Manuscripts to Market - An Interview With Michael Neff of "The Novel Editors"

    by Connie Chenowith of Author Salon

Q: What made you guys decide to start a novel editing service?

It's a natural outgrowth of the writer conferences. Writers are always asking for something like this, especially following the New York Pitch Conference. Overall, I've spent many hours helping alums get published, all pro bono, and now I feel it's time to parallel that with another more methodical and goal-defined process. Besides, we can justify far more dedication to any given project over a longer length of time if actual remuneration is involved. 

CC:  That makes sense, of course, but seriously, does the world need another novel editing service?

Yes and no. The world does not need another commonplace editorial service. Ours is unique, indefinite in length, customized for each writer, and finally, structured more productively than other novel editing services--the condition we're striving for in terms of methods and final results.

CC: So how does "Manuscripts to Market" really differ from other novel editorial services?  I'm skeptical.  There's a hundred of them out there, or more.

We provide a three-stage review of the manuscript. First, a preliminary analysis of the story premise and other major elements that might well necessitate rewrites from the start. Why begin a read of the manuscript if we know from the onset, for example, that crucial elements of plot are missing? Second, the core developmental review of the manuscript itself takes place, from first page to last, resulting in ms notes and a separate editorial report. Weeks or months later (depending on the author and ms) it is followed by a third and final review once the author has completed the necessary restructure and rewrites based on the core developmental review.

Once the above is complete, we assist with the search for agents and production of a superlative query letter. We also stick with the writer through the query process for an indefinite length of time, reality checking as appropriate and necessary.

Overwhelming evidence shows that one-shot reviews rarely, if ever, result in greatly improved or publishable manuscripts. You see writers pay gobs to freelance editors only to get the ms back and later go through even more rewrites. Follow-up is always necessary. The writer must be guided as needed, depending on their skill set, and the project itself developed in stages. 

We also differ from the many editorial services in other ways. For example, our own combined skill set exceeds that of most freelance editors. Unlike the academic types, we've actually worked with commercial publishing house editors and agents, we have a track record, and unlike the majority of ex-editors from publishing houses who left the business to freelance, we are actual writers, published authors of fiction. I recommend a perusal of our website for more on this particular issue

CC: Why do you feel your viewpoint on novel editing more valuable, or realistic than that of an academic MFA instructor? I know you're not keen on advice that emanates from MFA programs.

For the most part, no, exceptions being Robert Olen Butler's program at FSU and a few others. I totally reject the Conroy philosophy and approach began at Iowa decades ago and later cascaded into the bulk of MFA programs throughout the United States. They preach that writing can't be taught, and in keeping with that disproved absurdity, therefore eschew notions of discussing plot or story premise when it comes to writing a novel. What could be more ridiculous? Craft becomes a whisper after dark and the word "market" gains the status of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter books, i.e., becoming a word which must never be spoken on campus, or even in the presence of ivy.

An academic whose beliefs about novel writing, or fiction writing in general, are rooted in that culture should never be consulted. It's a little like consulting with a home builder who doesn't believe in the basics of physics. If  nothing else, the "professors" fail to understand the demands of various genres and their readerships, and that's just for starters. 

Necessity, experience, and common sense demand that we be the polar opposite.

CC: Do you offer guarantees to writers? I mean, do you assure the writer they will be published as a result of utilizing Manuscript to Market services? 

No editors, no matter how brilliant, by contract or otherwise, have sufficient control over a work to engineer it to guaranteed commercial publication. Why? Because no matter what you do, no matter what services you provide or what you say, it is ultimately up to the writer to rise to the challenge. At the end of the day, the writer must actually write or rewrite the manuscript. Also, given the reality and ease of social media interaction, you sometimes find yourself as an editor in a struggle to be heard over the din of readers and writer groups interacting with your clients--often telling them what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. 

Any number of things will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I've witnessed long slogs to brass ring territory only to see a history of titanic effort go whooshing into the sewer because one single player in the writer's life, sitting beside her one evening at a theater, told her that her novel was perfectly wonderful, no more changes were necessary, and to just "follow her heart" to certain success.

A tragic event for that writer, though it seemed so right and blessed with divine good feeling.

CC: Anything else you would like to add on the subject?

Yes, I want to tell everyone out there to ask themselves the following questions before they ever decide to spend a penny on novel or nonfiction editorial services. As follows:
  1. Do you get to review the credentials of the individual who will be working on your ms?
  2. Do the person's credentials include any real-time experience working in tandem with the New York publishing business, or at least with mid-sized or quality independent presses?
  3. Is there a demonstrable track record of commercial or literary publication of any kind associated with past clients of this person? Is the track record relatively recent or really old news?
  4. Is the proposed editor person an actual writer of narrative nonfiction or novels? Has the work been self-published or published?
  5. Are accolades or testimonials about the business itself focused rather on buzz phrasing than pointers to actual results, i.e., contracts with major houses or agencies?
If you get positive answers to the above questions, you know that you and your manuscript might have a fighting chance.

