge your book by its cover.
As Marketing Director of Smashwords, Jim Azevedo sees a lot of book covers from self-publishers. His brilliant tip for evaluating the effectiveness of your cover? Pull up the page of bestselling books in your genre on Amazon and then drag your cover thumbnail onto the page. You will be able to see right away whether your cover stands up to the covers of traditionally-published books or needs more work.

7. Make it easy for people to endorse your book.
Recognizing that good intentions are often derailed by lack of time, author Cali Gilbert makes it as easy as possible for people to follow through. In addition to including her book cover, synopsis, and two full chapters, she provides potential endorsers with sample blurbs they can use or adapt. 

8. Be authentic and selective in your social media strategy.
Both traditionally-published and self-published authors have to use social media effectively in order to find an audience. There was a lot of excellent advice on this topic at SFWC16 (from Frances Caballo and Fauzia Burke in particular), but Penny Sansevieri gave a clear summary of the two principles I heard repeated over and over again. First, be authentic. As Sansevieri put it, “social media now demands that we be real.” Second, choose the platforms that are a good fit for both you and your readers. A successful social media strategy, Sansevieri noted, “is not about being everywhere; it’s about being everywhere that matters.”

9. Traditional publishers are facing tight constraints, and editors are human. 
"Imagine a root canal during the zombie apocalypse." Editor Brenda Copeland got a big laugh for her description of the book cover design process. And the audience for the editors roundtable session needed a laugh after hearing some of the stark truths about traditional publishing. Chuck Adam’s comment, early in the session, that he was currently working on books that will appear on Algonquin’s 2018 list took the air out of the room. The roundtable made it clear that traditional publishers are working within tight financial constraints and a long time horizon. That said, it was apparent that these editors genuinely love books and any author would be lucky to have them on their team. Copeland, for example, gushed over a submission she had read by first-time novelist Brit Bennett that is coming out from another press.

10. Authors must be innovative to stay afloat in the never-ending deluge of content.
Jane Friedman opened her keynote with a question: "What does it mean to publish in a world in which everyone is doing it?" With a brief tour through publishing history, Friedman demonstrated that authors used to depend on books to amplify their ideas. With the rise of the internet, however, that is no longer automatically the case. (Watch the eye-opening "Did You Know?" video below.) How can authors find readers? Friedman offered five pointers: 

  1. Partner with your publisher but don’t depend on them
  2. Create, craft, and control your online presence
  3. Find ways to reach your readers directly
  4. Explore ways to collaborate that extend your reach
  5. Recognize that there’s not just one model: there’s your model

Friedman stressed the power and the freedom of this last point. Authors now have the entire demand curve of price points and audience size available to them and shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with new ways of making themselves heard.