Posted by: kimberlysullivan | October 12, 2012

What I learned at the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival

In September,  I went for the second time to the annual Matera Women’s Fiction Festival, in the beautiful southern Italian town of Matera.

The festival brings together many women –and a few men –  writers of women’s fiction, including mainstream, romance, mystery, fantasy, thrillers, historical and young adult.

There are so many changes going on in the publishing industry that it’s hard to keep track of it all and I enjoyed the expert panels where I learned a tremendous amount about a rapidly changing industry.

I’ll try to cover some of the highlights of our discussions and interactive workshops:

Publishing is a button away – There was a lot of agreement that publishing today is moving far away from the model in which the American “Big Six” publishing houses serve as the arbiters of taste. Many in the industry feel this is an exciting time for authors, with more options open to them and potentially more control over their careers.

With Terianne and Amanda, from my Rome Writer’s Group

With the growth of self-publishing – or indie publishing as it’s more commonly known now – publishing is literally only a button away, and authors can market their own work and find audiences. Many of the American panelists pointed to the fact that e-books have now surpassed traditional book sales, particularly in genres such as romance, erotica and thrillers.

But European panelists on hand pointed out that this analysis does not hold for all markets. French publisher Stéphane Marsan noted that e-books in France last year accounted for only 0.3% of book sales. It is expecting more growth this year, perhaps up to 2% of the market. As Marsan noted, “With diffusion like that, you can push the publish  button as many times as you want. No one’s reading.” The German market has slightly stronger diffusion, but Italy is more similar to France, with digital publishing accounting for only a tiny share of the market.

“Discoverability” – This is a relatively new term in the publishing industry. With so much more content out there due to self-publishing/indie publishing, how does a new author get discovered? Yes, we all know that authors today have to take on more responsibilities for marketing themselves and their product, keeping on top of social media, and promoting their work, but how exactly to you build up that loyal reading public in today’s crowded publishing environment?

A terrace with a view! Where I wrote while I was in Matera. Heaven!

Social media, book give-aways to boost Amazon ratings, and constant marketing are all strategies to get your book before potential readers.

Panellists suggested that writers band together to cross-promote books. And the big advice seemed to be to keep getting more books out there to keep your name known. Today’s authors are under much more pressure to produce more – particularly in the genres of romance, mysteries and thrillers.

The role of agents today – Agents at  the conference agreed that a lot has changed in recent years, although the Italian agents on hand felt that fewer changes affected them, particularly as the Italian digital market is currently such a small, niche market. Therefore, Italian agents are mostly continuing to act as an intermediary between the author and the traditional publishing houses.

Italian conferences are hell – discussion continues over dinner on the piazza. A tough job, but somebody has to do it.

American agents felt that much changed with the breakdown of the traditional model of advance payments. Payments from traditional publishers are now often split into three payments: at signing, at delivery and at publishing. Traditional publishers sometimes tend to insert difficult clauses into their contracts, prohibiting an author from self-publishing  other works under her name.  And, as recent cases show, publishing houses are not shying away from suing authors whom they feel have breached these clauses. For prolific writers who produce a lot and face long publishing lead-times, this can be a serious issue.

It emerged from the talks that agents must do a lot more experimentation today – sometimes e-books can offer higher royalties. Although, agents did caution that this favorable environment for authors producing e-books might not remain as generous in the long-term.

Not just digesting information, but also dinner. An amazing local specialty: a bay leaf ‘digestivo’.

Overall, what seemed to emerge most often from this discussion was the need for flexibility and experimentation on the part of agents. Authors should also be extremely careful about their contracts, and ensure that their agents are looking out for them and negotiating a deal that leaves them maximum flexibility to write and grow their audiences through different channels.

Clearly, a lot for today’s authors to digest. I’ll continue my lessons learned post next week. But, in the meantime, I’d love to hear the experiences and views by other authors out there…


  1. well done! why was i killing myself trying to write up my horribly sloppy notes! i could’ve just waited to read your blog!

    • Ha! Thanks, Terianne. You see how I’ve captured your suffering over our three hour dinners? Brainstorming about our writing, obviously…

  2. Very interesting (and the food looks amazing too.) It was eye opening to read about e-books in France. We (or at least I) get caught up in the north american perspective. Thanks for including it.