CC:  Thank you for the interview, Michael. It all sounds sensible. 


"All The Dark We Will Not See" - Is it Okay to Search For a New Publisher?

ALL THE DARK WE WILL NOT SEE, published by the distinguished Serving House Books, first appeared as "Year of The Rhinoceros," published by a popular and respected literary press in LA known as Red Hen Press. The initial birth of this story, fallen to earth as a big cracked egg, never possessed the proper edits or even a suitable cover. Not only that, but the lamination peeled easily, type was smudged in quarter-sized spots throughout the book, and the presence of it was generally rendered odd by "burn victim" artwork I was forced to swallow in order to prevent an even worse cover from potentially manifesting itself. But my intention here isn't to bitch about the staff of chickens at Red Hen, it's to make sense out of the emergence of a new edition of the novel now entitled ALL THE DARK WE WILL NOT SEE.

As time passed, I became more and more determined to get my rights back and land a new publisher, and I was eventually successful. The new edition now possesses everything I wanted for the first, and more, including an author preface, new cover, substantive edits, and text sans scores of typographical errors.

I have to confess that I'm lucky. Most authors don't get a chance to do it over, but I did. My new press, Serving House Books, is both brilliant and led by a fantastic editor, Walt Cummins. I can't thank or praise the press enough. I am surrounded by great writers, poets and authors, and in a company I respect.

So what's the bottom line here? I encourage all serious writers to strongly consider quality independent presses like Serving House. The literary history of the world is written by presses such as these, and by presses like Algonquin Books and Copper Canyon, among many others.

Larger publishing houses in New York have their place (especially when it comes to big genre books), and their advantages, but the quality independents will more likely treat you with respect and make a home for you in a way that many overworked, underpaid New York publishing house staff cannot even imagine much less engineer (usually through no fault of their own). 


13 Ways For Authors To Avoid Being Blacklisted

As someone who organizes readings and a large literary arts festival with workshops, author appearances, and exhibitors, over the last ten years I have developed a list of writers who I will not work with again. And rest assured, I’m not the only one who does this.

Why? Because they didn’t follow directions. It’s that simple. Who's on it? Writers who acted like the organizer/staff were their personal assistant/manager. 

Take note of the following ways to avoid this blacklist and be a true professional!


Double booking is such a big no-no we can’t believe you’re not aware of this already yourself. Whatever you have to do to make sure you know the days you are already booked: DO IT. Back out of our event at the last minute because you “forgot” you already had a gig? You’re on the list.


It should be no surprise to you that we need your bio and right away—possibly a short one and a long one. We also need a high resolution digital photo of the appropriate size with good lighting, not a selfie taken in the bathroom with your cell phone or with the light behind you. We need ordering information for your book. Possibly your dietary restrictions or lunch/dinner order. Special seating or parking needs. Have that at the ready to send right away. Don’t have them? Get them together and email them to yourself now so you will.

Have a publicity team? Great! They are usually more organized than authors. But pick only ONE person for us to work with.


If we ask for your short bio, we mean about 100 words. Not half a page, a full page, or two pages. Put your current, key publications, awards, job in there and include your website so people can find out more. You should not send a link to your website or write back “it’s on my website which is in my signature block.” You will be asked again to send the bio and if you again don’t comply, you won’t have a bio listed. Same with the photo and book order info. If we give you the format in which we want these and you send a link to your book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your publisher’s website you will be asked again, etc. If you're a "famous writer" we will chase you for the info but you'll go on the list.


When we tell you the deadline by which we need the information we are not picking a random date. We have a deadline for ordering your book and/or getting it to the host so he/she can read it before your reading or interview. We are collecting information to layout and send to the printer for marketing materials: brochures, programs, postcards. For posting on the website and social media.

Decided at the last minute you want to change or send your picture now that it’s too late? Yeah, no. Not changing the program which is already at the printer and would incur fees.


Organizers count on participants publicizing the event they are part of, which helps extend the organization’s reach and hopefully means high attendance on the day/evening. Post our event on your website, your Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/wherever pages. Follow our social media pages and share info from them. Let people know about your part, but also share the info about other writers, exhibitors, etc. if it’s a larger event or festival.


We are aware of our own schedule. We know when we want to release final details to authors, etc. Don't stalk us for weeks before asking where you’re parking, what building/room you’re in, or asking if your book has arrived yet. We will send out the logistics email when everything is finalized and in plenty of time.

