Saturday, November 1, 2008

My year of submitting a book length MS to small presses

As I mentioned, having really enjoyed reading Shane Jones's post of the process of submitting his novel LIGHT BOXES, and the amount of time, attention, correspondence, and ultimately often hopeless-seeming seeking involved in finding a publisher for a book length manuscript, I thought I'd write about my SCORCH ATLAS in the same way. As competitive as book publication is, I put myself through some kind of method or routine that at least partially managed to keep me borderline sane over the almost exactly 1 year period it took me to finally place the book (which, in the scheme of things, is quite short). I'm not claiming to be an expert of any sort now, but I do know the things I went through, and perhaps the thinking would be interesting or useful in some way.

I didn't do this kind of post with my novella EVER, as I was lucky enough with it to have a specific place (Calamari Press) in mind when I assembled the book (though not quite during the process of writing it: EVER, in a way, was an accident), and so really with EVER I only ever sent the manuscript to one place. I think perhaps that's one of the big elements in this process: the matter of knowing who you are sending to and what they are interested in publishing. While some houses have a huge array and could dip in most anywhere, many, and especially in the small press zone, have very clearly defined tastes and aesthetics. This was probably a mistake I made with SCORCH ATLAS, in that at a certain I was kind of throwing it around anywhere I could just to try to find someone, anyone, that would take it, which in the long run was really just asking for more grief and hopeless waiting for an almost assured NO. So, reading books from small presses, knowing what they are looking for, and having a very focused menu when it comes to who you send to, to me, is one of the big lessons learned.

I wrote the bulk of the words in SCORCH ATLAS from July 07 to November 07. I can very vividly remember writing the first sentences of the first story (which ended up as the last story in the book) at my desk in the loft I'd just moved into with a certain record I'd just acquired very loud inside the room. Something about the tone and texture of the music pushed these words out of me in a way I'd never written, and it kind of caught fire in me. There forward I wrote one story at a time, working 6-8 hours a day for 7-15 days straight on each story. After the first draft, I would then revise the revise the story over and over until I felt it was done, then I mailed it out to magazines, then immediately began the next. During this time I mailed each story I wrote to between 10-20 places at a time, obsessively resending another copy out when I received a rejection so that each story was always out to the same # of places. My submission log from this year is almost nauseating: 2007 alone takes up 11 pages of an MS word file with one sub on each line in 10 point font. This practice, I guess, is how I was able to place so many stories in such a short span: I was insane.

I hadn't written the stories with any intended sort of collection in mind, though at a certain point I realized that they all were of a mode and almost naturally made a book. I compiled an early draft of the collection and sent it to the agent I had at the time, who said it was my best work but that he didn't think he'd be able to sell such a strange book as a collection, especially considering the hesitancy of big presses to take on literary nonlinear-novels, or even literary novels for that matter. He wanted me to make the stories fit together in a more linear way, to connect them and add stuff to make it a full-on novel. I told him I was going to shop the book myself. I immediately began querying places that accepted unsolicited, open non-fee read subs or queries, which in and of itself was a bit of a process. The # of presses that aren't open, or are open for very slim bits of the year, becomes a pretty short list quickly, though it seems there are enough together that over time you have a decent array of options.

The first two places I sent were Dzanc Books and Featherproof. They both allowed electronic subs of a portion of the book, and I had read and liked the books the presses put out, so I sent the first few sections of the book to both. Dzanc ended up not too long after changing their policy on collections to a contest only (they still read novel length works etc. all year), so no direct response came from that, but about a month after I sent the preview Featherproof said they liked the glimpse and please send the rest. I sent them the full MS then, though it would be a long wait before anything more came from there.

I sent to McSweeney's who wrote back w/in 4 months about only being able to do a few titles a year, thanks but no thanks etc. For as much as they probably get sent, they seem to do a really good job responding to everyone in time.

Through a friend I sent to FC2, who read a glimpse and asked for the whole ms, but then after 4 months or so reported that their readers had really enjoyed certain stories but that overall the ms was too languagey which I found odd considering the history of FC2 (and the fact that the book isn't anywhere near as languagey as most of what they release, which made me wonder about their readers), but nonetheless I was glad to have gotten such a close read from as important a press as them.

I sent the first 50 pp to Hawthorne books, who asked for the rest, and ended up getting passed on from the main reader to the boss, who ultimately said she wished she knew how to market a collection of such a nature, but had to pass, and would love to see a novel if I had one in the future.

I received a very nice phone call on the full ms at Melville House, who said basically the same thing as Hawthorne.

The word 'bleak' was used a lot.

In Feb I met Featherproof at AWP and they recognized my name without me mentioning the ms, which was nice. They said they were really into the book and wanted to talk to me about it very soon. This got me excited, but it would still be a long time before I heard anything (7 months or so), while they continued figuring out certain elements and etc., before it came to light.

Between Dec and June I sent queries and/or samples that came back with form rejections to Coffee House Books, Soft Skull, Milkweed Editions, and a handful more I can't think of right now.

