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.
Priscilla Painton - Executive Editor at Simon & Schuster
Helene Atwan - Director at Beacon Press
Jack Shoemaker - Vice President, Editorial Director at Counterpoint Press
Michael Braziller - Publisher at Persea Books
SoR: What are some common mistakes writers make that can put their manuscript in jeopardy of not getting published?
Painton: I can only talk about non-fiction because that’s all I do. The writer has basically written a book without thinking any of it through and therefore not even knowing what reporting is missing to make a compelling book.
Atwan: They haven’t read enough to know what makes a great book. It never ceases to amaze me how many “writers” hardly read books, how many “poets” barely read poetry. In creative writing, you need to really keep up with the literary magazines (and certainly, always, to the ones you are submitting to) as well as the literary presses, to be familiar with who is getting published, where, what the strengths of their work are and what you can learn from them. In nonfiction, you must know the competition, what other books have been published in your field, for example, what they’ve covered and what they’ve left out. Above all, you need to understand what makes the successful books (however you define that, in terms of sales, or reviews, or influence) work, what draws readers to them.
Shoemaker: 1) Avoid undue familiarity. 2) Make certain you address the letter to the right person. Nothing assures immediate rejection more than to send a submission to Farrar but to use the contact information for St.Martins. 3) Keep your letter brief and be certain it is free of grammatical and spelling errors.
Braziller: I'd like to think that its all about the manuscript, that it really doesn't matter how a writer presents him or herself. Since I'm interested in serious literature, most writers should present themselves as serious artists, not opportunists.
SoR: How important is having impeccable grammar and spelling compared to having a really great story for a manuscript?
Painton: It’s not as important but it’s psychologically very important. An editor who comes across a manuscript in which the writer can’t spell or use grammar properly is going to be very predisposed against taking that author seriously.
Atwan: It’s quite important because sloppy grammar and spelling, typos, and so forth suggest that you haven’t really put the time and care into your work to make it as good as it can be, that you don’t have the dedication that it takes to make your way in the world as a writer. Sweat the details; they say a lot about who you are and who you can become.
Shoemaker: Completely important. Your "really great story" deserves your best effort in writing good, basic English. You use the word "impeccable," which is nice. I look at submissions believing that the writer is presenting me with the best work he or she is capable of producing without professional editorial input. Submitting impeccable work is a sign that you respect yourself, your talent, and your story.
Braziller: Really "great" writing is more important than a really "great"story." My grammar and spelling are pretty bad, so I won't be too harsh on that score.
SoR: How much do you look at education or publishing credits when considering a manuscript for publication?
Painton: Not at all.
Atwan: For nonfiction in general, education is important; for some nonfiction it’s essential. For literary work it’s less important, though I think the fact of having been “accepted” at a great writing program (rather than the fact of having studied in one), is an important credential. The people running those programs know how to pick promising writers. Likewise, publishing credits also mean that another editor has read and appreciated your work and publication in a reputable journal or magazine means that your work has been singled out from a broad pool of other work. I always pay more attention to writers who have publishing credits.
Shoemaker: I often look at where someone has published in the past. For certain kinds of professional non-fiction, educational credential can be important.
Braziller: I think some credits do matter. Merit matters the most but a track record indicates a path and a commitment.
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?
Painton: Well I can speak only for non-fiction. I would say that the best writers I work with, the top selling authors, who command their field in history, politics, social history, science...have one thing in common: they all profoundly believe in having an editor and working with an editor to make the book better. No one believes that their manuscripts are immaculately conceived. So the major benefit of going to a publishing house is having top-notch editing talent to make your book the best book it can be in addition to promotion and marketing.
Atwan: Other than the author’s friends and family, it’s not clear to me that anyone reads self-published work, or that any media pays significant attention to those books. The role of the book publisher (like that of the magazine or journal editor) as a curator, is vital. When the Times Book Review starts accepting self-published books, when the Pulitzer Prize opens up to self-published submissions, and when independent bookstores start buying them, then maybe it will be equivalent, but I have a hard time envisioning that day simply because there are already so many works being published through legitimate houses. Just as we rely on museums and galleries to select art work that is worth our time and money, we rely on editors to present worthwhile writing.
There are, of course, exceptions. Everyone has heard about the self-published book that “breaks through” and sells so many copies it actually gets picked up by a publishing house, and of course the big name writers (mostly very commercial ones) who can forgo the publisher and sell directly to fans. And there are books that are so specialized that the author can reach his or her target market directly, without the need for an intermediary. But those are exceptions.
Shoemaker: This is a very complicated question. If a writer believes he or she can succeed without professional editorial judgement and development, without marketing and publicity efforts, with their own design, composition and production, and with what little broad distribution they are likely to manage, then I say by all means publish yourself.
