The panelists from “Publishing Your Work: When, How, Why” agreed to answer you follow-up questions. Here are their answers.
Q. How would one get started with publishing poetry?
Jessica Swift Eldridge
Jessica Swift Eldridge: Look into Poets and Writers and Publisher’s Marketplace. Ask questions on social media about how others got started. Find information about your favorite poets and how they got their starts.
Dede Cummings: Join Poets & Writers. Submit to small journals and local publications/contests. Attend workshops.
Q. How can you judge if your manuscript has a chance at winning a contest? Do you need individual poems published in particular places? Do you need to feel a kinship with the judge’s poetry, or with the poetry published by the journal sponsoring the contest?
Jessica Swift Eldridge: I don’t know that you can judge whether you have a chance of winning, outside of: ensuring that your work is the best it can (it’s been edited and beta read); ensuring that the manuscript actually coincides with the guidelines of the contest; and you feel confident putting your work “out there.” I suspect that it would be important for the poet to feel like their poetry is a good fit for whatever publication/contest they’re submitting to. Without that connection, it may feel like your work doesn’t belong where you’re submitting. I see nothing wrong with submitting to any contest you think you might have a chance of winning and/or gaining recognition from.
Dede Cummings: Check out what types of poems they are publishing. If you are a nature poet, look at Orion. If political, look at Kenyon Review. It is extremely competitive. As I mentioned, my work somehow made its way to Connotation Press. Very small but nurturing publisher. I love them.
Q: If a poetry contest wants to know your plan for promoting your book should they publish it, what is a good plan?
Jessica Swift Eldridge: Marketing plans can be very difficult to create without a marketing background, so I am not giving anything other than my opinion here. Many publishers are looking for and asking about the writer’s social media platforms. How many Facebook fans do you have? How many Twitter followers? Do you blog? How many visitors do you get? I think a solid marketing plan includes an explanation of how the author is going to effectively utilize social media to gain/maintain buzz. Many publishers now want to ensure that the writer is already marketing themselves and their work. What are you doing to establish/develop a social media presence? If you’re not, what will you do?
Being available for and willing to participate in speaking engagements and/or readings is another component of a marketing plan. But remember, the publisher is asking what the author will do. Do you have connections with libraries/book stores/speaker’s bureaus? Are you willing to establish and/or set up these speaking opportunities? Do you have already have potential opportunities in the works?
Dede Cummings: Tell them you will work tirelessly to promote—readings, media, schools, libraries, PR—present your own marketing plan and PR plan. Secure some in advance, locally, if you can. I have one poet I am publishing (Leland Kinsey of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont) who is scheduling his own statewide tour in April when his book comes out. He is a force!
Q: Should someone who has not published a book of poetry submit only to “first/second book” contests, or consider others as well?
Dede Cummings: I am not a fan of spending tons of money to submit. I look for contests for first book, smaller magazines. Build a resume that way. Last year, I submitted to the Vermont Poetry Broadside Series and came in second place—that can go on my resume now! Small and steady is Dede’s advice, though submit to the occasional magazine or journal—why not? Getting a form letter is a bummer, but getting a personal note is the bom! (Almost better than getting a publishing deal…almost!)
Question for Jessica Swift Eldridge: Is the level of control vastly different working with your own company versus working as an employee of a publishing house? Do you feel like your editorial services go to more artistic work than in the larger publishing world?
JSE: One of the benefits of having created my own company is that I get to choose the projects I work on, rather than being told by a publisher or an editorial director what I’ll be editing. I work with numerous authors and writers who are intentionally pursuing and/or are continuing to self-publish. As a result of this, I get the opportunity to work with some incredible writers who are extraordinarily talented, but their work may not be considered “mainstream” enough for the traditional publishing world, though there is still a market for it. By working closely with the writer, I get to be very artistic in terms of establishing structure for the manuscript (a very creative process), working on cover design ideas, and looking at other areas of publishing, like interior design. By working with independent clients, my work often becomes about the author’s/writer’s voice and tone in their work, rather than simply ensuring that a manuscript conforms to a “house standard.” This is NOT to say that I didn’t get to be creative when I worked in-house, I just prefer the freedom and flexibility I have now, and the relationships I develop with my clients are much closer than what I was able to develop when I worked in-house.
Q for JSE: What does an editor get paid?
JSE: Editorial and design rates vary depending on numerous factors, including: the provider’s experience, type of service, length of manuscript, etc. For more information and to get a GENERAL idea of rates, visit http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php.
Q for JSE: As an editor, what drives you crazy?
JSE: Great question. Nothing really makes me crazy. But there is one thing that I commonly encounter that does get to me—writers feeling insecure about themselves and their creations, to the point where they start to have doubt. For example, I’ve been told, “Oh, my manuscript is so bad, you probably don’t even want to look at it,” and “I’m sure it’s full of errors so don’t bother reading it if you don’t want to.” Writing is extraordinarily personal; I understand that. And passing your work off to someone who is going to read it and critique it is incredibly scary. I understand that, too. But I want to tell writers to have confidence in themselves. The goal of working with an editor is to learn and grow in your writing. So be proud of what you’ve created. Approach sharing it with others with an attitude of excitement. After all, you wouldn’t tell someone your child is ugly, so why tell someone your manuscript “baby” is terrible. Go forth and write! It’s a process. An exciting one.
Jan Elizabeth Watson
Question for Jan Elizabeth Watson: What has your experience in publishing shown you about the world of published authors? Do you hope to one day publish with a major publishing house or do you plan to continue to publish independently?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: My second novel, What Has Become of You, is actually going to be published by Dutton, and imprint of Penguin/Random House, which is now the largest publisher in the world. The publication date is May 1st, 2014. Although there are many merits to independent publishing, I have to say that I have already had a more satisfactory and gratifying experience working with the larger house. I certainly feel more validated and more equipped to consider big-ticket items that I thought might not be possible—paying off my graduate student loan debt and buying my own home, for example.
