Let It Go…

I’ve decided to lay aside my publishing work for a while so I can concentrate on my own writing, and the last interaction I had with a submitter was an unfortunate one.

This person had submitted a chapbook to our press, and we accepted it back in May, letting them know it would be published in September. We sent them our standard contract to sign, but it took more than three weeks for them to sign it even though it’s electronic – they only had to click a checkbox. But with four months until publication, it didn’t seem to be a huge issue. I asked for a bio and updated address, but what I got after another couple of weeks’ wait wasn’t really a bio. It read more like someone writing a letter to a distant relative, introducing themselves and catching them up. I deal with this all the time, and cleaned it up into an almost-presentable third-person bio, figuring that the author would likely want to make changes to it before publication.

In August, I sent out the proof copy of the book for sign off. The wording on the form letter accompanying the proof was something like “let us know if there are any changes to be made,” and for only the second time in the decades I’ve been an editor, someone decided this meant “you don’t actually have to reply.” This was to be the very last project our press would work on, and I was already working on other things, so when I didn’t hear from this person, I decided to save myself the time and aggravation of having to chase them down every time I needed something. I sent a note saying “since we didn’t hear anything from you, we’re rescinding our offer of publication.”

What did I think would happen? Well, I figured that at worst, I might get an apologetic note giving some excuse for their failure to respond. What I didn’t expect was several letters saying that it was my fault, and I should publish their work. The whole approach was so grating that I ended up feeling like I had dodged a bullet. I had to put together in my mind exactly why this person’s response offended me.

Mistake #1

Their first email said “The last email I received stated that if I had no problems with the layout that you were going to go ahead with how it looked like.” Grammar aside, that’s not what the email they referenced said. I don’t know if this person assumed I hadn’t sent the email, or that I wouldn’t be able to easily look up what they had been sent. If you use Submittable to accept submissions, it keeps track of all correspondence for each submission. Even if I weren’t the person who had sent out the email, a single click would pull it up so I could read it.

But also, that grammar.

Mistake #2

Minutes after sending the first email, they sent a second asking if we could still publish the work because “this is really upsetting for me.”

I get it. Realizing that you made a mistake that has cost you something important is upsetting. And the right response to that upset is to understand where the mistake was made, and be more diligent in the future. The way this person responded leads me to believe that they are the sort of person who has had people smooth things over for them in other areas of life and expects that to always be the case. As an adult, this is almost never the case, and sending a series of increasingly petulant emails is not professional.

I took pity on this person and responded to them to let them know the circumstances that led to the decision to pull their work, how another author that we accepted at the same time had responded on time and therefore had been published without issue, and said that while their work was good, no one’s work is so good that they can afford to ignore emails from publishers. I even suggested another venue for their work.

Which brings us to…

Mistake #3

They responded, doubling down on the fact that the wording of the email was ambiguous, and suggesting “Maybe you guys could’ve chosen your words more wisely, for example ‘please respond yes or no’ would’ve been more forward of an email if you guys were going to actually cut my pieces out if I simply didn’t respond!”

After sending the same form letter email to hundreds of authors and having them respond without an issue, I am unsympathetic to this person, and don’t look kindly on the insistence that this is my fault, not theirs. If an editor is kind enough to take time out of their schedule to point out your error, it would be great if the recipient understood that the editor is trying to be helpful, not trying to rub their nose in it. I have a whole lot of other demands on my time, and letting people down makes me feel terrible, so insisting that I’m the asshole in this situation doesn’t go down well.

Mistake #4

They weren’t happy that I mentioned the other person whose writing I accepted at the same time. “You said that you accepted my work at the same time you accepted someone else’s… I don’t mean to be rude but quite frankly if you accept people’s work it is not a competition … ”

Except that it is. Getting published is absolutely a competition where you are trying to give editors a good reason to publish your work, as opposed to anyone else’s. Years ago, I heard an editor from Graywolf Press say that each year, they cut from their lineup the authors who required the most attention and hand holding. At the time I was horrified, but now I get it. I have a “do not publish” list, and anyone who makes tons of unnecessary demands is added to that list. Putting together a journal is a time-intensive, laborious process, and I don’t need authors who make it worse. And for every great submission I get, there are about ten great submissions I don’t take. If I end up struggling with an author over time-wasting nonsense, it’s easier to just go with someone else.

