This article originally appear in Women Writers, Women’s Books on September 23, 2014
As Heidi Klum says on Project Runway, either you’re in, or your out. The world of publishing works this way, too. There are barriers and hurdles to get over, doors to walk through, people who welcome you, and those who turn their backs.
This is the story of how I got in, and why some say I’m still out.
Most of my career has been spent as a short story writer. I sent my first story out for consideration in 1986. Back then there was no internet, no online publishing presence, no e-books. The market for short fiction was divided into the “big” magazines, those with a national circulation like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Redbook, and Harper’s;and the small presses or little magazines, some of which like the Paris Review had been around for a while and had really solid reputations. Many were run by university English departments, and as such showed a strong inclination to publish work written by their own faculty, colleagues at other universities, and students in their MFA programs. I didn’t have an MFA, and I wasn’t a professor, and so was out on that basis (and that my work wasn’t good enough, yet).
Most of my rejections were pre-printed on tiny slips of paper. But some were hand-written notes from the editor herself. I was told where my story succeeded, where it failed, or why it couldn’t be included in their journal, quite often because they’d recent published a piece that was similar to mine. A couple of those notes came from The New Yorker, but the author remained anonymous. These personal notes proved that although I wasn’t quite there, I was just outside the door. Then my first offer of publication came, from the Virginia Quarterly Review, a little magazine, but a very high quality one! Finally, I was in.
With the rise of online literary magazines, two things happened. The response time to my submissions was greatly reduced, and when a story was accepted and published, my readership increased. The little magazines were indeed little, often with a circulation of fewer than two thousand subscribers. The online venues reached a lot more people, which was a very good thing. I published quite a number of stories online, and was very glad to do so.
But some people said these venues weren’t really legit because they didn’t pay authors for their work. The quality of the writing there came under suspicion, too. Yet writers with lots of publication credits were appearing alongside the first-timers and the barely-theres. The journal, Eclectica, is a case in point. It’s been around since 1996, under the supervision of Tom Dooley. I came on board two years ago, and let me tell you, we publish very prominent people.
Then, after winning some contests and publishing close to thirty short stories, I was ready to put the best ones together and call it a collection – an actual book! Another three years went by before it was accepted by a traditional press. All The Roads That Lead From Home was my crowning achievement and the delight of my career, until my publisher began bashing me because my sales were so poor. He even refused to look at my second story collection. What riled me is that All The Roads one a silver medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards in the short story category – beating out Steve Almond’s God Bless America, which took the bronze. So, I was in, in terms of the award and the book itself, but I was still out in terms of sales.
I found another publisher for the second book, a linked collection called Our Love Could Light The World. The publisher is She Writes Press. They’re not traditional, in that they ask the author to pay publication costs. In return, the author keep between 70% and 80% of the royalties, depending on whether the sale is print or electronic, as compared to the typical 15%. They are traditional because they don’t take all comers. You have to have a good book to get in. Another difference between SWP and my first, traditional publisher, is that I had complete control of the choice of cover design. This was huge. The first time around, I was given a cover image and told, “here you go!” I wasn’t wild about it, but there was no room for discussion.
Now I’ve got a novel coming out next month – my first! SWP is my publisher once more. I’m thrilled, over the moon, and well, you get the picture. I went recently to my profile page on Poets & Writers, wanting to update my directory listing with my two SWP titles. I received an automated message back saying that SWP wasn’t on their approved list of publishers. Hm. I’m out, again? I wrote P&W asking that SWP be added. It’s a vetted press, we’re distributed through Ingram. What more does anyone want when deciding if we’re in or not? Some places, like NewPages.com, won’t list SWP titles in their new books category because the author pays for production cost. When I published traditionally the first time around, I had to pay all of my own promotional and marketing expenses, and that was okay, but paying for the book itself wasn’t?
The publishing landscape is in flux these days, but one thing is the same – there are people in that world who want to be able to go on saying, no matter what, that I – and countless others, no doubt – are still out.
Doesn’t matter, really. I know I’ve finally passed through the gate.