Conferences and Conventions, Guest Feature, Opinion

Lani Sarem at AWCon 18: I Remain Unconvinced

Lani Sarem appeared at the 2018 Agile Writers Conference in Richmond, VA over the weekend. I discovered the conference via the social media anger at 1) Sarem speaking at any writing conference at all; 2) the continued reference to Sarem as a best-selling author; and 3) the “How I Navigated the NYT Bestseller List” topic of her seminar.

This was one of the big reasons I decided (last minute) to make the 8-hour drive back to Virginia and attend AWCon. I had questions for Sarem. When all hell broke loose with the release of Handbook for Mortals last year, I read the articles and blog posts as they came out. I read her quotes and I read what she posted. Standing outside the room, waiting to take a seat at the front to hear her side of the story, I set aside my opinion of Sarem and listened. With my background as a journalist, I relish any chance to hear the story straight from the horse’s mouth—especially if that chance includes the opportunity to ask questions.

Photo of conference program with a star next to "How I Navigated the NYT Bestseller List" seminar by Lani Sarem

Sarem made a point of attacking the credentials of Phil Stamper, the one who started everything on Twitter. She told us he has no published books, and the only writing he’s done is published on Wattpad. That still makes him a writer. And you don’t need a contract with a big publisher to ask questions.

With her background in the music industry, Sarem is used to how that industry works. The way she explained it: if you go to a concert and buy CDs at the concert venue, those CD sales count toward the musician(s) total record sales. She took issue with that not being the case with what she referred to as “Book World,” and even stated, “The book industry is broken.”

At conventions, she took pre-orders for her book. When it came time to submit those orders, she did not go directly to the distributor. Instead, she (and her team) contacted stores confirmed to report their sales to The New York Times and filled the orders through them. “Every sale should count,” she said.

That, by itself, is a statement I agree with. However, The New York Times can’t mandate every bookstore to report their sales. According to their website, the stores that do report their sales do so by choice. It is a newspaper, not an independent agency whose sole responsibility is tracking book sales worldwide.

All of this almost seems irrelevant amidst Sarem’s repeated, “All I wanted to do was make a movie.” There was a certain naïve appeal to her desire to write the book alongside the movie. She cited common disappointments with book-to-film adaptations: the story changes because a different writer is in charge of the script version, the book and the movie don’t match, and the actors look different than the author wanted them to be imagined.

I nearly laughed. Earlier that morning, Bill Blume talked about bringing characters to life and said, “Give them [readers] a few things, then let them fill in the rest.” This is common advice in books, blogs, and talks about writing. Perhaps the common-sense truth that Sarem seems to be missing is you can’t control other people’s imaginations. And what happens if the actors whose resemblances were stolen drop out of filming? Or refuse to be a part of it? Or die?

Also, the main reason a book and its film differ is not just because a difference in writers. After all, William Goldman wrote both the screenplay and the book for The Princess Bride, and those do not match up perfectly. Books and film are two different mediums. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, talked about having her book adapted to film, as cutting the cord and letting the filmmakers create a film.

“A script cannot hope to cover all the internal conflict that the novel does, nor can it include all the subplots that a long novel can. Novels often emphasize theme and character. They are often reflective, but movies move. These are all reasons why novel lovers often hate movie versions.” —David Trotter, The Screenwriter’s Bible

Aside from the obvious fact that books have a far less strict time constraint, only dialogue really works the same between both platforms. And if Sarem makes the movie dialogue match the book, it’s hard to imagine which will be the more painful experience.

Going into Sarem’s discussion, I was afraid she would use it as a platform to continue defending her actions. Worse, I feared she was actually going to advise people to do as she did. During the Q&A session, Greg Smith took a moment to say: “There are people in our community and in the larger communities who look down at people who are self-published and look down on people who hustle to get the word out. It doesn’t matter how you do it, the thing is you want to get the book you are writing into the hands of the people who need to read it. That’s the most important thing.”

Having been taught by writing professors who often shrug at self-publishing, I’m very familiar with that thinking. During my undergraduate studies, I was unsure whether or not I agreed with them. Since connecting with several wonderful, talented writers via social media who are self-published, I have decided for myself that there is nothing about self-publishing that makes writers lesser than traditionally published ones. As far as Sarem’s methods in getting her book into the hands of people who need to read it, I don’t agree with them at the writing of this post.

I was disturbed when someone asked if there were steps to get on the bestseller list. “You have to play by certain rules in the book community. Or,” Sarem said with a shrug, “you can just go after fans who love the story.”

She did offer her steps to get your book made into a movie, however. Step 1: Write a book. Step 2: Find a producer (someone who would be passionate about it).

That’s it.

I question Lani Sarem’s authority at a writing conference. After listening to the way she tells her side of the story, my impression is that she sounds like she sat down to play Monopoly and threw a tantrum because the rules aren’t like checkers. I am glad I got the chance to hear what she had to say, and to ask my questions, but she did not change my mind. Even her parting words of advice were undermined by a subtext of “stop picking on me!”

The only worthwhile advice she gave: “Support your fellow writers.”

Note: This post was updated Feb. 5, 2018 with a more accurate quote from Greg Smith, edits to my language and attitude, and Greg’s note, which he requested I post since the comments function was not working properly.

Note: I discuss additional details from Sarem’s talk, including the apparent budget for the Handbook For Mortals film adaptation, on the Handbook for Handbook for Mortals Podcast. Find the episode with my interview here.

Greg Smith’s note on “Lani Sarem at AWCon 18: I Remain Unconvinced”

Dear Amanda,

Thank you for coming to the Agile Writer Conference this year. This is the second year we’ve put on a show featuring some of the best writing talent in Richmond and beyond. I appreciate your article about Lani Sarem’s presentation and I would like to address your comment that “Greg Smith took a moment to clarify to us that the purpose of Sarem’s talk was to provide insight into how to get your book turned into a movie.”

The exact words I spoke after Lani’s seminar were:

“This is our attitude at Agile Writers as well. There are people in our community and in the larger communities who look down at people who are self-published and look down on people who hustle to get the word out. It doesn’t matter how you do it, the thing is you want to get the book you are writing into the hands of the people who need to read it. That’s the most important thing.”

As a journalist, I hope that you will correct your copy.

The reason I invited Lani was because she disrupted the publishing world. She took a different approach to marketing her book. She broke no laws or ethical standards. She only made sure that every sale counted.

There are people in the writing community who dismiss writers because of the way they write, publish, or market their books. The James River Writers (Richmond’s non-profit literary hub) were invited to have a free table at the conference. They wrote this to me two days before:

“I’m sorry for the late notice, but JRW won’t be able to have a table at the Agile Writers conference this weekend. We’re uncomfortable with the inclusion of Lani Sarem and would prefer not to be seen as endorsing her. Where possible, please remove any mention of JRW from any event literature and online in places like Meetup.”

This is simple shunning. I’m glad you didn’t take this attitude and decided to come to the conference to learn first-hand what Lani had to say. While we have different opinions about Lani’s method, I fully appreciate your point of view.

Thank you for coming to the Agile Writer Conference. And, thank you for your kind words about my friend and cowriter Dr. Scott Allison’s presentation on The Villain’s Journey. I hope we’ll see you next year at AWCON19.

Continued Success!

Greg Smith
Executive Director
Agile Writers

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