Archive for the ‘publishing’ Category

The Art of Implication: replying to emails

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over many years of replying to email as an educator and a literary magazine editor, it’s to take a deep breath before writing a reply and to imply the things I’d like to say. So you can imagine the reply I might have sent to the submitter tone our literary magazines who wrote to complain that we had returned a submission that was getting recognition elsewhere.

In my reply, I acknowledged that our review process is imperfect and subjective, and I mentioned some of the factors that can play a role, from the typos in a submission, to the length, to the themes that emerge as an issue of the journal comes together. I also encouraged him to read our journal to better understand our choices, and I defended our practice of offering a discount to all those who submit, even if their work is returned. What I didn’t say is that no one is obligated to subscribe, but I did note that we have back issues posted online with free access.

The advice I didn’t give, but I hope was implied, is that writing snarky responses to rejection notices rarely helps your chances when submitting to journals. Editors work hard and try to make the best decisions they can. We know you’ll be disappointed when we don’t take your work, but we expect you to develop a thick skin and not take it personally.

I could have said this explicitly, but I doubt the person who wrote would have taken it very well. Keeping the tone positive is more likely to get the desired result. Of course the other option would be not to reply. Sometimes no answer is the best answer.

Why I Bailed on a Book Deal

There’s probably not a happier moment for a writer than the moment an email or letter comes in saying you’ve been accepted. (Excluding major life events such as your wedding or the birth of a child, of course.) Nonetheless, that excitement can quickly change to concern or even disappointment when the acceptance is for a book manuscript. Choosing a publisher is a big undertaking, and I’ve been writing and publishing poetry long enough to know that every acceptance is not equal, nor is every publisher acceptable. You do your due diligence before you submit to find out what you can, but everything becomes more real once a decision has to be made.

That was the case for me recently, when my fourth book manuscript was accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press. It was a nice surprise when the email came through Submittable that they wanted to publish.  Then I began to wonder, since they didn’t immediately spell out their terms. The email said another email would come within a month with those details. Fortunately, it came a day later, so I wasn’t in limbo for long. This did give me time to do a little more research, however, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when the terms were less than satisfactory.

Finishing Line Press appears to be legitimate. There is no indication on their website that they are anything other than the small poetry publisher they claim to be. Still, I might have been tipped off by the number of recent books they list in their online bookstore (though that could also be a good sign). They do publish chapbooks and full-length collections, and they have a couple of prizes. But many of their books appear to come from their general submissions, and they don’t charge a big reading fee to review a manuscript. Online submissions are a $3 fee, which is reasonable on Submittable; paper manuscripts can be sent by mail for free in November and would probably cost you more than $3 to print and mail. The other thing on the website that could be a tip-off is that there’s no mention of a book distributor, and they appear to be primarily focused on selling books online.

Book distribution is important to me, since I intend to schedule appearances at bookstores and book festivals, where books will be sold through the publisher. If I intended to sell most of my books myself at local events, then I wouldn’t be as concerned about it. Finishing Line says their books are available through Ingram, and they may well be, but searching around, I could find their titles at Amazon, but didn’t find them in local bookstores. That was one of the things I learned after the acceptance email that had me worried.

Then their email with the terms of their contracts came in, and I knew this press wasn’t for me. The deal breaker? Finishing Line said they do not pay royalties. I should qualify this. They say they won’t pay royalites unless pre-sales reach 500 copies. Only then, would you be considered for a royalty contract. Prior to this, your “payment” is in copies. Prepublication sales are the only factor in this. For the book to go to press, the author must pre-sell at least 75 copies. for 75-104 copies, the press run is 300 copies and the author receives 30 as payment. Pre-sales of 105-154, and the press run is 500 copies with 50 to the author. etc. Pre-sales of over 500 seems highly unlikely for a book of poems, so I suspect payment in copies is the only form of payment they do.

I’ve heard that pre-sales have become more and more important in the publishing industry and that they can influence the initial press run and even how much effort the publisher puts into marketing a book. So on one level, I get it. This doesn’t look all that unusual. The parts that I don’t get is that there are no royalties on any sales and that the publisher will accept a manuscript without committing to an initial press run regardless of prepublication sales.

Let’s think about that for a moment. The publisher is asking the author to go out and market the book before its published and before they have made a real investment. You’re expected to sell at least 75 copies, for which you receive no royalties. This gives you the right to sell 30 more copies and pocket the cash. If you sell them at the list price, you might earn close to $600. That sounds better than royalties, but let’s not forget that most book contracts include at least 20 author copies plus royalties, and often there is a provision to buy more copies before publication for a deep discount (and no royalties on these sales) of to buy additional copies at an author discount. Review copies or other complimentary copies could eat into that total.

