Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Back in Ol' Virginny II (More on VaBook Fest)

Audience at my "Book Publicity Basics" panel. Some people are serious note-takers!

Continuing with my excellent adventures at the VaBook Festival, last Saturday I woke up early to have breakfast with a friend at the incomparable Albemarle Baking Company. It's as good--or better!--as any bakery in New York, maybe even Paris. I've yet to find one remotely like it in Denver. SIGH....

I'd say I woke up bright and early, only it was heavily overcast and correspondingly humid. My aching head and pounding sinuses reminded me why I was eager to move away from Charlottesville. I love the people and the scenery speaks to me like noplace else, but oh, the pain and puffy-eyed dullness!

A handful of vitamins, a couple cups of serious coffee and a marvelous apricot brioche got me into shape to face the masses (well, about 80 people) at my 10am "Book Publicity Basics" program. The panelists were indie publicists Lauren Cerand, Elizabeth Shreve and Gene Taft; Callie Oettinger cancelled due to a wicked upper respiratory infection (I persuaded her to stay home & keep her germs to herself, for which I was roundly thanked). There was much good discussion, and all three stressed that authors need to be 1) REALISTIC, 2) professional and 3) prepared. The audience (very few of whom walked out, to my great relief) soaked it all up, asked a lot of questions and then stormed the podium afterward for one-on-one with the panelists.

Next I moderated Sam Horn's "Here's the Pitch," which frankly needed very little from me as Sam is a force of nature. She's quiet and softspoken till she picks up a microphone and then...vavoom! Sam told everyone to take notes and they obeyed. Not a single person walked out. After imparting the secrets of crafting and presenting a winning pitch, she had five volunteers from the audience stand up and give theirs.

I've been doing pitch sessions in my Book Promotion 101 workshops for nearly 5 years, but still I never cease to be amazed at how poorly writers speak about their work. (Think of Miles in "Sideways" when he's asked to describe his novel.) One guy wouldn't even say whether his book was fiction or nonfiction. I and more than half the audience thought it was nonfiction (I took a vote). Eventually, I wormed out of him that it was in fact a novel. When I asked him to describe it more, he told me "You'll have to read the book." WARNING: Don't try this at home, or in a TV/radio studio. The last time an author told me that, I killed the magazine piece I was going to write about him and wrote up an interview with another author.

After that, I had lunch with my friend Stefanie at the Omni. The menu stated "Soup of the Moment," which got us laughing. I asked the waiter, "What's the soup this moment?" "Beef vegetable," he answered in a thick Slavic accent (much of the help there seems to be imported from the former Eastern Bloc), "but next moment it's onion." He got a big tip.

At 4pm, I went to the Agents' Roundtable, which as always got a crowd of at least 200. Panelists were Sloane Harris of ICM, Simon Lipskar of Writers House, Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Literary Agency and Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Agency. The panelists kept cracking up because Kleinman kept cracking wise; however they were quite serious when it came down to business.

Main message points:
1) Good writing trumps all.
2) Do research & find out which agents represent your type of book.
3) Write a crackling query letter. (See #1.)

Then I went to the festival reception, where I drank much water and shmoozed with old friends and new acquaintances. After that, Mary Sharratt and I had dinner with Sam Horn and her son Tom, who daringly wore a Virginia Tech cap (Charlottesville is home to arch-rival UVa). Tom answered a question that's been bugging me and countless others for many years: Why does Hawaii have an Interstate highway? (Answer: For the military.)

After THAT (yes, I was still standing, though a bit hoarse), I made a quick sweep of the Omni bar, where I chatted with MJ Rose, Katherine Neville and Simon Lipskar, who were at a table together; and then bade a weary goodnight to the even wearier festival assistant director, Kevin McFadden, who was counting down the hours till his 30th birthday.

Sunday morning I was up early for coffee with Mary Sharratt and Louis Bayard, author of THE PALE BLUE EYE, a marvelous historical mystery-thriller starring a youthful Edgar Allan Poe. From there, I went for breakfast with friends at their peaceful spread in Ivy, then took my favorite drive of all--through Free Union and Earlysville--to have lunch with other friends in Forest Lakes, conveniently near the airport.

I printed out my boarding pass at the latter's home, but when I checked in not two hours later, I was told that the Northwest flights I had confirmed were "grossly oversold." Instead of going on a tiny prop plane to Detroit, I was switched to a Delta jet through Atlanta and then to Denver. I'd only bought the less-desirable Northwest fare because it was hundreds of dollars cheaper than on Delta. So I got the route I'd wanted in the first place, PLUS a bulkhead row all to myself from Atlanta to Denver, PLUS a $200 Delta voucher for my "inconvenience," PLUS I chowed down on fried chicken, collards & okra at the Atlanta airport.

And yes, I was exhausted on Monday. But I dug up and moved some plants anyway because, hey, it's spring and my sinuses were happy to be high and dry again.

Chris Greene Lake Park, where I hung out for a happy half-hour when I was bumped for a later flight.

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