A chat with publisher Skylight Press

Skylight_smallsquareThis week I’m delighted to welcome my publishers Skylight Press to my blog. Daniel and Rebsie from Skylight have kindly agreed to answer a few questions about what they look for in manuscripts and give a few words of advice to aspiring writers who are looking to get their work published. I feel I’ve been very lucky to work with Skylight as they clearly really care about the books they publish and are in it for the right reasons. If you want to find out more about them check out their website here. Also – if you want to see what type of book they publish, then why not read my book Song of the Sea God.

What motivates you to be a publisher, and why do you publish the type of books you do?

Quite simply, we do it because we love it. It is our shared dream to make beautiful books, both in design and content. It is a lot of work and it takes a great deal of our time but we are wholly committed. A lot of presses go by the way because they take on too much, try to grow too fast, or have not converted to a more cost-effective mode of publishing.

While we love to publish new and exciting works we also sensible in what we can and can’t do, sometimes having to painfully pass on opportunities for purely practical reasons. But our vision is simple – we are looking for books with a spark – whether literary or esoteric. While the genres we publish are wonderful in their own separate way we love to explore unique overlaps. We have a wonderful line of creative esoteric fiction – many of our esoteric titles are scholarly with literary appeal – our visionary poets and experimental novelists often cross over into the esoteric realm with incantatory language and bardic vision. As Alan Moore often likes to say – Art is Magic and Magic is Art

We love making beautiful print books – but we also provide Ebooks and try to maintain a presence in the computer-based world. Perhaps we are the only press thus far to specialise in both literary and esoteric texts but we’re not really concerned with classifications and pigeonholing – we do what we do for the love of it – and if that represents something bold and new, so be it.

Why do you feel it important to publish the type of fiction you do? Why do novels matter to you?

As our website states we publish literary novels rather than commercial or genre fiction novels but we appreciate that the definitions of such are often subjective – and distinctions between the three aren’t always clear and concise. Loosely, we value fiction that prioritises voice, language or literary device above plot, setting and lowest common denominator marketability.

We feel that there are hundreds of presses that publish commercial plot-driven fiction, whether big publishing houses or small ‘vanity presses,’ but far fewer that dare to publish challenging literary works, often from lesser known and harder to market authors. Most commercial presses are overly concerned with the quick and viral impact of an author over a wide demographic, whereas we are less concerned with such an explosion of initial sales but rather the staying power of good writing craft and a unique voice.

This aesthetic allows us to explore visionary poetry and interesting hybrids, as well as experimental or avant garde fiction. Although we are an international press with authors around the globe we especially look for British fiction, as there are far fewer opportunities for British authors compared to their American counterparts.

Tell me about the submissions process and the type of  submissions you get – are they from authors directly or through agents?

We do deal with agents – but whether a writer has one or not just doesn’t make any difference to our decision to publish something. The writing is all that matters in our decision making process – agents, credentials, academic standing, beautiful query letters, self demagoguery, etc., are of little to no concern to us. In this aspect we might represent a departure from the norm in the publishing business but we are only concerned with good writing and the qualities of the text in question.

Despite making this clear on our website we still get inundated with all sorts of submissions well outside of our remit. This can be time consuming but we are hip to all the tricks and can separate the chaff quite easily – but always taking the time to offer a personal response to serious submissions. It really is quite a collection: pure spam, mass email pitches, real and fake agents, dubious middle-men merchants, self-publishers, re-issue requesters, translators, real and fake academics, self-help copyists, school children, pseudonyms, prophets, manifesto writers, authors of the not quite written yet – just to name a few.

The texts are all over the place too – sometimes little to no editing, poorly translated, utterly inappropriate, or just too long and sprawling beyond the practicality of publication.

Having said this, we do get wonderful texts and hear from a number of diverse and interesting people, whether we take on their work or not. We also realise that the publishing industry is itself mostly responsible for many of the negative trends noted above. Authors are inundated with poor and outdated advice from a growing number of middle-men resource sites on the internet, some of which mean well and others of which just take advantage of the natural uncertainty that comes with being an author (often with a hefty fee). As authors ourselves we have a great deal of empathy for those seeking to publish and keep that at the forefront of all our dealings with them. Of course, we can’t be all things to all people and there are some authors looking for something beyond what we can offer as a small press. We completely understand this and do not try to sell ourselves to authors that clearly desire a bigger and more commercial press.