I haven’t seen the actual contract, but the terms I was sent make no mention of an author discount. So the author has to hit up all of their friends and acquaintances to sell 105- 150 copies in order to guarantee a decent print run of 500 copies (this is poetry we’re talking about, so that amount is probably reasonable for a first run). By this point, the publisher has already gotten all the easy sales. At readings, if you work hard to line those up and pay your own transportation and lodging as needed, you might sell more copies, but you would only earn a profit if you sell the copies you were ‘paid.’ Bookstore sales would go to the publisher, and you would earn nothing for your efforts, not to mention the work put into your writing.

From what I’ve seen, it is unclear what if you discount the author receives when buying books after their initial ‘payment.’ But if there is not a significant discount for authors, you would be paying the publisher for your book, and it would be hard to earn a profit without charging more than the list price.

Then there is the question of customer service. I found several complaints by authors that those who preordered books did not receive them and had to complain to the publisher before they finally received books long after they were available online. To their credit, perhaps, Finishing Line has left these complaints on their Facebook page. Still, this does not bespeak a company that is committed to selling books.

On the other hand, the books they publish don’t look bad, judging by the covers. For a poet who thinks they can generate significant pre-sales and then still sell their ‘payment’ copies, it could be a good deal, though I would still argue that you should earn a royalty on every copy sold. I”m realistic. I know royalties from poetry will never be huge amounts. Nonetheless, that’s no reason to give up the royalties you deserve. Any publisher who doesn’t offer a standard royalty ought to be suspect. To me, it seems like they are trying to make money off the backs of poets who already face a difficult market. By basing their business model on pre-sales and no royalties, they encourage poets with acceptance, then get them to guarantee advance sales, but pay very little in return. I know there are much better options available, and I’m willing too keep looking.

2018 Milestones

c7ed24d8-1b1b-4364-9f31-7d483de36f04-1211-000001348bf41cf6_fileThe year is winding down, so I thought it would be fun to post a few highlights of 2018. Some I’ve written about, and some I’ve let pass without posting on the blog until now.

Personal Milestones

Kim and I have reached that big milestone of graduating our son, Aidan from high school at the Mississippi School for Math and Sciences, where he got one of the top educations in the country, and sending him off to Williams College for more of the same. He’s had a great first semester, becoming involved in campus life, making great friends, performing with the Berkshire Symphony, and even keeping up his grades. We’re very proud of him in so many ways.

img_2284Between his high school and college, we had a chance to take a family trip (with W honors students) to Peru. The picture is by the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. We also spent time in Lima, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Thanks to our friends at Perú Vivo for being our guides and taking us to two villages on Lake Titicaca and to the people we met there who were so welcoming!

Back stateside, our travels have taken us to see family in Alabama and Iowa, including a chance to meet my mother’s newest great-grandchild, Ira Hillman. We’ve also been to Williams twice: once to move Aidan in, and once for Family Days.

Writing Milestones

The biggest milestone this year for me has been finishing my fourth collection of poems. “Finishing” may need to be in quotes, as I keep tinkering with it, but I’ve been sending it out to publishers and had a copy printed for my mother. By finished, I mean that I have enough poems for a collection, and they work together well as a book, even though I’ve done dome rearranging and even added a poem or two since I printed the manuscript. Maybe next year, I’ll be able to announce a publisher, but don’t hold your breath—it can be a long process!

I’ve also published poems in Haiku Page, Asahi Haikuist Network, Tar Rive Poetry, and Ekphrastic Review. Naturally, many other publications have sent poems back to me, and I’m nearly as proud of the places I’ve submitted that didn’t accept my work as those that did. As I tell my students, you have to keep at it until the right poem reaches the right reader at the right time. There are so many variables and so much competition for space in journals that “rejection” (a word I prefer not to use) can’t be taken personally. I’ve had some good comments come back on my poems recently, even when they haven’t been selected, and that keeps you going.

