Interesting discussion about edits and revisions, and where they came in the process. Kevin, I think your mention of the collection's identity (and TttCotE really came together well for me in this regard — the stories in this book build on one another in great ways, they feel like they fit together just right, hitting similar notes, but never the same one, if that makes sense) is really interesting. I wonder how true this for others, too. How much editorial energy was put into the identity of a collection as opposed to individual stories? Much of this, I would guess, also depends on the book itself, as well as the particular writer. I don't know. Thoughts? And to jump from there to another question: Laura and Tom, you both mentioned getting to work pretty closely with your publishers on the cover design. Has this been (or is it currently) true for the rest of you? How closely to you get to work on the physical book itself?
Kevin Wilson: Thanks, Jensen for the kind words. To answer the cover question, the cover design process, for me, was a little embarrassing. Ecco sent me an email and asked if I had any suggestions. Boy, did I. I said I hoped it might look like an old pulp novel or a comic book from the 50's. The title seemed to have that kind of ridiculous promise of an adventure tale, and I wanted to do something weird with that. I suggested about fifteen comic book artists and then mentioned some cover artists for pulp novels that might still be alive. I must have said the words "comic book" about a hundred times. I sent this email, like a ten page email, and then a week passed, and then they sent me an email that said they had some other ideas and they would figure something out. And then they showed me the cover and I realized how dumb I had been, and how beautiful their cover design was. Working on the physical book, I didn't do much. I didn't have much of an opinion. I remember my agent really pushed for french flaps (this may not be the correct term) and fancy paper and I remember not knowing what she was talking about. Of course, I wanted the book to look nice, but I didn't really know how to make that happen. So I relied on the book design people and I'm glad I did.
Roxane Gay: In my case, the collection always had a strong identity because all the pieces are, in some form or fashion, about Haiti. In that, my editor has, I think, put more energy into the individual stories, helping me tighten them and make sure they work together as well as they can. My editor has also been great in letting me be involved in the cover design. My mom took the picture that will be used as the cover image so that's a really nice thing for me because the book is dedicated to her and it thrills me that she can be involved in this way.
Laura van den Berg: With my collection, a good amount of time was spent shaping the book as a whole. I definitely wanted the stories to have a kind of interconnectedness, to be in conversation with each other, but also hoped to avoid too much same-ness. We tried to craft the book in a way that seemed cohesive but not redundant, which informed the order of the stories and also cutting a story that my agent and I agreed was more repetitive than helpful to the larger enterprise early on. In my case, the stories are all working with recurring thematic elements, so I would imagine the prospect of repetitiveness might not be as much of a concern in a more varied book.
Kyle Beachy: I pushed for a skateboarding buddy of mine, the cartoonist Anders Nilsen, to get a shot at the cover. So he did and my editor was into it, everyone was into it, and then the oddest thing happened: one of the country's larger book retail outlets said they didn't like the cover, enough that they'd reduce their order unless we changed it. Which is odd, I think, perhaps a bit backward w/r/t my naive understanding of capitalism, when one retailer's share of the market is dominant enough to dictate the nature of the good itself. But then 2008's financial crisis cut into the retailer's book orders across the board, and suddenly we weren't so beholden to their tastes, and we could return to Anders' cover once again.
Tom McAllister: Sounds like my experience was similar to Kevin's, in that I offered some ideas, but mostly they did all the work. Mainly, my ideas focused on what I didn't want on the cover. From the start, I've been very concerned about it being pigeonholed as "just a sports book," which carries a certain stigma for a lot of readers, and so I stressed that I didn't want some generic sporty design (and no author photos in my Eagles jersey!). But mainly, they just did what they thought would look good, then came back to me for feedback. They did the same with the interior layout, fonts, etc. I trusted them (far more than I trust myself) when it came to graphic design, but it was very gratifying to be consulted about it and to feel like part of the process.
