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Where to Turn?

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Most how-to-publish books are garbage. I’ve mentioned one or two that I like but the vast majority of them provide nothing more in-depth than “target the publishers you submit your work to… don’t submit your horror gorefest about alien foot fungus to Harlequin Romances” and so-called advice like that. I’ve got a shelf full of these snake oil texts and they don’t help at all. So what we’re going to try and do with Slushpile is look at some circumstances you might find yourself in, explore those situations, talk to the experts, and try to really find out some useful information. If there’s anything you’re dying to know, let me know and I’ll see what I can find out. So here we go…

In many ways, trying to publish a book is like trying to get a date when you’re fifteen years old. None of us want to admit it now, particularly the guys out there, but the reality is that everyone reading this has, at one point or another, played a message on an answering machine 16 times, applying FBI level forensic research and John Edward psychic ability trying to figure out some hidden message. Homeland Security experts don’t analyze purported audio tapes from Osama bin Laden as closely as teenagers trying to pick up some hint in a voice. “She said she couldn’t go out with me because she had to study, so that means she would like to hook up some other time, right? Or does she just not want to go out at all?”

Publishing can drive otherwise sane and well-adjusted adults to this same level of search for hidden meaning. Last fall, I did all the things that the so-called advice books suggested: I targeted a publisher, put together my query letter, included the tenuous connections I had, and mailed it off addressed to the specific editor, not just Fiction Editor or whatever. After a short wait, I received a letter back from the editor rejecting my manuscript. Or was it really a rejection? A couple of months after that letter, this kind editor was generous enough to participate in an interview where she explains exactly what it means when an editor says she can’t go out with you because she has to wash her hair.

Ms. Seetha Srinivasan is the Director of the University Press of Mississippi and she is also responsible for handling their fiction submissions. She was the editor that responded to my query by saying “Our press has an extremely small fiction program, and I regret to inform you that we have a backlog of titles that preclude the possibility of our considering [my manuscript]. I am sorry to tell you this, but it would not be fair to tie up consideration of your manuscript by other publishers.”

As I stood there by the mailbox reading her letter, all these questions popped in my mind, and recently Ms. Srinivasan was kind enough to answer those questions. Of course, she was only speaking for her specific publishing company, but there are probably some commonalities with other university presses. And Ms. Srinivasan’s company has a much larger nonfiction program so that genre is much more open than fiction.

My first question, as I held the rejection and the envelope in my hands, was “is this backlog a real thing or is this a polite way of rejecting a proposal?” Ms. Srinivasan responded that it is indeed true that they really are swamped and can’t review my manuscript. “We do get many, many more fiction proposals than we can even begin to consider,” she said. The Press publishes just two fiction books a year, so the cold yet understandable reality is that my query would have to hit an editor with the shock of an unexpected death to get any attention.

Then, as I went through the usual range of emotions and thoughts well-known to all aspiring authors, I snarled that “if JK Rowling came calling, I bet they would find time and room to read the manuscript.” Once again, the harsh, but understandable reality is that “yes, there is wriggle room but it would have to be truly extraordinary,” Ms. Srinivasan said. She pointed out that exceptions can always be made, such as the time that the University Press of Mississippi published homegrown writer Ellen Gilchrist’s novel Anabasis: A Journey to the Interior at a time when the publisher didn’t even have a fiction program. To continue the point, Ms. Srinivasan mentioned my old professor Barry Hannah from Ole Miss and said “if someone like him sent us a manuscript, then yes, we’d be interested in it.”

All writers, and degenerate gamblers, know that as soon as you get over the initial shock and frustration at a rejection, you immediately start planning your comeback. “So if they’re rejecting my work because they have this backlog, then I can submit it again in the future, after the pile-up has cleared out, right?” Ms. Srinivasan disapproves of that technique, once again citing the incredibly small amount of fiction they publish. With only two titles going to press each year, that logjam is going to be there for a while. “With nonfiction, re-submit if we have read the manuscript and made recommendations. Or if a nonfiction manuscript has been substantially revised. With fiction, I would say no,” she said.

At times like these, it seems almost impossible to find a market to try. Having your work rejected because it is not good enough is a fact of life for writers. It is part of the apprenticeship period you have to go through. Deal with it, get over it, move on, write better. But what do you do when you can’t even get someone to look at your manuscript? When you can’t even get a chance to be considered? Ms. Srinivasan points out that “persistence is the first quality someone has to bring to this enterprise. You just have to keep trying.” She suggests that authors constantly be on the look-out for any opportunity to publish. “Even if it is in a local magazine, whatever that forum, don’t reject the opportunity, because you just don’t know what might catch someone’s eye,” she says.

When I started this article, I had hoped to give you the answer. The exit from the maze. The place to turn. The reality is that I don’t guess there is one. The major publishers often won’t accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts and the small ones often don’t have the capacity to consider it. But you still have to keep trying. There are basketball analysts who say the mark of a good scorer is not how many shots you make, but how many shots you take. Number of attempts is the key statistic here.

Keep looking for small, independent publishers. They are out there and some of them will consider your work. Keep trying to find an agent so you can approach the major NYC publishers. And above all else, keep working on the writing. Without polished, excellent, weird, unique writing, it won’t matter if they read your manuscript or not. Ms. Srinivasan was generous with her time and she provided some great information. But the reality is that there is no single place to turn. You just have to keep starting and stopping, doing U-turns, bumping into walls, banging on doors, all the while refining your work.