Professional Milestones

The biggest change in my teaching career this year had been moving into a more administrative role. For the past 3 years, I’ve been directing our low-residency MFA program in creative writing. This year, I added department chair to my titles. I’ve taken on the role of chair for the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy, scheduling classes and managing the budget for our English, Spanish, Women’s Studies majors and Philosophy and Religious Studies minors. It also involves more committee meetings and mentoring more faculty. In the transition to this new role, we were also given permission to hire two new tenure-track faculty who will teach in both our MFA and undergraduate English programs. We’ve also started a search for a new Spanish professor, and I hired adjuncts in Latin and English and worked with dual-enrollment instructors in English and Spanish at three high schools. As a result of these changes in duties, I’ve passed the main responsibilities for Ponder Review on to my new colleague Brandy Wilson and for The Dilettanti on to Kris Lee, and I’m trying to cut back some on my advising and other duties wherever I can.

I was also happy to teach a couple of new graduate courses this year. In the spring, I developed the Translation Workshop, which was a lot of fun. We read some translations together and read essays on translation theory and practice. Students translated from German, Polish, Latin, and Spanish. This fall, I taught a new course on Feminist Poetry, starting with H.D. and Muriel Rukeyser (among other Modernist feminists) and covering second-wave and third-wave feminist poets. Response from students on both of these classes was good, and I hope to be able to teach them again soon.

I also led another successful Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium and Short Residency classs for our MFA program. This was the symposium’s 30th year and my 25th (as participant; 11th as director). It was great to bring Steve Yarbrough to campus again after several years and to work with many new and returning writers. Discussing their works with our students in the days leading up to the symposium adds a lot to the experience. Making connections with Southern writers and introducing our students to them is one way I combine the two sides of my professional life — teaching and writing.

All in All

2018 has been a great year in every way, and I’m looking forward to how all the things that have gotten started this year will play out in 2019.

Why I Love Editing a Lit Mag

Poetry_South_2018_frontcoverThere are a lot of good reasons to love editing a literary magazine: for one, you feel like you’re doing something for writers and readers by providing an outlet for talent and curating content for the public. That is certainly true about Poetry South, the magazine I am fortunate enough to edit with a small staff of students and alumni of our low-residency MFA program. And it is true of Ponder Review, the multi-genre magazine our program started to reflect the kinds of writing that we practice in our classes. But my reason for loving my role as editor of Poetry South is more selfish.

As editor, I have the enviable (and unenviable) job as final arbiter of whose poems are in and whose are out of the magazine. I read every submission, but I also have a staff who reads and votes, and often we disagree — not vehemently, but our votes aren’t all identical. Naturally, there are practical considerations of length and our page format that sometimes dictate whether a poem will fit our pages or whether we have room for another poem. There’s a balancing act to try to put together the best issue that we can from the submissions we receive, and I know there have been times when we’ve sent back very good poems.

Sometimes a reader has read too many poems when she or he gets to a poem that may be quite good, but because of everything that came before, her or his vision is clouded. That’s where the process helps. We try to have at least 2 and often 3 pairs of eyes on every poem. It’s not a democracy, though. Ultimately, a decision has to be made, and that’s what I love — not the power of making the decision, but the responsibility.

An assistant editor may have loved a poem that I passed over on an initial read. Maybe two other readers liked it, and I didn’t. This challenges me to reread and rethink the decision. Or the opposite may occur, where I loved a poem (or liked it — maybe in a generous moment) and it got voted down by one or two other readers. In either case, I end up reading the poem two or three times, and I have to justify my final decision.

Yes, I change my mind, swayed both for and against poems that I voted for or against in my initial read. Often you notice things the second time around that you didn’t notice initially — reading for a magazine is an imperfect art. I learn as much when my mind isn’t changed as when it is.

To make these decisions is to constantly reevaluate and challenge myself about what I think about poetry. Yes, sometimes a theme or a voice develops for an issue and that’s why you make the decisions you do, but often what you learn is more about what you value in a poem. I’ve learned, for instance, that I like a poem with a good narrative, but that I want a poem with more than a narrative: it has to have rich sounds and be said in such a way that I can’t imagine another way to say it. I like a poem that challenges my sense of form and structure, but I want that poem to also have something to say. And I’ve learned that I can’t second guess what I like because just when I do, a poem will come along that challenges all of those preconceptions and still manages to amaze.

I love editing a literary magazine because I get to read so much poetry — not just the poetry that we decide to publish, but also those poems we decide to send back. And I learn from it all. Perhaps more than anything, I learn just how many different poets are out there, and how many different kinds of poetry they write, and how much passion each brings to their art. And I can’t help hoping they’ll all get published. If our little magazine isn’t the right fit for them this time, I suspect they’ll find the right place at the right time soon enough.

