This is one of many special interview series brought to you by Splash of Red where we interview some of the country's leading publishers and editors to get a behind-the-scenes look into the literary industry for all of our budding writers out there who follow our site. We hope that the discussions here give writers some insight into the other end of the field they work so tirelessly in with the intentions of assisting in the publishing process. Enjoy.
Judith Gurewich - Publisher at Other Press
Marcus Leaver - Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer at Sterling Publishing Company
Pat Walsh - Editor at MacAdam/Cage
Yuval Taylor - Senior Editor at Chicago Review Press; A Capella, Lawrence Hill Books
SoR: What are some common mistakes writers make that can put their manuscript in jeopardy of not getting published?
Gurewich: Not finding an agent to represent them. Writing a book for the sake of writing a book and not out of absolute inner necessity.
Leaver: I suppose there are many things that could derail your efforts, but the biggest mistake would be not putting your manuscript in the right hands to begin with. If your methods consist of sending a form letter to every publisher or agent without learning enough about who they are and what they publish, you are likely to get a form rejection letter in return. You should also be realistic and honest with yourself about your work. If you’ve never shown it to a trusted friend, colleague or a writer’s group for an objective opinion, I’d strongly encourage that you do so. I cannot tell you how many proposals we see that like to position their book as comparable to whatever the hottest book on that same topic is, and frankly it’s just not realistic. One of the most common things we ask ourselves when evaluating a manuscript is “who is the customer for this book? ” so you’d do well to ask yourself that same question.
Walsh: There are, unfortunately, many. Sloppiness comes to mind. Screw ups in a cover letter are hard to get over. And "Dear Sirs" letters don't get us anymore excited than when you get a piece of mail addressed to "Resident." I really get put off when I read a writer who uses the same verb over and over, especially the "to be" form. (Personally, my pet peeves are the over-use and misuse of the verb "gaze" and people who use "towards," "alright," and "inflammable" instead of "toward," "all right," and "flammable." Also, you are applying for the job of professional writer so learn how to conjugate lay and lie and use the correct forms of who and whom. (Except in dialog. Good dialog includes the expediency and imperfect grammar of real speech.) Still, it isn't the mistakes, it's the misconceptions. If you are writing a novel, wow the reader at the first sentence and then get better. First time novelists don't have an audience and have not earned any benefit of the doubt. The first novel is a proving ground. I can't tell you how many times someone has said something to the effect of "It starts slow but wait until you get to page 230." This is such shit. But to answer your question, the most common mistake is writers who submit their books too early. Write the thing, stick it in a drawer, and leave it there until it gathers some dust. Then re-read and re-write.
I know that I risk sounding like an unelected spokesman for a-holes taking delight in other people's' misery but there are so, so many submissions it's hard to get through them with any form of expediency, so we take shortcuts because we have to.
Taylor: The most common mistake is sloppy research. I've had several authors supply me with manuscripts replete with errors. These can range from mistakes with dates or sloppily worded sentences that give the wrong impression to false claims about subjects (particularly a claim that so-and-so was the "first" person to do such-and-such). A few such errors in a manuscript are troubling, but when they begin to amount to double digits, the manuscript usually becomes unpublishable.
SoR: How important is having impeccable grammar and spelling compared to having a really great story for a manuscript?
Leaver: We have an entire team of people devoted to making our authors seem like they have impeccable grammar and spelling, so I don’t see that as an issue. However, you must consider that sending a proposal riddled with errors sends a negative first impression, which might make anyone think twice about entering into a business relationship with you.
Walsh: Well, how important is it to avoid farting out loud on a first date? Good writers respect grammar, spelling and language in general. Great writers can rise above grammatical rules if there are compelling reasons but there rarely are. Let me put is this way, I have never met a good writer in my life who did not care about grammar, syntax, and other architectural elements of writing. But do good writers make mistakes and miss them throughout multiple re-writes? Yep. All the time. This doesn't mean they don't care. Writers submitting their work have all the time in the world to check their work before submission, so they should avail themselves of that time to make sure a document is as clean as possible. Remember, editors and agents are often looking for a reason to say no.
