February 26, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower
Most writers dream of making it big, of signing that book deal that will let them quit their day jobs and do nothing but sit around and write. Many writers have the delusion that once they get a foot in the door of a big publisher, the rest will be gravy. Those big-time publishers do all the work while writers sit around in their mansions and drink expensive liquor, right?
Not so fast. Just ask Susan Tepper.
Susan, a writer I respect a great deal, recently opened up about her unfortunate experiences dealing with the big guys.
Susan, thanks for joining me to chat about your experiences as a writer. I really admire your writing, so I’m intrigued to hear more about the drama you’ve had in your journey.
So how long have you been writing? What made you start?
Nate, thank you for having me here.
Well, I’ve been at it steadily for 20 years. It started with one poem a decade before that, a poem I basically ignored. Then a sequence of events occurred that I think led me to writing as a natural progression. You see I was part of a rescue team at a plane crash in 1987. I’d been working for years as a singer/actress and my ‘day job’ at that time was as a marketing manager for Northwest Airlines in NYC. When one of our planes went down in Detroit, hit the roof of the Avis building on take-off, a team was quickly assembled. Everyone onboard died in the crash except a little girl. Miracle of miracles. After spending weeks out there with the families, and assisting on the IDs of the deceased (this was before DNA) I came back feeling totally strung out. Most of the team (myself included) suffered post traumatic stress disorder. Out there we were in the make-shift morgue (an airplane hangar) practically 24/7. It took its toll. I wrote a novel that evolved into the plane crash, but it was never published.
I think we all have those unpublished things sitting around. Could you tell us a little about the successes you’ve had so far as a writer?
I feel extraordinarily grateful each time something, a story or poem or a book I wrote is published. I’ve published a chapbook of poems called Blue Edge (Cervena Barva Press, 2006), then a story collection Deer & Other Stories (Wilderness House Press, 2009), then I co-wrote an epistolary novel with Gary Percesepe about the artist Jackson Pollock and his fictitious lover, titled What May Have Been (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). That book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And my current book is called From the Umberplatzen (Wilderness House Press, 2012). I had some early successes which I think kept me going. My first poem was published in New Millennium Writings in 1999, and my first story in the Green Mountains Review in 2000. Those two wins were important to my sanity as a writer. Because in those days there was very little online, and to get into print was extremely hard. I used to mail out about 20 stories a day. My postage and paper costs were ridiculous, and I went through so many printer cartridges!
You once had two books circulating HarperCollins (for the uninitiated, that’s one of the “Big Six” Publishing Houses). First off, tell us a little about those books.
Yes, I got two novels into HarperCollins without an agent. It was a minor miracle, but the big houses were still open occasionally to writers without agents back then. Not so today. What launched that for me was a novel contest sponsored by Zoetrope. I came in on the long-list of winners as number 7. So industry people were interested. Someone mentioned me to an editor at HarperCollins and that editor said I should phone her. I didn’t. Why? I can be an idiot. Also, I didn’t feel I was ‘good enough.’ Stupid. But this editor eventually phoned me! As I was typing the words THE END on my second novel, the phone started ringing. I wasn’t going to answer it, but then I checked the caller ID and it said HARPERCOLLINS. I almost had a stroke! Of course I picked up, and this really nice editor started to ask about my ‘book.’ I told her: Actually there are 2 books. She asked me to describe them, so I pitched both books to her and she was interested and asked if I’d mail them to her. So I did, and she read them and liked them both, and then things started to move along until she phoned me one day to say she was leaving Harper. But that I mustn’t worry, she was “passing my books along to her trusted colleague”— at another division of Harper called Fourth Estate. OK. I wasn’t happy she was leaving, but Fourth Estate was a major literary imprint so how bad could this be? So my books had to be re-read by my new editor at Fourth Estate. She liked them and they started tracking, when Harper shut down Fourth Estate in NYC, only keeping the London division alive. Oh, god. My second editor was let go. But!—not before passing my books along to another trusted colleague at Harper Perennial. (I’m recovering from the shingles as I type this and I’m feeling itchy just recalling all this!). So of course the new editor at Harper Perennial has to read the books. This takes time. She gets fired. The books are moved back to Harper Collins, to an editor of about 20 years of age. She doesn’t ‘take to’ my books. She returns the manuscripts to me. This whole process took several years (off my life, as well!). Seriously, it was major stress. Since then I’ve come to learn what happened to my books is not uncommon. Editors at the Big Houses come and go. Most of the time the books are just left to languish. They call them ‘orphans’… So that is the whole miserable tale. I won’t get into my various suicide attempts at certain stages of this saga!
