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Andrew Steinmetz: Right manuscript, wrong publisher

The editor of Véhicule’s fiction imprint—an author himself—gives some insider tips on the importance of finding the right publisher.

As a writer who spent years fending off Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelopes, and his fair share of time tinkering with ego defense mechanisms, I used to think that old line about “This fine work is not right for our list” was extremely weak. Until I became the founding editor of a fiction imprint and found myself signing off with the variation: “I wish you the best of luck finding the right publisher for your writing.”

The accent is on “right”—and the implication is: your story isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that, well, the publisher you’ve sent your stuff to isn’t a good fit. In other words, it’s us, not you, so relax. Find another envelope, enclose your work, and submit to a different press. 

But how can a writer possibly find the ‘right’ publisher? Here are my thoughts, informed by my experience on both sides of the publish-or-perish divide.

If you’re dealing with a major house, chances are finding the right publisher comes down to an evaluation of the merits of your manuscript within a literary marketplace that inflates the value of some manuscripts over others, irrespective of things like your carefully wrought metaphors and self-deprecating voice. If you’re dealing with an independent house, it might have more to do with connecting with an editor whose tastes coincide with yours, beyond any consideration for the marketplace.

My single biggest embarrassment as an editor was turning down a manuscript about the fate of two friends in civil war-ravaged Beirut. The submission had arrived on my desk when the two previous books on the imprint where both set in foreign lands, one in Egypt and East Africa, the other in Kashmir. Could I now do a book set in Lebanon? What message would that send out, and what would it mean for the list—that I was not interested in local, Canadian-set stories? In hindsight, these concerns seem ludicrous (when the manuscript in question went on to win the IMPAC Dublin Award), but in the moment—caught in the fog of publishing—it felt like the right decision. 

The fact that these decisions don’t always hinge on the merit of the writing is something equally hard to reconcile for writers and editors. But isn’t it a comfort to know that, for every writer sweating bullets over the final destination of that thick envelope, there’s an editor scratching her head over the same thing?  

Andrew Steinmetz is a writer and the founding editor of Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint at Véhicule Press. He recently edited Missy Marston’s The Love Monster. 
Steinmetz’s novel, Eva’s Threepenny Theatre, was the winner of the 2009 City of Ottawa Book Prize and a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. 

Photo credit: Sonya Tarasuk

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