But for those we do publish, when I start compiling contributors notes and find out who the poets are — we tend to read fairly blind — I love seeing that we publish some poets with multiple books and many magazine publications to their name, and that we also publish poets for their first or second time. It’s nice to know we have a good mix of experience, age, background, etc., and that it all comes together between two covers to form a cohesive whole. Within those pages, we introduce these disparate voices to one another, and we hope we create something new and valuable in the process.

A Writer’s Craft makes Poets & Writers

Untitled-2.inddOkay, I’ll admit it. Sometimes I search on my name or the title of one of my books. It’s not just vanity. Some days it can be useful to see what’s online about me or my work, and today was one of those days. Since I’d given away some exam copies of A Writer’s Craft at the AWP conference in Tampa, I thought I’d see if anyone had posted about it without my knowing. Instead, I found that Poets & Writers had included it in their list of Best Books for Writers, along with a short review that begins: “Either as an introduction or as a refresher, A Writer’s Craft serves as a straightforward guide to the broad world of creative writing.”

Here’s how Poets & Writers describes the list: “From the newly published to the invaluable classic, our list of essential books for creative writers.” I feel humbled and honored to have been added to such a prestigious list, and I’m very grateful for their positive review!

More Advice for Poets

This is a follow-up post to the one I made recently about Poetry Submissions. This week, I placed two poems in Valley Voices, and on the recommendation of editor John Zheng, I sent 3 haiku to Asahi Haikuist Network who took them for upcoming issues in October and next May.

What I learned from this (or was reminded of) is that it is good to form friendships and connections with other editors. Without John’s suggestion, I might not have found Asahi Haikuist Network, which I’m now glad to be able to read and to publish in. Haiku isn’t the main style of poetry that I write, but I suspect that reading more will inspire me to write more. I have a series of haiku that I worked on for my 4th manuscript and may continue to add to. Most were published in Poetry South when John was the editor, but these newer ones hadn’t found a home until now (and I hadn’t sent them out until now).

The other lesson I discovered about submitting poetry is to put your best poems first. That may seem obvious, but in reading submissions I am often surprised by the number of poets who don’t do that — or maybe they think they are doing it, and I just don’t like Poem 1 as much as Poem 4. You do your best and you should try to put the best poem for the magazine you’re submitting to first — the order may change depending on where you’re submitting.

Often in a submission, I treat it like a mini-collection. Most journals want 3-5 poems, so that’s less than a cycle, but there’s still probably a logic to the poems you send out together. I hope a journal might pick up more than one, but I still feel the submission is stronger if I send related poems. Now and then, though, especially for a magazine I’m not as familiar with, I will send a fairly random group of poems. Still, I want the tone to be about the same (humorous or deep, for instance). Thematically, the poems may be different, but something should connect them.

I want an editor to like the group of poems I’ve sent and even to consider accepting all of them. I know the reality is that an editor will then choose the poem or maybe 2 poems they like the best, but giving a good total impression will help sway the decision in the favor of the 1-2 poems they like best.

Having one of those poems first in the submission file is imperative. A reader may not make it past Poem 1, and if they do, their opinion of the poet will be colored by the poem they read first, so the subsequent ones may not get as close attention if Poem 1 doesn’t strike a chord. I know that’s true for me when I’m reading. It’s only human nature and is influenced by the sheer bulk of submissions any reader for a magazine is likely to encounter.

Making a decision about the oder of poems in a submission is part of taking the proper care to submit work that is polished, proofread, and carefully revised. It’s part of the process that an editor will appreciate. And if all the poems in a submission packet are of roughly equal quality (I know as the writer it can be hard to make those determinations), then each poem should build on the previous one and lead into the next. Consider your submission as a whole and not as individual pieces of paper that you’ve thrown out into the wind.

How A Writer’s Craft Came to Be.

img_0354Today, I received copies of my introductory 4-genre creative writing textbook, A Writer’s Craft, hot off the presses in both hardback and paperback. So it seemed like a good time to reflect back on how I got to this point.

When I began the project, I wasn’t planning on publishing a textbook; in fact, the initial writing that eventually became the book were the notes I created for my creative writing class. First, I wrote notes to fill in the gaps in the textbooks I was using or to complement, and at times even argue with, the way that information was presented in each book.

Eventually, after using three or four different texts and finding none that really met my need, and after thinking about how much material of my own I brought to the table, I decided it was time to leave a textbook behind and work from my own notes. Still, I wanted to give students something: something to read before class so they would be prepared, something to study from for their tests, something to take with them after the class was over. I realized I didn’t want to abandon a textbook altogether; I wanted to create my own. But I wasn’t seriously thinking about publishing one. Maybe in the back of my mind, I thought it could happen, if it turned out to be useful.

