By Zach Powers, The Writer’s Center Maryland-based writer Steve Majors recently published his gripping, startlingly honest debut memoir, High Yella, with The University of Georgia Press. He talked with us […]20 Jun 2023
The Right Mix
NOVELIST MELISSA SCHOLES YOUNG ON THE ART OF GETTING PUBLISHED
By Amy Freeman
Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novels The Hive and Flood, and editor of Grace in Darkness and Furious Gravity, two anthologies of new writing by women writers. She is a contributing editor at Fiction Writers Review, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Ploughshares, Ms., Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of the Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Foundation Residency Fellowship and the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ Quarry Farm Fellowship. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, she is an associate professor in Literature at American University.
Melissa, who has published with presses both large and small, sat down with TWC to talk publishing.
AF: First, let’s meet the Fehler fam! Can you tell us a little about The Hive?
MSY: The Hive is a novel of sisters, secrets, and survival. It’s a Midwestern family saga. The Fehlers run a fourth-generation pest control business in rural Missouri and when the patriarch suddenly dies, the surprising details of succession in his will are revealed. He’s left the company to a distant cousin, assuming the women of the family aren’t capable. The matriarch of the Fehlers is a doomsday prepper, but she wants to trade responsibility for romance. Facing an economic recession and new civil war amidst the backdrop of growing Midwestern fear and resentment, the Fehler sisters unite in their struggle to save the family foundation they’ve built. There’s bees and bed bugs too.
For those unfamiliar with the publishing industry, can you give us a quick overview of the types of companies out there?
In traditional publishing, meaning a publisher buys your work and sells it for you, there are five big houses: Penguin, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. You need a literary agent to pitch your work to those ranks. They have hundreds of imprints. They represent about 80% of the market. Then there is a huge list of independent publishers and small presses. Graywolf, Algonquin, Catapult, Europa, Melville House, and Turner, just to name a few. University presses fall in the small category but are well-respected. There’s no one way to publish a book in the industry and the odds are very much against writers. But still, here we are and it’s mostly grand.
I’ve had a wide range of experiences, and to be honest, I’ve been honored and pleased with the results. I published a chapbook, Scrap Metal Baby, last year with independent micro press Summer Camp Publishing. My first novel, Flood, came out from Hachette, one of the big five publishers. My second novel, The Hive, is being published by Turner Publishing, a large independent, with a new imprint, Keylight Books, that features books to film. The Hive comes out this summer. The film rights were immediately optioned to Sony, and the audio rights were sold to Dreamscape. I edited Furious Gravity and Grace in Darkness and published them through a partnership between American University and Politics & Prose Bookstore. I prefer to mix my work among big, medium, and small and lean toward editorial teams super enthusiastic about my books.
When deciding where to shop a manuscript, what factors do you consider?
I pay attention to who is publishing authors I admire and books I’m reading. My literary agent and I talk about the industry. It’s a business decision about art. Writers have to be able to pivot. The industry changes daily, it seems, especially during a pandemic. Writers have to be flexible. Mostly, writers have to keep writing. It gives you something useful to do during the waiting. And there is so much waiting.
You’re not only a writer, but you’re an editor, and teach writing. How do your many hats affect your process, once a publisher says “yes”?
The many hats help me understand the publishing process. There is less mystery and that is a relief. As editor of the Grace & Gravity series, my entire job is to champion women writers. When a publisher says “yes” to my own work, I remind myself to do that for me too. I’m much better at celebrating and cheering other writers, but I’m learning to be a better advocate for myself. I also have to get my ‘ask’ hat on because when you have a book coming out, you have to ask for a lot. Most people say yes. Some can’t. The generosity of writers is astounding.
Can you share any insider tips on getting published?
Decide what publishing success looks like to you before you query. Maybe you want to print twenty copies of your memoir and share them with family. That’s success. Maybe you’re thrilled with a hundred-print run from a prestigious academic press. That’s success. Maybe you want to write an amazing book and keep it in your nightstand. That’s success, too.
What writing [or publishing] advice would you give Younger Melissa?
I’d tell Missy (oops) that not knowing about the industry will serve her well. A younger Melissa knocked on a lot of doors that she probably shouldn’t have, but some of them opened. Why not her? Why not you? Rejection just means you’re in the game. It’s not personal. Women writers, in particular, need to dust themselves off and get back up to bat. Research shows that women writers are less willing to submit again to a journal or publisher that has rejected them. We have to change this strategy to win the game.
The Hive (Turner Publishing) launches on June 8, 2021.