Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Six Questions for Sandra Kasturi, Co-Publisher, ChiZine Publications

ChiZine Publications publishes dark fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, etc.). The editors accept novels and short story collections to 100,000 words. Learn more here.

SQF: According to a report by Foner Books (, “[g]rowth stagnated for booksellers in 2008, and overall book sales barely moved according to the government.” In addition, I’ve read a number of articles concerning the difficulty authors are having securing book deals. In your opinion, what is the current state of the print book market?

SK: I know things have been really tough in the publishing industry of late. Well, for the economy in general, everywhere. So, a crazy time to start up a small publishing house, huh? Yeah, we wondered what we were thinking, too! Still, it's worked out surprisingly well for us, maybe simply because we ARE a small house. We don't have a huge staff. We don't have a lot of overhead, other than actually printing books and the costs associated with that. We're very lucky that the people who help us out are willing to do a lot of work for not very much money, because they like what we're doing and want to be part of it from the ground up. As we grow, of course, everyone starts to earn more...or so we hope! (Please don't let the world end in 2012.)

I think maybe what's happening is that the old models for publishing are starting to fall by the wayside. While the big houses might be struggling due to sheer weight, there seems to be room for a lot of niche market people like us to make a go of it. And there certainly are a lot of readers for the kind of thing we do! People are into science fiction. They're into fantasy and horror. What do you think the top grossing movies and books of the last three decades have been? So there's a readership out there that really wants to read good books that are in those genres. And we hope to keep providing that!

There's a lot of continuous hoo-ha about how no one is going to buy print books any more. I don't actually think that's true. Radio didn't disappear just because we got television. But it had to change the way it approached things, no? Maybe people won't want to spend a lot of money on overpriced, crappy, paper books. But I think if you give a good product, a nice-looking, quality product, to someone who is interested in that kind of thing, for a decent price...I think you can do well. And you have to look at the times you're living in and see how things are changing. Decry Facebook and Twitter and ebooks and whatnot all you want, but that doesn't change the fact that that stuff is probably here to stay. Why not take advantage? There are a lot of markets, and we try to cover what we can. CZP ( does limited edition, gorgeous, signed hardcovers that are available by pre-order, which is very much for a small niche market of serious book collectors. We do trade paperbacks, which are for the regular readers. And we do ebooks in a variety of formats. Who knows what's coming next? But we're willing and ready to embrace new technologies as they appear. I don't think it's better or worse. Just different. Seize the fish!

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

SK: Not dumb. We mostly prefer not dumb. Heh. Okay, in all seriousness, we look for an interesting or unusual plot, characters that the reader can invest in, and a good writing style. Also--and it's actually kind of shocking as to how many people can't manage this--we look for someone with a real understanding of how a story works or unfolds. A surprising number of writers simply don't seem to get basic narrative structure. Oh, and that the ms. is in a genre we actually publish.

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

SK: Geez, where to begin??? Many writers are so far inside their own heads they can't comprehend that readers might not be interested in their particular twitchy little areas of obsession. And then they're surprised to get a rejection because they just don't get why other people might not be fascinated with...I dunno...the mating habits of naked mole rats or something. Okay, I say that, but here's the thing--a really good writer will be able to fascinate the reader with their twitchy little obsessions, even if they're not interested at first.

Ummmm, I'm sort of off topic. With respect to pitching, I think the things I see most that make me really really annoyed are the following. A lot of people simply don't read the guidelines carefully. If a publisher asks you to send your manuscript as a certain kind of attachment, well--YOU SHOULD DO THAT. Don't give the publisher a reason to reject you right off the bat. I love it when writers say in their cover letter, "I've read your guidelines closely," and then they STILL don't submit correctly. This might seem like a minor quibble, but when you're getting hundreds of submissions, you don't have the time to reformat everyone's document. I had a guy once who was annoyed because he didn't want to use quotation marks to indicate dialogue. He didn't like how they looked! That was an eye-roller for sure.