    • Thanks, Janet. Yes, the markets are quite different and it’s interesting to get agents and publishers from North America and the European markets to talk about those differences. And yes – the food was pretty amazing. See you in Matera next year? : )

  3. Great post, Kimberly. And your pictures are awesome! So jealous of the view you had while writing! I think it is interesting how different the markets are. Self-publishing just made sense for me, living in America, because it is so different as far as royalties. I also had heard bad news about traditional publishing contracts and what rights were taken away from the author.

    So, if you SP from Italy, you still can sell in American markets, right? I mean, my book is available in other markets, but it has only sold in America and the UK. I always felt your books were rather tailored for American markets… I’ll be excited to see how your journey toward publication goes! Can’t wait for your book to be available so I can read it again! Thanks for sharing this info. I’ll be back to find out what else you learned!

  4. Thanks, Chantel. All the speakers were very favorable for conditions for self-publishing right now, And there were lots of successful examples among participants… especially in your genre, Chantel! It seems there are lots of opportunities for romance and thriller writers to find large audiences when they self-publish. You’ve already mentioned one key factor for getting your name out there – writing more books. Since you’re so far along with your second, seems you’re perfectly in line with the expert advice we heard.

    And yes, that view from my Matera was incredible! My ‘normal’ writing space is not so impressive… : )

  5. I missed that bay leaf digestivo – I was too hooked on that daiquiri in the bar at the bottom of your view. Yes, there was a lot of suffering involved in that conference. Perhaps we should all sacrifice and go along next year? For the good of womankind?

    I found the business talk very edgy and useful. Particularly concerning diversification of genres with a view to earning more money. It doesn’t sound easy, negotiating the different pace lags between European and American markets, and that’s why this conference was so strategic for us (and why we must force ourselves down there next year for those three-hour dinners). I’m still humming with writerly energy but missing those views!!

  6. Thanks, Catherine. Well, I for one am willing to sacrifice myself by eating more pasta and drinking more wonderful aglianico wine at next year’s festival… all in the name of womankind, of course. Sounds very noble, doesn’t it?

    Before next September, however, hoping we can coax you down to our writing group in Rome. Once the rains and fog of Padania set in, we should have an easier time of convincing you..: )

  7. Interesting but maybe not surprising the slower uptake on e-books here in France (and Italy); I do think they will catch on eventually, but books here come in so many varieties, very plain, many very slim (and therefore inexpensive), at least 50% of fiction is translated and bookshops are not yet closing down as far as I am aware. They are in no rush to abandon any of their many traditions, so perhaps reading still sits in that relatively safe niche. The open air monthly antiquarian book market continues to thrive here as well.

    However, I have noticed each time I travel on the TGV someone has noted my kindle and asked me about it, its only been available on for a year (perhaps even less) and many books will have yet to be converted to e-book form, although I have had no trouble downloading them to date. Just a matter of time I am sure.

    • Great points, Claire. The Italian panelist from Rizzoli said that Italy is probably 5-6 years behind the American market, and the French panelist agreed. But both said what works in the American markets don’t necessarily work in the European markets, and vice versa. I’m sure e-readers will catch on in Italy, too, but I’m wondering if it will be as widespread as in the US. You’ll keep me up on changes in Provence, and I’ll update you on Rome. : )

  8. What an interesting post, Kimberly! I learned a lot from it. I would love to try that beverage, by the way. Thanks for sharing this information.

  9. Thanks, Julia! Yes, I’m usually not even a ‘digestivo’ drinker, but the bay leaf digestive was rather amazing. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Why don’t you join me for next year’s conference? Get back to ‘la patria’? : )

  10. […] I’ve already mentioned much of what I learned at this year’s Matera Women’s Fiction Festival in Part 1. […]

  11. […] written a lot about my experiences at the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival and what I learned there. The merits of traditional vs. self-publishing were discussed on the […]

  12. […] Women’s Fiction Festival that I attend each year also holds an English-language session of Brainstorming at the Spa each […]

  13. […] on the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival, see their website including registration information, my post on last year’s event, and a travel post I did about the spectacular, UNESCO-heritage site town of […]

  14. […] If you want to learn more about the Matera festival, take a look at my round-ups of what went on at the 2013 Festival and the 2012 Festival. […]

  15. […] If you can’t wait ’til then, and want to see my wrap-ups of recent years, please see my posts on what I learned at the 2013 Festival and the 2012 Festival. […]

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