I got quick and nice personal rejections from Bellevue Literary Press, BOA Editions, Turtle Point Press.

I sent queries that were never answered at all to: Small Beer Press, Ghost Road Press, Clear Cut Press, Four Walls Eight Windows, Impetus Press, Exact Change, Verso Books, and probably several others I also can't remember, as at some point I stopped writing it down.

I queried a ton of places that had vague or missing info on their sites and got a range of answers.

During this time I started getting antsy and weird about the book, alternating some days between not wanting to write anymore and manic. I didn't sleep a lot, mainly because the various threads of possibilities that could turn into a yes kept me wanting to check my email at all hours, and when I did get in bed I would lay awake thinking about what I could do, or how to get an answer faster. Some days I felt violent enough to withdraw the MS from everywhere and go get a job as a programmer or something. I really was obsessed and manic most days and would think about my email when I could not be near the computer. If the phone rang from an out of state unrecognized # I would feel a surge of blood as if it were a publisher calling, even as much as I knew it wasn't.

My Gmail chats with other writer friends often got bleak and fuck-offish. I think I told Ryan Call I wasn't going to write anymore and that writing was for fucks probably 15 different times. Shane Jones and I several times had long angry discussions about fuck this fuck that why are we doing this who the fuck do we think we are what the fuck.

I have to sort of laugh at myself on this now but really the process can feel like a knife in the gut. The more you can keep your wits about you and remember that its a long road and that no matter how much you obsess it will not change the pace, the better chance you have of not throwing your body into traffic.

Keith Montesano's reading and helping me see how to fix the MS in small ways, not to mention his insistence on the book's strength and how I should stay vigilant about it, were hugely helpful and important to me. I think he's the only person I ever showed the book to with the intent of talking about it, outside of publishers.

At a certain point I think I kind of turned off and set myself on auto pilot and decided that I would try to think about it as little as possible, and that what was meant to happen would happen, maybe, something.

My main way of unfocusing on the seemingly neverending wait during the whole thing was to KEEP WRITING. The more I was able to dissolve myself in other projects, other novels, the less I had time and energy to worry. That's probably the other major lesson I learned as far as this goes: that if you know the book is strong, you must keep writing, you must keep your head as focused on doing more in the meantime, while keeping your fingers out in the waters searching. It's a long process, a very long process, and if you fixate entirely on the process of publication rather than remembering to keep your eye on the work itself, new work, then you will go fucking bonkers and end up giving up.

I could say something now about how we should write because it is fun, because we get pleasure out of it, but anyone who has been around long enough to get to a certain point already knows this. It's worth reiterating briefly though. It's sometimes hard to remember why you're in it at all, and if you're not enjoying yourself, you should take a break and do something else, and maybe remember your approach. It's a very weird game, the making of your 'art' into a form to be processed and considered by others, and you can't let it become overriding to the point that you hate what you used to love, which I almost let it do.

During the summer I had nice dealings with a couple of other newer small presses that I knew well enough to query personally but in each case they were over their heads with the books they already had lined up.

Calamari Press read and said that though they liked the stories, together it wasn't the kind of 'book object' they normally release, at which point I assembled EVER, which I had written right after finishing the last story in SCORCH, and not really realized at the time that it was pretty much done.

I sent to Keyhole Books and had strong interest from them, though things there were still getting hammered out as to how the press would launch, and we continued to discuss it over a period while things there got hammered out. Keyhole was super awesome about keeping me up to date about where they were at, and their enthusiasm for the book.

This possibility, pronged with the resolution of a few of the possibilities above, kind of came to a fruition at the same time, when both Keyhole and Featherproof both said they wanted to do the book within like a week of one another, after about a year of searching. This was a really bizarre (and great) moment for me, having spent so long in search and then ending up with two very viable places. I thought a lot and hard and long on what I wanted to do, and in the end Peter from Keyhole said he thought he should bow out of the decision, and let the decision be easy and enjoyable for me, and that he would read more in the future. This move on Peter's part, I can't say enough, was so valiant and inspiring, to see how much he cared not only about the book, but about my comfort level. I still hope one day that I can do a book with those guys because everything about the dealing with them left me feeling really happy and positive about small presses, and people in general.

It's funny too, how during the year I spent working and obsessing daily about this thing, more than a few times I was told by other, more experienced authors that this time of transition and formation in looking for that first book publication is a period unlike any other, and often one people look back to as a wonderful and almost wanted-for experience again. At the time, that sounded like handjob b/s to me, and that how could anybody want to be in that mode, but really, looking back (and it's easier to say when looking back), it really was a formative experience in which I felt a certain kind of energy about me that even already I feel myself kind of missing.

Anyway, fuck, lord, I've gone on way longer than I meant to with this. Hopefully it has some kind of bead of method in it that someone who is preparing to send their own books in the same way could get something out of. It's funny how alone you feel in a process that has been replicating itself for forever, and though it may seem like a fuck in the ass a lot of the time, really right now is a good time for books, and it's more in the right hands than it has ever been probably or something. I'm going to go drink coffee.


