Potlatch, Not Your Usual Convention

Potlatch is a small literary convention that wanders around the West Coast. There’s only one track of programming, and no gaming/costuming/media. Instead of a Guest of Honor, there’s a Book of Honor. These are serious book people, folks, people who love and are knowledgeable about science fiction, so the atmosphere is quite different from other gatherings. While it looks like there’s not much structure, the event itself resembles one long, extremely high-powered discussion that spills out into hallways, con suite, hotel lobby, nearby restaurants; sometimes it splits (like yeast budding) into special-interest groups (“Algonquins”) and then merges back into a whole for the next panel. The dealers’ room should be re-named the booksellers’ room, and quickly became another community gathering place. Then there’s the Clarion West benefit auction, a celebration in itself, plus writers workshops and a used book drive for SF Outreach. If you love meaty conversations about books and ideas, make plans to attend next year!

This year, the Book of Honor was Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, so much of the discussion involved not only this particular work (and fascinating stories of the author from his biographer and friend, Don Scott), but more generally about post-apocalyptic novels, apocalypses, green technologies, and how political agendas color portrayals of what happens to civilization afterward (“The Left Abides” moderated by Eileen Gunn).

Besides the above-mentioned discussions, I particularly enjoyed Debbie Notkin’s interview of Alan Rinzler (“The Secret Master of Publishing”). Alan’s background ranges from being editor of Rolling Stone magazine to acquiring Toni Morrison’s first novel for Knopf, to working with writers like Hunter Thompson, Tom Robbins and Robert Ludlum. Now he works freelance as a “book doctor.” Much of this work with authors involves bringing coherence to a narrative arc; he compared outlines (particularly useful for plot-driven genre fiction) to story-boards in film.

He’s seen cycles of Doom and Gloom (TM) in publishing.
“Television will destroy reading!”
“Chain book stores will mean the end of good books!”
Today…all bets are off. Authors now have the choice to self-publish electronically. He says publishers don’t get it, that authors are rightly frustrated by the waiting, the delays, the rights grabs in contracts. Once upon a time, authors had no other viable choice but to put up with this treatment from traditional publishers. Now they do. Sure, there’s a lot of bad books on the net, but a lot of surprisingly good ones as well. (This is where he, as a freelance editor/consultant, comes in, allowing his client authors to have the same editorial vetting as those who go through the publisher route.) He cited Amanda Hocking, a young writer who is entirely self-published, and sold 900,000 copies in 2010. I hadn’t heard of her, so I looked her up when I got home. From the USA Today article, “Hocking credits her success to aggressive self-promotion on her blog, Facebook and Twitter, word of mouth and writing in a popular genre — her books star trolls, vampires and zombies.”

Alan’s talk alone was worth attending, but the warmth and fellowship, not to mention the spectacular Indian and Afghan food at nearby restaurants, will stay with me longer.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.


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