Friday, March 8, 2019

Editing Ambitions

A student at my alma mater, Kenyon College, contacted me during the winter to ask me, through an alumni network, for my advice about "moving up the ladder" as an editor. The question arrested me and made me think as I hadn't before about just what I aspire to as an editor. These are the thoughts I shared.

"…As for editing, I think it is less a question of ambition and "moving up a ladder" than it is of becoming a fine editor, and that requires study and humility. As the primary editor at my press (I have a four-person editorial consulting board) I do two things: I select what I'll publish, and I help authors make their books as good as they can be for readers. In these capacities, my ambitions are for the authors and for readers, so I put myself aside.

"I guess there's the element of ambition for my press, but that is fulfilled by the care I take for the others. My greatest achievements as an editor have been with the two brand-new authors I've chosen. One was straight from her MFA in fiction-writing. The other was a retired public-school teacher who had never written before. I saw an important but poorly-shaped story. The writer definitely had the drive to make the book work, and I guided him for two years—including referring him to an outside editor—to bring it to publication and to eventual achievement of a YA-prize. I doubt that many editors would have given him the time of day. But I think that's what an editor should do: Look deeply into the author's potential and the potential for bringing something important to the public. It's not a matter of burnishing oneself or the press with authors’ reputations.

"To get into editing, prepare yourself by understanding what writers do by studying their work through reviewing. You might join NetGalleys as a reviewer and review a couple of new books every month, reading and reviewing them with the knowledge that your words will help shape the prospects for that book, and will count to the author, the publicist, and the public. Get used to framing an opinion that has a real effect, one that you take responsibility for. Another place you can do this is the Washington Independent Review of Books and similar publications that invite reviews. If you write for these, you practice taking responsibility for authors and for your opinions.

"I'd advise reviewing as many genres as you can, to broaden your information and tastes, to improve your literary "muscle tone," and to know what's out there. This can serve you well when you present yourself to potential employers. Having a variety of areas of knowledge, and to show breadth in a review portfolio will be an advantage.

"The other thing you can do is to write and have someone read you and discuss your work routinely. You need to be very aware of the difficulty of writing, to know that it is all about error, editing, patience, time, application, attention, and excellent thinking. You'll get to understand how much all of those count, and that none can be missing. You'll appreciate how difficult it is to bring a book about. And it will make you both compassionate and demanding as an editor.

"If I were to hire another editor, I'd want someone secure in her own judgment, but I'd want to know that her judgment was solidly based on critical thinking, reading, writing, and focus on authors and readers. Ultimately, to you, I say, treat editing as an avocation and a privilege, not an ambition, and you’ll be on the road to excellence."

—Ann Starr, Publisher and Editor

Monday, March 4, 2019

An Interview with publisher, Ann Starr

For a course in publishing at Columbia College in Chicago, Margaret Smith chose Upper Hand Press for her final project, and interviewed publisher Ann Starr. This is a selection from her final paper. We thank her for sharing it with us!

"Ann Starr is the founder and editor of Upper Hand Press in Columbus, Ohio. She is also the author of Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell. She is an artist of many mediums, giving recognition to motherhood and her travels as major influences in her life and work.

How did you get started in the publishing world?

Ann Starr:
I got started on a mission. A dear friend whose work I'd been reading in manuscript, who had and published in journals for years, had an "orphan"novel. The work had twice been taken up by Big Five publishers but then released because of negotiations over a second book. I'd known the novel since she'd begun work on it, and I'd always loved it and thought it wise and beautiful. I decide that I'd get the book into print myself, I felt so committed to it. I opened my press to publish One Hundred Years of Marriage. 

Not wishing to experiment on One Hundred Years of Marriage, now it its second edition, I published my own book of essays, Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell first. I'm glad I did that, because I learned the basics. There are errors of presentation that I learned not to make again, and I got to know my printer well. So, you see, I am a naif who plunged in and have been learning by making mistakes and taking big leaps ever since. I have little information beyond what I've needed to make the next book. I founded in late 2015, and I'm getting better with every book. I wish I could afford a staff, and I'm still some ways from profit. I fund the Press entirely from my own pocket—a part-time job, Social Security, and a small alimony. I live frugally.

What is the biggest error a writer can make when it comes to submitting their work?

I read manuscripts thinking not that it will be rejected, but that with the mindset that this is potential for my press. What I'm reading may be golden. It's like the teacher who tells the class that everyone starts with an 'A.' But I do see some big mistakes that are easily avoidable and tell me a lot. Ill-written cover letters can be a deal breaker. Errors of grammar, syntax, and spelling; unsuitable tone, especially pomposity. Evident lack of research into my press's character, or the assumption that the audience for the book will be "anyone who likes books and reading"—that is, writers who haven't thought specifically or realistically about the future of the book.

Is there a book or collection, recent or from the past, that has come out that you wish Upper Hand could have gotten their hands on?

No. Every press is defined by the editorial choices it makes. To wish I had another press's title would be to wish for something that's probably not really definitely of Upper Hand Press. There are lots of books I admire, but if I really had them, they might refocus my list. I think not only of my books, but of the family of my authors with whom I keep in touch and share news about one another's successes. They are all in relation to one another. When I choose books, I think about the ways the book and author will fit. 

As a writer yourself, do you have a motto or words to live or write by?

Don't try to be an author. Just write as well as you can.

As an editor, do you have any wise words to writers?

I can't overemphasize the importance of the first page. If it doesn't sparkle, it's heavy lifting to bring the reader along afterwards. 

Books are made of sentences. Sentences are composed of well-chosen words ordered grammatically, correctly spelled, and thoughtfully punctuated. When sentences depart from norms, the writer's reasons must be emphatically clear. Good sentences take time to write, and every one matters. Books are made of sentences and they are made of time. When any of these critical elements—good words, technical astuteness, strong sentences, or time—is missing, it's easily detected."