However, the internet has been a great equaliser in the publishing world and our distribution is on a par with many larger presses, allowing us to attract writers that we perhaps wouldn’t have been able get in an earlier era. The authors that do publish with us seem to appreciate our publishing model for what it is and the honesty with which we present ourselves.

What advice would you give someone looking to get published – what should they do to improve their chances?

It’s always a precarious business giving advice to writers aspiring to be published – for various reasons. Firstly, there is the danger of adding to the plethora of readily available bad advice being tossed around the internet. Everyone and their dog seems to do advice lists like “10 things you must do in order to get published.” Also, stock advice does not normally speak to the minor differences between presses – or in fact the massive chasm between commercial publishing and small press (or Indie) publishing. We can only advise from the standpoint of our own press aesthetic, which may or may not represent that of other small presses.

The most important thing – and this is something that many advice lists overlook – produce a work of excellence. This seems obvious but as we are hammered with substandard, poorly written, badly edited and technically dubious scripts – anything less than excellent is going to be dispensed with very quickly. Specifically for us, the work must contain a “spark” of some kind – so voice is everything – even more than content, plot, setting, etc. We look for inspired voices – particularly with fiction and poetry – or work that achieves something unique through experimentation and risk. Straight ahead narratives with simplistic language are a penny a dozen – and so many books with wonderful subject matter and plot are undone by dreary and uninspired writing. This is why we specify “literary fiction” – and while we gladly admit that such a characterisation is debatable and largely subjective – “literary” usually alludes to something unique in the voice, in the language itself. For the same reason we generally shy away from conversational or what we sarcastically refer to as “shopping list poetry.” We look for some thing powerful in the poetic voice, something incantatory or shamanic in the language which sparks the imagination and gives poetry a catalytic function. This is not to say that other forms of poetry or fiction are bad – there are thousands of commercial or genre fiction presses that go for straight narrative fiction – and lots of poetry publishing houses that endorse the conversational or confessional style of poetry.

So our ethos follows Derrida’s famous line – “there is nothing but the text.” Therefore, an author should make the text or manuscript front and central in their initial contact.

While they may be important to other publishers, we are not impressed by degrees, academic standing, formally perfect query letters, promises of monetary success, literary awards or even how many books an author may have churned out. We assess the manuscript and the manuscript tells us all we need to know.

Of course, we appreciate meaningful introductions and some background information – but so many people waste their time with long CVs, references, or letters raving about professional standing. We live in an age where there are thousands of dubious literary prizes, where anyone can obtain and MFA in Creative Writing, and where the term ‘published author’ does not necessarily mean talented writer – so we ignore all the platitudes and assess the text only.

This all can be known if an author takes five minutes to look at the submission guidelines on our website, which points to another important point: Know your press. Almost every press has some sort of website with listed submission guidelines and yet 90% of submitting authors clearly haven’t read those guidelines. This is an immediate turn-off.

Beyond this, it may help to show a reasonable standard of grammatical proficiency, particularly with non-fiction submissions where a command of the subject matter is also necessary. As many genius writers throughout history have come with technical flaws, we may be willing to overlook errors in fiction or poetry manuscripts when the writing is clearly inspired or advanced.

Having said all this, there is also a large element of luck and timing involved. Most small presses can only produce so many books a year and have to make tough decisions over manuscripts of merit. We at Skylight have had to make many a painful decision due to time constraints or other parameters like book-length.

This is especially true of presses that become established, whereas new presses that need titles will tend to take more risks.

So an author seeking to be published needs to become thick-skinned and not take rejections personally, although we know that’s easier said than done. Remember some of the greatest books were rejected many times before someone dared to take them on. In the case of rejection we would advise an author to either improve their manuscript – or keep seeking publishers for whom it might be better suited.

How to get published

Here’s a post which is a bit different from my usual ones about writing and reading – it’s in answer to a question a lot of new and unpublished writers have asked me. The question is: ‘How do you get published?’

I don’t just get asked this on social media – I get asked in everyday life too. In fact, in the next few weeks I have two speaking engagements coming up where, as well as reading from my novel and answering questions about that, I’m also due to be asked about my ‘road to publication.’

