On Publishing with a Small Press: An Interview with Elizabeth DeMeo

Elizabeth DeMeoWriter and editor Elizabeth DeMeo is no stranger to interviews. Before beginning her current role as Associate Editor at Tin House Books, she was the Managing Editor of The Arkansas International, where she interviewed several writers (one of whom she later championed at Tin House Books). Despite my nerves as I waited for our Zoom appointment to start, I felt lucky to have the opportunity to interview someone who knows just how nerve-wracking an interview can be. Someone kind and funny who will happily give advice about writing, publishing, and doing this exact interview in real time? It’s the kind of luck you only see in stories.

DeMeo gave a talk about editing and publishing at the December 2020 Antioch MFA residency. The seminar was highly attended, and I was one of the students watching and jotting down notes to study intensely later. When it comes to the publishing process from a small-press point of view, even outside of her talks and workshops, DeMeo is an open book always excited to share her knowledge and a list of her favorite essayists.

Erica Colón: Could you explain to us a bit about your role at Tin House and what an associate editor position entails?

Elizabeth DeMeo: I’ve been at Tin House a little bit over two years now. I started as an intern. As an editorial intern, my main job was assisting with reading manuscripts. I was learning just exactly what Tin House is looking for and also learning the taste of the editor I was working with, who was Masie Cochran, our Editorial Director. I was really getting to see how an editor works through and manages a high volume of submissions, learning things like sending pass letters, court meetings with agents going after certain projects, that kind of thing. I had little exposure to actual editing during my internship. A few years after my internship, an Editorial Assistant position opened up at Tin House and I applied. I was so lucky to get it—I actually left my MFA program a semester early and did my thesis remotely. It was a wonderful job that gave me a sort of ground-level exposure to all things that the editorial side is doing. I basically assisted everybody: reading submissions and assisting with the edits that are taking place, not just the edits that the editors are doing, but also copy edits and proofreading. I worked in packaging, making sure everything looks correct before we send a book to print, and learned the ins-and-outs of the schedule and kind of the beats that a book goes through after it’s acquired until it goes to final print.

I did that for about a year and then I was promoted to my current position. At the associate level you switch into acquiring, so now I’m in the process of building my own list at Tin House. We work very collaboratively, so I still do assist a lot with reading. I acquired six or seven books last year. I acquire in all three genres—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

EC: How do you determine if a book is the right fit for Tin House? Is there a rigorous kind of rubric you’re looking at?

ED: That’s a really good question. It’s one that’s actually misunderstood quite a lot and one I wish that I could talk to writers more about. Fundamentally, we’re looking for books that we can see the entire team at Tin House being excited about. There’s about a dozen of us, a few on the editorial team, marketing and publicity team, and then we have our art department as well who do our covers. I love when I get a project, where I can see not only is it going to be exciting editorially, but I can kind of picture the whole package, that it would be something that would be fun for our marketing team to market, something that I can imagine them having a really good time with the cover. There’s a million ways to do that with a book, but that’s one thing in particular, because we are a small team and we only do about twenty-five books per year. Some of those are reissues too, if it’s been a hardcover and we’re doing it in paperback. The number of new books we’re doing is relatively small, if you compare us to a big-four publisher.

I love when I get a project, where I can see not only is it going to be exciting editorially, but I can kind of picture the whole package, that it would be something that would be fun for our marketing team to market, something that I can imagine them having a really good time with the cover. There’s a million ways to do that with a book, but that’s one thing in particular, because we are a small team and we only do about twenty-five books per year.

If you sign with a small press, you have this benefit of the entire team really being behind it. We’re going to pour our heart and soul into every single book because it’s such a small list.

One reason we might say no is that we’re looking to balance our list in a lot of different ways. Tin House splits the year into three different seasons. We have summer, fall, and winter, so there’s no spring season at Tin House. Each season, we do about eight titles and we have to split those between fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Some of those, like I said, are reissues, so that pulls a couple spots already filled on the list. It leaves you with not a huge number of spots, and we’re also always trying to be sure our list is very thoughtfully composed. If I just took a book about horse racing, I don’t want to take another novel about horse racing because they’ll cannibalize each other. So, really, that’s probably what’s most in my mind is thinking when a book comes in, what season it would go in and how it would play off the other books. I love to think about, oh, this author from our list would be great in conversation with this author. They’re doing something similar or it’s interesting to juxtapose craft wise content wise. That’s really what’s at the front of a lot of editors’ minds when they read submissions. You want to make sure the list is balanced, diverse, and representative of a wide variety of perspectives.

EC: Do you have a favorite book that you helped get to publication?

ED: My favorite changes. There’s something I love about every single book. Like I said, at a small house that’s one of the benefits. Each book can really be a passion project for the team that works on it. I will say the one book that I am just really proud to have helped bring into the world is Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Before I was at Tin House, I was a managing editor of a literary magazine. I held a bunch of different roles there before I was managing editor, and in my time there I had reached out to Jenn. She writes nonfiction mostly and I had told her, “I love your work; I’d love to publish something of yours.” We ended up putting two pieces of hers in our literary magazine. They received a really wonderful response. Flash forward several years later, I was at Tin House and they said we’re working on a book by this writer Jenn Shapland. I told everyone I know her, I love her, I think she’s doing great work. I was not the main editor for that one, but I got to help a little bit in an assistant capacity.

