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It was fabulous. Amazing people, attendees and faculty and star guest writers. The Writers Conference I just attended was as it always has been: friendly, open, accessible, and small enough to offer informal opportunities to mingle and connect. New York agents who are pool sharks. Editors who are sensitive and warm. Poets who like to party. Great craft workshops. This year’s conference was all that, plus fantastic summer mountain weather.

But. (You knew there was a but.) Publishing has been rocked this year. Maybe not *your* publishing. I don’t know your situation. Maybe you’re fabulously happy, hitting the bestseller list. Maybe you’ve just gotten your MFA and an offer comes in the mail without a single query on your part. Maybe you’re so fricking talented you’re wasting your time reading blogs.

Or maybe you’re everybody else. Working your butt off for low pay and little glory. Trying with all your might to be seen and heard in this crazy marketplace. Trying to create your “platform” and finding only shoes from the ’80s. Querying and more querying. Publishing has never been easy. According to one faculty member at the conference, just being published is like winning the lottery. (At least that’s how she felt, a bit blessed and very lucky.) Now it’s become… interesting. And varied. It’s not your father’s publishing business. People are doing all kinds of creative things, from publishing their own books, to co-op models, to all electronic, to selling to Amazon. But if you go to a writer’s conference what are the chances you’ll hear any of this? I don’t know. But I heard very little about it at this conference.

There was rumbling among the faculty. “Why aren’t we talking about electronic publishing?” “This seems like the same message we gave ten years ago.” “I am totally against self-publishing!” “It’s leveled the playing field.” “What about independent publishing?” All sorts of opinions, on the side. But nothing really substantial in the program because all the agents and editors, and 90 percent of the published faculty, are invested in traditional publishing. Such as it is, kinda shitty for the writer but occasionally, marvelously brilliant, it works for them.

Is traditional publishing still the holy grail? To a certain extent, yes. To be accepted by people who read thousands of manuscripts a year, to make the cut, to be published by a grand old house — it’s a dream for most writers. To have that dream come true, I can tell you from experience, feels incredible. But at the conference’s editors Q & A the questions ran out. The panel ended a half-hour early. Either the attendees knew the answers to many questions, or they are looking for answers somewhere else. The questions asked were the same ones the world over: how many novels get picked from the slush pile? do I need an agent? how much is a “usual” advance? (answer to all questions: it depends.)

In critique sessions where we focus mostly on the writing itself, there were many of the same issues we always have: point of view shifts, punctuation, formatting, character development, cohesiveness, pacing. But I also spent time talking one writer off the ledge. Although he had sold two books to a major New York publisher and they had been accepted, edited, copyedited, and galley-ed over four years ago, the novels had never been published. The editor would not give them back to him, nor would she publish them. Correspondence with his editor was hostile, and naturally he took it personally. I tried to give him advice, but I’m not a lawyer. I’ve had my own issues with editors, some quite contentious and (from my point of view) personal, and I felt for him. You feel so isolated. One backwoods writer against a New York conglomerate. He didn’t even have an agent to go to bat for him. He was owed money. But all he wanted was to get his manuscripts back so he could go forward on his own and make his own decisions.

Is that too much to ask? Not in 2011. It’s really not. It makes you wonder. Is traditional publishing still the holy grail? And the answer, as usual, is ‘it depends.’