This is a production of Cornell University.
Welcome. You've probably heard the chimes. They've already played "God Bless America" today in honor of 9/11. Played it three times. And I remembered that day that, before Twitter and Facebook-- but we had email-- a notice went out saying that there would be a candlelight vigil up on the Arts Quad. And 13,000 people showed up for that moment. And I know there are people here who were in some way affected by 9/11, either in a distant way or a very intimate way. And that this is a day for meditation and reflection.
And for those of you who came anyway, I want to welcome you especially to what I think is going to be a joyous event that we call "Shop Talk." And welcome all the rest of you as well.
I think everybody knows that world literature has been written without the advice-- or most of world literature has been written without the advice of an English professor. But at this very moment in our history, very little is published without the advice and help of editors and agents, which is what we have here today.
We have one poet who is an editor, one literary agent, and an editor at a major American literary press. I ask you to wait a moment while I give you a few of their credentials. And perhaps they'll tell you something more.
I'm looking at John. He's telegraphing to me that I should mention the Zalaznicks, who--
Yes. David and Barbara Zalaznick are the supporters of our reading series. And this is our first event. So thank you to them.
First I'd like to welcome John Hennessy, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He's also a poet who has published two collections of poetry-- Coney Island Pilgrims and Bridge and Tunnel, and who, in 2011, founded a pretty remarkable literary magazine that's both a print journal and a digital journal.
Named, The Common. And I think he should be one to tell you where that wonderful name comes from, and what it signifies. But it signifies a common area, among other things.
As well as some other interesting things. The Common has published in only 3 plus years hundreds and hundreds of writers and also published graphic work. There are so many that I can't name them all. But I picked a selection, beginning with James Franco. That James Franco.
I know he's ubiquitous, isn't he? What it must it be like to be James Franco? Major Jackson, Brett Anthony Johnson, David Lehman-- that seems very cunning, because he's the editor of Best American Poetry. But also a major American poet. Pablo Neruda-- obviously dead, but they have a translation--
--grant, and that they're doing translations. Don Share, who was here a year ago. Mary Jo Salter. Terese Svoboda. Edith Wharton. And many other hundreds of people.
Yeah, dare I tell how hard it is to get new work from her.
Not a good translator.
[INAUDIBLE] and to the Mount.
Right now they're publishing Ishion Hutchinson. So this is a very impressive list. I think he's even more impressive than Edith Wharton.
We're also welcoming Valerie Borchardt from the Georges Borchardt Agency. It was founded by Georges and Anne Borchardt in 1967. Its original list of authors, not surprisingly, was dominated by people who were French or writing in French. Some of these people are still represented by the agency under estates.
And it includes-- it's amazing-- Barthes, Samuel Beckett, Pierre Bordieu, Deleuze, Marguerite Duras, Foucault, Ionesco-- you know he's Romanian but wrote in French. Lacan, Robbe-Grillet, Sartre, Elie Wiesel. I mean, that's just a selection of the astounding list that they have.
Presently, most of their writers are English-language writers. And they can include poets and scholars as well as fiction writers. John Ashbery, Robert Bly, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, who's emeritus professor here. Mary Caponegro, Robert Coover, Stanley Crouch, Charles Johnson-- Pulitzer Prize winner. Fred Kaplan, Tracy Kidder, Ian McEwan. Susan-- does she "minnow" or--
Minot--I didn't get it right on the second try. Susan Minot. John Rechy, Richard Rodriguez George Steiner, Judy Troy, and again, Elie Wiesel. But I'll save you the best for last-- Adam Price, who's in this room today.
And Stephanie Vaughn.
And Stephanie Vaughn. And then, Ethan Nosowsky from Graywolf Press. Not New York, but a much greater city-- Minneapolis. You're now in Minneapolis rather than St. Paul?
They are in Minneapolis, but I work for them from California.
You work from California. That's going to bring up the digital question, which we were just talking about.
An astounding list that Graywolf has. I'll just read a few. Elizabeth Alexander, Robert Bly, Robert Boswell, Kate Braverman, Joseph Campana, Vikram Chandra, Martha Collins, Mark Doty, Gerald Early, Alice Fulton from Cornell, Dana Gioia, Rachel Ingalls, [INAUDIBLE], Harryette Mullen, Carl Phillips, Salvatore Scibona, Charles Simmons, Tracy K. Smith, Melanie [INAUDIBLE], Tomas Transtomer-- Nobel Prize. Natasha Trethewey. Also James Franco.
Rilke, Dante, and J. Robert Lennon.
Your poster-- the poster you may have read, announcing this-- says, "Shop Talk--Learn the Ins and Outs of the Publishing Industry with Literary Agent Valerie Borchardt and Editors John Hennessy and Ethan Nosowsky. These experts will share their experience and will talk about the kind of writing that grabs their attention. Bring your questions."
