This is the second post in a regular column about the business of writing and publishing. If you have questions or topics to suggest, please write Andrew Scott at andrew [at] enginebooks [dot] org.
Before driving home from AWP this weekend, Victoria and I and our four-month-old assistant had breakfast at Hell’s Kitchen, a Minneapolis restaurant we often frequent when we’re in town. While eating, we heard Mr. Big’s “To Be With You,” an admittedly awful song, but one that has wormed its way into my brain forever. I have made peace with this.
Without assaulting you with additional lyrics, here is the song’s central premise: a dude-speaker tries to convince this lady he fancies that her recent breakup is fine because now she can be with him, which is, like, totally better and stuff. He wants to profit from her pain.
Victoria pointed out that this is just one in a phylum of songs that essentially say, Consider yourself lucky to have me.
As a younger writer, I thought an encouraging rejection from a major magazine suggested the likelihood of that story eventually being published somewhere respectable. The first time I ever submitted a story, a New Yorker editor replied with a great handwritten note, so I figured that piece would eventually land at a literary journal. It never did, though it eventually appeared in my story collection, Naked Summer. Reviewers called it one of the book’s best stories.
It’s laughable for writers to create publishing hierarchies about where we think our work belongs. These hierarchies can be revealed when agents talk to authors about which publishers to approach with a manuscript. Several times, I’ve heard author-friends say that their agents planned to approach small publishers “like Graywolf or Algonquin” as a last resort, when the writers, every single time, would happily give a kidney to be published by either of those (small compared to Random House, but otherwise huge and awesome) publishers.
Of course, not all journals and magazines are created equal—or all publishers, for that matter. A tough lesson writers learn is to never submit work to a journal or press if they have misgivings about the operation. Having a story (or book) published is a great feeling, but an ultimately fleeting one. Will the writer still be happy with that publication in six months? Five years?
However, writers do create such hierarchies, even when we know better. Literary websites and blogs rank nearly everything related to writing, based on whatever criteria seems important to the list-makers.
It’s one thing to think to yourself (or to say to your closest friends) that since your story was close-but-not-quite at the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Esquire, et al.—as my first story was—it must be an obvious shoe-in for Bumblefuck Quarterly or Public School Review. But I was never stupid enough to say so in my cover letter.
I also never quoted other editors’ feedback when I approached new outlets, so I’m perplexed, amused, and frustrated to discover that many writers take this approach when querying Lacewing Books. I received a query recently that failed to follow the (very basic) guidelines, but did include cut-and-paste rejections from editors at Knopf and Hachette. Actually, that was the entire text of the query: two rejection letters from bigger publishers. No synopsis of the manuscript. No information about the author.
What are these writers thinking? Maybe they think that I—an editor at a tiny imprint of Engine Books, itself a boutique press located in Indianapolis, of all places—should consider himself lucky to have the opportunity to read a book the Big Five has so thoughtfully considered before saying, No, we don’t want this.
This particular strand of arrogance isn’t limited to writers, of course. I also recently received a query from an agent who represents a few writers I know. His subject line (ny agent getting in touch) carried the same tone as queries and submissions from writers who should know better. (Also, you can’t bother to capitalize “ny” in your subject line?)
For the author’s benefit, I considered the manuscript on its own terms, but I was relieved when it wasn’t quite right for Lacewing—I did not want to communicate further with the agent in question. For the record, there are lots of impressive and successful agents in places that aren’t New York.
Our trip to AWP brought several reminders of conferences past, including the weird occasion of writers trying to pitch themselves or their work to us at the table. “What kind of books do you publish?” the nicer ones might ask. The answer, of course, is right there on the table. I estimate that fewer than 5% of writers who inquire about our submissions guidelines, et cetera, bother to buy one of our books. But you know what? We usually remember those authors. Rude writers might ask, “What’s the trick to getting published by your press?” And they never like it when we say that all we’re looking for is a good story told well.
I guess that’s not the whole of it, though. We want a good story told well by an author who is polite and friendly and not an asshole. We publish 4-6 books a year, not counting our new reprint line. We’re usually involved with the author for 18-24 months in a concentrated way, and longer in less concentrated ways. One of our favorite authors, Myfanwy Collins, was on a panel with Victoria a few years ago. She told one man who asked a question that you just need to be human during the submission and editorial processes, and remember that editors are human beings, too. And I swear to you, the guy said: “What do you mean by be human?”
Write your best. Approach publishers with professionalism. If you want to work with a publisher, make sure you like (at least some of) their books. How would you act if you were having a meal with that editor? I think you’d be polite. But something about sending out work or approaching publishers/presses at a book fair makes some writers lose their common decency.
Remember, Victoria and I are also writers. We know the crazy that sometimes descends on all of us. Go to a bookstore or library. See all of those books? It can be overwhelming, sometimes, to think about writing a book when there are already so many books out there. But it also is a reminder that writing and publishing a book is possible. Are all of those writers smarter than you? A better writer than you? Maybe, but I doubt it. Not all of them. But they all worked hard and, to some degree, reigned in the crazy.