Yesterday I moderated a panel on publishing at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program’s winter residency. The panel featured current faculty members Randall Kenan, Venise Berry, David Yoo, Mark Turcotte, and Anne-Marie Oomen.
I’ll try to summarize, here, some of the general points the panel made during the hour-long event (remembered as best as I can, as I was moderating and not taking notes):
The publishing industry is currently in flux, but at least one panel member noted that it has always been in flux in one way or another. The panelists differed somewhat in their opinions on how, or whether, writers should consider current trends in publishing when approaching their own work. Some panelists felt that it was best to follow your own creative impulses and goals without focusing too much, at least initially, on your work’s potential to be published. But at least one panelist countered that it was actually very important to be in tune with current trends and technology in order to have the best chance at placing your work. One of the changes noted was that in the past self-publishing was generally frowned upon, while now it is considered by many to be an important option for new writers who are having trouble finding a publisher. Anne-Marie Oomen noted that before she initially published her own work, she asked selected professionals to review the project and deem it publication-worthy.
All of the panelists seemed to agree that submitting shorter works (poems, short stories, or essays) to literary journals was an important first step for most new writers — a useful way to break into publishing and gain some recognition before trying to place a book-length manuscript. The career of one panelist, Venise Berry, was the exception in the sense that Venise’s first publishing experience was with her first full-length novel, So Good. Berry noted (as an example of how publishing trends can affect your luck with a manuscript) that the novel was accepted after a friend let her know that the industry was anxious to capitalize on the popularity of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale by publishing similarly themed books.
Mark Turcotte told a somewhat shocking story about an incident in his earlier career. He and his then-wife had lost a child, and someone in the industry called to ask if he were interested in writing a book of “grief poems.” He turned the person down, wondering, “What type of empty vessel I would have to be” to capitalize on his personal tragedy on demand in that way. This story prompted a discussion on the difference between work that is written on demand in the right circumstances and inappropriate requests from agents or publishers.
When an audience member later asked how to determine where to submit (because there are so many literary journals), David Yoo suggested that writers submit to the journals that they really love first, and avoid the belief that their work will never be accepted in the more prestigious journals. But he also noted the importance of submitting to a variety of journals and not just targeting each piece to one journal at a time, because of the lengthy wait that usually occurs between submission and response. (As an aside, some literary journals still prefer or require non-simultaneous submissions, and it is important to honor their policy, but many journals today do accept simultaneous submissions.) Although David Yoo maintained that the submission process is often a crap shoot, and an acceptance can depend on what an anonymous reader had for lunch on the day he or she read your piece (a comment which elicited a number of nods in agreement) Venise Berry noted that she likes to get a feel for a journal by reading a number of issues and determining if there is a pattern among the accepted pieces. She recommended submitting to journals that publish work that is in line with the piece being submitted.
Another topic that came up, and that often comes up in publishing forums for new writers, was the idea and process of landing an agent. Anne-Marie Oomen explained that she has never had an agent, and would only make the effort to find one at a point when her time wasn’t so booked up with teaching and other projects. Randall Kenan noted that by not having an agent, Oomen was saving herself the 20% (or whatever) of author income that goes to the agent. Randall noted that if you think that an agent is what you see on “Entourage,” you won’t find that in the literary world. It’s important, he explained, to decide what you’re looking for in an agent (one who will hold your hand through every phase of your manuscript’s development, for example, or one who will expect a finished product on his or her desk?) before you try to find one. David Yoo noted that although he found an agent relatively early in his career, the agent turned out to specialize in an area that wasn’t appropriate for his book, so the arrangement wasn’t particularly helpful. It’s important, he stressed, to find an agent who focuses on young adult fiction (for example) if that’s what you’re writing. Randall noted that he was often surprised to hear that writers were looking for agents before they even had a completed manuscript. “Don’t put the horse before the….” he said, before an audience member called out the word “carriage” and he started laughing. Mixed-up metaphors are a product of Randall’s stream-of-consciousness discussion style, he explained.
The hour went by quickly, so quickly that we hardly had time for questions from the audience at the end. But I think everyone learned a lot about the basics of pursuing those first publications. Of course, there’s a tremendous amount to learn and navigate when it comes to the publishing world, and I’m sure if we’d had another hour or more, the panel would have had much more to share.
If I’ve remembered anything incorrectly, forgive me — and feel free to post additions or corrections in the comment section!