How I Got Over

By Michael Nye, Guest Blogger

Even before I graduated from my MFA program, I had some idea of a story collection in place. This collection comprised nine or eleven stories (digression: always an odd number; for whatever reason, this always appealed to me, that somehow nine or eleven was better than ten or twelve. I have no idea why). I published my first story in Sou’wester in 2005, and I was certainly a better writer thanks to my MFA program, and I had written many stories, so, of course, I was ready to publish a collection!

It’s worth stressing that of the nine stories in my book, only two were written while I was in graduate school.

Finishing the collection, actually writing nine stories (or eleven, or seven, or whatnot) or writing forty-eight pages (minimum) of poetry, is, of course, the hardest step toward publishing a collection. Recognizing this is also the part most writers struggle to grasp. No one should be a harder critic on the work than the writer, but in our desire for a book, the ultimate affirmation of Being a Writer, we can make the mistake of leapfrogging glaring holes in our manuscript. How do you know when the book is really and truly done?

Big surprise, but the guy who has worked for three literary journals is going to say, yup, publish the work in strong literary journals first. A manuscript filled with stories that have appeared in Southern Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House is probably stronger than a manuscript filled with stories that have never been previously published in literary magazines. A track record of journal publications is an excellent external approval of the work.

The next step is tricky: what actually goes in the collection? Choosing your two or three “best” stories (we’ll leave the criteria of “best” for another day) is a given. But how do you select from the other, say, eighteen stories you’ve written? Even stories that you’ve published in top literary journals might not fit your collection as a whole. This is an entirely subjective measurement, and it’s helpful to have writer-friends who can honestly assess your work for you and suggest what makes the cut and what doesn’t. I’ve relied on my network more than I can possibly state in a short essay.

In May of 2011, five years after I graduated UMSL’s MFA program, I put together a spreadsheet of short story publishers. The initial list had ninety publishers, some of which I was very familiar and some that I had to do some digging on. I used Duotrope and NewPages to find all these publishers, first just copying their name and their URL, and then going back to find out if they only read through a contest, what the reading period was, and writing any additional notes I might have (such as “submit via hard copy” or “query first with 30 pages”).

Looking over this list now, I see a diverse range of publishers–New American Press, New Rivers Press, Sarabande Books, Atticus Books, and so forth–some of which I picture clearly, like Graywolf Press, and others which I’m a bit fuzzy on who they are. This isn’t to say that those presses that aren’t immediately jumping to mind are no good (not at all, in fact), but to stress that I was not, could not, get intimate knowledge of each and every press. When I was familiar with the authors and had a physical copy of a book the press had recently published, it mattered.

Small press publishing, unlike publishing on the Big Five, is a collaborative process. Knowing that in-advance, I knew that wherever I was lucky enough to place my collection, there would need to be a strong working relationship with the publisher/editor. I expected this process to be time-consuming; after all, literary journals often took four months to read one story, so reading a manuscript of nine stories would, I figured, take some time, too. I followed the guidelines, most of which were submitted via email, comprised of a query letter and the first story from the collection.

Erin McKnight of Queen’s Ferry Press had her guidelines online and they were simple: a specific style for the subject line of your email (publisher’s get lots of mail, so this makes it easy to find submissions, and shows whether the writer can follow real basic steps), a letter of introduction in the body of the email, and the first two stories of the collection. Less than two weeks later, Erin wrote and asked for the full manuscript. This was in late summer of 2011. By November, we had a deal: my book would be out on Queen’s Ferry Press in October of 2012.

Once an offer is made, you need to ask the publishers lots of questions. Better now than never. Here is where poets are particularly helpful: most poets don’t publish their second book on the same press, so they’ve experienced two very different editorial experiences. I asked several of my friends about what to ask, and collectively, here are a range of questions that are critical to ask a potential publisher:

What about my collection did you like? Could you speak about a specific story (always a good sign if the publisher can do that)? Who has final editorial control? Who has control over layout, cover art, margins? What is your promotional and marketing plan for my work (it had better be more than having a Facebook and Twitter account)? What’s your publishing schedule for my work and the rest of your list? How much attention will my book receive when it launches? A writer should also ask his/herself how much control, really, do I (the author) want for all this? What’s the royalty rate on print and on ebooks? How will you (the publisher) talk to reviewers about my book?

Finding a small press publisher came down to two things: honestly knowing that your book is done, and then being organized. Editing the collection with Erin made me appreciate what she read and trusted in my work: a collection of stories that was character driven, interior, carefully paced, not a lot of gimmicks with the page or celebrities appearing as characters in the stories. My work fit her list, and vice versa. On a small press, this relationship is critical, and I’ve been very fortunate that Queen’s Ferry Press has been a perfect home for my book.

Michael Nye (UMSL, MFA ’06) is the author of the story collection Strategies Against Extinction.