What else puts me off in pitches? Oh yeah--when they tell me how wonderful their book is in their cover letter. Thanks very much, but I think we'll decide whether your book is wonderful. It's like parents insisting that their spoiled, tantrum-throwing two-year-old is the Most Amazing Child That Was Ever Born! Please.

Another thing that will queer your pitch really fast is an incomprehensible synopsis. Just tell me what your book is about. Is that so hard? Again, we get a lot of writers telling us how brilliant the book is, and how we're gonna love it, and it's the most exciting thriller/space opera/ghost story/whatever since...whoever...but they don't give you a clue as to what the book's actually about. Sometimes they can't even manage to tell you the title of the book! They also write to tell me that they're married, have X number of children, just bought a house, have 3 cats called Fluffy, Muffy and Duffy, that their dog is 15 years old, that they just moved to a new city; that their parents/friends/priest/writing group/message board/other publisher/psychiatrist just told them how wonderful their manuscript was, and we MUST NOT PASS IT UP. Guess what? I don't care. I don't care about your cat or your house or your weather or your baby or whether your mom thinks you're awesome. I've never met you. We don't have a relationship yet, and the sort of chatty cover letter that presumes one, just gets my back up. If we decide to publish you, THEN we'll develop a relationship. Until that time, I Just Do Not Care.

You know what's a terrific pitch? "Dear CZP, my name is Joe Blow. I have written 3 books (insert names) which have sold reasonably well. I enclose the first four chapters of my horror novel manuscript, BLAH DI BLAH, approximately 90,000 words, for your consideration. I also enclose a one-page synopsis. The full manuscript is available, should you wish to read it. Thank you for your interest; I am available at the above e-mail address or phone number at your convenience. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Joe."

And then the synopsis really IS one page, and it actually DOES tell me what the book is about. And the manuscript is formatted properly, in a readable font, double-spaced, one-inch margins, etc. In that very brief cover letter, there is a wealth of information: the author's name & contact info, the type of thing it is (horror novel), the title, the length, the number of chapters being sent, the fact that the whole book is available, that he's published some other books. I mean, we don't necessarily care if they've been published before, but it's handy info. There's no extraneous crap, nothing about how his sister thinks he's the next J.D. Salinger. And there's no sucking up, either, which is nice. If all pitches/subs were like that, it would make me a lot less tired!

Lastly, a really bad pitch is one in which it is very clear that the author has never read anything in the genre, and is therefore pitching a novel that we've all seen a million times; but they, of course, think it's unique. What do you say? "Dear Sir/Madam, your entire premise is a cliché." Well, we don't say that. Sometimes pitches are so bad that no amount of criticism is going to fix them. Then we just write, "Sorry, it's not for us," or something similar.

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

SK: A fair number of our authors have not had books published previously, though most of them have had something published--short stories, poetry, etc. I don't think we've had anyone who's never had anything at all published. We don't necessarily care about that, but it's basically the "law of 10,000 hours," you know? If you haven't put any time into writing and publishing, and this is your first endeavour ever, it's probably not going to be that good. It's only by doing and getting rejected and trying harder that one improves, of course. But we're not too concerned with people's "pedigree." If someone writes a great book and they've never written anything else? Fantastic. We'd be delighted to have them.

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

SK: Be polite, be professional. Do your research. Don't submit your mystery novel to someone who doesn't publish mysteries. FOLLOW THE AGENT'S/PUBLISHER'S GUIDELINES.

Find out who represents/publishes the writers whose work you admire. Then start sending queries off to them. Why not start at the top? Make a list and work your way down. That's what Stephen King did. Oh, and read Stephen King's On Writing. A simply terrific book, with respect to advice for writers at any stage in their careers. And an engaging read, as well. One thing he does, which is just invaluable, is that he shows a short story excerpt, and then the edited excerpt, and tells you why he made those changes.

