John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Controlled Hallucinations (2013) and Disinheritance (2016). A five-time Pushcart nominee and winner of the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Midwest Quarterly, december, Third Coast, Baltimore Review, Nimrod International Journal, Hotel Amerika, Rio Grande Review, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
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Thank you for your time in answering our questions about getting published. Let’s begin by having you explain to us why you decided to become an author and pen this book?
I’m lucky to have been passionate about books since childhood. Perhaps it’s in part due to my mother reading novel after novel over her pregnant belly every day. Perhaps it’s in part due to my own restlessness, my need to make things, and my love of words. But I began writing short stories in middle school, and I continued in that genre until my early twenties. A handful of those stories found publication in literary magazines, which was eye-opening and oddly humbling.
I was 21 when I wrote my first poem. Before that, I had never enjoyed reading poetry and had certainly never considered writing one. It was summer in New York and I was sitting by a lake with my feet dragging through the current caused by small boats when suddenly, without my knowing what I was doing, I began writing something that obviously wasn’t a story. What was it? Impressions. Colors. Emotions. Strange images. I didn’t have any paper, so I used a marker to write a series of
Is this your first book?
This is actually my second full-length poetry collection, and I’ve had seven chapbooks published through various small presses before that. Each book has its own tone and its own unique themes, so, in a way, each published book feels a lot like ‘the first time’ again.
With this particular book, how did you publish – traditional, small press, Indie, etc. – and why did you choose this method?
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of big poetry publishers, so mid-size and small presses are really the best fit for poets who are not seeking self-publishing. Although plenty of great work comes out of self-publishing companies, that particular road is not for me. My previous chapbooks and my debut full length collection were all published by small presses staffed by passionate editors. I feel very lucky to have worked with them. For this new collection, Disinheritance, I sought a slightly more prominent press, and I was honored to be accepted pretty quickly by Apprentice House Press, a great publisher run by Loyola University.
Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey? The pros and cons?
Apart from the uncertainty of acceptance and the holding of one’s breath while awaiting a reply from the publishers you’ve queried, I don’t know if there are any other real cons to publishing traditionally. Admittedly, if that acceptance never comes, that one con becomes hugely significant. But traditional publishing has so many positive aspects: no publishing costs, better distribution, stronger reputation, better chance at being stocked in bookstores and libraries, marketing and publicity assistance (usually), easier booking of events, and, perhaps most importantly, being recognized as a serious author whose work was strong enough for a publisher to invest in it. The royalty percentage is lower than self-publishing, and you don’t have full control over design, but otherwise traditional publishing is, in my opinion, the best way of introducing your work to the world.
My own publishing journey has been a long one, spanning almost two decades. I have over 1,000 individual poems published in various magazines and anthologies, and I have previous books and chapbooks out from small presses. I usually spend about 50% of my time on writing and 50% on researching, submitting, and other publishing aspects. This may sound tedious, and perhaps it is, but there are so many magazines and book publishers out there that I’d be doing myself a disservice to not familiarize myself with them all. Each editor has her own tastes, so knowing a bit about each one’s preferences allows for a greater understanding of the publishing industry as a whole and a far greater chance of successfully navigating my manuscript toward publication.
What lessons do you feel you learned about your particular publishing journey and about the publishing industry as a whole?
Every success and every failure is a lesson. After decades of submitting and publishing, I am still learning. The subjectivity of literature makes each lesson a bit unique. For example, how to tell if your manuscript simply isn’t strong enough for publication or if the right editor just hasn’t seen it yet? I have had individual poems rejected dozens of times, leading me to question their quality, before they are suddenly accepted by a big magazine. Strangely, I have won two awards with significant cash prizes for poems that had been rejected too many times to count. So it’s important to keep subjectivity in mind. Rejection does not necessarily equate to a poor manuscript. That is why I simultaneously submit to journals and presses, and it is why I never give up on a piece that I truly believe in. However, it’s equally important to revisit one’s work with an eye for revising after so many rejections. Yes, maybe the poem hasn’t found the right editor yet. But it may not be as strong as you originally thought either. So, overall, I’d say every author should balance her own integrity, her own personal vision, with the feedback she receives. Know when to revise and when to hold your ground. Put ego to the side and realize writing is a craft. There are always others who know more than you and whose ideas it would be wise to adopt. But whatever you choose to do, always listen carefully to everyone’s advice. Within every critique and every rejection is a lesson, as long as you’re open-minded enough to listen.
Would you recommend this method of publishing to other authors?
Absolutely. Small, independent, and university presses really are where most of the best poetry and fiction are being published these days. Apart from their more open-minded approach to an author’s voice and vision, they are not as burdened by the need to sell thousands of copies of each title. They tend to put more passion and effort into each author, which is a breath of fresh air. Also, in terms of author effort, most presses of this size and scope don’t require painstaking and time-consuming attempts to connect with a literary agent.
What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring authors?
There’s a reason “keep writing, keep reading” has become clichéd advice for emerging writers; it’s absolutely true. You need to study as many books as possible from authors of various genres and from various countries. Listen to their voices. Watch how they manipulate and celebrate language. Delve deep into their themes and characters and take notes on the stylistic, structural, and linguistic tools they employ. And never, ever stop writing. Write every free moment you have. Bring a notebook and pen everywhere you go (and I mean everywhere). It’s okay if you’re only taking notes. Notes are critical. It’s okay if that first book doesn’t find a publisher. There will be more books to come. And it’s okay if those first poems aren’t all that great. You have a lifetime to grow as a writer.
Do we write to be cool, to be popular, to make money? We write because we have to, because we love crafting stories and poems, because stringing words together into meaning is one of life’s true joys. So rejections are par for the course. Writing poems or stories that just aren’t as strong as they could be is par for the course. But we must all retain that burning passion for language and storytelling. That flame is what keeps us maturing as writers.