Professional connections are crucial to thriving in just about any career. In the world of book publishing, where name recognition directly translates to sales, there’s an extra layer of pressure to show up, shake hands, and schmooze with industry colleagues at readings and social events.
But as author Maggie Shipstead points out, you can break the “rules” and still be successful. In fact, she encourages it.
“I think it’s worthwhile for first-time authors to genuinely and purposefully consider what feels authentic for them and then protect that,” she says. “I don’t mean ‘authentic’ in an Instagrammy #authentic way, but more like, what feels natural? What feels comfortable, uncomfortable? What fills you with eagerness, dread?”
Shipstead is, by all measures, successful. Her books have garnered her placement on the New York Times bestseller list and won her the Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers. But she’s never been one to force herself to go to networking parties she doesn’t want to attend.
“If you want to go to parties, great!” she says. But if parties aren’t your thing, it’s okay to reconsider attending. “Your career probably won’t benefit much from your unhappily hiding behind a potted plant and texting,” she says. “Yes, you might miss out on making a few contacts, but I think that’s counterbalanced by the advantages of leading a more diversified life.”
And no matter your industry, there can be benefits to staying a little removed from the center. For example, “Sometimes getting in too deep with the literary world — i.e., paying too much attention to what’s happening to other people’s books and careers — breeds anxiety and erodes perspective and possibly even stifles creativity,” Shipstead says. “Writing can be a job, not a lifestyle. It doesn’t have to take over your social life and become the only thing you care about.”
Of course, there’s a balance — not allowing your industry to define you doesn’t mean you have to distance yourself from it entirely. Paul W. Morris — a literary advocate for the Authors Guild, PEN America, the National Book Foundation, and other cultural organizations — thinks there are tangible benefits to attending industry events. Readings, book festivals, and publishing fundraisers can help an author better understand the landscape they’re trying to be a part of. What initiatives have people buzzing? Who are the kindred editors and publishers you might turn to when you’ve written something you’re really excited about? The particulars vary from industry to industry, but the general logic applies across the board: The more you understand your professional world and the people who populate that world, the more easily you’ll be able to define your place in it.
“Of course, being able to participate in an organic and unscripted conversation is a big factor, too,” Morris adds. “In our current age of social media and screen addiction, so many of our online interactions can be cold and dispassionate. Too often, writers allow themselves to be anonymous in ways that can hinder and hurt their careers in the long run.” Face-to-face interactions give people the opportunity to articulate their work in a way that they might not be able to do online.
But, as exciting as it can be to meet an industry leader you admire, Morris cautions prospective partygoers and conference attendees against expecting interactions to bear fruit right away. Even networking events are ultimately about making genuine human connections.
“Be real, be honest,” he says. “Be who you are, not who you think someone wants you to be. If the connection doesn’t emerge right then and there, that’s okay. Not everything needs to connect in the short term. You never know the ripple effect that serendipitous encounters can have!”