The entire conference wing of The Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District Hotel smelled like books — notebooks, paperbacks, hardcovers, and short stories. Books for sale on tables, books being written in corners with cups of coffee, and books being pitched to anyone within earshot.
It also smelled like hope.
Philadelphia is home to 362 nonprofit organizations with a primary focus on arts, culture, and the humanities, according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s 2019: State of the City report. And one of those nonprofits, the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, Inc. (PWC), held its 71st annual conference June 7-9 at the Wyndham, bringing hopeful writers, speakers, agents, and editors together for the weekend.
“PWC is an amazing organization that’s been around for so long,” said Lauren Sharkey, the director of marketing and web development for Kaylie Jones Books, who was also a session leader at this year’s conference. “It’s a name that’s not only respected, but also recognized.”
The three-day conference was filled with classes, a lunchtime open mic, writing contests, and a keynote address from Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of the Joe Ledger thriller series and a five-time Bram Stoker Award-winner.
“What I love most about this conference – and I have been to many, many writers’ conferences – is how family-oriented it is,” Kensington-born Maberry said. “Everyone here is working on their crafts and honing their skills, but they’re also helping each other, too. We’re not competing because we’re a community.”
William Fowler, a resident of South Jersey, agreed.
“I’m a poet, and this conference is helping me become a better poet,” Fowler said. “There’s a sense of camaraderie here that inspires me. In fact, I’ve already written six new poems this weekend!”
To cater to writers of various genres, including poets like Fowler, five different classes were offered per hour. Conference attendees could attend sessions that fit their specific genres and writing goals with topics like plot development, marketing, social media, memoir writing, screenplay writing, and legal issues.
In addition to the class lineup, there were agent and editor pitch sessions available by appointment on Friday, giving writers a chance to get vital one-on-one time with possible literary representation.
“Conferences like this are great for networking and meeting other writers like yourself, but also agents and editors who can help you get to the next level,” said Thomas Jenkins, a fantasy writer from South Jersey. “I get honest feedback from them, things to keep and things to improve.”
One thing conferees – Philadelphia Writing Conference board members, session leaders, and attendees alike – agree on is the wish for more support from the city.
“I do believe the city is very arts and culture-minded, but I do wish there was more of a focus on literary writers,” said Autumn Konopka, PWC president and 2016 poet laureate of Montgomery County. “I mean, this is our 71st year, and I don’t even think they know who we are.”
And that’s not from lack of trying as Konopka and members of the PWC board have sent letters and emails to local and state politicians including senators Bob Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey, requesting more funding and inclusion when it comes to the arts.
“We’re a small nonprofit, so we do what we can without their support, but it’s hard,” Konopka said. “There is just so much more we wish we could do for our members and in our communities, but we’re limited.”
She said in Washington D.C. there are murals of poetry and in Montreal there are spoken word art installations. The lack of recognition from the makes her sad there’s not more inclusion of the literary arts like that in Philadelphia.
Fowler expressed the same sentiment.
“I do wish that the city would support us more as artists,” he said. “I don’t want to have to go to another city to be discovered. I want to do it here. I believe we’re headed in the right direction, but there’s so much more that can be done.”
The conference ended with a town hall meeting where Konopka and other PWC members of the board of directors diligently took notes and questions pertaining to both the present and future state of the organization.
Plans for next year are still up in the air, according to Konopka. Attendance was down this year, and Kopopka and the board took it as evidence the interest in the three-day conference was waning.
Much to her surprise, during Sunday’s town hall, several attendees expressed dismay with the prospect of a smaller one-day or nonexistent conference next year. Members of the crowd said that cost could be an issue but by making registration fees more flexible, the conference might attract more participants.
“We want to restructure and do some serious strategic planning to make this better for our attendees,” she said. “Whether that’s changing the cost of the event, the length of it, or what classes are held, we want to evolve just like the field of writing evolves.”
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