Saturday, February 12, 2011

Notes on the UMSL Publisher Panel

On February 11, I attended the publisher panel at UMSL featuring Alex Schwartz from Switch Grass, Ben Furnish from BkMk, and Jon Tribble from Crab Orchard. I didn’t take notes during the talk, but below are the things that stayed with me, the good bits of information that we were given—and hopefully these notes are helpful to those who were unable to attend the event (although I am proud to say that the Lindenwood writing community had a wonderful showing—I counted 17 LU MFA students/teachers/friends & family, which is quite impressive for a Friday night at 6pm). Many thanks to UMSL MFA Program Director Mary Troy for hosting this event, for opening it to the public, and for asking all the right questions to ensure we got the good information below.

Alex Schwartz from Switch Grass (accepts full novel manuscripts only, set in the midwest, written by midwest writers): Make sure the first few pages of your manuscript are the best writing of your life. In your cover letter, be sure you can explain clearly in a paragraph or two exactly what your novel is about (and obviously but importantly, be a careful writer—address the letter to the correct person and make sure the writing in your letter is good and doesn’t contain errors).

Ben Furnish from Bkmk (publishes collections of short stories, poetry collections, and some novels--and he was willing to hear a pitch for a good essay collection): Don’t send them a manuscript if you haven’t had individual pieces published. Get your work in journals first. When you’ve had a number of poems or stories published in literary journals, then you’re ready to submit a manuscript. (Ben also gave us many funny and wonderful analogies, saying he feels like a matchmaker when pitching a book to his fellow editors, and comparing a love for writing or editing to malaria, how it gets inside you and never leaves.)

Jon Tribble from Crab Orchard (holds contests for publication of full poetry manuscripts, and separate from that is their literary journal, Crab Orchard Review, which publishes short fiction, poetry, and essays): Agents do read their literary journal and will sometimes contact authors, asking if you have more work like that, which may possibly lead to representation and perhaps a book deal. For poetry manuscripts: it must feel like a book. It doesn’t need to have an obvious connecting theme or concept, but the voice of the pieces and their order needs to feel like a single work, that surprises you along the way, that takes you on a journey. (The poetry contests offer $2500 or $3500 depending on the contest--see their website for more information.)

All three said that when they read submissions, they are looking to be surprised, to read something exceptional and pure. They want to find that one great story/poem/novel, that one writer—they’ll know it when they see it, and it’s why they do this job.

On publishing with university presses: A real advantage is that these three editors were clearly all about the writing. They want to publish extraordinary literature. They know, and their universities know, that these kind of books are not going to make big money, are often lucky to break even. But they will publish and support your good literary work. Though it wasn’t mentioned specifically, a helpful point to take away from their discussion is that the fear many new writers have now, the fear that when they publish with small independent presses they are still going to be responsible for all the marketing of their book, for selling a certain number of copies, does not seem to be a concern with these university-based presses. They are not requiring their authors to be responsible for this aspect—they don’t say you have to pay for or sell a certain number of books at readings in order to be published by them. This is good information for writers who are considering self-publishing, worried that a small press would not support them. A university press (and these three in particular) would be an ideal place to submit your first book for publication.

Cleary these three editors want to publish high-quality literature, and they care about the writers and their work. Jon Tribble mentioned one writer who would have won his Editor’s Prize, but the writer had just heard from W.W. Norton that his book was very close to being accepted for publication there. Jon—although he would have loved to publish that book—told the writer to go with Norton because such a big house could do things for him that a smaller press with limited funds would be unable to do. And Jon looked at it as having two positive outcomes: the book that would have won got published and out in the world, and a second book by a different writer was able to win the Crab Orchard contest and be published.

This focus on the writing and support of the author was refreshing to hear and encouraging for writers, especially those who are trying to publish their first book. I think all of us left the event wanting to get to work, to write, to submit, to have hope.

- Beth Mead


Anonymous said...

This was a great event. Thanks for publicizing it on this blog, and thanks for the thorough summary. I've sent the link to friends and students who couldn't make it.

Midlist Writer said...

A good summary. I've posted a link to it on my blog.
Each type of publisher has their place in the writing and reading world. Small academic presses do a wonderful job publishing literary fiction that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day.
My personal favorite is the heavily subsidized Dalkey Archive Press. It specializes in translations of lesser-known authors writing in foreign languages. Could a commercial press publish Albanian fiction in translation and make a profit? No, so this is where academic presses take up the slack.