Taylor: How important is it that your fruit looks unblemished compared to how good it tastes? If it's covered with spots, you probably won't get around to tasting it, will you, even if the taste is what really matters.
SoR: How much do you look at education or publishing credits when considering a manuscript for publication?
Gurewich: I don't. I read the first paragraph and go on if I like what I see.
Leaver: That would have to depend upon the type of book under consideration. It would not be possible or practical to hold every author to the same standard. In non-fiction publishing, the ideal candidate is well-versed in their subject. We would presume that an author writing a knitting book would be capable of designing and completing the projects, and likewise that someone writing on history of art has had extensive education in the subject, either formally or informally. Publishers often like to use the term “platform” because it considers their education along with other important variables such as what they do for a living (other than writing), what affiliations they might have that could help to promote their work and whether they have an established web and social media presence.
Walsh: Some pedigree from a "name" MFA program might add a little more interest in reading something quickly, but it really is the work that needs to stand alone. Some editors look for publishing credentials and certainly most agents do, but mostly to help them cull their submission lists. To me, it matters little. I've taken to ignoring everything the writer sends except the book. But I do glance at cover letters and get very excited if the writer mentions works we've published as being his/her favorites. In short, if you have a publishing pedigree then use it; if not, don't. I'd rather have a great first chapter than an MFA.
Taylor: I don't look at education at all. Publishing credits are very important, on the other hand.
SoR: While self-publishing has certainly helped the average writer get their work out there, what are the pros and cons versus seeking a publishing house?
Gurewich: I don't know. I have never republished a self published work.
Leaver: When self-publish you have ultimate creative control. It is your story, your vision, and any success you have will be largely due to your own hard work. But this also means much of the risk is yours. You are responsible for costs of manufacturing the books, and would need to determine how best to warehouse your books and fulfill orders. Perhaps you don’t want to deal in printed books and would rather self-publish an eBook. Your costs are greatly reduced, you’ve likely engaged a third party to take care of your fulfillment, and design, perhaps even editing. But you haven’t actually earned any money yet, so you must rely on another source of income to fund your project. Your book isn’t selling despite your best efforts to spread the word about your book through your blog, facebook and twitter. You’ve gotten a crash course in self publishing, but haven’t yet turned a profit, so is that a successful venture?
On the other hand, if you are working with a publishing house you will generally receive advance against royalty or a flat fee based on a proposal, which you’d receive a portion of upon signing your contract leaving you the opportunity to focus on creating your work. You will work out a schedule deliver the manuscript to a staff of dedicated employees that are experts in editing, design, manufacturing, promotion, and of key importance, distribution. I have been known to say that “Content is king, but distribution is King Kong” and this is still the case even in the world of instant e-publishing and print on demand services. Distribution refers to the network of accounts and channels to market that a publisher has access to and is critical to getting your book in front of as many customers as possible. I suppose that it’s no huge surprise that I’d recommend a traditional publishing route, but we believe in our method. Most publishers are working hard now to attract and keep their authors and stay on top of the latest trends in so in a sense there’s no better time to partner with a publisher.
Walsh: Self publishing is changing. I went on record in my book by saying that self publishing is always bad, but my opinion is evolving. There are more cases wherein the author is right to self publish, such as a book for a niche that the author knows the market better than a publisher. Also, people who feel comfortable investing in their own title to overcome self publishing obstacles, like distribution and production. This is a decisions that must be made after great consideration.
SoR: If everyone has a platform, what can authors do to set themselves apart?
Gurewich: Be cooperative with their publicists. If they have written a compelling story, it is amazing how things work out.
Leaver: You must have passion for your work. If I was given the task of choosing between two authors that were otherwise equally credentialed, I’d choose the author with the greatest drive and enthusiasm for their project.
