AWP: An Indie Immersion for Publishers of All Kinds

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The planets that comprise the small press universe are a startling alignment of soaring, like-minded meteors no matter which segment of the book-loving stratosphere your earthly kind inhabits. Whether you create, disseminate, or consume literature—whether you’re a for-profit publisher, an academic journal, or an inventor of eco-friendly chapbooks, you will find nirvana at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference.

The AWP event, it seems, exists solely to satiate the hunger pangs of reading enthusiasts and unashamed book addicts everywhere. It is designed to accommodate the esoteric needs, wants, and tastes of a distinctly left-of-center audience with an appetite for mindful substance and aesthetics. AWP is a scene that should not be missed if you want to take part in shaping, observing, or trending today’s genre-bending, literate subculture. No matter how snooty my opinion may seem, there does not appear to be any literary equivalent (in size, nor scope) to all that embodies AWP on either side of the Atlantic.

And please don’t point me in the direction of BookExpo America or the London and Frankfurt book fairs, all prominent industry events that attract throngs of prestigious publishers, power-wielding agents, foreign rights reps, and far more illustrious authors and household brand names.

The AWP conference and book fair, held this past week at the Marriott Wardman Park and Omni Shoreham hotels in Washington, D.C., is not a popularity contest. It is, quietly and organically speaking, a culturally influential grassroots movement. From a public recognition standpoint, it resides creatively in the spirit of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Golden Globe Awards. Moreover, in the mission statement and sentiment of Sundance Institute, AWP appears committed to actively advancing the work of risk-taking storytellers worldwide.

And that’s no small matter.

These outliers, sleepers, and tiny sensations (i.e., overlooked and underpublicized books and their hybrid product spin-offs) often are better societal indicators of the myriad forms of high-quality media being created by thought leaders on a regular basis than the largely stellar but frequently garrulous motion pictures nominated each year for Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (By the way, there are numerous exceptions to this bias, and Life Is Beautiful, a tremendous Italian language film written and directed by Roberto Benigni, pictured above, is one of them.)

Unlike the much-maligned, but treasured glitz of the paparazzi wet dream known as the Oscar ceremony (or unlike even the modest luncheon held each year to honor the Pulitzer Prize winners, for that matter), AWP’s annual show brings together college educators, students, and content experimentalists in a fully breathing, interdisciplinary exhibit hall acting as a publishing showcase and laboratory. The breakout sessions and panel discussions are informative and enlightening, too.

In short, AWP is a celebration of independent publishing. It is an unpretentious advancement of literature, a table-by-table demonstration of underground, academic and nonacademic genius pushing and breaking communication boundaries; and, yes, it is veritable proof of intelligent life. Here on earth. All in glorious bound, printed matter.

I guess you could say I enjoyed it. Or if you want to try your hand at semantics—after all, the English language offers galaxies of descriptive word choices and phrases, I guess you could more metaphorically deduce: As a starry-eyed publisher celebrating the one-year anniversary of Atticus Books, I reveled in the whirling dervish of AWP. All that it encompassed and all that it unleashed upon our small press. And then some.

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