Mistake #5

They didn’t care for my remark that no one’s work is so great that they can afford to ignore emails. “I also do NOT appreciate you inferring that I think my work is so amazing that I do not have to respond to you guys! How can you make those crass assumptions when you’ve never met me, nor know who I am?”

First, I imply. You infer. If you want to present yourself as an author, learn what the words mean.

But I didn’t imply they thought their work was so great they could be rude about it. I said that no one‘s work was so great they could afford to be rude about it. And while it’s true I never met them, their emails tell me everything I need to know. I also know that this is a person who spelled their own name wrong on their Submittable account.

They closed with “This would’ve been the first time I was ever published, I graduated college and the writing world is harsh and cold at times, and I thought something good was finally coming out of my writing.” My heart is broken at the fact that their work was decent enough to be chosen, but a lack of professionalism undermined them.

Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide

I have a tendency to spin off first drafts like nobody’s business. I’m never at a loss for ideas, and every time I come up with something interesting that I could expand into a story, I write it down somewhere.

The hard part in turning a first draft into a finished product is knowing exactly what belongs in a story. I have a couple of specific faults as a writer that I’m constantly fighting against.

The first is that I have had the lesson “show, don’t tell” ingrained in me so much so that I forget that sometimes, you have to just say a thing outright, and then back up that telling with showing. Too many times, I’ve left important information in my mind, because as I write, my brain is filling in all the necessary information. It takes another reader to tell me that they don’t understand part of my story for me to know what I’ve left out.

The second is that I don’t always know where to place the POV. I’m a big fan of historical fiction where the POV is a character on the periphery of major events – a servant or underling in a position to see events unfold. But that’s not right for every story. It means that I have spent a lot of time re-writing work to change the POV.

Now I spend a lot of time thinking about the math that I, as a stereotypical English major, have done my level best to ignore.

ADD:

Go back and make sure that you’ve included all the information the reader needs to get a complete picture of the action. Does your character have magical powers? Make sure they’re stated somewhere obvious! You can show them in action later, but you don’t want your readers to say “How did that tree spring up out of nowhere?” because you forgot to mention that your main character is a dryad.

SUBTRACT:

I’ve now written this post about four times, because I have a tendency to put in a lot of stuff that’s not necessary, and distracts from my main point. When you add too much unnecessary detail, you distract from your story and drag down the pace. Especially when writing short fiction, it’s really important that every word pulls its weight. If you’re taking the time to point out that Aunt Harriet always wore an eight-inch hatpin with a ruby on it, she had better stab someone with it at some point, otherwise you’ve added a detail we don’t need and distracted us from more important things, like the pistol in Aunt Harriet’s apron pocket.

MULTIPLY:

I’m an opera fan. One of the features of opera is that each character tends to have a recognizable theme (if you’re unfamiliar with this convention, listen to Peter and the Wolf, a great introduction). Thematic images work the same way in literature. Perhaps one character is associated with the color blue, or roses, or sadness – go back over your manuscript and look for opportunities to add that to your piece, giving your reader one more way to fix that character in their mind.

DIVIDE:

The last thing is knowing how to break up your story. In a shorter work, it’s easy to represent changes in scenery or time with a few words, but in a much longer work, it can blur the passage of time or scenery. Sometimes it’s hard to know where one chapter should end and the next one begin, so I like to apply the Treasure Island Rule. When my children were small, I read them Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a perfect book for smaller kids, because the chapters are short and always end on a cliffhanger, keeping the children engaged until the next night. We’d get to the end of a chapter, and I would give a dramatic “Da da DAAAAAAAAAAAA” like the music just before a commercial in a 70s detective show. Find those dramatic cliffhanger moments and make them the end of your chapters.

Now I’m back to polishing up this book, which I plan to pitch at a conference next month. Wish me luck!