Well, we're going to ask each of them to speak, and then open this up to your questions. But I thought we might begin with a big question that you can do whatever you want to with, which is, what you-- as people who see a side of the profession we don't see-- think is happening to the book as an artifact? Is it going to disappear? Should we be selling our bookcases and giving our books to the Friends of the Library sale? Is it already gone?
Are fiction and poetry going to disappear, even in their virtual form? Are we going to have only YouTube readings? Will everything devolve into a performance? Or do you see something else happening? Maybe things happening simultaneously. Maybe there's a spectrum of possibilities.
And I thought we might start with John Hennessy, because you're working in both the digital and--
Right, and I can keep it specific to what we do. If you see-- and I have free copies that I'll bring to the reception. This is a beautifully-designed magazine. It comes out twice a year. But we also do digital, simultaneous, free publication. Our philosophy is that if you want to buy a book, you'll buy a book. If you're going to read it online, and that's how you like to read, please read what we offer. Please do.
And we also offer online content that is not in the print journal. Five days a week-- new material. I do a monthly poetry feature. Sometimes it's a single author. Sometimes as many as 10. And we're going to do a couple anthologies this way, with say, three monthly installments. We'll do one on Chinese poetry, coming up very soon. We're doing one on Korean poetry, probably in the next month.
If Amherst College, which sponsors us, had its way, the new Amherst College Press-- and we're their first publication-- it would be strictly digital. And it would be free. But again, this is an academic press. And their thinking is, if we-- because Amherst College is such a wealthy institution, they can afford to keep scholarship going this way. They may as well. So they have to hire people to work there. And then the other costs are very low.
I don't know if they're going to pay their-- we pay our contributors. I don't know if they'll pay their authors though. Right. I don't know. It hasn't happened yet.
When we run the print issue, we have to raise the money ourselves. We do it through events, parties, donors, and of course sales and subscriptions. But really, we do need money from outside.
I was going to say that when I saw that question, it really made me look more to the past, and how there's just a history of people always being worried about what's going to happen to the book, and what is going to happen to authors, and how horribly paid authors are.
And one thing that came to mind was the paperback. Paperbacks have not been around that long. I think maybe late '30s, early '40s. I believe they were created for GIs, so they could carry them around in their back pockets. And I'm guessing-- even though I wasn't around-- that at that time, people in the publishing industry were freaking out. Like, what if this is the only way that people are going to read now. And it looks terrible. And it's cheaper.
And it evolved. And there were beautiful trade paperbacks. And books have always-- there's just a progression of the different ways in which they've been sold. And people have always historically complained. So when it went from the mom and pop, nice little bookstore-- which we all loved-- to the malls, everyone thought that was awful, too. But actually, more people were able to buy books.
And now that a lot of people buy things on the Internet, it's available to even more people. And even e-books-- I like to think that now people who wouldn't normally be reading things are reading them, because it's so easy for them to get them. So even though I don't love the idea of reading things that way, and I really don't believe that books are going to disappear, I'm not against all these new things.
But one thing that I did find-- we're in the process of moving offices from the 14th floor to the 12th floor. We're going to a much smaller space. So we're uncovering all these artifacts as we try and figure out what to throw away. And actually, I believe my father has been doing this since, like, 1956-- not the '60s. So we literally were finding 1099s for our authors from the early '60s. He kept everything.
But, I just thought this was funny. So I found-- this isn't that old. It's from 2001. Let's find the cover. From the L.A. Times Book Review, and it says, "Is Publishing Dead?"
What year is it?
2001. You know, and if you go through this, everybody's talking about the exact same things that they're talking about now. And they're worrying about electronic publication. And, I worried about it, too. But I feel pretty positive about publishing in general. I think that the most important thing is the author. And so as long as the author is around, and the author-- if they're writing with a quill, or they're writing with a pencil, or they're writing with a ballpoint, or on their typewriter or on their computer, it doesn't matter. Because they're the most important thing.
So as long as-- you know, even if it did turn out-- which it's not. I really believe it's not going to happen that books were only read on YouTube. It would still be the author. The author would be the important person. They'd still be getting their work out there.
Yeah, I think Valerie makes an important distinction, which is there's business issue about publishing here. And there's an art issue about writing. And I certainly have zero fears about writing and literature. I mean, I guess there's an open question whether there will be jobs for people like Valerie and me in 20 years. But that's not as important, except to me.
Yeah. But, I think the important thing for publisher, in terms of the fiscal artifacts-- we make more money on a print book than we do on an electronic book. So our business models hinge on the existence of print in a pretty significant way.
