Last Week’s (#BooksAlive2017) News Tonight

Ghostwriting haunts some ghostwriters who don’t get credit, but the tradeoff for anonymity is payment. It can be as painful to write about your own culture as it is to cross the cultural divide to write about others. If you are an author and want to get rich, buy a lottery ticket.

These were among the insights – and reality checks – served up at the 2017 Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference on April 29 at the College Park Marriott Conference Center. It was our fifth annual, and throughout I’ve been privileged to be the chief organizer and recruiter of panels and speakers for this increasingly high-profile event that attracts aspiring and accomplished authors from the DMV and beyond.

It is sponsored by the Washington Independent Review of Books (@wirobooks,, an online nonprofit book review started after the demise of the Washington Post’s standalone Book World section.

In a way, these conferences have been like the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “Andy Hardy” flicks: Hey, kids, let’s put on a show—and they did.  A reliable platoon of volunteers has answered the curtain call to produce what has become one of the DC area’s premier literary shows. In addition to panels, we have 20-some agents to whom aspiring authors can make their pitches. Many agent agreements—and book contracts—have resulted from these brief encounters.

I’m happy to be included in this group. My forthcoming book from Lawrence Hill Books., an imprint of Chicago Review Press, about the five African Americans with John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859 came about due to such a session in 2014

Our first keynoter, in 2013, was Marie Arana, the last editor of Book World section. We began that conference with a conversation between Bill McPherson, Book World’s first editor, and Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winner Post book critic. Our billboard keynoters since have been  Obama biographer and Post associate editor David Maraniss; best-selling author of sports books  John Feinstein; Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame; and, this year, Judith Viorst, the ageless author of 40 books for adults and children, including Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which was also made into a 2014 Disney movie.

This year’s conference committee was chaired by Jenny Yacovissi, also an author (, who was a panelist on “The Twilight Zone: Between Memoir, Fiction and Family History.” Some of the conversation was technical. Kate Buford, author of a Jim Thorpe biography, likes to print things out and keep actual file folders. “You have to know the whole iceberg to write about the tip,” she advised. ( Ken Ackerman (@ViralHistory), whose latest book examines the 17 days Leon Trotsky spent in New York City in 1917, said authors often “discover the charm and sizzle of their book while doing the research.”  Other tips: Chronologically is the best way to organize your material. Put digressions in notes; they aren’t tallied in the book’s assigned word count.

A morning highlight was a conversation between Ron Charles @RonCharles, the Washington Post’s fiction book editor, and novelist Susan Coll (@Coll_Susan Charles instructed anyone pitching a book for review to use email only—and to be very direct and clear, telling who you are, what your book is about, your expertise and anticipated publication date—and to start early.  Coll urged review-seeking authors to take a long view. “There is no guarantee unless you have a $2 million advance.” Coll, who has been labeled a satirist, said she didn’t start off “thinking I was funny.” Word of mouth, she said, is the best way to sell a book. To which Charles added, “It all comes down to women and book clubs. Women rule publishing.”

Ghostwriters Barbara Feinman Todd and Tom Shroder shared insider secrets and discussed the rewards and frustrations of the craft. “I was an accidental ghostwriter,” said Feinman Todd. “Now, I’m a recovering ghostwriter.” But even if anonymous, she noted, “Acknowledgements are a ghostwriter’s resume.” (@feinmanb) Shroder, a former editor of The Washington Post Magazine and author of an acclaimed family memoir, emphasized the importance of establishing ground rules with the subject, “to make clear up front the degree of access you will have.” (@tomshroder

“Across the Cultural Divide” delivered just what I’d hoped for, a passionate but not polemical discussion of what it means to write from your own ethnic or racial perspective—and get published–and how to write from outside your own demographic. “There is not a better time to be a minority writer,” said Alice Stephens, an Asian American, but “the gatekeepers, the publishers, are vastly white.” (@AliceKSStephens) Tara Bahrampour, an Iranian American, told of “living literally in two cultures.” “Writing a memoir is a very western thing to do,” said the memoir writer who said hers “caused some consternation in my family.” (@TaraBahrampour)

Neely Tucker, a seventh generation white Mississippian who has been married to two black women and adopted a Zimbabwean child, offered yet another perspective. “You don’t want to be a white man mansplaining other people’s cultures to others,” he cautioned. “You want to look for what’s universal.” (  Carolivia Heron, a Jewish African American, recalled the controversy over her children’s book Nappy Hair, first published 20 years ago and still in print. (

I could go on—but I won’t.  You get the idea.  The Washington Independent Review of Books is a must read. And WIRoB’s annual conference is a must attend.  See you next year!

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