Thoughts From AWP: Beyond “Media”

Several panels had the word “transmedia” in their titles, but there was little agreement on the definition of “transmedia.”

We all understand “media” to mean the manner by which the message is transmitted, but after that,  neither authors nor publishers nor academics could agree how adding “multi,” “trans” or “hyper” exactly change the noun. If those of us meant to be experts in the field can’t agree on these definitions, it’s no wonder the reading public is confused and therefore hesitant to adopt.

Here are some of the common terms used:

  • Multi-media: a piece that orchestrates text, audio, and video elements in the narrative. Any one element may stand alone and therefore be primary, but the secondary elements don’t necessarily stand alone. A poem read to music over a movie of waves lapping the shore would be multimedia.
  • Transmedia: a piece made up of two or more elements that can stand alone (even if they don’t constitute a separate narrative).  Transmedia can include elements like websites, social media feeds and email to augment a narrative. A transmedia experience may have a movie that tells one story, a book that tells another, and an album whose songs tell another, all of which work together in one complete, over-arching narrative.
  • Augmented e-book: a text that looks like a regular e-book (a faithful electronic reproduction of a physical book) but with added video or audio elements that create a more entertaining experience without necessarily adding any additional meaning to the text. Depending on the age of the intended audience, either the text or the pictures will be the primary element. Most augmented e-books are directed at younger audiences.
  • Hypertext: an online method of creating text that allows for user-interactive, non-linear narratives. Because most hypertext creation engines are strictly online, they can link out to any other kind of online content, or contain audio or video clips.
  • Apps: a self-contained program designed to fulfill a particular purpose –  normally, in narrative cases, to allow a user to interact with a text in specific ways designed by the author of the app. Depending on the app, users might be able to navigate the story in particular ways, add material to the text, or create elements that go along with the text.

The good news is that whatever an author can think up can likely be done with today’s technology. For authors who operate in more than one element – text, music, video, programming, etc. – this allows for an easily-distributed version of that vision.

The bad news is that for those people who are trying to teach technology to younger generations, there’s no good way to create a textbook that addresses the realities of the space. Both hardware and software are evolving so quickly that a curriculum created in August would be out of date by December. What needs to be taught instead are the modes of thought that go into looking at what exists and imagining what might be. Teach children the basics of storytelling, and then allow them to look out at the world and think about how to distill its essence and create something new and wonderful.

Thoughts From AWP: The Rise of Art Books

I talked in an earlier post about the rise of letterpress, but there’s another interesting small-publishing phenomenon on the rise: art books. I’m not talking about coffee table books full of photographs of works of art. Today, art books are text, paper arts and programming, exploring the outskirts of the literary landscape.

Art books are exploring that area where authors justify why a given story should be published as a paper book or an e-book. Some of the most innovative new art books exist in both worlds, where innovations in the physical book, like special inks or folded or cutout papers are complemented by innovations in the e-book, like an app that interacts with the text or pictures in the print book, or adds audio or animation elements.

The art books I’ve seen, both at AWP and at other conferences I’ve attended in recent months have fallen into a few groups:

1. The “mainly paper” book

These books, like J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., are paper first and foremost, and their main value is in their physicality – they have elements that cannot easily be replicated in an electronic medium. However, in what looks like either an attempt to wring as much cash out of a big project or a nod to the fact that everyone’s doing e-books, the publisher puts out an e-book that is in no way an equivalent experience to the paper artifact.

2. The multimedia book

Some authors have been so inspired by a place or event, some outside thing, that they use the capability of electronic media to incorporate music, video, snippets of spoken word, etc., into their book. Katherine McNamara has done some lovely work in creating multimedia experiences to bring work that she has authored and/or published to a new level. The result is a rich, immersive experience for the reader.

3. The “art for art’s sake” books

The possibilities of programming, where code is its own language that can be clumsy, workmanlike or elegant, offer the literary author both challenges and opportunities. Text can be displayed, remixed and interacted with in endless ways, and the most innovative e-books challenge our notions of the “book” means, or how we “read.”