I think what's super-important is that publishers have to make an object that's nice enough that people would rather buy it than buy an e-book. And I've worked for three publishers in my-- I've been in publishing for 20 years. And I've worked for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Graywolf, and McSweeney's. And all three are places that take some care with the way they produce the physical objects-- McSweeney's, obviously, to the point of fetishizing them.
They try to make it worth your money. And what's certainly happened to the industry over the past several years-- and publishers were quaking in their books about whether e-books were going to eat into their revenues. But e-books have kind of plateaued.
The reader has now saturated the market. They're getting cheap enough that the people who really want an e-reader can buy one. So we're seeing what the level of desire is for the e-books. And e-book sales have gone like that for several years. And now they've kind of gone like that.
So I think the fear among publishers have kind of subsided a bit. Certainly, it surprised, I think, a lot of us who have been in the business for a while. I remember when I was a young editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, I remember in the late '90s a couple of guys came in to present their fancy, new, electronic reading device called "The Rocker e-Reader"-- I think it was called. I remember they walked in our office with this thick, clunky thing that was book-sized. And they gave us one that we could sort of play around with.
So the guy in the rights department who had it invited us in to sort of play with it. And it took ages for the pages to turn, for the page to refresh. And it was sort of thick and heavy. And all of us at this fuddy-duddy old publisher were like, oh god! These things are no threat! They are horrifying. And nobody's going to want to read this way EVER.
And of course, that changed dramatically. And now we see lots of people do want to read that way.
One other mini-story I'll tell is-- it was interesting. And there was just evidence of what I was just saying. But while I was at McSweeney's, we published a book by David Byrne from Talking Heads called, How Music Works. And he made a super-nice-looking book. It had this puffy cover. A lot of colored images inside. It was really an amazing physical object. And it was a big best-sellers. And when you have best-sellers, the percentage of e-books is quite a lot higher than it might be for your average novel.
What was super-interesting was 15% were e-books. And we spent a lot of time making this e-book, with audio files and all that stuff. People didn't buy it. They wanted the physical book, because we made something that was super-nice-looking.
So I think I'll just end there. I think e-books are going to be a major piece of the kind of writing that you guys are doing. And very important to our companies. And I think it's going to move in directions that we still can't really even imagine. But I'm pretty confident that there's an ongoing and strong part of the market that's going to be print.
I just wanted to give one example. Probably our biggest back-list, best-selling book is Elie Wiesel's Night. And historically it's always sold about a quarter of a million copies a year. And then when it was an Oprah selection, it went up to about half a million copies. What we're finding now is that it still sells a quarter of a million copies a year. But then there's a whole other e-book component. And they don't seem to be eating into each other. I don't know exactly why, but.
We definitely notice that the e-book sales eat into our paperback sales. So if we publish in hard cover, we're selling fewer paperbacks, and subsequently, than we're used to.
Well, I think it's different for older things. I mean, we also have Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which does tremendously well.
Course adoptions too.
Yeah, yeah. But it's just easy. I just think the ease of being able to [INAUDIBLE]. It makes sense for paperbacks because of the price point. And you can get the e-book as soon as the hardcover comes out.
I'm just curious about the economics of it. Because it occurs to me that you're right. The whole history of reading, at least in the west, is the history of enfranchisement through new technologies. And the Gutenberg press replaces all those monks in the scriptorium, copying books, and allows the middle class to start buying the paperback, allows people to own books for the first time. I'm sure there were many families that never bought a book, or went to the library, and never owned a book until the paperbacks came. Students would probably not keep their books unless they could keep a cheap paperback.
So it's encouraging to think that the Kindle and so on will enfranchise more people. But then there's the question of-- and I'd be interested in John, hearing you talk about this-- what the economics is of publishing online.
Well, Ethan brought up a good point that the writers are the most important. And for us, we depend on the writers to make this product every six months. And you mentioned some of the top-name poets and writers that have sent us their work without even being solicited, most of them. I think half of the appear, at least, is to be in something that looks this good, the paper feels, smells good even-- especially when you open the box. It's fantastic.
But very early on-- and this is why I was glad that Amherst College Press picked us up, because my co-editors didn't agree. I wanted simultaneous online publication for free. And initially we delayed it by six months. But when we came into Amherst College Press, they said you must do it.
I was advised by Don Share, who is now the editor at Poetry magazine. And after Ruth Lilly gave that enormous gift-- I'm sure some of you know, it was a couple hundred million dollars-- to the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, they saw their subscriptions increase, even as they made everything available free online.
Of course, they've been around for a little while. We're upstarts. But they were rejuvenated by this gift.
And you're getting yours free; you're getting your online presence.