Holly Goddard Jones: I had a pretty set vision of the book by the time it got to my editor — I think that's how a collection of stories ends up getting representation, actually. It has to feel like a book, a cohesive whole, and not some decent stories that have been stitched together. Sally and I went back and forth a bit about the ordering of some of the middle stories, but most of that was initiated on my end, and it stemmed from a discussion that we were having about the title of the book. Harper's marketing people didn't like the title. Sally did like it, and of course I liked it — I wouldn't have called it Girl Trouble if I hadn't liked it — and that was the most distressing issue for several weeks. They wanted me to give the book a title that was longer and more lyrical, like another book that was coming out around the same time as mine, and I like those titles, but I'm not that good at coming up with them. And rethinking the title was making me rethink the central themes of the book. If the book had been called Life Expectancy or something, which was a title I considered, would the unifying themes of masculinity and womanhood and kinds of victimhood be as apparent? It wasn't that I loved Girl Trouble so much that I was resistant to considering another title; I just didn't know how to find a title that would unify the books' themes the way that one, for me, did.
This is actually a good segue to the cover business. After weeks of hearing that the title had to go, I suddenly heard that there was a cover design, and the marketing people thought that the cover made the title seem suitably weighty. So, out of nowhere, the title wasn't an issue anymore. They presented me then with what is more or less the cover as it is now, minus the Claire Messud blurb. I liked it well enough. I wasn't sure about the yellow, but it seemed fine to me. But the cover/title combo has been a major pain since the book's release. If I have to explain to another 60-year-old man at a book fair that it's not a children's book or a romance novel, I'm going to shoot myself. And so many of the reviews and articles have begun with a statement like, "Don't let the title fool you." I feel stupid for not anticipating this response, but it honestly never occurred to me that so many people wouldn't grasp the irony of the phrase, "girl trouble."
Jedediah Berry: In a strange way, I influenced the design of The Manual of Detection because there's a guidebook called The Manual of Detection within the novel, and my publisher printed the novel so that it resembles the guidebook as I described it. The power of metafiction, I guess.
Mike Young: Adam Robinson of PGP and Jackie Corley of Word Riot Press have both been suave and helpful in their understanding and editing of the individual pieces and their conception of the books as wholes. Adam in particular has been very good at pointing out where poems line up with other poems and how to emphasize or stray from such relationships. Just like a real relationship counselor. Mostly I've been given gracious carte blanche regarding cover design, though Adam and Jackie both have firm and welcome ideas of how they think things should look. Adam wanted me to change the title font from something more distressed to something more firm and confident. Again, all are welcome to think of that in personal advice terms. For the stories, my friend Bryan Coffelt is helping with the cover design, and as of right now I am actually not sure what he's going to do, but I am excited, because he grew up where I grew up in Northern California, and the stories take place around there, so I'm hoping he'll grok onto Nor Cal's particular strangeness and whip up something suitable. Plus Bryan's studying book design right now, and he's already designed awesome covers for Evelyn Hampton's We Were Eternal and Gigantic and the Schomburg/Frey co-chapbook Ok, Goodnight, so there we go.
Julia Holmes: I've been a fan of Robyn O'Neil's work for a long time — she has an amazing series of graphite drawings, all populated by these doomed-seeming men in black suits roving a hopeless, post-apocalyptic landscape (that always felt evocative of the world of Meeks, its doomed bachelors in matching suits). I'd always loved the idea of using her work on the cover. Small Beer and Jed were open to the idea and designed a beautiful cover around a detail from one of Robyn's drawings.
Rachel B. Glaser: Adam Robinson of Publishing Genius has been very amazing about the whole decision-making process, allowing it to turn into an ongoing dialogue. He has given me a generous amount of say, and I really appreciate him including me in the process because I have learned so much about publishing. Holly, I can understand your feelings about your title. My title "Pee On Water" got very extreme mixed reactions from people. A room of my most admired writing teachers would insist on me changing it, but then a "Pee On Water" supporter would speak up to me, passionately, and I would have to agree. It's difficult to change titles after you've had yours for a while, in my case, years. I seriously considered changing it, coming up with dozens of replacements, but none seemed so epic or particular as "Pee On Water," which is the title of a story in my book, which in terms of scope, is bigger than all the others. In the end, Adam allowed me to design my own cover [Editor's note: you can see that cover right here and also pre-order Rachel's book, which I highly recommend), and I am proud and embarrassed to say that I worked on it for over 200 hours, updating to constant new versions.