The response we’ve gotten to the book has just been amazing. It’s sort of a memoir/biography hybrid, which in itself is really interesting to me in the ways that sort of stretches form. It begins when Jenn is working as an intern in the Harry Ransom Center in Texas archives, and she discovers these love letters between Carson McCullers and another woman. She thought, oh, I knew Carson McCullers one way and these letters are casting her in a totally different light. That was a launching point for this years-long investigation into Carson’s identity as a queer woman. Jenn reads her work, looks at therapy transcripts, looks at different accounts and interviews, and sort of reclaims or deepens the Carson McCullers that history has remembered. She adds this whole new layer. At the same time, Jenn is in her mid-twenties when the book starts and she’s grappling with her own identity as a queer woman.

That’s the type of work I just love. It’s so personal, it’s so intimate, but it’s so big and powerful at the same time. Talking about archives and who’s left out, and what aspects of people are left out, and who’s allowed to tell stories. Specifically with regard to queer women and what we’re allowed to remember. I just want more books like that out there. This one was shortlisted for a National Book Award this past fall, which I just felt like over the moon to see it receive such recognition among other honors. That’s what I’m really proud of. And I’m really proud of the way Tin House did the publicity for that book too. We got Oprah. It was in The New York Times. I just feel like it was a big story that was important to tell, and we got it out there in a big way.

EC: Do you have a favorite piece of your own work?

ED: I had an essay published in The Indiana Review a little while back, and I really loved working on that. I wrote it when I was in my MFA program and I was just learning the ropes of who I was as an essay writer, what that form meant to me, and what I found it could do. It’s about a house in Newport, Rhode Island: the history of the house, the history of women in that house over the years, and what it’s meant, all combined with my personal history of struggle. The content is interesting to me, but mostly it was really exciting because I had been working up until that time almost exclusively in fiction. My MFA is in fiction, but I took a couple classes in creative nonfiction. That essay is special to me because it’s a celebration of my time breaking into that genre, and now I’m just personally a huge reader of essay collections. I love Elissa Washuta, Elena Passarello, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Wendy S. Walters, Amy Fusselman. When I think of that essay, I always think of that period when I started being exposed to nonfiction and how much I just loved it. I wanted to play in that pool, yes, I absolutely love that moment.

EC: I feel like nonfiction doesn’t necessarily get a bad rap, but rather just doesn’t get noticed.

ED: I know what you mean. One of the first essay collections I read was a book called Limber by Angela Pelster, which I think is just one of the most beautiful books out there. I don’t understand why not everyone is just screaming about that book all the time. I think because the writing tends to be quiet, in ways that I think are beautiful. But sometimes it can be the case that we want to focus on the loudest thing. So in that way to me it felt a bit like a secret. The creative nonfiction community tends to be pretty close, I think, and once you’re brought in you think, this is so wonderful.

EC: A lot of the people who are studying creative writing in general as well don’t really realize that creative nonfiction is also creative.

ED: That’s too true. For fiction, I often find that there’re no constraints, like you can really do whatever. It was productive to me with nonfiction to sort of say, okay, there are some natural constraints built in because I’m reliant upon, to some degree, truth and things that have happened. It can be very hard, then, to work with that and to make it sort of something creative, so people who succeed in doing that I’m just endlessly inspired by.

EC: What do you feel is missing in the market?

ED: In general, I will say when I’m looking at work, I try not to pay too much attention to trends or micro trends, because it moves so quickly. That stuff is shifting and when you take a book it can be two years or so between when you take the book and when it comes out. So if there’s a big trend for mermaid fiction, maybe that trend is gone two years down the road. I try not to think of it too much when books come in as an editor, but just for myself what would I love to see more of as a reader in the marketplace? I’ve listened to part of the book We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. It’s about a girls’ field hockey team in Salem, Massachusetts. It’s sort of speculative in all these wonderful kinds of weird, kooky ways and it’s very funny. It just made me think that we don’t see enough novels about women in sports, so I would love to see more of those. I’ve been asking agents slightly to send me these. I want to see these. I would love to see more diverse voices in nature writing, being allowed to enter that space. I don’t think it’s for lack of people doing that type of writing, and I would love to see more people publishing that type of writing. You think that would be more popular now that we’re kind of stuck indoors.

EC: Do you have any advice for authors who are currently submitting and querying?

ED: A lot of the advice cross applies. One thing I would say, as somebody who has worked on a literary magazine for a really long time, is you should really know the magazine you’re submitting to before you submit to it. If you can even say one thing in your brief cover letter that says why you think your work is a fit for that specific magazine, I think that will help set you apart. You don’t even have to say it, but I think you should know the magazine well enough to know if it resonates with their aesthetic and their ethos in different ways. If you can’t answer that question, you need to sit down and take a closer look at where you’re submitting and why your work lines up with it. So many people are just throwing every single thing at the wall to see what sticks. That’s really frustrating when you’re reading for a magazine and you have no idea why this came to you when this is a clear no. Sometimes it’d be poetry when we don’t take poetry, but often more nuanced than that. Subject matter wise, form wise, language wise, etc. You want the things you’re sending out to be in conversation with the work that the magazine is doing.