That's right. It's free. And we've had seven issues, and our eighth is coming out soon. And at least three of them have sold out already. So, we're doing OK. But we need [? Aaron's cottage ?].
I'd like to ask about a big general question, then we'll open things up to the rest of you. You three are in a position of seeing trends before anybody else sees trends. That is, what writers are sending, and what people are printing. Whether print means virtual printing or paper printing. And I wondered if you wanted to share with us what's happening right now.
And I also wondered whether the two trends are intersecting. That is, what writers want to send you, is that what you as editors want to receive or you as a literary representative want to be able to take to a publisher? Are those two different things? And I wonder, really, whether things have changed in the 21st century in the United States?
I'm really thinking since 9/11, since this is 9/11. Because I expected to see it appear in our art. And of course, it did in a very literal way. Right away, people were trying to rise to that occasion in poems and narratives and some not-great films, but in novels and in stories. But I think the powerful response to that is still coming, is still upon us, and will be arriving from some subterranean spot.
One of the writers that I work with, this Irish writer, Kevin Barry-- he was saying something similar to that, because he was on a panel. He was saying he always thinks it takes about 10 years for an historical event to filter its way effectively into art. So I think that's maybe right, that we still haven't seen some of the real responses to that period in our history.
I was thinking there might be a tone change.
Well, I remember people were declaiming the death of irony. Immediately after 9/11, on about 9/16, I was living in New York then. And I was working for FSG. And I ran into the writer [INAUDIBLE], He's a friend of mine, and I ran into him in Union Square. His novel-- he's a satirist, among other things. But his novel had been published. It's pub date was 9/11. And days after that, people were loudly declaiming the death of exactly what he was doing.
And he was just, you know-- his publisher had called him and said, we understand if you don't want to go on your tour right now. And he said, no, I want to go on tour. He's gone on to have a perfectly fine career.
I don't really know about trends. I mean, what I'm seeing-- and this is kind of obvious, I guess-- is that almost all the publishers are part of these huge conglomerates. And the editors-- not something like Graywolf-- but the editors, for the most, can't make any kind of decisions on their own. They need to run everything by marketing and publicity and who knows what else.
And what leads to is that they're all looking not to the future, in terms of what's going to sell for a long time. But they're looking for what will make them, hopefully-- and nobody really knows, when you're buying something, if it's going to be a big best seller or not. But they're trying to second-guess what's going to be a big best seller, because it looks good for them.
And the editors are being fired, and they're moving around. So they're not really thinking about the future, either. Because they don't know in five years if they'll still be in the same place. And so what I do see is that everybody wants, or is asking, big plot-driven, big characters, lots of stuff going on. They're not that interested in the actual language, necessarily.
Which is the opposite of--
Which is the opposite of what all of us are doing, anyway. So we're definitely having a tougher time. It takes longer to find-- most of the time-- it takes longer to find the right editor for a book than it used.
I know, certainly, 50 years ago, you had your friends in the business. You called them up. I know this is the right thing for you. They would buy it. They didn't even necessarily read it. Especially with the French books that we were selling, if you called and said, this is a great book. It's in French. And we'd be like, if you say it's great, we'll publish it.
So that's a big change. I mean, it's been going on for a while. I don't think it was affected by 9/11.
Are you seeing a surge in plot-driven poems?
No. I live in Western Mass.
It's at the center of post-avant poetry, where I live.
Yeah. I don't know. I think for us a zone that we're publishing a lot in and that we're doing quite well is, I think there has been a real resurgence in the essay and [INAUDIBLE] lyric essay writing. We're seeing a of hybrid texts that mix some memoir and criticism. It's something that we've had quite a lot of success publishing in, whether that ranges from John D'Agata to Leslie Jamison recently.
And I'm publishing next year next year [INAUDIBLE] and Maggie Nelson. So we're doing a lot of these writers who are--
--doing really kind of creative nonfiction that might not necessarily be very easily categorized. And I publish a British writer, Geoff Dyer, who also is pushing some of the lines between fiction and nonfiction in interesting ways.
Would you like to ask questions?
Oh, I'm sorry. Stephanie, I was making a joke. I am seeing more narrative poetry.
Oh. It was a joke.
I just wanted to fit that in.
You are seeing more. Are you publishing more narrative poetry?
Are you serious when you say the language doesn't matter anymore?
It's secondary. It's not that it doesn't matter anymore. It's not that it doesn't matter anymore.
So it's transparent style is sort of what people are starting to look for more than the elaborate style?
The question was, is transparent style more what people are looking for than elaborate style? Right?
Is that what you're asking?
Yeah, maybe. I don't know if I would put it in those words. I just think they want things that are really straightforward. They want things that are really more entertaining and educational. They want to know that something's going to sell a lot of copies.
