Story and photos by Darl DeVault, Contributing Editor
In its second year, September 1-4, at the Renaissance Waterford Hotel in northwest Oklahoma City, WriterCon offered many seniors among the more than 200 aspiring writers a glimpse of the many facets of the book writing and publishing trade. The four-day conference was comprehensive, with four breakout sessions for each of six 45-minute periods daily featuring book industry luminaries and best-selling authors as speakers.
This year, the event offered the most attendees ever a robust educational offering, exploring ideas from authorship to representation to publishing. Discussions of trending issues like AI-generated text and social media influencers’ power occurred.
Organizer William Bernhardt, 63, of Choctaw, began his career as a nationally prominent author in a significant way in 1991. He continues positively impacting book publishing by expanding his signature largest annual writers’ conference in Oklahoma. The event added a fourth day emphasizing book sales and the reader with ReaderCon on Monday.
“Growing up locally and graduating Midwest City High School in 1978, I want to support regional authors’ writing aspirations at a level not available here when I was learning my craft,” Bernhardt said on the first day of the conference. “Oklahoma has just as many talented writers as New York or anywhere else. We must support their efforts that put them on an even footing. We have just as much talent as any other area, if not more, but historically we have not done as well at nurturing and promoting our own.”
Another expansion of WriterCon this year was the launch of the online WriterCon Magazine. It was printed in 38 full-color pages in its debut edition exclusively for the event. Executive editor Kadey Bernhardt and editor Lara Bernhardt said they look forward to the voice the online publishing provides them in support of the book industry. Powered by Substack, it is found at WriterCon Magazine | William Bernhardt | Substack.
Recent University of Oklahoma photography journalism graduate Ralph Bernhardt provided attendees with free author portraits for the event’s first two days.
Currently, literary agents and publishing houses of good size receive more than 5,000 unrequested manuscript submissions annually. The industry reports that less than one percent of all authors get their books published. Bernhardt and his wife Lara, also an author and publisher, dedicate thousands of hours to planning the event to help regional authors beat those odds. By conducting a writing conference addressing the many industry standards, they coach authors to raise their authorship to best-selling status if they have that spark of talent, originality, and, most importantly, perseverance.
To say that WriterCon is a labor of love is an understatement, as Bernhardt puts his two-book-a-year schedule, which has produced 61 well-received books, in the background while he creates WriterCon each year. He recruits speakers year-round when he attends at least five writers’ conferences nationwide to stay abreast of industry trends and his voracious need to learn.
Apart from being interested in the book publishing industry because of his imminent success, Bernhardt is quick to talk about what reading and books offer the reader. Studies show seniors who read daily see their cognitive functions improve over six months.
“Many studies have indicated that reading offers many cognitive benefits, keeping the brain active, improving vocabulary, and exposing readers to new ideas,” Bernhardt said. “But there are also emotional benefits. Studies show readers are more empathetic and understanding. Readers are better spouses or partners. Books are also a great cure for loneliness. When you enter the minds of others (even fictional characters), you gain a better understanding of how others think and what they are going through.”
The Bernhardts displayed their enthusiasm for writing and reading to the WriterCon attendees by offering a schedule that ran six pages and 112 breakout sessions. These sessions covered many topics, from writing instruction panels, genre roundtable chats, keynote address speakers, and agent interview sessions.
Becoming a No.1 New York Times bestselling author in 1991 with his “Primary Justice,” Bernhardt is fortunate that his first book delivered such a robust central character that it sparked a well-received book series.
His training as an attorney and becoming a partner in a Tulsa law firm sparked his ability to write his debut fiction novel. The first of his iconic courtroom dramas sold more than one-half million copies in its first six months. His publisher needed to reprint the literary fiction debut of his Ben Kincaid courtroom drama several times in the first year. This started a writing career that has seen a series of books, including a new series character, Daniel Pike, launched in his recent No.1 bestseller, “The Last Chance Lawyer.”
His 10-book “Red Sneakers” series on how to best write fiction has assured his place in American writing history. Bernhardt received the Oklahoma Center for the Book 2019 Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award. He had sold more than 10 million copies of his books at the time when his book count stood at 46 works. By 2019, he had written his bestselling Ben Kincaid mystery/ thriller series, three books for young readers, and the historical novels “Challengers of the Dust” and “Nemesis.” He had also penned three poetry books, “The White Bird,” “The Ocean’s Edge,” and “Traveling Salesmen’s Song,” displaying a robust career.
He says his favorite is “The Florentine Poet,” a fable published earlier this year, which critics have called ‘“The Princess Bride” for literature lovers.’
Digital media technology is reshaping the book industry. The book market now encompasses physical books, e-books, audiobooks, and other digital formats. Even though the book industry is dominated by large book publishers and one big online retailer (Amazon), there are still alternatives for publishing and selling books.
The industry is highly competitive, with players ranging from traditional publishing houses to online booksellers and self-publishing platforms to print-on-demand small publishers. These changes will likely continue as the industry embraces more technologies. One recent change is that audiobooks are the fastest-growing sector of the publishing industry.
A critical takeaway from attending these sessions over the three-day writing portion of the event is how persistent even the best authors need to be to shepherd their high-quality manuscripts through the publishing process. Many of the presenters firmly expressed that even high-quality manuscripts of good originality are still rejected, usually due to not being a correct fit, but are often later published when passed on to different agents/publishers.
“I remember what it was like,” Bernhardt said. “Being a young kid desperate to write but unable to find much instruction or professional guidance. Our goal with WriterCon is to make it easier for the next generation of Oklahoma writers. We give scholarships each year to young people who want to attend the event. I know I’ve been fortunate. This is my way of paying it forward.”
Home-schooled and Acellus Academy local eighth-grade student Scarlett Hoffman, who is writing fantasy, dystopian and sci-fi fiction, was one of two scholarship attendees this year. “It has been an awesome experience,” Hoffman said. “I have learned so much that will help me in my writing. The high points have been getting to pitch to agents because I have been looking for an agent these last three months. The other high point was talking to other writers in my genres during the roundtable discussions.”
Lisa Gardner spoke several times during the conference in well-received sessions. She is a No. 1 New York Times internationally best-selling author of more than 25 crime thriller novels, including the Frankie Elkin series. Adapted for both film and TV, her work has earned her numerous foreign awards while being published in more than 30 countries. Her Keynote address and best-attended session of more than half the attendees featured her detailing how authentically she researched every facet of her books. She shared how extensively she travels to interact with the FBI and learn from countless police officers. “It is always a huge honor to be invited to speak,” Garder said. “When William contacted me about coming to WriterCon, I was thrilled and flattered. A chance to talk to other authors, just like me, about the craft we love best. What could be better?”