If you can even say one thing in your brief cover letter that says why you think your work is a fit for that specific magazine, I think that will help set you apart. You don’t even have to say it, but I think you should know the magazine well enough to know if it resonates with their aesthetic and their ethos in different ways. If you can’t answer that question, you need to sit down and take a closer look at where you’re submitting and why your work lines up with it.

The second thing I will say is that editors both in books and magazines are really busy. A huge part of your day is just trying to get through. It’s wonderful but it’s a lot to get through the high volume of submissions that you’re looking at, whether that’s stories or essays or whatever. If somebody takes the time to write you back a personal response about a piece you’ve submitted, and particularly if they ask you to send something again, they are very likely not just being kind. There’s no reason that somebody would take additional time to do that when they have no time, unless they actually mean it and want to see something more from you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that to writers and then never seen anything again. No, I was quite genuine. I love what you’re doing, but for whatever reason it wasn’t a fit. Please do continue. I want to form a relationship with you. I want to see your work. I believe in you. And to that point, too, if you see an editor responding really well to what you’re doing, even if they don’t accept it, I would follow that editor. People are moving from magazine to magazine or from magazine to press all the time, so if you had somebody who likes your stuff and wants to champion you, then follow where they go and continue to send things to them. If we love somebody in one venue, we are going to still like you even if we’re somewhere else.

EC: Do you have any specific writing pet peeves when you’re reading through stuff?

ED: I feel like sometimes I can tell when a writer is trying to be someone other than themselves. They’re trying to write towards a particular trend, or a particular novel that’s just broken out and is quite popular, or even a particular voice that is sort of in vogue at the moment. That, to me, is not very exciting. I’m always looking for what feels next, or what feels new. Something I haven’t seen before. That doesn’t mean you can’t be writing things that are in conversation with what’s currently out there, or building on a lineage of work over time. I’m very interested in that too, ways we can develop a form over time. But if I see something that I feel is almost a direct imitation and is only designed to be an echo of something else that was just popular, I’m not very interested. I’m interested instead in what is unique and particular about you as a writer if I’m reading your work. I’ll put something down pretty fast if I think it’s doing that.

EC: How can we, as both readers and writers, really help support marginalized voices who are kind of trying to break into this industry?

ED: As somebody who works in the industry, I think we often think about this question at the level of writers. So, a sort of easy answer would be diversify your reading list. Take stock of all the books you read over the course of a year, and just think about who the writers are. Do they all have a particular demographic and, if so, maybe you maybe you should work on that and try to broaden out of it. That’s great, and I think that is something everyone should absolutely be doing. But I will also say that somewhere I would like to see this question talked about more is in roles other than writers within the industry. Myself, I think of the agents that I reached out to. Is it a diverse group of agents? Is it a diverse group of editors within a press or at a literary magazine?

As a writer, when you send your work out to places, I think you should look at the type of stories that places are publishing. Look at the type of writers that houses are publishing. Ask yourself: do you believe in their mission in terms of social justice? If you don’t feel like they’re doing good work or work that you can support in that sense, then don’t send your work there. Don’t support them as a writer. You have a lot of power, actually, in that way. Even at the level of booksellers, I think there is a huge diversity of bookshops in this country. We started to see people really realize that you can buy from other places than just the main places on the internet. Think about locally, within your neighborhood, is there a Black-owned bookstore that you could support? There’re all these different points at which you can make change, not just as a reader, but as a writer, as an editor, as an agent, as a consumer.

EC: The last question I have is what are you currently reading?

ED: I am reading quite a bit for work, so I have several manuscripts that I can’t talk about publicly. But in terms of stuff I am reading, I mentioned Aisha Sabatini Sloan earlier. I’ve been reading an essay collection of hers, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. Oh my God, she is so talented. Anything she writes, I will follow. The movement within her essays is so brilliant and feels so seamless. She’ll move from talking about art to talking about a memory to sort of meditating on a cultural event. Whenever I try to do that type of thing it feels so clunky, like I’m just awkwardly putting together like an ugly snowman or something. But she has just such a way of linking things that you wouldn’t necessarily think would go together, and then when you read it you think, oh, of course! Whenever someone is able to pull that off I just am in awe of them, and that is how I feel with her. I’m in awe of her as a reader and then jealous of her as a writer. I would recommend that book to everybody out there.

Erica Colón is an Antioch University Los Angeles MFA in creative writing candidate who writes all the time and reads at least three times as much. They have volunteered with the literary magazines Blue Mesa Review and Lunch Ticket, as well as many different non-profits. An avid re-reader and re-watcher, Erica has no shame in how many hours they’ve put into consuming the same content repeatedly. If you enjoy sporadically posted pictures of books and low effort captions, check out their Bookstagram at www.instagram.com/ReinaTellsTales