I would argue that in the literary neck of the woods, where Graywolf-- we often look at the sentences first, I would guess. It's great if it has a story. I love stories. But the writing's got to be really good for us to publish it. So I would quibble with those two things being either incompatible with a literary press. I think it's just trends and style happen. For a while, there might be a lot of maximalist big, Faulknerian sentences. And then there might be some really stripped-down dirty realism. And those are both great kinds of writing.
I mean Graywolf doesn't-- I think of some presses, like Grove in the old days, or New Directions even now. And had a very distinct sensibility. They did a certain kind of writing. And Graywolf is probably more ecumenical. So we would do something that was either maximalist or minimalist depending on if it's good.
Well, I think that's something that's changed, too. You used to be able to distinguish the different houses. And now, a lot of them are so similar. There's no difference. They're all doing the same thing.
Yes. A couple of questions. The first one is that if you have self-published a book, but it's been reviewed well by people who aren't your family or your cousin, does that make it harder to sell? Is that like a kiss of death in the old-school publishing world?
Would you repeat the question?
Oh, if you-- I haven't dealt with self-publishing at all. But maybe so that's the answer right there. The question was, if you self-published a book, and gotten good reviews that weren't from family members, is that the kiss of death? Is it possible to still get it published?
I mean, it happens. You hear about. I think that sometimes there are editors out there who are looking to see what's out there on the internet.
Yeah, I think at the big commercial houses, that's certainly happening more and more, and that people are letting self-published authors kind of fight it out and see what works. And then they either pick up the author for a new book, or republish the book that had been self-published in a smaller way.
The second part of my question is-- and this goes to something, Valerie, you were saying [INAUDIBLE]. The way that, I guess, the identity of the major publishers now, if a really indisputable masterpiece came out, like Ulysses, and everybody recognized it was a great book, how would that actually be marketed? Would you take it to a major house? Would it be smooth? How would they handle a real old masterpiece if it came out today?
I'm sure they would handle it like almost everything they handle. It would have, like, no budget for publicity. They would let it drop somewhere. I don't know that they would do something different for Ulysses than any other book.
I just want to say about Ulysses-- Virginia Woolf turned it down for Hogarth Press. So--
I actually have another [INAUDIBLE].
I also read recently an incident of his trying to publish Dubliners in Ireland on his last trip back to Dublin. And no luck there.
So I wanted to bring it back to Elie Wiesel. I have a letter from Scribner's from 1958 that says, "Dear Mr. Borchardt. Thank you so very much for giving us the privilege of reading Elie Wiesel's [INAUDIBLE]. It is, as you say, a horrifying, extremely moving document. And I wish I could say this was something for Scribner's. However, we have certain misgivings as to the size of the American market for what remains-- despite [INAUDIBLE] brilliant introduction-- a document."
I mean, for all I know, if Ulysses was being shopped around today, people would just be like, this is incomprehensible.
Which a lot of people said then. Moby Dick people said that about. Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass. I mean, these are not new stories.
I mean Stephen Crane paid people to read Red Badge of Courage on the New York subways. And it didn't work.
He got rich after he died, as many do. Right there. Olive green in the middle.
Oh. I was just wondering what you guys think about crossover between the literary and commercial worlds. Like, if E.L. James suddenly came out with something that really was on par with Ulysses, would she be able to get published by, and read, by people who go for literary work, rather than just [INAUDIBLE] work. And I guess vice versa. Although I guess there's more of a barrier, sophistication-wise, [INAUDIBLE] from commercial to literary.
We're talking about the crossover between literary and commercial.
I mean, I'm really happy when we have an author that we, you know-- we think all our authors are literary. Even though it's kind of a bad word in the industry. But when one of the, tuns out to do really well, which is when they're suddenly called commercial, we're really happy.
I don't know if Ulysses is a great example. Just because it's like-- if you're using something that difficult. But often we have authors who are complex and write beautifully. And all of a sudden they're published by-- I had a book called The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond. And I had trouble selling this book. And it turned to be a best seller on the New York Times Best Seller. But they sold it to Bantam. And it wasn't my first choice. And they saw the commercial potential in it. And it did really well. But it was still a literary novel. So there is crossover.
I think a lot of the kind of boutique imprints of the big literary publishers, that's exactly what they're looking for. It's a book that's well-written but that has interesting characters and good stories. That's what they think can sell a lot of copies. So I'd say there's probably a publisher dying to read E.L. James for a literary audience.
Also, Vintage republished E.L. James. One of the great literary publishers in the country.
Way in the back.
I've been waiting to get an editor in the room to ask this question.
I'm seeing more and more journalists now doing what the The Common is doing, where you've got both the physical presence in the magazine, and you have an online presence. And in many cases, some of the work that's published online never shows up in print.
