What I’m about to tell you was never meant to be read. The secrets here, never meant to be learned. The tomato/potato recipe never meant to be baked.
No, all this information was to be transcribed, ushered to Paraguay, sung in the voice of Gilbert Gottfried and then locked into a vault where it is safe, never to be heard again.
But I couldn’t let that happen.
There are people out there who have tried to stop you from reading further. I don’t know who they are. Probably your spouse who just wants you to get off the computer already! But the point remains . . . there are people who are trying to stop you from reading further.
Below are lessons from a publishing house spy. Secrets, intrigues, betrayals, free coffee–but not on Thursdays because that’s when the machine breaks down and Jim from accounting has to come fix it but he’s really busy so you just have to settle for only the intrigues and betrayals that day but no coffee, which sucks.
Through great sacrifice I relay this information to you. Use it well, writer and weird internet person. Use it well!
We meet in the basement of an old theater. You can hear drip drops of water nearby, but you don’t see the wetness, you feel it.
There’s a bare bulb swinging from a chord. Below it, a card table. The only chairs are barrels filled with some mysterious popcorn ingredient. I don’t ask questions.
Old movie posters rot in the corners. The muffled sound of a recent action flick rumbles above. The broken movie projectors tell me that perhaps this time I am in over my head.
The old theater attendant, an ex boxer down on his luck, opens the door. Metal creaks. Chaz strolls in.
THE SPY HERSELF
She is wearing what we call “spy chic.” Black jacket, sleek jeans. Her perfectly rumbled hair bounces confidently around her head. This chick has been places you and I can only dream of.
She slams a broken door knob on the table. I pick it up, turn it over.
“So you got in?” I say.
“I always do,” she says.
“Want to talk about it?”
She looks me in the eye. “I never do.”
“Typical for a spy.”
She slams her hands down on the table. “I told you to stop calling me that! I’m an INTERN!”
“Tomato, tomato. The point is, you got paid.”
“Interns are paid only in knowledge!”
“Potato, potato!” I shout. “The point is, you look fabulous in that outfit.”
She smiles. “Thanks. And just so you are aware, you have to say tomato and potato different ways for that axiom to work.”
“Axiom?” I say. “A fancy word for an intern. Some might even call it a spy wor–”
“Don’t say it,” she says with chocolaty brown dagger eyes (Yum! Chocolate daggers!) We proceed with the interview.
First of all, tell me a little about yourself. Who are you? What are your hobbies? What brought you into the literary industry?
I’m an English literature and Creative Writing student at the University of Hull. By that, you can probably guess that I enjoy reading and writing, but I have a long list of hobbies that keep me busy from day to day. I play netball on my university’s team, and I also play the violin, although I don’t play it very well. I volunteer for a charity, Anthony Nolan, which is probably what keeps me busy the most. I realised a very long time ago that if I’m not under pressure or not struggling to fit things in, I’ll just end up doing nothing. I’d rather do lots of things than do nothing!
Because I love reading, I’ve always been semi-interested in the literary industry, publishing in particular. When I got to university and started giving feedback on other people’s writing, I realised I really enjoyed it. And I was good at it. I started giving people advice on their writing over the internet, and before I knew it, I was playing a hobby editor for other young writers.
What are you reading now? Care to share what books influenced you strongly at an early age?
I’m reading Nada by Carmen Laforet, and after that I will probably read Disgrace by JM Coetzee. I have a really long list of things to read, and it’s forever interrupted by beta reads, and whilst doing my internship, I had pretty much no time to read anything on my list.
I LOVED all of Roald Dahl’s books as a child. I moved on to Jacqueline Wilson when I was a little bit older, and I used to make up other stories in my head about the main characters in her books. They are, for the most part, all disadvantaged little girls that I could really identify myself with.
You mentioned you are working as an intern (not a spy). Can you tell me a little bit about the company you are interning for, what they specialize in?
Dzanc is an independent publisher based in the US. They kind of like a little bit of everything, which is reflected in their submission options; they take essays, short story collections, poetry collections, novellas, and novels, as well as being partnered with MonkeyBicycle, a short story magazine. Dzanc looks for something a little quirky and with some real flare to the writing and style.
Describe a typical day. What are/were your main duties?