So I sat down with my notes and thought about the order that I really wanted to present my material in. I thought about the things from different textbooks that weren’t in the one I was using. I thought about the things in my notes that I had added over the years, some of which I wasn’t able to cover with the book I had just been using, some of which I had found a way to slip in. I thought about what I wouldn’t want to do that these authors did.

And then I started writing, trying as much as possible to take my own path and not to be too heavily influenced by others. If one textbook used a term that no one else did, I tried to avoid it. Naturally, standard literary terms like simile or point of view weren’t at issue, but I tried to give my own take on all the material presented, then I cross-checked to make sure I wasn’t borrowing from others.

These notes, I posted in the online course shell (first in Blackboard and then in Canvas) for my class in a few formats: pdf, epub, mobi, and as part of the discussion area. Students began using them (I’m not sure which format was most popular, though I suspect pdf was, since everyone has Adobe Reader), and the class went pretty well.

Because it wasn’t a flop — not too much of a surprise, since I’ve been teaching for over 20 years — and because I often hear people complaining about textbooks, especially the cost, I sent a copy of the finished notes to a couple of friends to teach creative writing with one question: do you think there would be a demand for a book like this? Their answer was a resounding yes. Of course, they are friends, but I did feel they would have told me if they thought it wouldn’t be well received.

So the next time I taught the course, I revised my notes based on the previous year’s experiences. I took my students’ comments into consideration and tried to add more on creative nonfiction and drama, for instance, and I fixed a few things that didn’t work as well as I wanted them to. Then, at AWP I approached a friend of a friend who edits a series of books on creative writing pedagogy. I didn’t think he would be able to publish a textbook, but I thought he might have some ideas. He agreed to read the manuscript, and ultimately recommended it to Palgrave.

There were a few missed connections along the way — emails that went astray, queries about whether there had been a response, copies of the manuscript that disappeared into the ether (not my only copy, just ones I sent out), but eventually Palgrave said they were interested in seeing a full book proposal, and since they had already reviewed the manuscript, it wouldn’t be necessary to resubmit it.

I had already filled out some book proposals for a couple of other textbook publishers (who didn’t bite), so I already had some ideas on the market for intro creative writing textbooks and how mine was different. It didn’t take too long to put everything in Palgrave’s format and fill in the gaps where they asked for information I hadn’t thought of already.

Pretty soon, they accepted the proposal and then sent the manuscript out for peer review. Their reviewers gave comments, I responded, and we negotiated how much revision would be necessary for the final draft. Essentially it boiled down to making the manuscript more accessible for an international market (since Palgrave is based in the UK and also markets to Australia) and adding in a few fairly minor things. I also proposed adding another chapter and an appendix to account for a few issues that were raised. They sent me a contract. I signed it, and then had about 3 months to write the revisions.

That was intense, but I managed to do it, adding things like the glossary and list of references, and preparing to add an index once the actual pages were ready. The final draft went to a company in India for proofreading and final editing, so the next 3-4 months were spent responding to their suggested changes, negotiating punctuation (English or American rules, and how to apply them), and working some on the design once we got to the stage of doing final proofs on the pdfs.

One issue that came up was how to format the writing exercises at the end of each chapter. We settled on using a numbered list to make it clear where one exercise begins and ends, and also to make them easier to assign for instructors. I had the idea to use the nib image from the cover, miniaturized and in black, as a marker at the beginning of the exercise sections. It was a nice way to pull that detail in and tie the book together, and it separated the text of each chapter from the end matter. Palgrave did a great job of implementing that idea — and the cover design, which one of their artists hand sketched, is gorgeous. I also love the way they brought that design onto the back cover.

back coverSince then, I’ve been waiting for my books to arrive, working on the companion website, and trying to generate some interest.

As I look back on it, I realize it took a ton of work to get to this point — mine, friends’ (thank you for reading and giving me comments!), Palgrave’s, and the production company’s. It hardly seems possible from this vantage point, yet over the four years since I started this project, I’ve taken it one step at a time, and each step didn’t seem so daunting as I did it. Of course, in the meantime, I also published a book of poems, kept busy starting a low-residency MFA program, and taught my other classes at Mississippi University for Women! It’s been a wild ride, and I’m happy to start the next phase with books in hand.