The Indie Lit Summit 2011: Baltimore/DC Edition
On July 16th, 2011, editors and writers from the Mid-Atlantic region will gather in Washington D.C. to hold a one day summit called the Indie Lit City Summit. The effort, spearheaded by Dan Brady and an organizing committee, one of the Barrelhouse editors, is designed to bring together small press editors for a day of brainstorming, problem-solving and exchanging ideas for how small presses and independent magazines can work better, smarter, harder. Dan and I had a conversation about the summit, what’s planned, and how editors and writers (and other interested parties) in other cities can plan their own summits in the future.
How did the Indie Lit Summit come about? Who is involved in planning the summit? Who will be attending the summit? What do you hope to accomplish?
Two years ago I went to the Nonprofit 2.0 Unconference, organized by bloggers Allyson Kaplin, Geoff Livingston, and Shireen Mitchell. Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, who wrote The Networked Nonprofit, were the keynote speakers. After Beth and Allison’s talk, we broke into sessions that were self-organized by the participants so the topics were focused on what the people in the room wanted to learn about. We covered everything from blogger outreach to social media ROI to engagement strategies. It was great and I thought to myself, I wonder what would happen if you got the whole DC literary scene together and we had this big knowledge exchange about what works, what doesn’t, how much things costs, how to do things better, how to work together, and how to build a community for ourselves in which everyone is a resource to everyone else.
I chewed on the idea for about a year and then started to sketch out what I thought would have to happen to organize something like this. I kept it to myself, though I talked to the other Barrelhouse guys, Adam Robinson, Maureen Thorson, Mark Cugini, and a few others and it seemed like this was something we should do.
To get things off the ground, I formed an organizing committee. They’re a huge reason why this has gotten as far as it has. The committee includes Joe Callahan, 826DC; Molly Gaudry, The Lit Pub/Cow Heavy Books; Jamie Gaughran-Perez, Narrow House; Caitlin Hill, Poet Lore; Reb Livingston, No Tell Books; Richard Peabody, Gargoyle; Kim Roberts, Beltway Quarterly; Adam Robinson, Publishing Genius; and Rod Smith, Edge Books.
They’ll all be there for the summit. We’ve still got a few weeks to go but we’ve had additional registrations from Atticus Books, Big Game Books, Big Lucks, JMWW, Lines + Stars, Moon Milk Review, Red Dragon Press, Rose Metal Press, Vinyl Poetry, Worn Magazine, and Yes Yes Books, among others.
The goal is pretty simple. We want to tap into the knowledge that already exists in our community. People get into independent publishing because the love stories and poems but in the process they become accidental experts at all these aspects of publishing outside of the editorial role—distribution or 501c3 incorporation or publicity. In order to get at that knowledge, we’ve first got to come together and figure out what we know, get talking, identify who the experts are, and map out the resources available to us.
How will the summit be structured? What kinds of sessions do you have planned?
The summit will begin with a keynote by Andy Hunter, EIC of Electric Literature. He’s the perfect person to set the tone for the event, laying out both the challenges we face in the indie lit community and the opportunities afforded to us by our independence. After that, we’ll have a group meeting of sorts to figure out what we want to talk about for the rest of the day. Participants are encouraged to pitch session ideas ahead of time, but they can also do so on the spot. We’ll have three time slots with two session running concurrently, so six session in all. The group will determine which topics would be best and then we’ll begin.
Sessions can run the gamut from how much you are paying for printing to how to organize a national book tour. It’s really up to the people in the room. I’ve been encouraging participants to ask themselves “What’s your problem?” What are you trying to do or do better, but have no idea how to go about doing? Someone in the session may have the answer, or at least be able to tell you what they’ve tried and how it worked out for them.
You’re going to use the Indie Publishing Wiki as a repository for knowledge that comes out of the summit’s sessions. Why did you make that choice?
If we’re going to build knowledge within the community, both locally and nationally, we’re going to need a way to archive what we know. The Indie Publishing Wiki already has a ton of information on there and it covers most of the topics I expect to come up during the summit. The problem with wikis is that they often lose momentum. In the beginning, everyone is adding resources and commentary and then after a week or two, no one goes back. It becomes static.
By pairing the Indie Lit City Summit and the Indie Publishing Wiki, we address the needs of both. The Indie Lit City Summit has a place to store all the know-how that gets exchanged at the in-person events and the Indie Publishing Wiki gets regularly updated content every time a summit takes place.
Oftentimes, we have lots of great ideas in the Indie Lit community but very little follow through. Everyone has the best of intentions but it often seems like we’re all stretched so thin that we can’t do more than generate a good idea. How will you capitalize on the momentum generated by the Summit to ensure that the idea of the summit itself and any ideas generated at the summit don’t stall prematurely?
It’s a big problem. Remember when I said that after I had the idea for the Indie Lit City Summit, I kept it to myself for a while? That’s why. I didn’t want to get involved in something that I couldn’t make happen, even if I really wanted it to. I’ve got a wife, a kid, a job. I write. I do all this Barrelhouse stuff. How can I take on anything else?
