Thursday, August 09, 2007

Writing for Change Conference: An Interview with Elizabeth Pomada

As I mentioned last week, I'll be speaking about blogging at the Writing for Change Conference in San Francisco this month. I told the conference co-founders, a husband and wife literary agent team, Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen, that I'd help to spread the word about the conference so I interviewed Elizabeth for the Big Vision Podcast.

In the interview transcript below, Elizabeth talks about the conference and offers tips for writers who want to write for change.

Elizabeth Pomada: Hi, I'm Elizabeth Pomada. I'm a literary agent in San Francisco, with the Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents, and we've been in business a long time here in San Francisco. We are both from New York, but felt that California was the right place to be.

The conference is something that is really Michael's baby. In 1977 he wrote an editorial for the Sunday paper, and at that time he said, "I believe that books can change the world." It's still something that both of us believe, and now with the advent of Al Gore's book and movie - and even Bill Clinton is now publishing a book on how to be an activist, it's called Giving and it will be published in September - so many people want to put their passion on the page, and because they're doing that, they are, in fact, changing the world.

It's been very fast. I mean, San Francisco is now a green city, and that's right from the heart of Mayor Newsom. And being green is also part of saving the planet, saving the earth. It's time to do a nonfiction conference about changing the world, one book at a time.

The fact that we have Grace Cathedral so close to us and Grace has a conference center in it, but they also have a feeling of welcoming everyone in the world and trying to change the world, which was really important. And the moment we spoke about this idea to Alan Jones, the Dean, he said immediately, within five minutes, "Oh, you must have it here, and we have to co-sponsor."

And everyone we've talked about it to has been really excited about it. It's an idea whose time has come. And so we're going to have people like Rachel Naomi Remen speak. She's the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and she's going to tell how to use story to change people's ideas and get your idea across.

And Phil Zimbardo is going to speak about his book, The Lucifer Effect, which showed how he had an experiment where he put a few students of his from Stanford in prison and a few people, in the same class, in as prison guards, and then it showed how immediately they turned bad because of how power can corrupt people. And we know that even the smallest person, if given a little bit of power, somehow that he can be corrupted, and this is something we have to stop.

And then, of course, we have Riane Eisler, whose new book is about the wealth of nations, speaking, and she, too, is an idealist. We also have Ernest Callenbach, who wrote the first book on the environment, Ecotopia. We have Angus Wright, who does books about the political environment in Brazil and saving the rainforest for the world. Starhawk is going to talk about how her books on, basically, Wicca, but they also changed how people looked at women. It's more a feminist idea, rather than a spiritual idea. And Alan Jones is going to talk about spirituality as well.

So we'll have a big mix of people talking about media. Richie Unterberger's going to be talking about how to be an intelligent consumer, which is good, because we all should put our money where our mouth is. [laughing]

And what else? Project Censored, the media is going to be covered. Alan Rinzler's going to talk about the turbulent 60s - how people in the 60s were doing books about change and they didn't even know it.

And, of course, there are going to be agents and editors, and so we'll also talk about publishing - how you can be published. How you can choose your publisher and how you can support that publisher once they've decided to take you on.

We'll tell what an editor does, what a research person does, how to promote your book, how to work with a salesperson for your book. So you'll see every step from writer to reader. You'll also have agents who will talk about how to work with them and how to find them, and how to do your promotion, which is really crucial today.

One agent's going to tell you how to choose what you write about. Is your idea too good, or is it not good enough? Or has it been done too many times already? You can't just write a book just because you want to; you have to know what it is you're getting yourself in for.

So that's a lot - 30 sessions, 40 sessions, and three key noters, and two parties and two breakfasts and two lunches. [laughing]

And also some labyrinth walking, which is important, because the labyrinth. You know the difference between a labyrinth and a maze? Well, a maze you can never get out of, but a labyrinth, there's always an end, and it helps you find your way to the center, and it's for you, rather than to hide you. It's to help you through.

And publishing is like that too. You have to go through a labyrinth to get from your page, the computer, to the reader's eyes. And this is one of the things that we're going to help people do, not only walk the labyrinth, but live the labyrinth of publishing.

Britt: How are you making the event green?

EP: Well, Mayor Newsom has already given Michael the green hat, from San Francisco Green, because he works with the project Homeless Connect people. But we're not giving out really classy briefcases, as we do normally in the San Francisco Writers Conference. We're giving away free green bags from Mollie Stone's - totally recyclable and totally free and totally green. And then you can take them to your grocery when you need to do that.

We're telling people to, of course, bring sweaters, because it's San Francisco, but we're also telling them to bring their own refillable plastic bottles and we're going to give them Hetch Hetchy 2007, that's San Francisco water. That's about the best water you can get, and it's not bottled.

The food is from Acre Caterers and it's going to be totally organic. The plates and silverware and the cups are going to be totally organic and recyclable. There's going to be a vegan choice at every meal. And we're not going to spend a lot of money on big plastic things and a big banner. We're not going to have a huge banner in the lunch room; we're just going to tell you that this is who we are.

We're going to use recycled paper instead of a big, glossy program. You have to maybe set your standards a little lower today, but this is the way we do it, if you're going to plan to be here tomorrow. And if you can think of other new ideas, we'd love to hear from you. [laughing]

BB: What's the path that brought you to this work?