Caitlin Horrocks: The earliest version of my collection was essentially my MFA thesis, which was “here are the twelve best stories I’ve written in random order.” At the time, I hadn’t written all that many more than twelve stories. The book has evolved since then to the point that, as my editor and I shuffle the line-up, I can look at some of my newer stories and feel like I have a grip at least on what won’t fit. But much of that awareness of the-book-as-a-book has come through other readers; the stories are all so individual for me I still sometimes have trouble seeing the connective tissue. One of the reasons I love short stories is that I can take on different challenges or voices or structures in each one, and I worried that would result in an unwieldy book. It’s been a great but eerie experience to have other readers point out that the stories share certain themes, or that multiple characters face similar challenges. Readers have seen more cohesiveness than I did, and helped me see it, too.
Probably because the book is still a pretty diverse collection in my own head, I sent a ridiculously long email to Sarabande with about twenty different cover ideas in five different categories. Miraculously, they seemed to take them all seriously, and the current cover design is based around one of them.
Caitlin Horrocks: Beware!: Super long answer. It was a long story. I’ve been especially sad to see the news about SMU Press—they’re a great press, I had an essay in an anthology they did, and I’m obviously really feeling for the authors involved. SMU was also one of the presses that friends and colleagues suggested I might want to try with my collection when EWU-P was folding. No one there ever saw it (Sarabande ended up with it first), but I’ve been imagining this bleakly funny parallel universe where someone there liked the manuscript and my book died twice. I’m glad I’m not the Harbinger of University Press Death.
The first big sign of trouble with EWU-P came last spring, when my agent learned that my contract still hadn’t been countersigned after a long delay; when she tried to get in touch with her contact person, she was told that the press had been “downsized.” I then called the managing editor, who told me that the press was going to be shut down after a year-long grace period in which two staff people would keep their jobs long enough to wind down the operation. There never seemed to be any formal announcement or official communication to the authors involved.
Over the next couple of months there was a lot of uncertainty about whether the press would receive a reprieve, or what would happen to the lists when/if it closed. The managing editor was unfailingly kind and competent and helpful in a situation that was bad for me, but obviously much worse for her. EWU-P was still planning on publishing my book, but it was going to be the last volume out the door before the lights were off and door was locked.
My agent started to send the book to other publishers, but in the end I had to make a decision about whether to pull the book from EWU-P without another press lined up. That was a scary decision, and people gave me a very different advice. Because I have a university teaching job, some thought I should go ahead and do the book through EWU-P, even if the book went instantly out of print, for job security. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some thought my writing career was best served by just sitting on the story manuscript until my novel was done. I hoped for a middle route: I loved and believed in the stories, and didn’t want to let the book die, but to go ahead with publication through EWU-P was in many ways letting the book die in a different way.
I pulled the manuscript in late July, and then had a couple of humbling months to mentally readjust to not having a book anywhere on the horizon. I realized how much self-assurance and writerly comfort that little word “forthcoming” had provided me. This past September, a friend with a connection to Sarabande Books offered to contact the editors to see if they wouldn’t mind taking a look at the manuscript. Sarah Gorham said yes, and then yes again to the stories, and I’ve been incredibly lucky and grateful to end up with such a happy ending.
This whole process explains my answer to your previous question about editing: by the time the book was with Sarabande, every story in it had been published and edited by journal editors, and arranged and rearranged. I’ve got my fingers crossed for light editorial suggestions at this stage—I’m not sure how much additional work I’ve got left in me on this set of stories.