Walsh: There is too much emphasis on platform. I'm sorry writers ever learned of this concept because the term is becoming misconstrued and abused. In a perfect world, the author has his or her own platform (an existing audience) and the subject matter has not yet been addressed in book form (a clear field). That said, if we only published books that had these two things, we would only publish a couple of books a year. To set yourself apart, write a book that needs to be read. And to be read seriously by me (or any editor), read the stuff that I feel strongly about, that is to say, the books I edited and published. The acknowledgments page of a book is a wealth of information for writers seeking editors and agents.
Taylor: Does everyone really have a platform? To set yourself apart simply takes very hard work and tremendous focus and energy.
SoR: If you could give one essential piece of advice to writers out there, what would it be?
Gurewich: Be modest, find an agent, make sure you have a story to tell that matters, and write it with as few words as possible and with as many well turned phrases as you can.
Leaver: Each day you should surround yourself with people and things you love and feel excited about. Good stories come out of a full life, so give yourself plenty of opportunities to draw from and you shall be successful no matter where your writing takes you.
Walsh: Keep getting better, and the only way to do that is to read and write as much as you can. And take your time. It feels like an enemy but it really is your friend. I worked on a book that included some nice wisdom from a man named Tom Mendoza, who said, "Never buy anything from someone who is out of breath." The world belongs to the people who aren't in a hurry.
Taylor: Choose a subject about which you are passionate - so long as it's not yourself.
SoR: Is there a gender bias that goes with genres such as women writing about relationships and parenting and men writing about history and politics, i.e. do readers expect certain genders to be more knowledgeable about certain topics and if so, how does consumer perception like that affect the literary industry?
Gurewich: Intelligence and insight are not connected to gender.
Leaver: I cannot confirm whether a true bias exists in the publishing industry more so than any other industry, but I can tell you that when we’re deciding whether or not to acquire a book, we’d consider any knowledgeable and well credentialed author regardless of their gender. And if we believed in them we’d do our best to help them break out and challenge those perceptions.
Walsh: Consumer perceptions and bias are real in a marketing sense, especially for non-fiction, but I don't think anyone should let those things have an effect on their writing. I mean, "Seabiscuit" is a historical piece about horse racing written by a woman and "He's Just Not That Into You," is a relationship book written by a dude. Just wanting to be a writer isn't enough. You have to have something to say that makes people's lives better. Don't make the mistake of altering what you want to say so that you can make yourself more attractive to publishers. Put your efforts into making what you want to say better. Don't water it down in an effort to pander.
Taylor: Absolutely. Unfortunately, books that flout gender conventions such as these are bound to be met with some initial suspicion.
SoR: What future do you see for “literary fiction” as opposed to self help, genre, vampires, etc.?
Gurewich: I think good fiction is as necessary to the good life as good wine.
Leaver: There will always be trends that come and go in publishing, and new ones emerge as more and more authors and publishers try to remain fresh and identify their work in a new way. I think that literary fiction continues to thrive because these stories incorporate familiar people and places that appeal to us because we think we know who they are and have already formed opinions about them. The best of these stories will then thrusting them into fictional scenario with limitless possibilities and allows us to see an alternate view of the world as we know it. Well-written literary fiction will likely carry on, but I look forward to the emergence of new genres as it gives us new areas to publish into.
Walsh: Fiction in general is the primary beneficiary of the electronic reader so I think the future is very bright. Publishers can take more chances with less risk. This is a great thing. Also, Harry Potter and his fanged counterparts have opened up a world where reading is a cool - therefore mandated - activity for young people. This is great news. Literary fiction is a genre that people grow into, sometimes. That doesn't mean it is the only important genre. Lonesome Dove is a great, great book. Is it literary fiction? Yes and no. It depends on who you are.
There is a great temptation in the arts to play king of the hill. The minute someone achieves fame/money/success, we tear him or her down. In literary fiction and music, we do this by claiming that the wildly successful artist is a sell out. That is so fucked up. The idea is, I guess, that you cannot be successful and have integrity simultaneously. We, as an audience, are weak by our insecurity. Why can't there be room for everyone here in literature? Jane Austen was the Daniel Steele of her day and, perhaps, our grandchildren will be in similar awe of Ms. Steele in a few generations. Who's to say? Let's not let our panties get in a bunch over such things such as what is "real" literature and what is not. Let's focus on the expanding audience we have and try and produce meaningful works for people, whether they need to have a good cry or give their intellect a decades long workout.
