So you have a manuscript...

by Stefan Lopez

What does Stillhouse Press look for in a manuscript? What’s the common thread running through space age romance, paternal combustion, plantation poetry, and disability care reform?  

“We want something unpredictable, bringing a new experience to the table.”  

In celebration of four productive years of publishing, we’re releasing a series of interviews with members of Stillhouse Press, from submissions and acquisition, from cover design to release, all to shine a light on the publication process.  

Aryelle Young is Stillhouse Press’ current submissions editor, and one of the first to have a say about what gets published. She works with all the submissions, assigning them to teams of readers, reading through reader reviews, going back to the manuscripts themselves, and sending promising pieces up the editorial ladder. 

Marcos L. Martínez is the next link in the manuscript chain. An alumnus of George Mason University’s MFA Creative Writing program, Martínez is one of the founding members of Stillhouse Press, and serves as the acquisitions editor. 

Choosing a manuscript is a daunting task. Even small publishers get a sizeable amount of submissions. “We had contest submissions open for a couple hours, and we got five manuscripts in that time alone. I haven’t been here that long but I’d guess that we get well over a hundred manuscripts a year,” says Young. 

It’s an especially formidable number, when considering that Stillhouse publishes an average of two titles annually. The judging process must therefore be thorough.  

 “A lot of what I’m doing right now is outreach at things like conferences and readings, to keep an eye on authors we are interested in. I also work with our other editors on manuscripts that we think have potential,” Martínez says of his role. 

Each manuscript sees multiple rounds of vetting from teams of volunteer readers—largely sources from George Mason’s MFA , BFA, and English programs—who read the manuscripts on a deadline, give each one an individual score, and then discuss the assigned manuscripts together, comparing reactions.  

For prose, Stillhouse asks its readers to look for the classic staples of good writing, such as dynamic characters, interesting subject matter, and powerful language. The factor they most heavily weigh is the author’s competence and voice: “We look for strength of writing and a good clear voice,” Young says. “A few mistakes aren’t a big deal as long as we can see a writer’s vision coming through in the manuscript.”   

“Strong voice can mean a variety of things,” says Martínez. “Think of it as having a distinct personality and a unique sense of writing. A narrative that’s distinct or unique, or a unique type of storytelling, like hybrid works.”  

He uses Mark Polanzak’s POP! as an example: “What really fascinated us was that it was a memoir that included moments that were obviously fiction. The opening was really eye-catching. Polanzak’s father disappears in a literal puff of smoke.”  

As for Poetry, Stillhouse wants something that can’t be easily fit into a simple stylistic label.  

“We’re looking for something that pushes the envelope, not just transcendentalism or romanticism or love poetry," Young says. At the same time, it can’t be completely divorced from developments in the wider world of poetry. Quite the opposite: “We want something that’s part of the contemporary conversation.”   

“Our most recent poetry publication, [Carmen Gillespie's] The Ghosts of Monticello was actually submitted in our nonfiction contest,” says Martínez.  

Once Aryelle and her team find a prospective manuscript, it is then opened up for discussion by all of Stillhouse’s editors.  

“Generally, we all get together at a big table. We talk about what we think are the manuscript’s pros and cons. Does it fit our vision? What kind of marketability does it have? What are some of the challenges does it present? The decision to publish has always been unanimous,” says Young. 

Even after the unanimous vote is received, the process is not over. A proposal is sent to board members. 

"If they give the okay, we talk to the author and see if they’re willing to work with us."  

It’s a complex process, which takes plenty of time and effort, and according to Martínez, “in the best circumstances, the timeframe from submission to acquisition takes six to 12 months. From acquisition to publishing it takes, at the very least, a year.”  

So what should prospective authors aim for? 

Aside from writing well, don’t put too much in the cover letter. “It isn’t a make or break factor.” Young says, “The shorter and more concise it is, the more likely it’ll make an impact. Don’t take the mystery out of reading your manuscript. We want it to grab us as we read, not have it laid out before we even start.“ 

Martínez suggests expanding your efforts outside of your writing. “It’s really important for authors to engage with their community, and find a base with other authors and peers… Often we write in isolation, and that’s an important process, but you need to build a network of people already interested in your work.”  

