Sunday, August 19, 2012

Life After the MFA: Exploring Publication Options

Well folks, my 150-page thesis manuscript made it in by the mid-August deadline. Suddenly it seems those two years in the MFA program at USF went past in a flash! I'm staving off a little postpartum slump (meant metaphorically, of course) as I consider my career options and stare down my student debt. Though the freelance budget at Patch was severed I'm still hanging on with the Press Democrat, and I accepted a contract position teaching creative writing with Take My Word For It in a couple of local elementary schools. While I search for full time work, I am excited to create a spreadsheet of essays and stories to revise and submit for publication.

In the spring USF had a panel on publishing, including two literary agents, two editors (of a literary journal and an independent publisher), and an author. The latter, Wendy Tokunaga, an '08 USF alum, said the advance she got on two books paid for her MFA. After "long years of rejection" she published those first two novels through an agent, but with low sales she veered from the traditional route with three e-books, which McSweeney's Editorial Director Ethan Nosowsky predicted will "take the larger portion of the market." Despite her success, Tokunaga, author of Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, admitted she makes more money editing manuscripts than writing fiction.

Penny Nelson, an agent with Manus & Associates Literary Agency, encouraged writers to try the traditional path, but agreed we don't have to be discouraged by rejection since there are other options. She said some credentials, aside from the literary merit of submissions, help catch her eye: She looks for an MFA, who a writer studied under, any awards (no matter how small), and prior publication, as well as journalism experience, blog hits and expertise/platform (for nonfiction). It's harder to sell everything these days, it seems. She said people go online for travel books (how to, at least). She said it's harder to sell a book of short fiction than it is poetry. (Academic Director Kate Brady suggested University presses and literary contests.) And even when she reads something good she asks if it serves better as a book and not a long-form feature article in a magazine. Her advice: get your best stories and essays into literary journals first.

Laura Cogan, editor of ZYZZYVA, The Last Word: West Coast Writers & Artists, looks for a "distinctive voice that is surprising, not cliche" in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. It's one of many lit journals where I'll submit my own work--a collection of nine personal essays. One of them was already accepted for publication in the 2013 fall issue of South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art, which I heard from after entering (and not winning) a nonfiction contest. So I actually paid to have my work published! Though most journals don't pay, except in journal copies, the possible attention from universities, agents and even publishing houses can benefit writers.

One such success is exemplified by a fellow student in my cohort, the brilliant writer Courtney Moreno. Her story, "Help is on the Way: Tales of an Ambulance Driver," first appeared in the LA Weekly and then published as "Fed to the Streets" in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 anthology by McSweeney's, founded by author Dave Eggers. One year into her graduate studies, Moreno was solicited by the San Francisco independent publisher for more work--did she have anything else she was working on, they wanted to know. Um, yes, an MFA thesis. Well, she got an offer and is now working with editor Ethan Nosowsky to turn her thesis into a book.

"There's no manuscript that doesn't need editing," said Nosowsky, who wants to make sure the author and publisher are "talking about the same book." Even when a manuscript is a mess, if he knows exactly what to do with it he'll talk with an author about what it needs. If all goes well, they'll make a deal. But if he can't articulate what needs help, he must reject the book.

That's where a developmental agent can be helpful, said agent Nelson, as some agents do edits before sending the book to an acquisitions editor. Elizabeth Kracht, an agent with Kimberley Cameron & Associates (where I interned as a first reader), wants to help authors. But with hundreds of submissions weekly, that kind of time can be tough to find. She said she's "debut-author prone," but recommended getting professional editing done so the submission to an agent is polished.

After the panel my fiction professor, Karl Soehnlein, agreed there are many more ways to get published than the traditional model, and self-publishing doesn't carry the stigma it used to. He said hearing back from a literary agent can be incredibly slow, and you'll most likely hear "no." Even when you do get published, these days publicity budgets are slim and authors can often do better with their own PR. He said it can be a trade-off--the more they pay for your book, the better you have to do to pay back your advance. An upside to doing your own book tour, rather than one paid for by the publisher, is you can choose places where you know people. Not only does it cut down on hospitality costs, but friends can bring in audiences and help spread the word by posting fliers, etc. He also encouraged us to think beyond the financial benefits of publication to things like solicitations for anthologies and garnering a teaching position.


rosaria williams said...

Nicole, congratulations are in order!

PKB said...

Congratulations my friend! Stay positive and focused and the world is your oyster! I am trying to sell some of my photographs. . .please comment on my blog postings if you get the time.

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