Ah, excellent question.
And I'm wondering how you make that judgment as to which goes where. And if there's a value judgment that's [INAUDIBLE].
I do my best. I know exactly where you're going. I do my best, because I'm also a poet. You don't want to be marginalized. I think the ideal is to have your poem appear in print, reprinted online, included in Best American Poetry, and end up in our book.
So, I will never take anyone's work-- now, we have different editors at The Common. I don't want to step on any toes. But I will never take anyone's work for online publication if I haven't already accepted for print publication, except in the last six months because my backlog for print was 18 months long. And I wrote, and I said, if you want to wait, you can send it to me again in 18 months. Or I can publish it within the next three to six months at the most, online. And we have a deal. You always send your work to me. I'll get back to you quickly. It can come right to my email. And I'll do my best to get that poet's work in the print journal.
But it's an excellent question. And I remember thinking that about 10 years ago, when a couple of the big, solid, old, quarterlies started doing that. I won't name them.
Started publishing things online that they--
They would say, well we won't publish this in print. But we will include it online. And it was clear that that was a lesser form of publication. Even though more people are going to read it.
Question for Valerie Borchardt and Ethan Nosowsky. Do either of you see e-book royalties as rich as 50% in the next 10 years?
Could you repeat that, please?
She asked if either us of saw e-books royalties rising to 50% in the next 10 years.
I don't feel like I can predict the future. But I guess the short answer is, probably not.
Is that because of the economics of the business?
Well, Ethan and I were just talking about this. It just kind of seems like it's plateaued to a certain extent. But it's so hard to say. In 10 years we could be reading things completely differently. I have no idea what's going to happen in 10 years. So I hesitate to really--
Yeah, I guess I would say that the industry standard right now for e-books is that publishers are paying 25% of the--
Is that what your question is? How much they're paying? Or is it 50% of, I'm sorry-- maybe I don't--
Oh, we get 50% for some things. Never mind. Yeah.
It's not the industry standard by any means. But yeah, especially with a lot of our books that were already under contract with publishers, where the contracts didn't have e-books in them-- you know. There are e-book companies that are giving 50%. Yes, I do see it going up to 50%. Because we're seeing it a lot already.
Just a comment about that.
Oh, over there.
When looking at an unsolicited query, what is the minimum to maximum time, roughly, you will give an unsolicited query? And, is there any message, metamessage, behind the reasons that so many representatives give as the reason for rejecting? Can you read anything into it that isn't actually there?
I don't look at unsolicited queries. Yeah.
Does anyone in this group look at unsolicited queries?
Graywolf doesn't accept un-agented prose. We do accept some un-agented poetry. But it's trickier with big book publishers rather than literary journals, say, which also get a lot of queries, probably. I don't know. I wouldn't read too much into them. If they're very simple-- then it was not right for the person you sent it for, and you should move on, and not overthink it. And never try to argue back and convince somebody, because what's the point?
But writers are always going to read rejection letters as if they were reading love letters.
I guess if somebody's actually read your book--
Looking for affirmation.
Well, I guess if somebody's actually read your work, you got some response. If you're having trouble getting an agent or something, and you're getting a million different responses. One person liked Bob, but didn't like Cindy. And the other person liked Cindy, but didn't like Bob. And one person loved the story, but not the writing. Another person liked the--
If you're hearing a wide range of responses, you just probably haven't found the right person. You should keep plugging away. But if you're hearing a similar sort of reaction, you've probably got a problem you need to address before you send it back out.
Do you write notes to--
I write notes. Yes. Although it's gotten harder because now everything's done electronically. And we're given these forms. When I used to get paper submissions, I would always write something. Or at least initial it, so they knew that I saw it. I read everything that comes to me.
And when you wrote those were you just being nice? Or did you hope that person would send something?
No. It's taking up my time. Right? Seriously.
People do find my email address and send me unsolicited queries. And I'll respond to them, even though technically we don't take them. But most the time I'm rejecting them because the person's clearly not familiar with what we publish. So that is like the most common and annoying thing that happens.
So buy some-- or read-- some Graywolf.
Just know what we do. I mean, it helps. I say, why did you send it to me?
When do you suggest emerging writers or new writers try sending out their work?
As soon as you're really happy with what you have. Like, if you think it's ready, and it's finished, and you're ready to let it out into the world, then you should send it out. Don't wait.
Oh. Absolutely. Soon.
We were going in circles this morning. And we kept coming back to this. Yes, if you're here for that purpose, you bet. You said "vetted." Even Valerie, you said they were vetted already.
As soon as--
[INAUDIBLE] his poetry journal.