In the end, they both suggest patience and perseverance. “The publishing process normally takes a long time. Just because you didn’t get a response, or got rejected, doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is bad. Keep writing, and keep submitting.”  

"Keep writing, and keep submitting."

stefan headshot 1a.jpg




Stefan Lopez has an internship with Stillhouse Press,
a Bachelor’s Degree in English from George Mason University,
and a head full of empty.

From Still to Shelf: Reading Like an Artist

By Benjamin A. Rader

Reading slush is a difficult job: most of our readers are writers themselves, so evaluating manuscripts for publication often involves quieting the aesthetic we apply to our own work and letting the new manuscript tell us how to read it.

"One part restraint, one part literary potential, and two parts education, the manuscript selection process at Stillhouse aims to find that wholly new, original piece of art, while pushing readers to revise their ideas about how art works."

Whether they work for Media or Editorial, every staff member at Stillhouse begins as a reader. Readers assess manuscripts from a craft perspective, yet also aim to somehow quantify the emotional experience of reading the book.  Striving to maintain a reading staff with a diverse range of creative backgrounds and editorial styles is essential. A collection of diverse voices and selective eyes is part of what makes the selection process nuanced and thorough.   

Our selection process begins with the Submittable portal. Once a writer submits his or her manuscript, the Submissions Editor assigns it for first reads. First readers perform a close reading of each work to evaluate its voice, story, structure and—most importantly—literary potential. Readers are required to read at least the first 30 pages or three chapters of a manuscript before rejecting it, though they may not recommend any manuscript for publication without reading it completely. Each reader must use the  Reader Response Sheet to record the page at which they stopped reading and an explanation, rank the manuscript on a scale of 0 to 10, and indicate whether or not they think the book has publication potential, using examples of the text to support their decision. Readers also provide notes about the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript to aid their justifications.

Stillhouse Staff (left to right): Madeline Dell'Aria, Kate Lewis, Hannah Campeanu, Katie Ray.

Stillhouse Staff (left to right): Madeline Dell'Aria, Kate Lewis, Hannah Campeanu, Katie Ray.

Occasionally, we find a manuscript with a voice and concept readers love, but that needs significant developmental editing. Because Stillhouse is a small operation, we work with writers to develop their manuscript over the span of (at least) one year before publication, and occasionally longer than that. In first reads, readers are tasked not only with evaluating the manuscript for what it is, but also imagining what the book could be. They are asked to imagine what the work will look like in one year, its potential for evolution.

If the majority of readers assigned to a manuscript think it should be published or if the manuscript is designated as a “maybe” (a consistent score of 5 or 6), it’s sent to another group of readers for second reads. Second readers have often worked for Stillhouse for several semesters, proving their ability to critically analyze work at the sentence and developmental level. The process for second reads is the same, albeit more stringent; second readers almost never use the “maybe” designation. If a second reader recommends the manuscript, it moves on to the prose or poetry editors. Three different categories of readers must agree on the work before Stillhouse's head editor, Marcos L. Martínez sees it. 

The measured selection process, in addition to providing a pool from which to draw books, serves another crucial function: education and artistic maturation, the Stillhouse ethos. Every time a reader disagrees with another reader, they are growing and evolving their own literary voice and their craft.  Since readers inherently understand the importance of artistic development, they actively work to push against their own aesthetic. By pushing and pulling, with each manuscript they argue for or against, readers hone their editorial eye and further develop Stillhouse's collaborative aesthetic. One part restraint, one part literary potential, and two parts education, the manuscript selection process at Stillhouse aims to find that wholly new, original piece of art, while pushing readers to revise their ideas about how art works.

It is difficult to quantify the type of work we look for, though perhaps one of our greatest strengths is that we aim to offer writers a safe place for work that other publishers challenge; those works that are impossible to sell to the big publishing houses because they “aren’t marketable” or easily categorized.

Can't place it in a genre, or fit it in a box? Yeah, we love that.


Benjamin A. Rader is the Submissions Editor at Stillhouse Press and an MFA candidate in the fiction program at George Mason. A year prior, he was awarded a teaching fellowship for his short fiction and poetry at Seton Hall University. His work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, The I-70 Review, filling Station, The Tulip Tree Review, and others.