International Publishing Experts and Authors Meet in Florence

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by Lori Hetherington

For the second consecutive year, Florence Writers held a Publishing Day at St. Mark’s Church in the historic center of the city, bringing together international publishing experts and Anglophone writers. The 2017 event took place on May 13th.

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The opening session, entitled ‘Help your characters tell the story,’ prompted a lively discussion that could have filled a week-long seminar! The four panelists—Juliet Brooke, Senior Editor at Chatto & Windus and Hogarth (a Penguin Random House imprint) in London; James Wills, Managing Director of the Watson, Little Ltd. literary agency in London; Marilyn Atlas, a Los Angeles Literary Manager and Producer; and Shannon Kirk, bestselling author of Method 15/33 and The Extraordinary Journey of Vivienne Marshall—exchanged opinions and practical suggestions about how to avoid banal, one-dimensional characters.

According to Atlas, “A character doesn’t have to be likeable. The character needs to be fascinating, mysterious or relatable… Make the character compelling and layered.”

In the same vein, Kirk noted, “I want to see a real person and I want to see a character who is flawed… Either the character is working towards admitting the flaw, identifying it or overcoming it.”

“Everything we’ve said still applies also in narrative nonfiction,” added Brooke. “Don’t give everything away right off. Keep certain elements of a character aside for a while.”

Techniques for pitching were discussed in the second session. The panelists shared in a light-hearted way some of their experiences to illustrate how not to pitch a story and Kirk spoke about how she honed her presentation until she was taken on by agent Kimberley Cameron, one of the panelists at last year’s event. In addition, she urged attendees to enter writing contests as they can be, with their deadlines, motivators and, if an author places in a contest it can offer them credibility in the eyes of an agent or editor.

“In your pitch—whether it’s via email or face-to-face—get straight to the point,” said Wills. “Be honest about what your book is about. Don’t over sell it.” As he went on to explain, “Don’t say your book is Harry Potter meets the Da Vinci Code, it’s a turn off.”

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The session on intellectual property was moderated by EWWA member Andrea Zurlo. This session was a bit less dynamic, most probably because participants knew less about the topic, but not because it was less important. The panelists agreed: if an author sends their manuscript to a reputable and professional agent, there’s no need to fear about theft, while it is best to avoid those without a solid reputation. In the case of self-publishing, it can be useful to register your work according to the dictates in your own country but it’s not essential because publication itself confers protection under copyright. With traditional publishing, an intelligent author reads—and understands—the clauses in the contract they sign.

Again this year, as is the case at the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, the afternoon one-on-one sessions gave the participants an opportunity to seek advice, pitch their story, or ask individual questions. According to the attendees, this part of the event was of great value especially since some of the experts were willing to read work samples before the event; at least one participant was able to attract considerable interest in her pitch and was invited to submit her full manuscript to the agent. The panelists were enthusiastic as well: at the end of the day, they had positive comments about the overall quality of the stories presented.

Also in the afternoon, David Gaughran, a well-known expert on self-publishing and marketing for authors, presented two workshops: one on the practical steps an author can take toward success in self-publishing and the other on marketing strategies for authors, whether they are traditional, self, or hybrid.

During the first workshop he explained that, “Publishers want to sell books at the highest price. Self publishers want to get books into the hands of as many people as possible. They are totally different mindsets.” To find success he advised authors not to rush when launching their books or try to save money. “You must put out the best product you can. Bad reviews on Amazon will hurt you, they’re permanent.”

As for promotion, Gaughran said the greatest promotional tool is a new book: spend your time writing, not running after social media unless you enjoy it; a tweet that says ‘buy my book’ will not sell more books. Another one of his suggestions was to avoid companies that say they’ll self-publish and promote your book for a fee. “There are many that will find your emotional weaknesses and exploit them.” Instead, Gaughran advised, “Look at what the bestselling authors in your genre are doing and copy it in regards to marketing.”

One of the best pieces of advice that emerged from the day came from author Shannon Kirk: “Participate in events like this one, where writers and industry experts have the chance to connect. It’s one of the most important things you can do on the road to success.”

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