What made you decide to go for one of the big names with these projects?
It was sort of ‘decided’ for me when I long-listed in the Zoetrope. But, back then, everybody wanted a BIG BOOK. Small press was just starting to come up. I still want a BIG BOOK. I want it before they nail the lid closed on my coffin.
And you did it un-agented? How did you manage?
Well, here is where it gets more convoluted. Agents were contacting me at that time, too. Big agents. Because of the Zoetrope connection. I signed on with an agent while the book was at Harper with my first editor. Immediately the agent phoned my editor there and told her to send back the — title. That is wasn’t ready! I almost had another stroke. How dare she do that without consulting me first! I phoned my editor and told her to keep the manuscript, that I was firing the agent. Which I did.
And you had 3 editors through all this? What was that like?
I had the one agent for a short time through the Harper saga. I had two agents after my books were returned by Harper. Nobody did much of anything for me or my books. What was it like? It was *^&%#@+~&… and then some… aaarrrrgggghhhhhh….
When they sent the manuscripts back unpublished, what was their explanation? What have you done with these books since then?
“They” didn’t explain. The two book boxes arrived in my mail with a form letter. A form letter after all that… But here’s a little fun ‘bit’ you might enjoy. One winter day, I was walking past the behemoth complex in NYC that is HC headquarters. Lots of young women (editors, assistants, etc) were coming through the archway onto the sidewalk. I approached two of them. I was wearing my floppy black hat (a la Annie Hall) and my sunglasses. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you work for HarperCollins?” They both eyed me warily. After confirming that they did indeed work for HC, I said to them: “Well I have two book ms in HC with — editor. Do you know her?” They nodded. Then one said: “Well good luck.” She said it with no enthusiasm, and they strolled away. I know they were thinking I was another looney writer. But I had to do it. I just had to. Somehow it gave me strength and made me laugh! (they probably got fired soon after..)
What have you taken away from this experience? Has it discouraged you from sending to a big publishing house again in the future?
Well from what I understand, it is virtually impossible to send manuscripts to them agent-less these days. They don’t even want fiction from agents! They are strictly bottom line and the deals being made are for celebrity books (think Tina Fey), self help (think Dr. Phil), etc etc. I know a few new fiction books squeak in every year but those are ‘connected’ in some way. I know a writer who had a ‘woman’s fiction’ hardcover book published by a major house last year, and I also know that she ‘knows’ some top editors there. Book publishing has always been a “who you know” business, but never this bad! I did show one of the book manuscripts to a major agent (after the Harper debacle) and he wrote back all sorts of terrific comments about the book. Then he asked me: What can you bring to the table that will differentiate this book from all the other new books coming out?” I had no idea wtf he was talking about. Well, what he meant was this: are you famous in some way, we need to promote you in some way. I was not famous in any way! He turned down my book. He made a deal on another coming of age book (similar in theme to mine) by a woman who also happened to be a Hollywood screenwriter. Every time I saw her book in the bookstore I felt queasy and wanted to throw it on the floor and jump on it! Need I say more?
Now I feel queasy. I’ll be sure to knock all coming of age books off the shelves whenever I’m in a bookstore. So what advice do you have for anyone thinking of sending a manuscript out, whether to an independent market or a Big Six Publisher?
Get an agent or don’t even consider the Big Six. If you land an agent, get at least a two year supply of strong tranquilizers. Resort to prayer if necessary. As for the small press publishers, where I am now, it’s been pretty pleasant for the most part. But you do have to do basically all your own marketing and publicity. My dream: to have a book and a publicist at the Big Six who will set things up for me. But dreams don’t usually come true. That’s why they’re called dreams. I’m very happy with the books I’ve had published and I honor the publishers who put their faith in me and those books.
What plans do you have next as a writer?
I’m currently finishing the first draft on a new novel. I would like to see What May Have Been mounted as a stage play. I’m working on that. I have a director and now it has to be cast. Wish me luck!
Good luck, Susan! Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think writers in general appreciate hearing about what other writers go through. That way we can all prepare for the unexpected miseries that go along with our passion.
Nate thank you for asking me such interesting and perceptive questions. It’s been a pleasure talking with you!
For more about Susan, visit her website.