I feel like the lesser cousin now. No, when you're ready. When you know where it should go, send it there. If you have to ask people, you're not ready. I mean, if you need to ask, where should I send this, go yourself and read them. I'm answering in terms of magazines. Go read the magazines.
It's so easy now. You can get caught in a wormhole and find lots of different journals. Even print journals. Just spending an hour or two online. I say, go to the library. Look at the print journals. And if you see where your work belongs, send it there.
I totally agree.
Mr. Nosowsky, you mentioned that you've been seeing a rise in nonfiction and essays. Can you tell us more about that? [INAUDIBLE]
I should say a lot of these things are starting in magazines, whether it's The Believer, or Tin House, or Granta, or wherever. But I'm seeing a bit more informal innovation in some of the nonfiction essay writing that I'm seeing in fiction, where a lot of the experimental work is similar-- or what people are calling experimental work-- is awfully similar to the experimentation that's been going on for forty years.
But we do some essays that are pretty straightforward. I've seen Leslie Jamison's essays that have been really successful this year are fairly traditional essays, but from a perspective that feels a little bit new. Some of them are formally odder than others. But others go-- we're publishing a book by a [INAUDIBLE] poet Claudia Rankine that are effectively essays. Although she's a poet. And they're much more lyrical, I guess I would say.
Do you want to talk about the kind of nonfiction you're--
Oh, I can't. I have nothing to do with it.
Are you selling more nonfiction than--
We've always sold more. I mean, nonfiction's always been easier to sell. You just need a good topic. Always easier.
I have sort of a personal question. What are your opinions on the rise of young adult ages being read by all ages?
I'm not against anyone reading any kind of book for any reason. I guess my only thing I would say, since I feel like I've been dated is--
--if you're an adult, and that's the only kind of thing you're reading--
--I don't know. Challenge your thinking a little bit more.
I'd say if it's the only thing.
At least they're reading.
I just feel like-- I agree. As long as you're reading something that's good, it doesn't bother me. Some of those are very good books.
Yep. I just reread The Phantom Tollbooth several years ago. It was awesome.
That's a middle grade. [INAUDIBLE]. I've never [INAUDIBLE]. That's not true. FSG has an awesome children's list. But I've never edited any of those books. So it's not a realm that I know very well.
This is an honest question. Is there now young adult poetry?
Yeah. I think I just read something about this the other day. I think there should be.
I have a colleague who calls certain literary poets-- [INAUDIBLE], but this well-known poet's a YA poet. But he doesn't mean it as a--
Yeah, I was going to say Shel Silverstein. You're right, exactly. Robert Service?
Way in the back.
At what point do you think it's appropriate for a writer to look for a literary agent as opposed to just sending out their manuscripts and stuff [INAUDIBLE]?
You mean for story collections?
At what point look for an agent rather than sending to magazines and publishers?
I think after you've had a little bit of success getting things published. It's a really fine line between-- from when we want to take people on, it's a fine line. Because we don't want to take-- it's risky for us to take someone on too early, when they're not really yet. But at the same time, if we read someone and we see that they're going in the right direction, and we can't really do anything for them, yet, it's a little bit too early. And then we worry that we're going to lose the opportunity to work with that person. Because someone else invariably will snatch them up, if they're really talented.
But, you know, I would say, after you've had little bit of success getting some of those stories published somewhere, so that you can at least get someone's attention by saying, I've been in these three, four, five places, and I feel like now I'm ready to have representation.
And your work will get better as you're edited. You'll learn more from the editors, hopefully, that you work with at the magazines. And then your work will get better. And you'll be better able to get an agent or a publisher.
It depends what you're working on, too. You know, for poets, you've just got to publish in a lot of journals before you start-- I mean, they don't have agents, generally. Before you start looking for a publisher, I guess. You've just got to really rack up the publications.
But if you're working on a novel that's super hard to excerpt, and you've finished your novel, and you're happy with it, and you can't think of how else to fiddle with it, then look for an agent. And get ready to hear "no" a lot.
Yeah. You have to thick skin.
I was going to say that earlier. Be ready to hear "no" also. Be sure that you can handle that.
Yeah, that's right.
How much of a role do the agents play in actually shaping a manuscript?
It totally depends on the person-- how much the author needs their work edited before it can be seen. How good the relationship is. Some of my clients-- I have a feel for how offended they're going to be by a suggestion that I might make. And others are really open to it and happy, and happy to get them.
Some authors deliver things that are almost perfect. And some deliver things that are a mess. And you have to work with them before it goes out. So it really completely depends. There's no hard and fast rule.
Can we ask the same question of the editors? How much does an editor-- in your work, let's ask. In your work, how much time can you and will you spend with an author?
I mean, I try not to move a book into the production department if I still think it needs a lot of work. I mean, I try not to schedule it. [INAUDIBLE].
