Steve Coonts stole the day by making an audience of Georgetown faculty laugh... he is quite funny! Yes, he talked about book publishing, and yes, the outlook was bleak for fiction writers (it is as tough or tougher now than ever), but he offered some heartening statistics. Did you know that almost half of the books published in the U.S. today are fiction? Granted, much of that is by established writers, but it's still a good number. At one point he said "Remember this, class, because it will be on the quiz: trade publishing is a for-profit business!" He stamped his foot on each of the last three words for emphasis. Authors like to come to trade publishers with artistic work, but publishers like (and need) to turn a profit. Genre writing isn't the only way to do it (just ask Anne Tyler, A. S. Byatt or Paul Auster), but there has to be some consideration of what will make the book successful.
Coonts is convinced that it's all about characters. He does not believe that strictly plot-driven or gimmick-driven fiction can last long, although he acknowledges that it sometimes makes it out there. He emphasized both how he draws his own characters, and how he suggests that authors think about them. He prefers fiction with larger-than-life characters to that which reflects reality too faithfully, and he has a resistance to heroes who too closely resemble the author him or herself. I've heard debates on this either way, and I think it boils down to the artistry and skill of the author. Some can pull off autobiographical main characters and some can't, but for Coonts's money it's better to look outside oneself. As realistic as he was about how hard it is to get an agent these days for fiction, he also added that most manuscripts bobble not for lack of an agent, but because their authors need to learn their craft. He's also a big fan of writer's conferences (this was a surprise to me, as he seems a bit iconoclastic for that sort of thing), and he believes valuable author-agent relationships can be forged there.
The above photo was taken later yesterday evening at Book Fair.