Re-posted from blog.annakashina.com (original post 10/18/2010): please bookmark this page or sign up on the left to continue following Anna Kashina’s blog.
I am very excited to welcome a very special guest to this blog – Mr. Peter Stampfel, an Associate Editor for the major Science Fiction and Fantasy publisher, DAW Books.
Unlike other major publishers, DAW Books accept unsolicited submissions from new, unknown authors, and thus offer a unique opportunity for every aspiring writer to get their manuscripts in front of the top editors without having to find an agent first. This opportunity has been alive for all of us in a large part because of Peter Stampfel, who has worked as the Submissions Editor and first reader of unsolicited manuscripts (also known as the slush pile) for nearly 30 years.
Over his career Mr. Stampfel has read a stack of manuscripts nearly 2 miles high, and he has discovered many talents in there that went on to become very successful authors. I am happy that he has graciously agreed to do an interview for my blog and to answer some questions about book publishing and manuscript review process that I had. I hope his answers would be of interest to other aspiring writers interested in landing a contract with a big publisher at any point in their career, and to the readers who are curious about how the manuscript selection works.
Can you tell me a little about your background? How did you become a book editor?
The word is ‘nepotism’ – getting a job through relatives. DAW Books was started by my wife’s father, who became ill in 1985 and then my wife took over. In 1981 I was offered a job of the first reader, and I have been doing it ever since. It helped that I have been an avid reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy since 1950’s, so I felt the job was really right for me.
What do you like and dislike about your job?
I like reading books, especially Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I enjoy reading new manuscripts. I also like working with my wife. The only thing I don’t like about this job is the delays. We get a 6-foot-high pile of unsolicited manuscripts every week, and as the first reader I have to go through them and pass on the ones I like to the second readers who, in turn, pass them on to the senior editors. They all have other jobs to do, so there is a big backlog, resulting in really long waits. I always feel bad for the authors who have to wait all this time to hear back on their submission. I really wish we could do things faster, but with the amount of manuscripts we receive it is simply not realistic.
It is a great opportunity for us, authors, to be able to submit manuscripts directly to DAW Books, but I can only imagine the load you have to deal with. Why do you accept unsolicited manuscripts?
This is really what sets us apart from other publishers. And, I have to say that there is quite a number of authors who went from what we call the slush pile on to sell very successfully.
What percentage of submissions you receive makes it to publication?
The conventional wisdom is that one in a thousand manuscripts is publishable. Actually, I feel this number is closer to one in a few thousand. These days it is extremely hard to break in a new writer. Book distribution is controlled by big companies, which are much more reluctant to take on new unknown authors compared to previously established ones. A new author has to be extremely, extremely good to make it through the process.
Do you deal with both agented and unagented submissions?
Agented published authors go straight to our senior editor. However, I do get submissions from agented unpublished authors, and I found that by and large a book submitted by an agent won’t be any better than unsolicited submissions. The truth is, agents who don’t read thousands and tens of thousands of books have no idea what is actually selling. If I see, for example, a ‘Harry Potter’ pitch, I usually know right away this agent doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.
What do you look for first, and what makes you want to take a closer look at the manuscript? How do you decide which books to select for further consideration?
It differs in different cases. Sometimes a cover letter is enough to make an impression, sometimes it is the first sentence, sometimes I have to read for a while to make up my mind. In some weeks, I have nothing to set aside for a further look. In other weeks, I set aside half a dozen manuscripts to look at later.
It is very important to have a catchy story right away. Some authors say things like ‘please read to page 140, where the plot really starts to pick up.’ Obviously, this doesn’t work.
It is also really important to have likeable characters. Certain characters are basically appealing, and this is fairly universal. No one likes to read for a great length about a brilliant, horrible villain – you know. Even the secondary characters have to be well-drawn and three-dimensional.
Another important thing is to see the characters interact in realistic terms and situations. The story has to be well thought through, and it has to show from the beginning.
One thing I look for in fantasies set in imaginary worlds is good made-up names, interesting and evocative. Good names show skill and imagination right away, so I always look at the maps that come with the book and if I see things like ‘Eastern Mountains’ – it just sounds too generic to me.
A good example is the first novel by Tad Willams – Talichaser’s Song. One of the characters is a squirrel, and his name – can’t recall it right now – sounds exactly like a squirrel’s noise. It really evoked the image, and fit the character really well. When I read it I knew right away that this guy could really write.
Which plot lines do you see too much of?
A story opening where a young protagonist goes out hunting and comes back to see that everybody he knows has been brutally murdered, and he has to set out on a quest to get the bad guys and promises to get them in the end. Generally, there is nothing wrong with such an opening – it is certainly catchy and engaging, but haven’t we all seen too much of these stories already?
