Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Six Questions for Kevin Morgan Watson, Founder and Fiction Editor, Press 53

Press 53 is an independent publisher of literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. They accept material from established writers for single-author books, and from new and established writers for anthologies and the Press 53 Open Awards writing contest. Press 53 also republishes out-of-print classic novels and memoirs. Learn more here.

SQF: There’s been quite a bit written about the demise of the paper book and the decline in the number of books published. What is your view of the current state of the book and the book market?

KMW: I believe print books will go out of style when blankets go out of style. There is something about holding a book, a connection with the author that you don’t get with an ebook. Still, I think ebooks are viable and here to stay. But I also think ebooks can help bolster print book sales. If it’s a book the reader truly loves, the reader will want to hold the book, really own it, not virtually own it.

As for the current state of the book and the book market, it’s too soon to tell. I read recently that the Internet has done to publishing what the Guttenberg press did 560 years ago. The moveable-type press created an environment where lots of people besides monks and priests could publish, and it took decades for balance to be achieved. I think that’s where we are now. The keepers of the gate to the publishing kingdom have had their keys copied.

I hadn’t heard about the decline in the number of books being published. I think more books are being published today than ever. I also think if we want to see where the book industry is headed, we should watch the music industry closely. What is happening there now is where the book industry will be in few years. Ten years ago, for example, mid-list music artists began begging out of their contracts with the major labels to produce their own CDs, book their own tours, and take back creative control of their careers. Now there is a thriving indie market in the music industry. More and more authors are choosing a similar route today, thanks to print-on-demand technology, social networking, blogging, websites, email, and online payment systems. Right now the publishing industry is being sucked into a wormhole of sorts, and who knows where it will be and what it will look like when it pops out the other side. These are exciting times.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a manuscript?

KMW: First, the voice has to resonate with me, capture my attention, really demand my attention. There are times when I am two or three pages into a story and nothing seems to be happening, yet I’m still reading because the voice has my attention, promising to deliver something worthy of my time and attention. Second is subtlety. I don’t like being hit over the head and having action and dialogue explained to me. I prefer the writer plant a seed, not a whole damn tree. Let the characters live their story, and allow me to watch the story unfold without the benefit of the author’s insight. Lastly, the story has to play like a movie in my head; I want to experience the setting with my senses engaged; the characters have to be real to me, the dialogue natural, their actions unpredictable, their problems interesting. There has to be something at risk, no matter how small. All three of these elements—voice, subtlety, and a sensory-rich story—have to be there.

SQF: What major mistakes do authors make when pitching their books?

KMW: The authors who make mistakes aren’t paying attention. They don’t read the submission guidelines, they don’t familiarize themselves with the publishing house and the types of books the editors want. There’s no excuse. Anyone wanting to publish with Press 53, for example, can easily find stories and poems online that will offer an idea of the kinds of writing we publish. Google any number of our authors and you’ll find plenty of things to read—stories and poems published in lots of different journals and magazines—and it’s all there online. I know it takes time to do all this research, but a few extra hours of research can increase an author’s chances for success.

SQF: Of the books your company publishes each year, how many are by previously unpublished authors?

KMW: Of the single-author books we publish, all of the authors are previously published. And I’m not talking about previously publishing a book; I’m looking for writers with publishing credits in journals and magazines (print or online), anthologies, newspapers, you name it. It all counts. That’s a requirement. For our survival we have to work with authors who are active in the literary community, meaning that they are submitting to magazines, journals, and contests, and are earning recognition through publication and awards. Since we publish mostly short story and poetry collections, it’s important that we work with poets and authors who are constantly putting themselves and their work out there. Besides a strong manuscript, these authors can deliver blurbs for their books, a marketing plan, an audience, and the energy to help us sell their books. It’s a partnership. Very few people are going to buy a book just because we publish it. Someday our small press might be in the position to make a writer’s career just by publishing his or her book, but we’re not there yet, so we need experienced and active authors who can help us get there.

We do publish some first-time published authors in our anthologies, like the every-odd-year Surreal South series edited by Laura and Pinckney Benedict, and our yearly Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, where we publish the top three winners in each of our six categories, except novella, where we only publish the winning entry. So there are opportunities for unpublished authors, and it’s exciting to find and publish these authors. But for single-author books of short stories, poetry, and even novels or memoirs, we need an author who can deliver experience along with a great manuscript.

SQF: What is your advice to new, unpublished authors looking for a publisher or agent?

KMW: If you have a novel or memoir, but have never published a few shorter pieces somewhere, your chances of finding an agent or landing a publishing deal for your book are slim. That’s just the way it is. It’s difficult for writers with lots of publishing credits to land an agent or a publishing deal. So my advice is to send out some shorter pieces to magazines, journals, and contests, and to use this time to hone your craft and learn how the editing and publishing process works. Your best calling card is a publication credit. The more the better. A writer with no publishing credits delivers a lot of unknowns: Does he understand the business? Will he be receptive to edits and rewrites? Are his expectations realistic? After his book is published, will he make me want to jump in front of a train?

Don’t bring publishers or agents a manuscript, bring them a package: a great manuscript and an experienced author.

SQF: What question do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t? And how would you answer it?

KMW: What are three things that will earn a manuscript a rejection?

Sloppy editing, preaching, and clichés. I will forgive a misspelled word and some questionable punctuation here and there, but too much of either tells me the author hasn’t given the story the attention it deserves. And I’m not interested in being convinced of something or being taught a valuable lesson: tell your story and let me take it and keep it with me. If there is a lesson in the story, I’d like to find it on my own. And let there be no mistake, clichés hang on a story like a cheap suit so writers should avoid them like the plague. 

Thank you, Kevin. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

Thank you for the invitation. I’m going to use this blog as an example in my Creative Strategies for Writers workshop. Great idea, and a valuable tool.

NEXT POST: 3/26 -- Six Questions for Charlotte Rains Dixon co-founder, The Writers Loft

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jim. Another great interview. I really enjoyed this one with Kevin. He does a great job at Press 53. Thanks for sharing!