Recently Ive donned new hats, hats I never expected to wear when I was completing my MFA in poetry. In poetry school they dont teach you anything practical, and they dont talk about your career, or money, or agents, or royalties. In poetry school you learn about internal rhyme, negative capability, and how to hold your whiskey. In poetry school you watch as the fiction writers trundle off to meet with agents, and attend Q&A sessions with hot New York editors. And you get to feel superior. Because as a poet, youre above all that. All that business business.
But then you graduate.
And if youre me, you dont have a trust fund, so you go looking for work, and find it waiting tables, and volunteering to edit for magazines that dont pay anything. But then, after awhile, maybe you make some connections, begin tinkering with prose, and end up editing a webzine. And then you sign on to edit an anthology. And then you learn some practical things fast.
When I conceived of my anthology, Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, I thought it would be fun, a snap. After all, an anthology is just a few issues of a magazine, smooshed together, right? An anthology is just some essays organized around some common principle, some idea. How hard can it be?
Its really, really hard, especially if youre a poet and youve never thought about markets and agents and deals before -- if youve never worked in prose. If youve never written a proposal.
The Business Business
First, you need to find some names, some luminaries that will help you sell your idea. You need celebrity writers on board, and without a high powered agent on your side, theyre hard to find. So you wander around on websites such as Readerville, and wrangle your friends into forking over email addresses for their ex-professors, people who wont bother with you anyway. But you have a dream, and you do this. It takes months.
Because you dont have a contract yet, and wont until you can land those names. And those names will want to know how much youll pay them, because names get paid to write. And you dont have any money, except what you make waiting tables.
Eventually, after selling your superior poet-soul to the devil of bestselling authors, you find a few people willing to give you an essay or story.
So you write a proposal, with a section on marketing, and it makes your skin crawl. You think of angles and you find comparison books that have done really well. If youre very lucky, an agent signs on to help you sell your idea. When that agent has no luck, you sleaze yourself around on the internet and at every writing conference you can find, until you sucker a poor indie publisher into paying for your dream. But just barely. Indie publishers cant bankroll you beyond paper and ink, and so youre still waiting tables.
You get excited, celebrate your salewith cheap beer and Indian take-out.