Persevere, and develop a thick skin. No one is ever going to think you are as wonderful as your mommy thinks you are.

Take criticism well, and think about it carefully. Lucius Shepard once said that "criticism is a gift." There are people who have been in the biz a lot longer than you, and you might actually learn something if you just sit still and listen. I'm always pleased to meet and talk to people who have been in the industry (on the writing or publishing side of it) longer than I have, because I figure they can teach me something, and tell me how to improve!

Remember, agents and publishers are not out to get you--they're not in it to destroy young writers. They're probably dying to read a decently written manuscript!

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

SK: Hmmm... Oh, I know! "Who are your favourite writers? Who are your least favourite writers?" I always love answering that, because I love talking about books.

In answer to that, our ChiZine Publications authors are favourites, of course--that goes without saying! In addition to them, in no particular order: Jonathan Carroll, Cherie Priest, Peter Straub, Steven Erikson, Mary Stewart, Dick Francis, Stephen King, Robert B. Parker, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Charlaine Harris, Jo Walton, Tana French, Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Karl Schroeder, Peter Watts, Guy Gavriel Kay, George R.R. Martin, Kelly Link, Mary Doria Russell, Octavia Butler, Sheri Tepper, Phyllis Gotlieb, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.K. Rowling, Patricia A. McKillip, Philip Pullman, Peter Abrahams, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Simmons, Cory Doctorow, Po Bronson, E. Nesbit, L. Frank Baum, Nancy Baker. Oh, and my hubby, Brett Savory. He's okay too. : )

There's plenty more, but the list will get too long, I'm afraid!

Writers I am less fond of? Dan Brown. Stephenie Meyer. John Grisham. Patricia Cornwell. Yann Martel. They have written some really tooth-gnashingly craptastic or dull books.

And...that's all, folks, I guess!

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

NEXT POST: 7/9--Six Questions for Lea Schizas, Publisher, MuseItUp Publishing


  1. Great questions and answers. I especially found the like and dislike author lists interesting.

  2. Thanks, Cher. I'm glad you found this helpful.

  3. A great interview, and as an editor, I agree with everything Sandra said. My question, though, is how is it that every interview with every editor since the beginning of commercial publishing has said the same thing about reading submission guidelines, writing concise cover letters and synopsis, and yet no one submitting manuscripts has apparently ever read any of this advice?
    I guess one sure sign of a terrible writer is that the individual is so totally invested in their own writing that they have stopped reading anything else. If they take themselves so totally out of the conversation that they have never come across this sort of advice, or feel they do not need to attend to it, then they cannot expect to become one of the voices that gets to join the chorus. If they are not listening to anyone else, why should they expect anyone else to listen to them?

  4. Good question, Robert. I wonder if many of the offenders are first-time novelists who simply don't know any better--nor realize they need to. I commented in another forum earlier this week on a query letter a writer posted for critique. It was well-written, but it wasn't a query. It was a synopsis.

    Unfortunately, it's not just newbies. I received two story submissions last month from experienced authors neither of whom followed my zine's guidelines.

  5. I find it interesting that so many people don't follow these guidelines well. I'm a first time novelist and I've actually submitted my ms to ChiZine just last week, and it really surprises me how many of the mistakes that editors mention are so basic.

    I'm really glad to read these and see that I'm on the right track. Reading stuff editors write about the process is always a good way to know what to do.

  6. Jim and Sandra, thanks for that! As a recently arrived small press owner/editor myself I can assure authors that editors really do get excited when they start reading a sub and find themselves sucked in. Or give a writer whose story isn't quite there a little critique, and find a few weeks later that the writer has run with the suggestions and made the story into a strong, publishable one. It's an especial honour to be able to publish first work.

  7. Terrific interview!

    For the 10 000 hours law, I found out that getting in Goodreads took time off my own writing, but it forced me to think more about the books I read, to write my own reviews, expressing and sharing my insights. It is a good exercise.