As for what my experience in publishing has shown me about the world of published authors, I have clearly seen that there are many talented writers who go unpublished due to the restrictions of the current market and the limited budgets at most publishing houses today. This is not a reason to despair, but it does mean that the writer who seeks publication must be especially resilient.
Q for JEW: How influential was your MFA program in shaping your writing style?
JEW: My style didn’t alter much at all, and I noticed right away that I was writing in a distinctly different style from most of my fellow workshoppers, who were writing clipped, postmodern stories. My influences come mostly from early English novels and contemporary writers like A.S. Byatt and William Trevor. I have a natural tendency toward expansiveness, and I learned some good editing habits in the MFA program; I learned the difficult lesson of having to sometimes trim back one’s voluptuous prose in order to keep narrative momentum. I suppose I developed more precision in my writing also, though I think a lot of this has also stemmed from my teaching experience, post-MFA.
Q for JEW: What value do MFA programs have?
JEW: What value MFA programs have depends entirely on the individual who is considering one. I don’t believe that MFA programs are for everyone, and by no means do I think they predict career success as a writer. In my own particular case, I pursued an MFA because I loved the workshop experience. I loved the little electric buzz that goes around the conference table during an especially productive workshop session; it was like a drug! I knew, also, that I wanted to teach writing at the college level so that I could help others experience this same sensation. My MFA enabled me to do that.
Question for Jon Clinch: Was your decision to move to your own imprint a financial decision or a personal one? Did you think you could produce work that is more profitable on your own label, or did you make the move because you felt you couldn’t do the work your own way with a major publication?
Jon Clinch: I’d had such a good experience with my pen-name project, WHAT CAME AFTER, that I thought I’d give it a shot. Additionally, I was disappointed in how KINGS OF THE EARTH had been handled by my publisher. Although it was Oprah’s number one book for the summer, it wasn’t available in stores until a couple of months later — by which time it had fallen out of the public consciousness.
Q for JC: How and why did you change agents? How did you address the question of why you were leaving your old agent?
JC: My first agent wanted to control my word-by-word output, in a way that proved both unhelpful and unnecessary. His ear for what I was doing — and thus, most likely, his set of contacts for selling my work — was all wrong. As for addressing the question, let’s just say that it didn’t come as any surprise to him.
Q for JC: How does being on top of the Amazon list translate into dollars? Is it worth aspiring to?
JC: Selling more books, at least as long as you’re really selling them and not just giving them away for a few pennies, is always to be aspired to.
Q for JC: Why use a pen name?
JC: WHAT CAME AFTER wasn’t in keeping with the brand identity I’d established for myself with FINN and KINGS OF THE EARTH. Plus, by using a pen name I was able to keep the self-publishing experiment clean.
Q for JC: How did the experience of publishing The Thief of Auschwitz compare to publishing your other literary novels traditionally?
Q: It was just as nerve-wracking. As for the financial end, I’d say THIEF has earned as much as or more than an average literary novel with a big house. It has not served me as well as FINN and KINGS, which got outsized advances.
Question for Dede Cummings: Does designing books for major publications versus independent publications vary drastically? Do you feel more in control of the artistic direction, or more able to work with the writer, when designing a book through an independent publication? Do corporate publishing houses impose stricter limitations and guidelines, or is there a broader scope in which to operate with the benefit of stronger financial backing?
Designing books for major publications and smaller ones does differ, but not dramatically. Major houses, like Random House, have superb sales teams that really dictate the cover design choice. I have always liked doing interior design for the freedom it allowed me. I can interpret and synthesize the author’s work without a sales team breathing down my neck. Smaller presses are often distributed by a larger publisher; for example, Random House publishing services distributes Shambhala, one of my clients. People don’t realize that the larger distributors have their own sales team, and they also dictate a lot of cover designs and book titles. A real indie press, like Green Writers Press (my own), offer a degree of author control and cooperation not found with the bigger houses, or secondary publishing houses. With that autonomy offered by a truly independent press comes a lack of financial advance and broad marketing for a new book. A large advance has to be paid back to the publisher before the author can get royalties—often the author will not receive royalties unless the book is a huge seller. It is a personal decision with whether to go large or small—financially, it makes sense to get the large advance and sacrifice the autonomy of design and control. However, some writers want to control the project and the birth of their book is more important than the money. A good balance is a writer working with the editor and the marketing/PR team at the publishing house in collaboration. The marketing/distribution sales team knows the business very well, and should be respected for that. It is a very delicate line, a balance. If more than one book offer is on the table, it is a good idea for agent and writer to meet with the editor, and really sit down to discuss how the book will be produced, and more importantly, sold.
Small presses, generally, do not have money for five- and six-figure advances. They just don’t have the capital for this. A nice advance from a small publisher is somewhere around $15,000. The larger houses can offer six figures if they really want something, and they still do that, though not so much as in the past. I recently negotiated a deal for $35,000 and we were very pleased. Another thing, the payments for the advance come in increments not in one lump sum.
Agents receive 15% of the authors advance, royalties, and other rights, like foreign rights and film rights and sales on the secondary market. Some writers offer a 20% royalty to motivate the agent to make a sale. Sub-agents on secondary sales usually earn 5%.
Q for DC: How do you see digital publishing influencing both small and large publishing
DC: Big time! Go digital, but respect print, too. Digital isn’t growing like it was initially. A lot of people want to relax with print, not a screen.
Q for DC: What advice do you have for getting short stories published?
DC: As with poetry, Jan said read the acknowledgements pages: write down the journals and look them all up. Start small and build up.
Click here to download the podcast of the panel discussion.