At first, main duties were to read and evaluate submissions, and that was all. After reading the first thirty pages or so of a submission, I would have to leave a comment saying whether or not I’d continue, and where this decision was made, and why.
After this, my duties were enhanced to sending rejections. The first couple of these gave me palpitations. Knowing that you’re destroying someone’s dream isn’t a nice feeling, so I’d try to do it in the nicest possible way. This meant every rejection was sent individually, with a line or two of feedback summed up from the comments left by whoever had read the submission (often myself and one or two other interns). It’s sad that there wasn’t enough time to write more than a few lines, but when you have to reject 20 submissions in a day, it’s hard to find the time to write lots of feedback.
You mentioned in your post that you read manuscripts from the slush pile. Can you give us a visual of that? What is the slush pile like physically? Was it an email system or an actual pile of manila envelopes?
Dzanc’s submissions are done through Submittable, which is a program that’s used for job applications as well as submissions to publishers and magazines. So, I’d log on, and I’d have a massive long list – kind of ordered as it would be in a spread sheet – of submissions. Click the submission, and it would take me to the screen that contained the cover letter and the submission. It was daunting to look at, and it seemed never ending. The only thing worse would’ve been if it was real paper in a basket. It probably would’ve reached the ceiling.
What kinds of manuscripts caught your attention?
I loved the ones that were either dead serious and high in tension because we were thrown straight into the conflict. I also loved the ones where the writer used a really original voice to tell the story, or a really funny character. One that I remember now started with a man sitting in surgery when his mother calls to tell him his grandfather has been arrested. She goes on to say how family is important, and when the doctor finally makes him put the phone down, we realise he’s actually having the snip! Oh, I howled. It was a funny opening.
Humour. I like humour. Or tension. It has to make my heart beat or make me laugh.
Bad cover letters. If a writer didn’t put the effort into the cover letter, I didn’t want to put effort into the rejection letter. Even worse, if a cover letter implied that I should be “grateful” to be encountering the next Neil Gaiman, I’d purposely read that work with an eye for destruction. Arrogant/self-entitled writers drive me insane.
After that, it has to be slow starters. I like to be hooked by something immediately. There has to be some kind of event or character that connects with me, otherwise I don’t care. If I don’t care, then when I get to page 30 I won’t bother to read anymore.
If you could assign a percent to quality, what percent of the submissions would you say were high quality?
1%, and I might be a bit generous. Many, many, many were low quality. A lot were decent but needed some more work before publishing. Even the high quality ones needed work, but had fantastic potential.
Writing one or two sentence rejections must have been tough. Describe that experience, how you felt and how you went about rejecting manuscripts.
It’s so mean. I’d browse the comments that were left, and pick out the most meaningful bits of advice to include. So even though I knew I was destroying someone’s dream, I told myself that I was helping them by giving them feedback, which I know is not policy at all publishers. But at the end of the day, I think writing rejections might be a bit like receiving them. You have to develop a thick skin and behave as professionally as possible.
Some writers seem to have an opinion that the publishing industry is a group of dark-suited demons with giant rejection stamps. Can you write a little to debunk or defend this idea?
This is an idea that really bugs me, because a lot of writers seem to think that their work isn’t published just because of one person’s opinion. It’s a lot less to do with the books likeability, and more to do with its ability to be published, and the market it’s going into. I could see that some of our submissions had been submitted here, there, and everywhere with no thought into the kind of books Dzanc publishes. If it’s not a market we’re associated with, why would we publish it?
As well as that, any decent reader, let alone an editor, will have viable reasons for disliking a novel. True, it could be “I didn’t like the plot” but the likelihood is that in this case the plot is either predictable, unbelievable, or clichéd. Sometimes the work doesn’t have enough power. There are literally millions of reasons that a book could be rejected, and none of them are that someone was click-happy on the rejection button.
It’s important to remember that editors are actually people as well. We’re not trying to trip people up, we’re trying to find what we think will sell. Yes, sometimes publishers are wrong and reject a book that later sells a million copies, but we’re all human. But really, if you submit a novel to 100 presses and they all reject it, what’s the chances that a minimum of 100 (probably more) people are wrong, and you’re right?