We were both in publishing in New York City. We went to the Far East on vacation, and we stopped in San Francisco here, going and comin. When we went back to New York, Michael was suddenly out of a job and he looked for three days in New York, and then decided, "Gee, we should really live in California." And we just did. We just simply moved.

And then discovered there were no jobs whatsoever, so since we already knew everybody in publishing at that point. There was an employment agent here who said, "Well, you know, Elizabeth, there are no jobs for you whatsoever. Nobody could afford you, or nobody's big enough to hire a promotion director. But meanwhile, all these people keep sending me their manuscripts."

And she had a pile a wall high, so I was spending the year, this was my year to write, and I was spending the year writing, while Michael found employment, and I spent every Tuesday afternoon plowing through these manuscripts to see if there was a book there, and I found two. One was eventually published posthumously, and the other was our first big best-seller, A World Full of Strangers, by Cynthia Freeman.

After I sold that, then Michael decided he wanted to be an agent when he sold the first Patty Hearst book in four phone calls. He thought being an agent was easy, you just call up and people buy the book! We've been doing it ever since. We were the first people to do it as a full-time job, and for some reason, we like it. We are still surviving. We love doing books and we love turning writers into authors. We love discovering really good talent and making sure that the books they do write and publish succeed.

BB: What advice do you have for writers who have an idea for a book that they think will create positive change?

EP: OK, well, first of all they have to figure out how they want to change the world. Is it going to be economics or culture? Social change? The environment? Health? The media? You have to choose what it is that's in your heart. Then you should do some research. Amazon lists books the minute they're in publishers' catalogs, so although you can't second-guess what's going to be out when your books is out, which is 18 months after you deliver it and it's accepted, you can only see who's doing what and make sure that no one's doing already what you want to do.

Then you have to put together a proposal as fast as you can, and Michael has written the bible for people who want to do book proposals, How to Write a Book Proposal, and put together a promotion plan. Start talking about it, get yourself a platform so you'll be big enough for a major publisher, and get out there.

There are times when we tell people they have to self-publish if they want to get it out really fast, because that's the only way that's going to happen. Self-publishing is a great way to test-market your idea, and your book. And if you can sell enough copies in short enough time, then a major publisher will pick it up.

We've had several books that we've published from self-published books including Jay Conrad Levinson, the author of all the Guerrilla Marketing books. His first book was self-published.

One of our favorite books that we've sold, that has changed the world, is Dan Millman's Way of the Peaceful Warrior. And there are lots of people, especially young men, who tell us that the Way of the Peaceful Warrior changed the way they saw the world. The sales manager at the Mark Hopkins Hotel also told me that he loved that book when he was young, because it did change the way he saw the universe. Now the movie is out, and it'll spread the word a little further.

How to do your work? You have to polish your craft. You have to research the market. You have to research the business that you're trying to enter. Publishing is a business and we don't believe that authors should be dilettantes. If you want to be a writer, you've got to be committed to being that writer, and then just write the best you can. Get feedback from people to make the book the best you can and then promote it as well as you can. And that's the way to be a success. Then write another book. Follow up on it. Don't be a one-note person.

BB: Where can people find information about self-publishing?

EP: I would just go follow Dan Poynter's book, The Self-Publishing Manual. He tells you everything. He tells you who to go to for printing, where to find an editor, make sure you have a really professional look to the book - a professional title, professional cover, professional package, and then he'll tell you how to get distribution, and it's not easy. Sometimes I think it's easier to be a published author than it is to self-publish, but this way, you have only yourself to blame.

BB: What are the kinds of books the market is looking for these days?

EP: I think it's easier to say what people are not looking for... [laughing]..rather than what they are looking for. I think that people are tired of hearing about war and terrorism and abuse. I think that now fewer and fewer publishers are looking for what's called the "misery memoir." We're tired of hearing people overcoming their horrible childhood, because it's too much. We've heard it too much. We're hardened now. It would be nice to have someone have a wonderful, happy childhood.

And I always think that humor helps everything. Even a misery memoir can be wonderful if it's really funny. But also, you can't preach. People don't want to be preached to. They'd like to learn from, they'd like to be encouraged or inspired, but preaching, I think, just because you have a message, doesn't mean you want to be hit over the head with a shovel.

Good stories will tell better than didactic tracks. I think that's why Rachel Remen's, "How to Use Your Storytelling Power," is going to be so important, because everybody wants a good story, especially if it makes you feel good and makes you feel happy or positive. There are so many things that one can do to make the world better. You have to think of something new and different and use an "up" voice to talk about it. People will listen, if it doesn't hurt.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about the Writing for Change conference?

EP: The conference is August 23rd, 24th and 25th. Thursday night is the party and registration. We'll do some labyrinth walking to music. And then all day Friday and all day Saturday you'll have talks, interactive things. We'll have "meet the pro" sessions, where you can actually talk to an editor, agent, or even an author. And you'll be networking, talking to people all day long; learning and enjoying and being fed well, if organically.

And it's the first of its kind in San Francisco, and we're really pleased that it's here. We do have rooms that are relatively inexpensive at the Mark Hopkins set aside for you, but they're only going to be available until August 2nd. And there are still openings for registration, and we have people coming from all over the country, which is super. We're looking forward to really making a change in people's lives.

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