Keith said...

This is great.

j. a. tyler said...


thanks for sharing.

makes me feel a bit better about my own fruitless searches, though featherproof has yet to come calling for me : )


thanks ya'llz

Brooklyn said...

I like this post. I've had a similar experience with a novel, but with an agent shopping them to larger publishing houses. She's a lovely lady, and she forwarded on all fifteen editors' rejections to me, and they were all nice and said lovely things about my writing. There are a lot of wonderful people who care about books working in places where they can't be hands-on enough. As for me, I haven't been able to write a decent sentence, fiction-wise, since. Most of those ladies are on Facebook. It weirds me out to see one of them cheesing it up in their profile photo- I think, "Wow. You're the one from so-and-so who "passed" on my novel!"

Small presses are amazing. I won't say better fiction gets published with smaller presses because, while that may have been true once, and while the idea of a small press is a very noble one, a lot of shit gets published with smaller presses, too. I appreciate the direct contact with publishers, though. I have nothing but warm, fuzzy feelings for the agents and editors who've gone to bat for my work, but there's a big can-do feeling that goes along with talking with the publisher directly.

I'm very happy for you, Blake, and I wish you every success-- I hope things go smoothly and it's all a big, lovely legend that you can tell young writers when you're sixty years old, etc.


DOGZPLOT said...

good stuff here blake. and again. congrats.

i think another thing that is useful, at least it was for me in getting THE NATIONAL VIRGINITY PLEDGE accepted. every time i got a story published i always asked the editor if they knew of any small presses who were looking for manuscripts of the kinds of stories i was writing, and that's how i found my publisher. sometimes its just a matter of asking around to different people who may have ideas. that may or may not be useful to anyone here, but it helped me.


that is good advice barry. knowing people or getting refered by people is or can be huge.

when is TNVP coming out?

Matt DeBenedictis said...

This was a great read. Thanks for spilling out the recap of your work.

ryan call said...

i recall fondly our gchats

DOGZPLOT said...

TNVP will be out the first week in february. not sure if you are familiar with another sky press but you should check em out. they are doing some pretty cool shit. i think ja tyler has something coming up with them.

looking forward to EVER and SA. again, congrats. i feel like saying it thirty five fucking times. congrats x 35.

and thats to everyone who's out there writing and sending stuff out and people who are publshing stuff that people are sending out. congrats to all you fuckers. i feel like tiny tim after uncle scrooge gave him the turkey.


thanks matt


barry, nice, yes, i will be on the looksoutsts

Marcos said...

Excellent post, Blake. I am in awe of the energy and committment you have for the submission process.

Ani Smith said...

Bleak and unmarketable. I can't wait to put it in front of my eyes. I bet it will tickle.

You said you wrote eight hours a day - do you also work? How did you support yourself throughout that time? You seem to have boundless energy (and not just the caffeinated kind).


thanks marcos, i think i used it all up

ani, ty. i freelance mostly and have a small business that pretty much runs itself, i can manage my time pretty much however i want, BONUS

Lily Hoang said...

great post, blake. you're dedicated in amazing, crazy ways... ways that i'm embarrassed that i'm not.

i guess seeing your pub list, i assumed you've had it easy in the small press world, that they've basically opened their arms to hold you gently while crying to themselves. i'm sorry i thought that, but really, huzzah a thousand times over. i think you found the perfect press. i can't wait to see both books!



thanks lily. i imagine it never gets easy. a fun parade. ;) you are a good example of how one should operate.

Luca Dipierro said...

This is probably the best thing I've ever read about submitting a manuscript. Thanks, Blake

Fat Roland said...

Wow, gosh, blimey. I'm glad I'm not the only manic one.


thanks luca

wow gosh blimeyz

Molly Gaudry said...

He's human, after all! This is a terrific post. Thanks for sharing, Blake. I'm going to go read Shane's now.

Peter Cole said...

thanks blake and many congrats

burning like a fire in Cairo said...

Fuck em all is what I say. That's why I started calamari. I just finished final proof of EVER flying here from Rome. Consider yourself warned.

peter b. said...

i quit

BlogSloth said...

One of your most helpful posts ever, for me.

I have a 36,000 word manuscript and not sure how to proceed. Just your list of presses helps me, but your process--ups, downs-sideways--is very helpful.

I thank thee and congrats.

I will see your ass in Chicago. I will buy you beer. You will buy me a better one.



thanks sean. beer for sure. there are lots of other presses too, that i have sent other things to. i could drop you a list if it would help

hezekiah said...

blake, honestly, inspiring. it's been a while since i read shane's post but i remember being more than a little annoyed. seeing as how he seemed to just send it out en masse without doing much research. but i guess his story is also a cautionary tale. your effort sounds much more concerted and i'm glad that your book is being published. can't wait to read it.


thank you hezekiah, that is nice