By Olivia M. Croom, Collaborative Designer
Last month I attended my fifth Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, better known as AWP (yes, AWP not AWWP). This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the conference, and it returned to its roots in Washington, DC. AWP is held in a different city every year, and I’ll never understand why they seem to choose the coldest cities in the middle of winter. I’ve attended in DC twice, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Next year it will be in Tampa (most people I talked to expressed confusion about that particular choice), and AWP 2019 will be Portland (yaaaaas).
The adjective I hear most often connected with AWP is overwhelming. Understandable, since AWP attracts anywhere from twelve to sixteen thousand attendees at all different levels of their careers, from first-year MFA students to literary royalty like Jonathan Franzen, Amy Hempel, Maggie Nelson, Annie Proulx, Richard Russo, and Tobias Wolff. There are hundreds of on-site panels and events covering a dizzying number of topics. The major categories are Caucuses, Featured Events, General Sessions, Panel Discussions, Pedagogy Sessions, Readings, and Receptions.
I must confess I go to fewer and fewer on-site events each year. Whenever the official schedule comes out, I usually spend two to three hours going through descriptions, looking up who’s reading or speaking, and adding about twenty on-site events I’m interested in attending to my calendar. This year I actually made it to: Apocalypse Poetry by Women with Dena Rash Guzman, Leah Umansky, Maggie Smith, and Meghan Privitello; In Conversation: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates (if you haven’t read their books, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore); Current Trends in Literary Publishing; and Lit Hub Presents: A Conversation on Literary Citizenship in the Age of Diversity. They were all excellent, and I was able to attend these events with friends from across the country and have long discussions about the topics.
The book fair is my main event. It boasts between six hundred and nine hundred vendors. Most of the major literary magazines have booths or tables along with the big independent presses (Red Hen, Coffee House Press, W. W. Norton) and representation from the big New York houses (Harper Perennial, Macmillan, and Scribner). There’s also a large number of industry professionals who visit but may not have a booth or table (like me!)—publicists, editors, agents, executive directors, etc. I love visiting with book design clients from different cities (shout out to Indigo client Jeff Richards), catching up with bookish friends from Albuquerque to Portland to Charleston who I don’t get to see otherwise, and passing out cards to new contacts.
One of my favorite aspects of the book fair is getting to browse the selection from the local presses who only attend when AWP is nearby. It’s encouraging to see so many different people involved in publishing, and as a book designer, I’ve watched the quality of cover design go up every year. As digital growth (the topic of many an AWP panel) plateaus, the investment that publishers have put into improving their physical book design is paying off.
Okay, now that we’ve covered the official AWP offerings, there are the off-site events. With so many editors, agents, publicists, and of course writers, there are dozens and dozens of events that aren’t listed in the official AWP guides but are organized and promoted by publishers and literary groups. Invites spread via Facebook, email, and word of mouth. On the first official night of AWP, I attended a happy hour for those connected with the Big Five publishers in NYC; a party and reading for the West Coast publications Willow Springs, Okey-Panky, and Pacifica; and a party and reading hosted by Barrelhouse, Catapult, Lit Hub, and The Rumpus. You can start to see that while #AWP is a popular hashtag during the conference, #AWPlague or #AWPflu are the biggies the following week. (I will take a moment to boast—and knock on wood—that I have never gotten sick after AWP.)
There’s always a moment, usually during the morning of the final day, when everyone questions the point of AWP. It’s not inexpensive to attend, especially if you’re coming from far away, you never get enough sleep, most people allegedly drink a little too much, and there’s not enough coffee in the world to satisfy twelve thousand-plus book people in one place. And yet I and many others continue to attend every year, and every year I peel back another layer of the AWP, finding new people, new literary organizations, and of course new books.
Olivia M. Croom works in managing editorial for Henry Holt & Company, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, and is a collaborative designer with Indigo: Editing, Design, and More. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, “Bookmaker.” That journey has taken her from her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Portland, Oregon, to New York City, with a few stops in between. Olivia has worked with a number of organizations to produce high-quality marketing materials and books. She holds a master’s degree in writing & book publishing from Portland State University. You can find her on Twitter at @OliviaCroom and Instagram at @reddish.ampersand. Olivia’s portfolio is available at bit.ly/oliviacroom.