Braziller: There has to be some critical and editorial process.
SoR: If everyone has a platform, what can authors do to set themselves apart?
Painton: There are two kinds of proposals I see. Proposals that have been dashed off in three months or less with little reporting and no thinking. And then there are proposals that are very obviously the work of years of passionate research. Those proposals are so rare and so good that they sells themselves. You can tell that the author has invested so much on the front end and does so with such love and passion that the book is, by definition, going to be a success.
Atwan: Not everyone has a platform; most people don’t, or have a very small one. Publishing in journals, magazines, curated web sites and online magazines is one way to build a “platform,” or perhaps a fan base. Obviously, these days, social media offers opportunities to build a community of followers who might be expected to seek out your work. But it all comes down to writing well and having something of value to say.
Shoemaker: Not everyone has a platform. Not everyone writes material that deserves an audience. Most of what we see submitted is slack and indifferent. The one thing that writers might do to set themselves apart is to read more and work harder.
Braziller: Focus on their writing.
SoR: If you could give one essential piece of advice to writers out there, what would it be?
Painton: Take ten years to write your book.
Atwan: Read. Read broadly. Read thoughtfully. Learn from what you read.
Shoemaker: Read. Spend at least four times as much time reading as you do writing. You'll learn more reading good sentences than writing bad ones.
Braziller: To write with seriousness and not think about commerce and the market and stupid things like the movie industry.
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?
Painton: Believe it or not I don’t think consumers are biased that way. I think that if someone tells them that someone has written a terrific book on science in politics what they register is the terrific book part; they don’t register the gender. There is certainly a discrepancy in terms of certain women dominating certain non-fiction genres and certain men dominating other non-fiction genres. But I think gender biases are breaking down across the country.
Atwan: Probably. I think that influences marketing tactics more than anything, in rather obvious ways.
Shoemaker: I think we expect people to write from within their experience, if that's what you mean. The bias would be towards the qualified and the excellent.
Braziller: I think, with poetry and literary fiction, everyone is still writing about the same old stuff, sex, death politics, etc.
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?
Painton: I think the main thing you have to know about a good editor acquiring a book is they have to really not want to live without the book; have to have the book; have to love the book; have to live with this book for a long, long time. And they’re going to live with it through its peaks and lows. And so you’re basically deciding to have a very long relationship with a book so you have to come to that relationship with a lot of good will and affection.
Sometimes topics we think are underrepresented are precisely the reason why we think they’ll have commercial appeal. Sometimes the only consideration is how commercial it might be or we love the commercial aspect of it. Sometimes it has to do with thinking this topic is definitely underrepresented and we finally have the right person writing the story so we’re going to be the publisher that’s going to make sure this underrepresented subject gets the attention it deserves.
Atwan: We like to publish books we think have something important to contribute, and often that means something original, so perhaps “underrepresented” is a fitting term. We will, of course, consider what we think the book can sell, but only in so far as we want the book to have an audience, even if it’s a relatively small one, and because we can’t afford to lose money on too many of our books, though like most publishers we manage to lose money on a whole lot of them. I suppose some part of every judgment about a book is subjective, even when it appears to be entirely objective, since a book—even an academic one—is a work of creativity at least on some level.
Shoemaker: All judgement is first and finally subjective. Elements of any decision can factor in certain objective criteria.
Atwan: Somehow literary fiction survives and even thrives, despite popular trends, and it always has. It may have to survive in eBook format in the coming decades, but I don’t see it going away. Some people, a small number (but that was always the case), have an appetite for art, and some people (an even smaller number) have the talent to produce it.
Shoemaker: If there is a future for literature, there will be a future for literary fiction.
Braziller: I think if publishers and writers and perhaps even agents can not think of cashing in but work on a smaller scale, thjiongs might take a turn for the bettter.
Atwan: In my experience, contracts are most often broken because the author is unable to deliver the book according to the terms. But there may be more instances of broken contracts in large commercial houses which I can’t speak to. If an author abides by the terms of the agreement, there should be no grounds for the publisher to break it.
Shoemaker: I have no idea where you heard this, but I find this patently false. I can recall only rare occasions of books being placed under contract and then not published if delivered in a timely and satisfactory manner by the author. Only in the case of publishers going out of business would this be even close to common.The opposite, publishers placing books under contract and then having authors fail to deliver is reasonably common, I suppose. Publishers generally then have little chance whatsoever to recoup any advance monies given to those writers who renege on their legal and contractual promises.
Braziller: We've had few experiences with broken contacts. Only a few broken promises in 35 years evenly divided between author and Persea.