I’m in the middle of the open reading period for my press, Augury Books, right now, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the editorial process.
Running a press is hard work, but it is also an incredible joy to collaborate with my co-editor Kimberly Steele, our assistant editor Nick Amara, our rotating cast of wonderful interns, and all the writers whose work we’ve published. As a child, I used to look forward to birthday cake and summer vacation; now I get excited about hitting Send on the emails that tell prospective authors we’ve selected their work for publication. I love the editorial back and forth as we try to hone forthcoming manuscripts into the sharpest swords they can be. And it still seems like a miracle every time I open a box shipped from the printers and see the manuscript files we’ve been emailing transformed into real books I can hold in my hands. I don’t even mind the business side of things—accounting, taxes, social media promotion (okay, actually, that part I hate—some wild animal inside me dies a little each time I think about Facebook “like”s and retweets), etc.
At the end of the day, I’m incredibly lucky; I get to bring literature that I love into the world, and I do so in collaboration with people I admire.
What I hate about editing is rejecting manuscripts.
My own work is always out in circulation so I know precisely how painful it is to see a “Dear [author’s name]” email in your inbox. No matter how many times it happens, it still hurts, and sometimes it hurts more the more years you’ve been sending your book out—the attrition can be what breaks you. I understand firsthand how editorial rejection can trigger thoughts like I guess I must be a bad writer and Maybe I should give up.
Or maybe that’s just me. I feel like a failure every time my work is turned down, but perhaps everyone else is so perfectly well-adjusted that they leap immediately into thinking, Well, that press isn't the right home for my manuscript anyway.
To those of you who can read a rejection email without even momentarily feeling sick to your stomach or sad, I salute you and admire your therapists, your calm faith in the universe, your extra-strong dirty martinis, your personal brain chemistry and wisdom, whatever it is that allows you such sangfroid and savoir faire.
For the rest of us, maybe sometimes it’s good to be reminded of what I tell my students when they start sending their work out and myself whenever the grind of rejection gets me down: at a certain point, rejection really has less to do with quality than with curation.
There is a lot of bad writing in the world, but that’s not the majority of what I see when I dig through Augury’s slush pile. What I see are primarily manuscripts that fall into categories like Not For Us, Good, and Very Good. The Not For Us are easy to winnow through—they’re often rife with cliches or come from writers who simply decided to send what they had at hand rather than checking to see if it fit our call for submissions or the rest of our catalog—young adult paranormal romance novels, for example, or collections of sing-song verse.
Choosing whether to place a manuscript in the Good or the Very Good pile is harder, but it’s also pretty straight-forward. Here things like too much reliance on a repeated trope or a voice that doesn’t sound individual enough help us to decide to pass.
Once the editorial board narrows it down to the manuscripts we like most, then the hardest work begins: we have to decide which Very Good is right for us. And each of us responds to different things. While Kimberly and I are both passionate advocates for the use of the second person, Nick’s affection for it isn’t as strong. In previous years with a different editorial board, one editor loved poems about Greek mythology, while I was tired of those stories and said, not even in jest, that what I wanted was a book full of poems about Santeria or the Norse myths. Now enough time has passed that I’d be happy to read Greek myth poems again (and I still stand by my call for poems about Loki and Odin and Ochun and Eleggua). When we look at our finalists, it’s not enough for one editor to love the book passionately if the rest of us feel lukewarm; instead, we have to choose books that all the members of our board love and that fit our overarching aesthetic. At a certain point, all our choices are good and we just have to choose the ones among them that are best-suited for us as an editorial board.
While it might be daunting for authors to know that having the “best” manuscript isn’t really possible, on the other hand, maybe it’s freeing. It’s can be a relief to realize that it’s not that your manuscript wasn’t good enough; it just wasn’t the right match and that’s something you can’t control.
In this way, getting published is oddly like romance. Some people fall in love with the high school quarterback; I was always fonder of the shy smart guy cracking jokes under his breath in the back of the class. One’s not better than the other—it’s just personal taste. The high school quarterback definitely has his partisans, but that wouldn’t help him get a date with a boy or girl who has a crush on the chess team president.
There are practical reasons why authors want to be published—money, tenure review and grant applications, the satisfaction of being able to see your book in a bookstore or give it as a gift to family and friends, to know that strangers have read your work and been moved by it. We write because we want an audience; it makes sense to want your words to have a home in the world outside your own head. And it’s very easy to confuse publication with validation. When someone says yes to us, it’s so tempting to believe that yes means we’re brilliant, which would, of course, mean that, conversely, any no means we’re terrible.
I know I do this too often. Sometimes I’ve cried when I’ve gotten those “Dear [Author Name]” emails (and there have been many). I’ve certainly thought I should give up. Last night a friend asked me what was happening with my current manuscript and I told her I didn’t know if I have it in me right now to submit it anywhere—it feels too daunting to send another book out into that gauntlet of no after no, and I just don’t feel convinced that I’m good anymore.
But it’s important to remember that being an artist means you’re playing a long game: you don’t know what will eventually happen. Tastes change. Sometimes your work encounters the right editors. Or maybe it never will, but you still can’t let yourself measure quality by immediate success. After all, think about the Adam and Eve of American poetry: only a handful of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime and Walt Whitman had to self-publish Leaves of Grass.
The truth is far closer to what I’ve learned from my own time on the other side of the editor’s desk: manuscripts have to be good, but that’s no guarantee that they’ll resonate in just the right way with a specific editorial board. Much like with love, you do have to put yourself out there—the best version of you that you can present to the world. But it also takes luck and the right timing to cross paths with someone with whom you have the right chemistry. With presses and manuscripts too—sometimes it really isn’t you, it’s them.