Taylor: I have no experience with publishing "literary fiction," I'm afraid. Personally, I think there will always be a market for it.
SoR: Contracts are commonly made more often than books are published so how often are contracts broken, for what reasons and what can an author do about that?
Gurewich: Meet deadlines and if the book was bought on the basis of a proposal, don't disappoint.
Leaver: First and foremost, you must realize that you are one of many other talented authors that your publishing house has chosen to support, and as such your publisher has to organize their list of titles to give properly timed exposure to your book in the marketplace. Many variables can come into play that could cause a publisher to shift gears. Sometimes it’s a reaction to a change in customer demand, and other times an editor leaves or an imprint folds. Those decisions are outside of what you can control, so you shouldn’t worry needlessly about them. You can however control your own role as a valued author. First, make sure that you understand the basics of your contract, i.e. what are you expected to deliver and when, and what happens if you don’t. Fulfill your obligations according to what has been spelled out. Deliver the manuscript as outlined in the contract and on time, and develop a good working relationship with the company that has chosen to publish you.
Walsh: Contracts aren't broken that often. Books bought On Proposal and second novels in a two book deal may be rejected when turned in, but I don't think it's a common occurrence. It takes a lot of work to get to "yes" at a house. If there is a decision to reverse this action, no one is happy.
Taylor: There are two primary reasons a contract is broken. Failure to deliver is the most common; failure to revise the manuscript along the lines suggested by the publisher is the second. Another reason contracts sometimes get broken is if the author is unable to secure the cooperation of people whose cooperation is integral to telling the full story he or she has set out to tell. Authors should set deadlines they can meet, revise as much as necessary, and secure cooperation from interviewees before signing the contract.
SoR: When considering a manuscript for publication, how much of your opinion is subjective versus objective and do you consider what will sell over what is underrepresented?
Gurewich: This is a very good question. Personally I publish books I am in love with and this is the criteria. I am however convinced that good literature measures against objective standards even if unfortunately it is often after some time has gone by that we know what these standards are. However, when a story is really well told and we can't stop reading there is a good chance that something "objectively good " is up. When the story is also very well written than the two criteria of good fiction are met and we can speak of “objectivity."
Leaver: All publishing houses differ in the way they handle acquisitions, but we tend to take a very balanced approach to what we decide to publish. It’s nice to have books on our list in topics that have a proven track record within our own company, or even that other companies have had success with them. And there is a tipping point at which a solidly performing category becomes over-published, and a list based solely on proven topics can start to feel a bit boring. We think it’s more important to be passionate about what we acquire, and sometimes that means taking a chance on an underrepresented area. We still weigh the risks and benefits, but breaking new ground enables us to be creative and innovative, and we believe that this attitude will enable us to continue to adapt to the evolving world of book publishing.
Walsh: If it is written by a sane person, in passable English, then it leaves the realm of the objective and moves in to the subjective. Selling a book has become an increasing concern for me in deciding what to publish because I have learned, with the advent of bookscan, which monitors book sales, that just publishing a book without a plan to sell it can ruin a writers career. A book will end up with a "number" like a credit or SAT score. It is very hard to overcome the quantifiable in our industry. A low bookscan number really hurts a writers career and publishing a book I love but cannot sell to an audience doesn't do the writer any favors in the long run.
If I can add a personal note to this interview, I would impress on everyone to read "The Forrest for the Trees" by Betsy Lerner and "On Writing" by Stephen King (which I finally read this week). These are indispensable works for a writer. Oh wait, is someone out there wondering why I didn't mention The Elements of Style? I'm assuming that every reader of this interview will already be aware of it, because if you don't know that book, you should never be allowed near a keyboard.
Taylor: Opinions are never objective. And how well a subject is represented is an essential part of judging how well a book on that subject will sell.