Is your story like mine?
Have you been plugging away at your fiction for 10, 15, 20 years trying to find that enterprising, attentive, well-connected literary agent who will magically whisk your novel manuscript to an editor at a Big Five New York City publishing giant who will love it so much that said editor will convince 20-30 other functionaries in acquisitions, marketing, and finance to plunk over a seven-figure advance and whisk you away to your anointment as The Next Literary Star by Michiko Kakutani, followed by Terry Gross, followed by your choice of professorships at the top creative writing programs in the country, followed by steady work in Hollywood working in film and television?
Are you losing hope?
Increasingly, the Big Five prefer more profitable businesses (such as the selling of supernatural trilogies to teens or coloring books to adults) to peddling hit-and-miss literary fiction to a shrinking, aging audience. That’s why independent and university presses have proliferated to fill the gap that Big Five publishers no longer want to fill. The venerable small press Coffee House Press says it best: “literature is not the same as publishing.” Global market forces dictate that people (85% white women) in office towers get out of the business of finding the next Hemingway, the next Murakami, the next Jhumpa Lahiri. That business is now the business of small presses. If you don’t believe me, read this article in The Atlantic.
But small presses have plenty of limitations. When I first started sending my novel out to small presses, I rarely, if ever, got responses. That’s because most presses are run by anywhere between 1-10 people, many of whom are volunteers. Most are sole proprietorships. There are simply not enough resources to give every manuscript the attention it deserves.
The great myth of writing is that when it is good enough, it will find an audience. Of the 300,000 books that come out of New York City each year, I would estimate that at least that many manuscripts of equal or greater literary quality are rejected for whimsical reasons such as “we already have a black author on our list.”
In the current publishing system, too many accomplished manuscripts written by stellar writers fall through the cracks. The great myth of writing is that when it is good enough, it will find an audience. Of the 300,000 books that come out of New York City each year, I would estimate that at least that many manuscripts of equal or greater literary quality are rejected for whimsical reasons such as “we already have a black author on our list.”
This is what we know: Big Five publishers are more or less the only way for writers to get a book advance large enough to resemble a living annual wage. What is not commonly known is that the Big Five announce roughly 160 such deals a year for debut authors of literary fiction, which does not include Sci-Fi, YA, Thrillers, etc. (Not all are announced)
Here’s what is also not commonly known:
– 75% of those announced deals were given to female writers. Out of 320 debut deals given by Big Five publishers and their imprints in 2015 and 2016, only 84 were given to authors who identified as male and one to an author who identified as transgender. If you are one of the thousands upon thousands of non-female writers with a novel or story collection manuscript, you’ll be fighting for one of what appears to be roughly 40 new deals annually. A rather large inequity that pretty much no one talks about.
– 30% of the debut deals were given to writers who live in NYC (the city represents 2.6% of the total U.S. population). A rather large inequity that almost everyone talks about.
– Under 25% of those debut deals were given to writers with MFAs. According to The Atlantic, 3,000-4,000 writers graduate from MFA programs each year.
To recap: thousands of new writers each year for 160 new spots.
Traditional publishing is unapologetically elitist. As literary lists shrink each year, so does agent talent scouting, and as scouting shrinks, more and more homogeny sneaks into our bookstores.
When you cold-query an agent about your novel hoping to see it in hardcover on the featured table at your local indie bookstore one day, it’s not exaggerating to say that your chances of successfully obtaining an agent and that agent successfully selling your book is somewhere between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 10,000. The books you see in stores are almost all from the Big Five or the big indies like Graywolf (who get distributed by the Big Five). The authors of those books are The One Percent of creative writers. Don’t believe that they are just working harder than you or that their work is qualitatively better, because that is simply untrue. That’s not to say that their job isn’t difficult. They still have to write a good book and do everything that you have to do, but they are looked upon differently. Connections matter. An MFA program that brings agents in to scout current students matters. Living in or near New York City matters.
The literary arts have never been and will never be a meritocracy. A compelling, impeccable query letter and a spotless, original manuscript are simply not enough. You need strangers in publishing to look beyond market forces, beyond your pedigree, beyond where you live, to believe in you and your work.
The books you see in stores are almost all from the Big Five or the big indies like Graywolf (who get distributed by the Big Five). The authors of those books are The One Percent of creative writers. Don’t believe that they are just working harder than you or that their work is qualitatively better, because that is simply untrue. That’s not to say that their job isn’t difficult. They still have to write a good book and do everything that you have to do, but they are looked upon differently. Connections matter. An MFA program that brings agents in to scout current students matters. Living in or near New York City matters.…The literary arts have never been and will never be a meritocracy.
I’ve experienced what it was like to fall through the cracks. Over twenty years, I estimate that I’ve been rejected by agents 1,000 times. Spoiler Alert: if your agent can’t sell your manuscript, it’s likely he/she no longer considers you a client. Just as a stranger saved my life from cancer by being my stem cell donor, strangers from unknown small presses saved my books (both times on July 13th or 7.13), which allowed me to experience my lifelong dream in full.
I want to give back.
7.13 Books will be taking submissions of novels and short story collections.
We are currently reading submissions for publication in 2019.
We are only looking for writers who have not yet published a book.
Here’s what 7.13 Books will promise you, the writer, if you submit:
- We will read each unpublished novel manuscript submission.
- We will respond and comment on each submission. We will not engage in agent-speak and say something amorphous like “this book is just not for me.” We will tell you exactly what we liked and didn’t like and why we did or did not take your book. If we didn’t finish it, we will tell you exactly why. We will give you some brief constructive feedback.
- Unlike the now-common agenting practice of requesting your manuscript and never getting back to the writer at all, we will get back to you within 4-8 weeks.
Here’s what 7.13 Books will promise you, the writer, if we extend a publication offer:
- We will make a beautiful book that you are happy with.
- The galleys will be done four months before publication date so your book has a (slim) chance of being reviewed by the trades.
- We will try our darnedest to get the word out about your novel. That includes getting your book out to review outlets for which we have contacts. That includes making sure your book is accessible on Amazon and easily distributable to bookstores so you can arrange events.
- Like most small presses, this will truly be a labor of love–and not profit. We just want to help you get your book out in the world so you no longer have to wait decades to experience authorhood.
- We will pay a small advance or honorarium and generous royalties. And we will pay you, the author, before we pay the press.
- While your literary pedigree will not matter, your platform (demonstrated engagement in the literary community, social media followers, etc.) will. If we have to choose between a novelist who has no social media presence and one that does, we will choose the latter every time.
- Once published, the rest is up to you, the author. You’re going to have to arrange your own events, send the book out to reviewers you want to read your book, arrange your own Goodreads Giveaways, and so on. Read this article about what Sarah Gerard did to market her small press book. Read it and do the same for yours.
Your dream of being an author is an experience, not a sales report.
In conclusion, with a little legwork, you can experience most of what the average Big Five literary author experience–the experience that you’ve dreamed about. I hope that you’ll get to experience what I experienced. You might read with bestselling authors, tour cities, read in cool bookstores, and sign books for excited fans who happen to be strangers. Increasingly, it makes little difference whether you publish at a small press or a large one.
So if you have a manuscript that has been roundly rejected at the Big Five and has met radio silence in the overtaxed small press community, please submit! And I look forward to reading your work and sharing my literary journey with you so that you can make your own.