Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just So You Know

For the first five years of Aqueduct's existence, though my response time to submissions was often slow, the flow was such that I felt I could handle it. But the rate at which I've been receiving pitches and queries and mss has been increasing sharply over the last year-- and steeply over the last month. The increase hasn't been in submissions that are are too awful to read, or even the ones that get sent to every publisher the writer has an email address for, but in submissions from writers I take seriously. It's beginning to worry me, because I have a limited amount of time I can give to submissions but at the same time want to give them my full attention when I do read and consider them. The only solution seems to be a longer response time or more cursory attention to mss that don't look extraordinarily promising.

Now, after reading a post on SFWA's site, I'm wondering if perhaps I haven't made Aqueduct Press's drawbacks clear enough. Could it be that the writers sending their mss to me don't understand how little we have to offer? Could this be the reason we're getting so many submissions? I certainly don't want other writers be drawn in under false pretenses. That would certainly be as bad as exploiting them (something I know pretty well how to avoid doing).

In SFWA's Writer Beware section, Richard White has posted An Open Letter to New Publishers. This is ostensibly directed to any tiny publisher who happens to wander into SFWA's site, but is actually intended to be read by other writers. Reading his checklist of questions, I see that Aqueduct Press must surely be among the "new publishers" he sees as harming writers. He begins with this stern warning to us:
Publishing is a unique critter. Even so, one thing it has in common with other businesses is you need experience. Period. This cannot be overstated. If you have no experience in the industry (and being an unpublished or even a published author does not equate to publishing experience), what are you offering your authors?

Sorry, good intentions are not enough.
My only experience, when I started Aqueduct, was as a published author. Period.

More questions:

# Have you ever run a company before in any capacity?


# What’s your business plan?

To publish books, sell them, keep them in print, and use any profits to publish more books; to infuse money from our savings into the business when necessary, to the extent possible. (I'm sure that's too general to be the correct answer.)

# Have you secured sufficient funding to get this business off the ground?

We see borrowing money from a bank (presuming a bank would lend money to anyone just to publish books) as too personally risky, and so we never even tried.

# Who’s handling publicity for your company?

Um, me? And our managing editor?

# Who’re your sales reps? How many do you have?


# Who’re the artists you have lined up to do covers?

Good question. The answer varies. Sometimes they're dead. Sometimes (as with Ursula Le Guin's cover) they're nameless/unknown. Sometimes they're artists who don't usually do cover art. Sometimes we don't use cover art.

Of course, my answers to a few of the questions White poses would probably be answers he'd approve of. Our contracts are very close to SFWA's model; we pay advances; we pay royalties on retail, not net; our editors have previous editing experience. But there's one that he didn't pose, that perhaps he should have:

Do you have a paid staff, or are your production, business, and editorial tasks performed by volunteers?

We're volunteers. Not a single one of us is a paid employee of Aqueduct. Obviously this is a MAJOR drawback.

In short, my writing friends, if you're thinking of submitting to Aqueduct Press, please realize that if we do decide to publish your ms, we can't give you what the major publishers routinely offer. Your book will likely not be stocked in chain bookstores, you won't score advances big enough to live on, a big-name sf/f artist won't be doing the cover art of your book, we won't be able to finance a book tour for you, and distribution (and therefore print runs) will be modest.

And above all? We're not business people. Just people who love fine, challenging writing and books that we personally find aesthetically appealing. Just so you know.


Josh said...

Still beats Routledge. You know what I'm saying? So many publishers are so often so spectacularly unprofessional that I'm afraid people are going to be attracted to Aqueduct in full knowledge of your small size. I mean, I'll publicize my frustrations with you if you want me to try and help cut down the submission rate, but they'd sound so petty in the face of what people have suffered at the hands of other publishers. It'd be like saying to a survivor of child abuse, "Oh, families are horrible. My uncle chews with his mouth open!"

I'd note too that many of your authors are among those "handling publicity," and that some of us work hard at it.

Kristin said...

I'll echo Josh in saying that people will be attracted to Aqueduct. It seems to me that small press is where it is at these days. My own quest to publish my work is terribly long and convoluted, but it's led me to some observations and conclusions.

First, our population is exploding, but the amount of books one person can read is fixed. And the number of books a large press can publish is also fixed. That means a lot of excellent writers will be left out, no matter what.

Second, publishing at a big-name press is not necessarily good for a writer's career. The success stories are easy to see, but that's because the authors have succeeded. If you look harder, you hear stories about authors whose big-name publishers supported their first book but abandoned them later because sales did not meet a ridiculously high number.

And third, writers will not necessarily choose money as the first criteria for where to submit. If we are discerning, we will seek the "just-right" readers, the ones who will understand what we have to say.

You wrote: "The only solution seems to be a longer response time or more cursory attention to mss that don't look extraordinarily promising."

I have another solution: close temporarily to submissions. You absolutely have the right to refuse to take on more work than you can handle.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Maybe I ought to clarify: I don't want to scare away submissions-- I am extremely grateful, in fact, that so much excellent work flows into Aqueduct. & that is actually our raison d'etre: we're not just publishing books because we're enamored of the idea of being a publisher; we're publishing books because we're fervently interested in seeing that certain work is made available to people who share our tastes in reading. If it weren't for the excellent work coming to us, I'd be back, like a shot, spending all my time on my own work.

My concern was to make sure that writers don't feel deceived, in the way White's piece suggested to me that some may do.

Kristin, your idea of temporarily closing to submissions is a good one. If the submission situation gets out of hand (as I'm worried it will soon do), that, I think, will be my solution.

Helen Merrick said...

Or maybe even see if you can find some more volunteers - some trusted people to do some slush-pile reading? At least of writers you are not familiar with?

And although it is somewhat different for academic work, I for one made a deliberate choice to send to you, rather than a couple of other academic presses that were interested. I knew it would end up a better book having been through Aqueduct!
And in the interests of volunteer book promoting, I just did a bit of spruiking at the weekend's Aurealis awards.

claire said...

Timmi, first time authors like me should also know, though, that Aqueduct is the place to go to get your strange little experiments understood and appreciated. I'm grateful for your presence and your (unpaid) work, and I suspect that's part of what's drawing in submissions.

Andrea Hairston said...

Interesting that I just sent you a manuscript because I didn't want to go through the "big" house shuffle.
I want the passion and dedication to the art that you all have at Aqueduct. I want the critical perspective that will help me see how to make my work better. I want to be in the "conversation" that changes us. That's Aqueduct. So I definitely know what I am in for and it's good!

Rachel Swirsky said...

I'm glad Aqueduct is getting attention!

I think of Aqueduct as a very focused sort of communication with a limited audience. If you want to talk to an audience of dedicated feminist SF readers with an intellectual and possibly academic bent, go here. You cannot reach this audience as effectively with distribution elsewhere. On the other hand, you are unlikely to reach too far outside this audience with an Aqueduct book. So, it's good for a particular kind of goal and a particular kind of material. That works for me.

I could be wrong about all that, though.