We certainly do a lot. Every place I've worked, there's been a lot of editing done. I do hear about books that have just really not gotten edited, or not edited well. I know it happens. But everywhere I've been, I've watched editors working really hard.
Now, what should be said is that-- I'm sure this is true of agents too-- your day in the publishing industry is mostly taken by meetings, phone calls, and emails, and marketing meetings, and god knows what. And editing and reading manuscripts usually happens at night or on the weekends. So it depends how much you want to work.
The question is for John. I was thinking about, there are so many new journals. Even The Common is fairly new.
And there are so many journals around. Can you say why you wanted to create The Common?
The question is, there a lot of new journals. And with so many out there, why would you create a new one?
It wasn't my idea.
But I jumped on it really quick. Thank you. Because you let me say something. My co-editor had the idea that she wanted to start a journal with the idea of place being central to the work. OK? And when she presented that to me, and then someone else asked me to do the poetry editing.
But I interpret that very loosely. And sometimes the site in question is the poem itself. But what it did appeal to is my interest in Anglophone poetry from all over the world. And so, with this interest in place, I said, as long as that means we can do a kind of atlas or a map of Anglophone poetry, that's great. We also do some translation.
But our focus is primarily Anglophone work. So that's why I felt I had the right, or whatever, to go ahead and create that.
But the fact that there are so many journals should inspire you people who are just now starting to set out.
Yes, I was going to ask for last words before we break for the reception. Any things you wanted to leave these writers with? And maybe we should ask you how you get into your professions, too? What if we want to be editors and agents?
Well, let's see. I have a bunch of fairly useless literature degrees.
And I didn't publish anything. And I wasn't a writer. And I didn't want to teach. So publishing was all that was left for me.
No, honestly, that was kind of true. But you start as an assistant. And you just stay around long enough and hope to get promoted. Which is what I did. I think the one thing I would say-- there's been a lot of talk at the beginning of the panel on the death of literature, or the death of publishing, or are people going to be reading? Where and when it's going to happen-- I think it's actually a tremendously exciting time to be a writer.
I think there's a lot of good writing going on, and a lot of different ways to publish-- more than there's been, certainly, in my lifetime. And as much as the industry's changing, I think it's a super interesting moment. And I've seen tons of good work.
There's a legendary guy who works at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco named Paul Yamazaki, who's been buying books there for the store for 30, 40 years. And they had their three best years in a row these last few years. And he thinks we're in a golden age of interesting and good writing that we'll recognize later. So, it depends who you ask and what their perspective is.
But when I was growing up, it seemed like, you had to be out there like an experimental writer, or a traditional writer, or a commercial writer-- you had to be one of these things. But it seems like a great-- there doesn't seem to be a dominant school of writing anymore, to me. You can be such a magpie now, and pick from experimental traditions and traditional traditions. I think this goes for poetry and fiction and nonfiction.
And so, I don't know. It just seems like a great moment where a lot of the tools that are in a writer's toolkit are available to you.
Well, in terms of becoming a literary agent, I guess it helps to be born into the family--
--really want to do. But the people who we hire, they've studied literature. If you want to go into publishing, I'd say be really well-read and love reading. And it's like any thing these days. You go get an unpaid internship in a literary agency, and hope that they take notice of what a great person you are, and they hire you. And then it's pretty much [INAUDIBLE].
Yeah. You have to be willing to work for nothing for a while. We met for something like two years before we even produced a single issue. It didn't help that we stared at the end of December, 2008, right after the crash.
I wanted to show you this. I brought a bunch of prompts. This is The Wolf. And it's edited by James Byrne from the UK. And this is-- it's a poetry journal that also has essays. But it's strictly poetry oriented. I only discovered it recently. This is more like what I had in mind. But they do include a lot of translation. And their focus is on political poetry, not just Anglophone.
So the book is going to survive. It's still alive. You have to have a day job, even if you're going to be an editor, break into editing, or an agency.
Or if you're going to write.
And I would also add, I think anybody writing in English is in a very lucky moment, in the cultural history. Because English is getting bigger everyday. It's a welcoming language. And there are languages, and there are governments, that are putting up their hands to stop new words from crossing the border. There have always been language reformers in other cultures.
But there's no language reform in the United States. And maybe the language will be even richer tomorrow than it is today. And even richer next year than it is this year. So there should be a voice for everyone who wants to find a voice.
I ask you know to thank our three speakers.
This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Literary agent Valerie Borchardt (Georges Borchardt, Inc.), poet and editor John Hennessy, and editorial director Ethan Nosowsky (Graywolf Press) discuss aspects of the literary editing and publishing process.
Recorded Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014 at Cornell University by the Department of English.