4. Furthering the conversation with the reader

Some art books take advantage of the fact that a tablet can accept input, and allow for user interactivity within the text. There are still choose-your-own-adventure type hypertexts, but there are also books that allow the reader to add to the text itself, inserting a little of themselves into the work, and expanding the author/programmer collaboration.

Part of the value of art books isn’t just the cachet of creating something unique. For most art books that involve digital production, programming and literary authorship, learning to work as part of a team where no one piece – the words, the images or the construction of the paper book or the programmed app – has primacy can be an important experience.

What’s important about the most innovative, challenging art books is that they are the proving ground for the future of text. The adoption of new technology is a bell curve – the first few pioneers, the trickle of early adopters, the bulk of people who wait either until all the bugs are worked out or it comes down in price, and then the long tail of Luddites and procrastinators. Lots of innovations never make it out of that pioneer phase, but those that do will filter down to the more conventional authoring masses in the form of improved, easier-to-use software and devices that store more data and present it in a greater variety of ways.  Paying attention to what’s happening on the leading edge of the curve can offer writers new ways to tell the stories they’re already crafting.

Thoughts From AWP: The Truth About Self-Publishing

There’s no getting around it – self-publishing is a fact, and more writers are not only taking advantage of it, they’re experiencing levels of success only previously possible with the resources of a big publisher. But self publishing is muddying the waters of the publishing industry, making roles and procedures that had seemed clear only a few years ago more uncertain.

Who’s publishing their own stuff? The Kindle Store is full of the traditional “not up to publishing standards” kind of fiction. The sort that isn’t well-written or well-edited, that shouldn’t have seen the light of day. But two new streams are blowing that group out of the water. The first is already-published authors whose back catalogue works are enjoying new life as e-books. Hugh Howey quoted one of his early mentors (whose name I, alas, did not catch) as saying “take care of your back list and your back list will take care of you,” and that’s exactly what these authors are doing – allowing their back lists to take care of them by finding a new audience. But Hugh Howey himself represents the second stream: self-published authors who have looked at the publishing industry and replicated it for themselves. They’ve perfected their craft and spent the time editing their work to a professional standard. They’ve used professional layout tools to make their books look as good as anything coming out of a Big Five publishing house. But 100% of the money is coming straight into their own pockets. Howey has written many articles about how self-publishing can be a more lucrative income stream for authors than working with a large publishing house.

Which is not to say that there’s no room for the traditional publishing house. Howey himself has recently made a deal with Simon & Schuster for his Wool series in paper books.  Amazon, home of Kindle Direct Publishing, has an entire division that does nothing but look at the books that self-published authors are putting out and find the ones that are picking up speed. They are uniquely positioned to use their traditional imprints, Thomas & Mercer, Amazon Crossing, 47North, Montlake Romance, Grand Harbor Press, etc., to snap up those self-published works that look like they’re catching on, and put the resources of Amazon behind them, while taking a cut of the profits.

Howey was able to put out a professional product because there are so many excellent self-publishing tools available for little or no cost. Authors thinking of going this route will need to understand clearly what needs to be done, and be prepared to either do it themselves or to pay a professional: editing, typography and layout, illustrators, publicity and distribution. The cost of putting out a less-than-professional product isn’t just a lack of sales. It’s a loss of credibility with the reading public when you put your next book out.

The people who are experiencing great success have one thing in common. I call it “the Netflix effect.” I don’t have cable, so I tend to find television shows on Netflix. When I find one I like, I’ll watch the whole thing, one episode after another. I don’t even think about getting cable anymore, because the thought of watching a show I like and then having to wait a whole week before I can see the next episode is just too much. Howey has put out twelve books in the last few years, and those people who come to his books and enjoy them can consume them like potato chips. He said that his goal was to ignore his sales numbers and focus entirely on writing for the first ten years.  As a result, with very little publicity, Howey has managed to sell millions of copies of his titles.

So, perhaps that’s the takeaway – if you’re an author looking to get your book to market, think about what you’re solving for. Authors with many books under their belts have different needs than first-time novelists, who have different needs again from mid-listers on their second or third novel. With the publishing world still morphing, authors can make many of their own opportunities.

