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.”