02 December 2013

What do editors want?

A few weeks ago, at the Hawke’s Bay poetry conference (which I blogged about a little a few weeks ago), I was on a panel called ‘What do editors want?’ (or something like that). This is editors of a commissioning editor sort, rather than a copyeditor sort (which I also am). On the panel with me were Siobhan Harvey, who has edited issues of Poetry NZ and has been the poetry editor of Takahē, Nicholas Reid, who has edited several issues of Poetry NZ, and Doc Drumheller, editor of Catalyst. It was a good session, chaired by Laurice Gilbert, president of the Poetry Society.

But, we each had five minutes to speak at first, to answer the question from our own perspectives. And, while I didn’t think my bullet points would take very long to cover, and I worried that I wouldn’t have enough to say, turned out I had HEAPS to say! I really didn’t cover all of the points I wanted to make. So I decided I would turn my notes into a blog post, in the hopes that they will be useful. So, here goes….

I’m going to talk to today with two hats on – two imaginary hats – one is as the co-managing editor of JAAM literary magazine, and the other as the managing editor and general dogsbody of Seraph Press. [I think in the actual talk I burbled for quite a while about both of them and held up some books to show off how pretty they are, etc…] The things I’m looking for in each role are similar, but there are some differences too.

As the only one of us who is also a book publisher, I might concentrate a bit more on that [I totally didn’t, because I was running out of time…]

So, what do editors want, apart from fame, fortune and world peace? Well, I’m going to talk about what I want as an editor, and assume that other editors want something similar.

  • I want good writing. Or, to be more specific I want writing that I think is good writing to me. Let’s be honest, subjectivity does come into it – editors do have their own taste and can only back things they can see the merit it. Through reading a journal, or through submitting to it, you can get a sense of the sort of things an editor will like, and find editors who appreciate the sort of work you’re doing.
  • I want writing that speaks to me, surprises me, expands me. Things like fresh new images, ideas or ways of saying things. If you’re saying the same thing as everyone else in the same way, then it’s not going to excite me. But if you say new things, or say them in a new way, then I’ll notice. Read over your work and look out for clichés. And then take them out, or make them new somehow. Originality – your own voice. Beautiful language, which doesn’t have to be flowery – it could be really spare.
  • I want writing that gives me a little shot of jealousy.I want you to read the submission guidelines.
  • And I want you to follow them. Don’t send too many poems (or stories) and don’t send too few. About three to six poems is generally a good number. I'm not as strict as some editors - some won't even read your submission if you don't follow the guidelines to the letter. But I will probably be less well-disposed to your submission than I would be otherwise.
  • I want you to not be discouraged by rejection, but be gracious and try again. When you start out, especially, it’s wise to expect to have your work rejected (and then be delighted when it isn’t).
  • I want you to read other people’s writing, past and present. And buy other people’s books (especially New Zealand poetry) and literary journals (especially JAAM!) New Zealand's literary culture won't thrive unless we support it.
  • I want you to always try to become a better writer. I want you to be constantly aiming to grow and develop your craft. To push yourself.
For a Seraph Press book
  • I want all of the above, but to an even higher standard.

  • I want work I’m in love with – its my money and, more importantly, my time, and I need it to be a project I love so much that won’t resent it.

  • I want poems that work together to create a whole book – that’s more than the sum of its parts. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be thematic though.

  • I want a manuscript of even quality – cut out the weaker ones, or make them better. I want you have worked hard on it, and perhaps had other trusted people read over the manuscript and give you feedback before you even send it to me.
  • That said, I want to be able to work with you on polishing the collection. I want you to be willing to work and collaborate with me to make the work shine. To make a collection we're both happy with and stand behind. So I want to you to be open to input, and I want to you to know your own mind.

  • I would expect to have heard of you before – if not, why not? Not because I only publish ‘name’ poets, but because I want you to be engaged with the poetry community in some way, to have published some poems in literary journals, to go to readings, to be involved in poetry on the internet, or be involved in the community in some other way. (This isn’t the case at all with JAAM though – we don’t care at all if we’ve never heard of you before, so long as we love your work.)
  • I want to know why you want ME to publish your book. I’d want you to be familiar with what I’ve published before. I don't want it to just be because I'm a publisher, and any publisher will do.
After each panelist had spoken individually, the we also answered some questions – though we didn’t all answer all of them. But I had prepared answers for all of them, so I’ll include them all here.

As editors, who do you consider your readers are? 
The readers of literary magazines are generally other writers. Also the friends and relatives of the contributors (especially if it’s their first publication – friends and relatives are less excited when you start racking up a lot of publications). There are also a few wonderful, precious people who aren’t writers but are just interested in literature.

Is it harder to get accepted the first time you submit something?
In terms of your first submission anywhere, yes, I think it is, simply because you’re likely to be a newer writer and not as good yet as you’re going to become. In terms of your first time submitting to JAAM – I don’t think so. The work stands on its own merit, and if the editor loves it then it goes in. Quite a lot of writers who have carried on to fabulous things have had their first publication in JAAM, and I’m really proud of that.

Are there some topics editors prefer to avoid? – and if so which?
I think that depends on both the editor and how the topic is approached. I don’t think any subject is necessarily off limits. Personally, I wouldn’t publish something that I consider abhorrent, like a racist poem, but a poem about racism could be great.

What percentage of the poems submitted for publication in your journal is accepted.
We haven’t scientifically analysed the stats lately, but we estimate that around 20% of submitters to JAAM will have work accepted. We’re becoming quite a big journal, but we get a lot of submissions, including quite a lot from overseas (of which we publish hardly any, because we're primarily a journal for New Zealand writing).

I'm sure there are heaps of other things I should say, like always include a covering letter, and return postage if you're still posting (for JAAM, we'd rather you emailed), but it's a bit of a brain dump. Thoughts?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Helen, it's good to have everything you intended to say in written form! I enjoyed your contribution to the discussion but didn't have time to take notes. Cheers anyway, Bill Sutton