By Michelle Pretorius
Michael Simms is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Autumn House Press. He is the author of five collections of poetry: Black Stone, The Happiness of Animals, The Fire-Eater, Migration, and Notes on Continuing Light, as well as the co-author of The Longman Dictionary and Handbook of Poetry and has has taught at The University of Iowa, Southern Methodist University, The Community College of Allegheny County, Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, and Duquesne University.
Michelle Pretorius: What are the advantages a writer gains by choosing a small press like Autumn House Press over a larger one?
Michael Simms: The independent non-profit presses are now carrying the banner of American literature. With very few exceptions, the large commercial presses have stopped publishing high quality contemporary literature.
M.P.: Can you talk about some of the things you look for as editor’s in the fiction and poetry you’re aiming to publish? Is there a set criteria?
M.S.: I am the Editor-in-Chief and the poetry editor. Our fiction editors are John Fried and Sharon Dilworth. Our nonfiction editors are Sheryl St. Germain, Margaret Whitford, and Adrienne Block. That being said, there are certain editorial processes and choices, as well as a general aesthetic, which apply to everything we publish. We look for writing that is well-crafted and appealing to a literate, non-specialist reader.
M.P.: You recommended Drift and Swerve by Samuel Ligon to me, what other books in your catalog would you recommend to someone as most representative of Autumn House?
M.S.: In fiction, I would recommend New World Order by Derek Green. In poetry, I would immodestly recommend the new edition of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, which I edited. In individual collections of poetry, I would recommend Blood Honey by Chana Bloch. In nonfiction, I would recommend The Archipelago, a travel book by Robert Isenberg.
M.P.: Autumn House uses a competition to select new books for publication. What are the advantages in that for the press? Is there a difference in the quality of work you receive?
M.S.: Originally, we started using the contests as a way to manage the large number of unsolicited submissions we were receiving. Having a set of guidelines and an annual deadline streamlined the screening process. Charging a submission fee encouraged people to send us only their finished manuscripts and to read our guidelines carefully. The fee also enabled us to pay our screeners and to recruit nationally known writers such as Naomi Shihab Nye and Stewart O’Nan to judge the contests. But the most important benefit of accepting submissions this way is that it generates enough money to publish the winning manuscript, give an advance to the author, pay for a reading tour, and advertise the book. Without the contest model, we could not produce quality books and give them the support they deserve.
M.P.: You have published books of poetry that were published by independent presses and have therefore been on both sides of the process. How did the experience inform your own work with authors?
M.S.: I was very fortunate as a writer to have wise and supportive editors. Mark Doty at Blue Buildings, Gorden Anderson at Longman, James Anderson at Breitenbush were among my editors. I’ve tried to emulate them in building Autumn House and working with authors.
M.P.: Once an author is published with Autumn House, do you aim for multiple book contracts?
M.S.: Whenever possible, we like to have a longterm relationship with the author. Once we’ve published a book by an author, we want them to share future manuscripts with us. Many of our authors – for example, Jo McDougall, Philip Terman, Ed Ochester, Sue Ellen Thompson and Sheryl St. Germain have published more than one book with us.
M.P.: How many people are involved in the decision making process for selecting manuscripts? What are their roles and what is the process a manuscript goes through until it is published?
M.S.: We have three annual full-length book contests at present – Poetry, Fiction, and Nonfiction. In addition, we have the Coal Hill Chapbook Contest. In general, the manuscripts are processed by our interns, then there is a quick read to eliminate the manuscripts that are obviously too weak to compete. Then the editors start the hard work of reading manuscripts to find the best ones. Then the best ones, usually 15-35 finalists, go to the judge to pick a winner. After the winners are chosen, we choose several additional finalists to publish, filling out our list.
M.P.: Do you accept manuscripts that still need rewrites? Will you hold onto promising manuscripts or do you pass if it’s not ready as is?
M.S.: If we’ve already published an author, then we will often work with that author in developing a new manuscript for publication. This process involves a great deal of staff time, so we are selective about which manuscripts we will help develop.
M.P.: How do you work with those authors you decide to publish? Are they involved in the entire process, from revising to marketing to distribution, or are they kept on the outside?
M.S.: We usually like to involve authors in every phase of the publishing process.
M.P.: What percentage of advance copies that you send out receive reviews?
M.S.: We send out 50 to 100 copies of each title as review copies.
M.P.: Does your press have a standardized market plan or is it based on the individual writer?
M.S.: Based on the individual writer.
M.P.: What are your goals in terms of marketing fiction that you publish? How does your intended audience fit into these plans?
M.S.: Our main concern is to publish the best books we possibly can. A secondary goal is to sell enough copies to continue our work. Author appearances — i.e. readings, signings, interviews, classroom visits, etc. — is essential to selling books and building a literary reputation.
M.P.: After rewrites and proofreading, is the author involved in the publishing process in any way?
M.S.: We try to involve the author in every stage of the publishing.
M.P.: Are your contracts geared for multi-book projects?
M.S.: No. We publish one book at a time. This is the only way we can maintain the high quality of writing we require.
Michelle Pretorius was born in South Africa and has lived in London, New York and the Midwest. She is a graduate student in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago and has been published in The Copperfield Review and The Columbia Review Lab.