Please don’t “check in.” If we wanted to check in we would have. Basic information is, by now, on the organization’s website: location, day, time, parking. Do your own homework until you hear from us. That’s what websites are for. If it’s a few days before and no email, check your spam folder, then call.

How a reading works or an interview or a Q&A is not rocket science. You shouldn’t need a minute by minute breakdown of what is expected.


On the day of the event, don’t show up two hours before your reading if you’re part of an event that runs for several hours, or a festival, wanting to check in or with questions. Check in at the appointed time—an hour before is best. Wait until the session before yours has started so it’s quieter and we can focus on you.

Don’t wander off to other sessions, to lunch, whatever, and not be there on time for the start of your event. Keep track of the time and return at least fifteen minutes before your part starts.


Always check in! Otherwise, you are considered a “no show” and we are scrambling to figure out what to do without you, sending people to look for you, spending time calling/texting you when there are ten other things requiring our attention.


We simply do not have time to take your call. The ringer on our cell is mostly likely turned off. If you want to reach us because you’re going to be late due to traffic or a car breakdown, text us and give us your name and ETA. If there is a host for your session, text them as well. Don’t text us and ask us to tell them. We may not see them in time and guess what? We have ten other things requiring our attention. What? You don’t have their phone number? You know my response to that.


If we didn’t offer or ask about your tech needs then please don't email asking if you can show a short film the day before the event. Or even weeks before. Tech has already been decided. We’ve had the final walk-though. We would have to hire a tech person at the venue which is not in our budget. You also may not call the venue yourself and ask for them to do this for you. We have a contract with them and you are not part of it. Put whatever you want to show on your website and have people view it on their smartphones during or after the session.


We probably gave you a time limit for your reading or, if you’re a host of a reading/session at a festival for us, how long your session is. If you’re a writer, choose appropriate material and practice reading it to make sure you are just under your time. So if we said seven minutes that’s what you prepare. Not three minutes. Not nine minutes. Your running under/over screws up the schedule. Minutes add up.

If you’re a host, don’t run over. Manage/track your time. If the host of the session before you didn’t do that and their session ran into yours, let us know later (they will go on the list!), but that doesn’t mean you can do the same to the session’s host and authors after you.


Go to other sessions if you’re at a festival. Stay the whole evening if it’s a larger event/reading. Take pictures. Post on social media using the event hashtag and quote writers/speakers. Tag people. Share other people’s posts.

If you just do your part and leave you were not really a participant making a contribution to our event and community.


Organizers are juggling more than you know depending on the size of the event: partners and their expectations, venues, catering, audio/visual recording, marketing, publicity, security, tech, tables, chairs, signage, exhibitors, book orders, the schedule, volunteers, parking, transportation/hotel for visiting writers, walk-throughs, last minute changes.

We are horrified that your name was spelled wrong or the parking lot was closed or someone else took your vegan lunchbox. We didn’t do it on purpose and we can’t fix it now. Don’t call/text us asking for restaurant recommendations or the nearest parking lot. These are all accessible to you via your own phone.


We are doing our best to make everyone comfortable and happy while dealing with the banner falling off of the front of the building, microphones with dead batteries, a famous writer needing directions over the phone instead of using their GPS, volunteers who didn’t show up, the session room that’s locked so no one can get in, obvious questions from people who could answer them by simply opening and reading the program or checking the map.

There are plenty of people ready to criticize every aspect of an event with massive amounts of know-it-all disdain. People who have never organized anything in their life but who think they’d be geniuses at it.  Don’t be that person. You have no idea what was discussed, promised by venue/partners/caterers/etc., not allowed or not available, or didn’t work on the day.

Be a help, not a hindrance. How? Remember that the event is not about you (unless you’re the headliner, in which case, still be gracious, not a diva). Do your homework. Do your prep. Bring your own water and a granola bar, just in case. Leave early, map out additional parking, check in, tweet about how much fun you’re having, smile.

We are excited to have you at our event! We think you’re fantastic! But be responsible for yourself. If you can’t be, hire someone who will be able to handle your needs/details or risk not being invited back and word getting around that you are not a professional or too much work.

Your call.

Chris Stewart is Editor-in-Chief of Del Sol Press (@DelSolPressBks), which has a First Novel Competition deadline this Friday, May 13th. Judge is Madison Smartt Bell.  Prize is $1500, 20 copies. Second and third place winners receive free tuition to the AlgonkianNew York Pitch Conference. Published already but retained the copyright? You’re eligible! Check it out:Del Sol Press First Novel Prize

Chris tweets @EditorStewart and provides manuscript editing and critiques. Find tips, tools, information, and inspiration on her website: The Real Writer