Did you ever read a manuscript all the way to the end and then decide to reject it?
I rarely read the full manuscript, even if I pass it on to the next level. Usually if I am still reading after 200 pages or so, it is a good sign. I then skip on to the end and read the last 50 pages, then pass it on to the second reader. There have been only several manuscripts I read all the way to the end, because I liked them so much I wanted to.
What do you think are the current market trends for science fiction and fantasy?
What sells right now is paranormal. But there is also a glut in the market for paranormal fiction. Everyone wants to write the next blockbuster – such as, say, Twilight, — but the bandwagon is awfully loaded.
What are the trends in book publishing right now?
Book publishing is definitely on the decline. Readers – and writers – tend to spend more time on the Internet. In fact, I could think of several writers who nearly stopped writing – haven’t produced any new books in a year or two – because they spend their time on some on-line games. There are just more things to do out there for creative people than before, and books are sliding down the list.
In relation to this, I noticed that both writers and readers are getting tired of long books. The new model that works better right now is to write a ~100,000-word book yearly rather than publish a really long book every 2-3 years. To my knowledge DAW is one of the few markets that still looks at longer fiction from new authors.
A good advice to authors is to keep their books under 120,000 words. Such books are just easier to sell.
Any projections for the future?
E-publishing is really taking off, but we have to wait and see where it leads us. I see a bigger problem, though. Statistically, most books are bought by middle-aged people. Unless the young people start to read, we will see more of a rapid decline in book publishing in the future. There is also a large, growing category of people who read a lot but never want to read fiction. Non-fiction sells better than fiction these days, so the outlook for fiction publishing is even worse.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Unless you are passionate about your writing, compelled to write, unless you absolutely have to write, don’t do it. You are competing with other passionate writers who are very good at what they do, and you have very little chance unless you absolutely love writing.
Of course, I have also seen a number of writers who are passionate but just not good at it. Some authors keep submitting to me for 30 years, but their writing just doesn’t seem to get any better. Many of them work with paid editors who keep stringing them along by telling them that they are improving so much they are almost there. These authors spend loads of money on editing, and they really shouldn’t. In fact, I would caution anyone against working with such editors.
A lot of books I see would have been successful 20 or 30 years ago, but just not now. Things have become too competitive. In a way, this is the golden age of writing – we are seeing the best work out there – but the competition is really strong.
Do you pay special attention to authors previously published with small presses?
Previous publications are definitely a good sign, I will notice it in the cover letter. In the end, of course, only the quality of the manuscript is important.
What about self-published authors?
Doesn’t really matter. I definitely wouldn’t hold it against them. In fact, I think that in the current competitive environment self-publishing is a good idea – simply because you can do it. I never realized before how many people are trying to write books. The vast majority of them will never be commercially successful. But if you self-publish, you can sell to friends, and the few people who happen to enjoy your writing, and this way you can at least reach somebody.
Self-publishing may be an even better idea for those authors I mentioned whose writing is solid, and who would have been successful 20-30 years ago but cannot break through in the current markets. If these authors can reach their audiences with self-published books, they could potentially make pretty good sales. There is always a small number of self-published books that make it in a big way.
In addition to everything else, Internet is now providing unprecedented possibilities to advertise yourself, making it easier for anyone to self-promote. An average person can easily reach thousands of people, in some cases this is all any author can hope for even with traditional publishing. And if you can sell thousands of copies of your self-published book, it can really serve to your advantage in finding a big publisher for your next work.
Aspiring authors are repeatedly told that self-publishing is frowned upon and can hurt one’s chances of ever finding a traditional publisher. Isn’t it true?
I’d say it is old-fashioned advice. These days self-publishing is so easy there is no reason for anyone not to do it. And if you ever write a really good book with commercial potential later on – the big publishers will take it, no matter what your previous history is.
As I researched you on the Internet, I found out that you are also a musician. Can you also tell me something about your music?
I have been playing professionally since 1960s and made 2-3 dozen albums. My music is part folk, part rock, part traditional, a mixture of 19th and 20th century. I made several albums since last summer, and just made an album with my daughter who also plays in my band. We have 9 people in the band.
How do you combine your music and your job as an editor?
(laughs) I like to keep busy. But seriously, if you’ve got to be an artist you need a regular job. For every self-supporting artist there are thousands who need other means to support themselves. It is normal for an artist to have a regular job. I would call it abnormal when they don’t need one.
Thank you very much for your time. This has been a great opportunity. Do you have anything you would like to add?
Just to reinforce my advice for aspiring authors. Be passionate. Write about people, situations, worlds you really care about. This may not be enough, but without it you’ll never make it.