One activity you were asked to do was create a mock publication calendar where you had to narrow your manuscript selection to twelve books. Describe what criteria the final books had to fill. What helped you eliminate some of the runners up? Were issues like cost of printing, marketability a factor?
The final books had to be hard hitters that we really believed would sell. It turned into pitting some books off against each other, because it’d be a bad idea to put novels of the same genre, or with similar themes etc out in subsequent months. I had to decide which were the ones I wanted to keep to avoid clashes because this would limit the marketability of the books because we’d need to find a new strap line for the book and author.
Cost of printing came more into the order of the books rather than whether I included it at all. It’d be a bad idea to release a huge book, or multiple books if we’d not had any released 4 months previously (income from releases normally come in about 4 months later) because funds would be really limited.
You mentioned that you discovered there are some months where books sales are not great. Which months are the best for book sales, which are the worst?
Normally it’ll be the later half of November, December, January and the beginning of February. Some publishers even close around this period. However, short story, poetry, and essay collections don’t seem to be affected during these months. They seem pretty constant all year round from what I could see from the sales figures.
It probably has something to do with Christmas. Everyone will probably have their xmas list ready by then, so a new release would be overlooked. Also, shops like Waterstones etc will be trying to push big things, like best selling box sets or something, so new releases won’t get much attention.
Would you describe what aspect of your internship proved to be the most enjoyable?
I really liked organizing the calendar to be honest. It brought everything we’d done together, and I enjoyed the challenge of organising things to avoid clashes or dodge dry months.
You mentioned that you write as well. Tell me about that aspect of your life. What have/are you writing now?
I recently finished a novel that I was writing with a co-writer. It wasn’t supposed to be a novel. It was a short story that got out of hand, and it’s now out with some beta readers and I’ll begin to redraft in the new year. At the moment, I’m trying to get back to writing short stories and flash fiction because it’s a lot easier for me to hone my technique and practise on something short rather than something long.
How did your internship help your writing?
It’s made me aware of how much extra editing needs doing. In my opinion, everything should have three drafts before it’s sent out to a publisher, whether that’s a magazine or a press. I’m also aware of the quality submissions need to be at to get attention. I mean, in the past I’ve written chapters knowing they’re not my best, and I’ve just thought, “It’ll do, I’ll edit it later.” Later didn’t come. I have a feeling that this happens with lots of submissions, because a lot of them feel half-hearted or unfinished/unpolished.
A lot of the time, I felt quite inspired though. It’s definitely sharpened up my editing skills.
I am sure between writing, interning and studying, you were very busy! Care to share any time management tips for those of us out there who could use it?
I think it’s mainly just having priorities. Sometimes it’s priority to stop and have a rest. Stick the telly on. Make a cup of tea.
I say this because I was working 48 hours a week, interning for Dzanc 15 hours a week, and trying to do my university reading at the same time. Oh, and I was doing the insanity workout. And swimming or running every day.
It’s important to note the exercise though, because it broke up the work. It doesn’t have to be exercise, but it probably should be if you’re doing a job where you’re sitting down a lot, or if it’s high pressure and you don’t get to relax. I’d have to structure each day, and make sure I had a moment to relax or exercise. I’m well aware that my attention span shuts off after a few hours. Then, I’d have to move on to something else. Sometimes this was moving onto a new task, and sometimes this was going for a run. Sometimes it was simply going to make a cup of tea and have a chat with someone. When I didn’t take a break, I got less work done. It’s really important to take the down time if you need to. At one point, I was so stressed I almost quit my job (admittedly, that had a lot more to do with the job than balancing it with other things) so it’s important to take breaks to catch your breath.
I did have to make sacrifices though. I kept up with writing, but I didn’t have time to maintain my blog and write fiction, so I made the decision to give my blog a little down time. As I said, it’s about priorities. Don’t spread yourself too thin, otherwise you won’t come out with the quality you expect.
True, Chaz has spy moves, spy speak and spy style down. But she INSISTS she’s not a spy. I argue, who else in the publishing world would advocate exercise? Only a girl who has to ka-pow her way out of trouble, that’s who.
If you would like to follow Chaz (probably a good idea since she’s bound to ninja her way to the top), follow her on Twitter @chazjosephs or her blog undertheslush.blogspot.com
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