The UK has a fantastic small press scene. To celebrate the people behind the imprints - and help out the writers that are looking to them for publication - we've quizzed a number of editors about the nuts & bolts of their submissions process. This week, we're hosting Ian Whates, from NewCon Press.
Ian Whates: I’m an author and editor and operate my own independent publishing house, NewCon Press, founded in 2006. Via NewCon I publish across the genre spectrum, specialising in anthologies and collections but also releasing novels and novellas. NewCon currently has 50-odd titles to its credit, with a raft of releases scheduled throughout the rest of this year and next.
PK: Generally speaking, what sort of work do you look for - what are the stories or the novels that you like to publish?
IW: Very difficult to define. NewCon started as a home for short fiction, at a time when there were increasingly fewer venues for that form, but as time progressed the repertoire has expanded; the Press has also released a number of novels, many of which have come into consideration for awards. I like to publish established ‘big’ names because a) it’s thrilling to do so and b) it attracts customers, but equally I enjoy featuring the work of new and emerging writers alongside the better known. When it comes to deciding what makes it into a book and what doesn’t, I use a very simple criterion: if I’d be happy to pay my own hard-earned dosh to read a given story, it’s a strong contender.
PK: Any advice to authors on the fussy physical part of submissions?
IW: I don’t as a rule offer any guidelines on formatting, though I’ve often thought I should. My preference is ‘standard manuscript format’ (a quick google search will soon reveal this for anyone unfamiliar with the term), but most of the time it’s a matter of a minute or two to reformat any submission. I’m not bothered if submissions come with one or two spaces after a full stop (which I’ve seen some folk online get particularly incensed about); from habit I tend to write with one space, for purposes of publication I always go with one space, but it’s a few seconds’ work to search and replace this in a document, so why get worked up about it? The one thing that does cause me to grind my teeth a little is when a writer underlines to signify italics… but maybe that’s just me.
IW: When it comes to the email I send out to potential contributors, I keep this as loose as possible, specifying a theme but with plenty of scope for the author’s imagination to run riot, offering a guide length but stressing this is very loose because I’m a great believer in a story being as long or as short as the narrative requires, and stating a deadline. That’s about it.
PK: And what about those submitting stories, what should they do for a 'cover email'?
IW: This is not usually an issue since I rarely operate open submissions. On the occasions I have, I’ve been after a little information about the submitter and any experience/expertise that’s pertinent to the theme. Not a list of every magazine, blog, and webzine etc they’ve ever appeared in, but a summary where appropriate, and a little basic info.
Nothing too much at this stage, because the story is the important thing and should stand on its own merit. If the submission appeals and I choose to accept it, I can always return to the author at a later date for more detailed bio information to accompany the story at publication.
PK: Is there anything that's an 'auto-fail'? Something about the story or its presentation that will immediately knock it out of consideration?
IW: Not in the presentation, no, not for me; though that doesn’t mean that poor or irritating formatting doesn’t have an influence – I’m only human.
As for the story itself… Poor grammar, poor punctuation and sentence structure can be instant fails. There have been a couple of occasions when I’ve taken stories despite creaky sentence structure, because at the heart of the piece lies a tale that is just so damned good, but these are the exception.
As a rule, I simply can’t afford to spend a whole day or even two going through a short story and restructuring it line-by-line to ensure that it’s presentable… Other than that, the obvious things relating to extreme content – sexual, abusive, perverted. All these things can work in moderation and if justified by the narrative, but gratuitous elements generally do an author no favours. Also, there’s the question of relevance to the theme. If an anthology asks for tales of derring do set in the depths of space, don’t send the editor a story about seahorses in the depths of the ocean on the basis that ‘depth’ features in both environments.
Generally, they’ve no need to. I tend to set a submissions deadline and get back to authors before then or soon after. That slipped last year on one particular project, and all concerned were very understanding. I see nothing wrong in an author sending polite enquiry regarding a submission, though common sense is always advisable. I’ve had one or two instances of writers (invariably less experienced ones) chasing me within a week or two of sending a submission, with the deadline still a month or more away. I tend to respond politely in such cases, explaining that I haven’t had the opportunity to even open the file as yet, but assuring them that they’ll hear from me when I do.
PK: So... turning down stories sucks. And being turned down is, I suspect, even worse. Is there anything you can say to make it better? What should writers do when turned down?
IW: Yes, there are few worse feelings. Knowing this from my own experience, I always try to be constructive when turning a piece down, explaining why I’m doing so. If there are technical issues with the piece, I will sometimes perform a line edit on the first few pages, to demonstrate where I think the shortcomings are in a writer’s technique and where they might look to improve.
As for what a writer should do on receipt of a rejection: look at the piece again, particularly in view of any advice that accompanies the rejection, give it a further polish, and then send it out somewhere else. Being thick skinned is a vital attribute for any writer and one of the hardest things to cope with when first setting out. You have to learn that a rejection isn’t personal and may not even reflect on the quality of the submission itself. Perhaps your story simply failed to resonate with a given editor, or they’d recently accepted a story with a similar theme/twist/feel and are now looking for a contrast… This might be exactly what the next editor is looking for. If not, perhaps the one after that.
When I first started making a concerted effort to get my short fiction published, some ten years ago, I had a success rate of one acceptance in every eleven or so submissions. I made over 100 submissions in that first year, with stories being turned around and submitted elsewhere within a day or two of their being rejected. I write far fewer shorts these days due to time pressure, but I now have more than sixty published short stories with three more sold and forthcoming, and my hit rate is now a sale every two or three submissions. I could easily have become disheartened in those early days and given up.
PK: Any other tips for writers that are submitting work to you?
Don’t without querying first. I have a habit of taking on more commitments than can possibly be crammed into the available time and then working like a demon to get everything done. While this means I’m rarely at a loss for something to do, it leaves me with too little time to consider unsolicited submissions, much as I might like to.