I think there are two things we can focus on to make sure the good ideas don’t fizzle out on us. First things first, be selective, I mean über-selective, about what you sign yourself up for. That’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. Besides, there a plenty of ways you can be supportive of something without being the person in charge. All these great ideas need an audience too, you know?
The second thing is to create a sense of accountability. I don’t know what ideas are going to come out of the Indie Lit City Summit, but I have a feeling that there will be a few long-term collaborative projects. Rather than just being like, ‘Yeah, that sounds great. Let’s do it’ and then everyone assumes that somebody else is working on it, we’re going to ask for volunteers to lead whatever projects are proposed. Somebody has got to lead and be personally invested or you’ll never get anywhere.
Luckily, since these are community projects, you’re accountable to more stakeholders than just yourself. For me, that’s a big motivator. I expect the Indie Lit City Summit to become an annual thing, at least in DC. At the next one (if not sooner), everyone is going to want to know what happened with that project we talked about and expect you to have an answer.
As far as the idea of the Summit itself maintaining momentum, I think that’s my job. After this first one is over, I’m going to do a post-mortem with the committee to see what could be handled better. I’ll be putting together a kind of Quick Start guide for anyone who wants to host their own and reaching out to literary friends across the country to see if they’d be interested in taking the lead in different cities. Of course, if you’re already sold on the idea and want to get started, just email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do what I can to help you get going.
One of the great advantages of this project is that it’s easily replicable and scalable. If you want to do this in a small town or a big city, the process is basically the same. I’ve also been thinking about other avenues for ongoing learning opportunities—maybe a series of webinars led by writers or editors on topics ranging from using Google Analytics for tracking your online magazine to a primer on publicity for small press publishers.
You encourage summit attendees to actively use social media tools to expand the conversation during the summit. Will you be creating some kind of directory with the appropriate links to attendees’ social media links in order to help start and sustain that conversation you hope to see taking place?
That’s a great idea. I guess I know what I’ll be doing this afternoon.
While these events are local, a lot of the issues we’ll be discussing are faced by any indie publisher or promoter so I think it’s important to broaden the conversation when possible. The Indie Publishing Wiki is one way to do that. Social media is another.
Say someone at the summit sends out a Tweet saying “Looking for a new way to handle submissions. Email is overwhelming.” Then Matt Bell at the Collagist responds “Check out Submishmash” and One Story writes “We use CLMP’s submission manager” and someone else says “Go snail-mail. Then they’ve really got to want you. Or be super old.” Now those are all kind of obvious answers and what I’m describing is just how social media works in general, but in the context of the session those answers might be something we haven’t thought of and then we can capture that and incorporate it into the information on the Wiki. Another more specific example might be if we’re talking about events and someone posts on Facebook, “Who can I talk to about setting up a poetry event at the Library of Congress?” and someone else responds “Patricia Gray.” Now we know and we’ve gotten beyond the knowledge of the people in the room.
When people think about planning these kinds of events, they are often overwhelmed by the logistics. How much time and money have you invested in this project? If someone wanted to plan their own summit, how can they get started?
I’ve been really fortunate in that money hasn’t been a factor. 826DC is letting us use their space for free and The Lit Pub is covering the cost of our keynote speaker. We are not charging a registration fee because we wanted everyone to be able to participate. We thought about charging anywhere from $10 to $30 to register, but we’ve been able to keep costs low so we didn’t have to.
Planning has taken up a healthy amount of time, but not nearly as much as I had expected, mostly thanks to our advisory board. We’ve been able to crowdsource a lot of the labor intensive work—building an invite list, collecting email addresses, brainstorming keynote speakers, collecting session ideas, etc. Without their help, it would have been pretty tough. This is a collaborative event to benefit the local literary community and as such everyone has been really generous with their time to make sure we have what we need. After all, we’re the beneficiaries as well as the organizers.
If someone out there wants to plan an Indie Lit City Summit of their own, we’ve laid out some basic steps to get started. First, get in touch with us and we’ll tell you everything we’ve figured out so far. Second, form an organizing committee. It can be made up of whoever you know is active in your area—editors, reading series coordinators, other literary doers. While the committee can just be people you already know, it’s important that the members of the committee will be able to get beyond your own little circle. When it comes to the business side of independent publishing, aesthetics don’t matter much. We all need printing or web hosting or contacts in the media or whatever. Finally, ask your committee to help you scout out locations, build an invite list, and think about who would be an inspiring, challenging keynote. Cross your fingers and hope for the best.
On the Indie Lit Summit site you also offer some advice on how people can hold a summit in their own city. Have you heard from people in other cities who are going to hold summits of their own?
I’ve heard from a few people who are interested—in Chicago, Boston, New York—but no one has set a date yet. They’re probably waiting to see what happens with the DC/Baltimore event. Wisely so, I think. Barrelhouse has a few editors who live in Philly, so we’ve talked about doing one there. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot this first time through and be able to streamline the process for folks who want to run a summit of their own. There’s been a lot of support for the idea, now we just need to carry it off.