Aspirations, Witnesses, Prognosticators: My AWP Experience

This year was my first experience at AWP, although last year I remember everyone asking each other “Are you going? Are you going?” In the halls of your local MFA program, it’s like asking if you’re going to see God appearing at the Hollywood bowl where he’ll be interviewed by Richard Dawkins, who will then receive his just and appropriate punishment.

I went because I’m the editor in chief of a literary magazine, although I haven’t been to a writer’s conference in many years. Even before I started grad school, I knew that I had grown out of the kind of conferences offered in consumer publications like Writer’s Digest. I was tired of the same advice, the same invocations of Joseph Campbell and Anne Lamott, tired of writers of lackluster popular fiction using themselves as shining examples of craft in a thinly-disguised bid to sell a few more books to students eager to learn. There is no one more gullible than the unpublished writer.

I don’t know whether the crowd (11,000 absolutely qualifies as “crowd”) was any different than at those events, but I was. Years of writing, reading, learning, and working in the writing world have taken me out of that crowd and into the smaller, more select group of those for whom the shine has worn off. I walked the book fair floor and talked with other publication editors, commiserating about our editorial woes. I remarked on the disconnect between the perception of the crowd and the perception of the presenters and panelists. For instance, in four different panels, a question from the audience included the presumption that there’s no market for short stories. On the other hand, I’m hearing from publishers that short stories are enjoying a resurgence – e-readers provide a perfect channel for shorter fiction.

I did love the talk about writers promoting themselves. The best thing I heard was in a panel that talked about the need to cultivate relationships with bookstores and libraries, to make good use of social media, to connect with one’s fan base. As an introvert, the thought of having to cultivate a lot of friendships that may be useful but would certainly drain any energy I would need for writing was depressing. Until someone got up and said “Don’t do ALL OF IT!” The biggest thing was to be a nice person. Promote your friends and colleagues. Be genuinely happy for and supportive of their work. Heck – I’m doing that.

There were also a million people talking vaguely and gloomily about the future of publishing, but each sad pronouncement began with the claim that more books are being published than ever before. More books, more independent publishers, more channels through which a writer can reach readers…not sure where the crisis lies.

Actually, I am. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That is to say, 90% of the writing that would be collectively produced by the people gathered in that room is unreadable. Given the state of submissions to the magazine for which I work, it’s true. But there doesn’t seem to be anything standing in the way of those people who have put in the time and effort to get beyond the crap phase.

I had a good time at AWP. I met some really nice people, I talked to a lot of my peers in publishing and I had a lot of crappy drinks with lovely people. Most importantly for me, though, was that I figured out how to get even more out of next year’s conference.

Wait…I’m the BOSS?

There’s a certain cachet that comes with power. Just ask all those ugly rich guys who’re combing supermodels out of their badly-groomed eyebrows.

I am still a writer who struggles to submit work to literary and commercial magazines, so I was amazed when I realized that I’m not just a struggling writer. I’m the editor in chief of a respected literary journal. I had a staff of 18 people, all of whom were excited about the fact that they were real editors working on a real literary journal. This issue,there’ll be even more of them.

Until I got to the residency this time, I didn’t feel like the boss of all the editors of a literary journal. I was too busy making phone calls, correcting punctuation, sending emails, wrestling with the web interface, approving color combinations, signing contracts, etc. I got to the residency, and suddenly, everyone knows who I am. Everyone’s saying “hello” to me in the halls and wanting to sit next to me in lectures. The new kids just signing up to work for the journal wave to me and say hello with that same shy smile that people give to low-level celebrities – a local tv newscaster or a city councillor.

I’m excited about working on Lunch Ticket. I’m excited about the great literature we’re putting out, I’m excited that I’m the one who gets to make the decisions, I’m excited that I get to work with a lot of smart, dynamic people. But it wasn’t until I stepped into the room yesterday for the debriefing and orientation that I realized that I’m the boss. I’m the head of a literary journal.

Whoa.