“Publishing sucks—even when you’re good at it,” read the blurb for this panel at #AWP15, the writing conference I’m attending in Minneapolis. Every writer and artist I know drags around the dead reedy bird of rejection. It’s when we feel unworthy. We devote our lives to an art and craft, and sometimes we wonder if it’s worth it.
Thus, this panel was held in one of the larger halls, and still people had to sit on the steep carpeted stairs to fit in. I pictured each person ready to grab a torn battle flag fallen to the ground and jam it proudly aloft. We’re still alive.
As the moderator, Jill McDonough, said, she couldn’t help feel a shadow cross her heart when she passed the Paris Review booth at AWP. “Curse you, Paris Review! You could have published me,” I could imagine her yelling.
How many of us could warm ourselves through a winter burning rejection slips? None of us return the favor, though. “I’m sorry, Tin House. Your journal doesn’t meet my needs at this time.”
I’ve been on the other side, however, as the senior editor at a small publishing house, the late Prelude Press. We published computer books, yet we received manuscripts for novels, self-help books, and children’s picture books, among others. We did not seek such things. Still, the heavy entries came, often with a poorly written cover letter such as, “This here picture book my nephews loved. It will make you lots of munny. How much munny will you give me now?”
At Prelude, the worst and funniest query letters went on the employee refrigerator. We’d grab our bag lunch and laugh. Ever since, my goal has been not to end up on any publisher’s refrigerator.
The panelists for this event included poets Kimberly Johnson, Major Jackson, Jay Hopler, and novelist Brando Skyhorse. They each had their war stories, such as Hopler once interned in college for a major journal, and his job was simply to put the rejection slips in the 10,000 submissions that needed attending to. He was told not to read any of the poems because there weren’t enough hours in the day. “Just make sure you don’t include their cover letters back. They really hate that,” he was told.
Thus, it was an exercise in mailing. (Didn’t you ever wonder if some places did that? Zyzyva seemed to send me a rejection faster than I could return from the post office.)
Rather than dwell on how tough and difficult publishing is, the panelists offered practical things people could do. One of the major themes was, “There’s no replacement for a really good editor.” If you’re serious about a manuscript, hire an editor to help you before sending it anywhere. I’ve found that true. While I’m a strong editor, I can’t be objective about my own work. I hire an editor.
Major Jackson, poetry editor for The Harvard Review, mentioned he hated cover letters that oversold the writer by listing publications. He could care less how much you’ve been published. He wants a short letter. If you mention a poem you liked from a previous edition, that would tell him more than your publications.
He also felt that “most of publishing is luck. The joy should be in the writing.” He later added, “Seventy-five percent of what you do should be the writing. The rest is building an audience.”
Brando Skyhorse said he’d been in the UC Irvine writing program with Alice Seybold and Aimee Bender, two writers who became quite successful after graduating. In fact of the seven in his class, six got published quickly—everyone but him. It took him thirteen years. In the meantime, he worked as an editor for a large publisher, and had to reject people. The work sharpened his sense of quality, helpful now as a writer.
It occurred to me that while many writers aim for and seek a large publisher, when they get frustrated, they decide to do it themselves and self-publish. While it’s a valid choice, there’s a middle ground—the small publisher.
A hundred yards from where the panel was held, the AWP annual Bookfair buzzed with attendees. Among the nearly 800 booths and tables stood an array of small publishers willing to talk with anyone. Many featured their head editor.
I talked to many this time knowing I’d be writing this. I discovered something I never knew. Most small publishers make little to no money. Some are non-profit companies. They all do it for the love of discovering great new work. They take pride in the quality of their publications.
While a small publisher will never have the marketing muscle of a larger one, plenty of authors get little to no marketing help with a large publisher. Large or small, you get the cachet of being published. As I wrote in yesterday’s post about real writers and publishers, you’ll have to do much of the marketing yourself anyway.
If you click here, you can get the list of exhibitors from this year’s Bookfair. You can look up their submission policy online. Consider coming to next year’s AWP conference in Los Angeles. Perhaps you’ll have finished your new manuscript by then. Any writer can join the AWP.
It can be lonely as a writer, yet when you are among many others, you feel a sense of community. When you hear someone really great at a reading as I did yesterday with Susan Straight, Ron Carlson, and T.C. Boyle, you are energized.
Brando Skyhorse ended the discussion with, “Publishing sucks, but writing doesn’t. Good work always finds a way…eventually. How long are you willing to wait for eventually?” I’ll add, what are you willing to do differently to get published? Hire an editor? Write another book?
If you have suggestions or your own publishing war stories, feel free to add a comment.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.