So I thought I’d share what little wisdom I have on the subject with you. My credentials for doing so are straightforward – I do have a novel out, it’s published by Skylight Press. You can find Song of the Sea God here in the UK and here in the USA and read the first few pages, see if it’s your kind of thing.

Just to be clear – I’m talking about traditional publishing in this post, not self-publishing or indie publishing which I know is very popular these days. I haven’t any experience of self-publishing so I don’t know the ins and outs – I’m sure there are many other places you can go to for advice on that.

So here are my top tips:

Write a good book
That’s my first piece of advice – and I don’t mean it to sound facetious. Of course, everyone who sets out to find a publisher believes they have a good book, otherwise they wouldn’t waste their time. But I’d remind you that, as a first time writer, all you have is your work. You have no reputation, no contacts, no track record, just that book – so are you sure it’s the best it can be? Go on – take another look at it – rewrite it again, it can’t hurt. Maybe show it to a couple of people whose judgement you trust and canvas their opinion on its strengths and weaknesses.

One thing my publisher has told me is that they get snowed under with a a great deal of material which is simply not good enough to have a realistic chance of being published – make sure your manuscript is one of the ones which is!

Do you need an agent?
Well I haven’t got one, and I do have a publisher, so I guess not. The way I see it is that, at my level, the main purpose of having an agent would be to help me find a publisher for my book so, if I can find a publisher on my own, then I don’t need one.

I’m sure there are many advantages to having an agent and perhaps in the future I will have one, who knows. You can send your work to agents directly so it’s probably worth approaching a few to see how it goes – you may get lucky, be snapped up by an agent who will then sell your book to a massive publisher for a huge advance. We travel in hope don’t we? And unless you apply to them you’ll never know. There are lists of agents all over the internet if you Google for them – many accept email submissions.

Can I approach publishers without an agent?
Many of the big publishers will only accept submissions from authors through an agent – which is why many unpublished writers are so keen to find an agent. Agents have become gate-keepers for the major publishers it seems to me, acting as their readers. The whole thing can feel a bit of a closed shop – the big publishers will only speak to you through an agent and the agents only take on a very few first time writers each year.

But the good news is that many smaller publishers will take submissions directly from first time authors and these are the ones you need to look for – typically they will be the smaller ones, independent of the big conglomerates. My experience has been that these small presses are much more approachable than either agents or major publishers. They tend to be run by enthusiasts who really care about the books more than anything else – just the same as you do.

Where can I find a list of smaller publishers?
Google for them for starters – there are lists all over the place. But I would say – decide first what you are looking for – look for someone who will be a good fit for your book, that’s more important than you might think. Publishers are spoilt for choice when it comes to manuscripts, as far as they are concerned it’s a buyer’s market. They are almost looking for reasons to turn you down as they can’t possibly accept everything. So if your book is a close fit to what they do publish then you have immediately pulled a little ahead of the field.

Another good place to look for publishers is on Twitter lists. Find the Twitter feed of a publisher who might suit you – then look at the lists they are on. More often than not you will find that the other members of these lists are other similar publishers who you can Google and submit to in the way they advise on their website.

What do they ask for?
Agents and publishers typically ask for a query letter, a short synopsis and the first 50 pages, or two or three chapters, of your book. Check the requirements on their website though as some vary. I might do another post on how to submit later.

Should I apply to just one agent or publisher at a time?
Nah – some of the agents grumble that it’s not cricket people applying to lots at once. They would like you to apply only to them, wait two months for them to turn you down and then apply to someone else. But frankly the odds are stacked so highly against you that you’d be a fool to worry too much about that. I’ve never heard a small publisher grumble about multiple submissions.

What happens next?
Mostly what happens is that you get rejected. They can reject your book simply by ignoring your query, or by sending you a form letter, or occasionally by scribbling or emailing you an encouraging note. It’s much rarer for them to ask for the complete manuscript but if they do they will probably reject it anyway. I’m not trying to be off-putting here, but it’s best to know.

I keep getting rejected – what should I do?
Keep on keeping on. As Samuel Goldwyn once said: ‘The harder I work the luckier I get.’ As I’ve said before, I could paper my house with rejection letters I‘ve had over the years – but I have had my successes too. And when I look up at my book shelves, there is my novel staring back at me – which makes all the hard work worth while.