Kurt Baumeister On the Synergy of Being an Editor, Critic, and Novelist
Christine Sneed interviews Kurt Baumeister about his role as acquisitions editor for 7.13 Books and the history of his authorial, editorial, and critical work.
The Virginity of Famous Men The Nervous BreakdownPax Americana
Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos
Christine Sneed: Were you first a fiction writer and later a book reviewer or did these two skill sets evolve more or less in tandem?
CS: Can you tell us about how someone gets started as a book critic—like the best way to query and which journals to target?
San Francisco Chronicle
Glengarry Glen Ross
CS: How did you become an acquisitions editor for 7.13 Books?
Superman and the Seven Gods of DeathTwilight of the Gods
In the meantime, we grew to be better friends, and eventually the time seemed right to revisit the idea. Leland was all for it, though he was quick to point out that one important requirement of getting into publishing was a willingness to lose money. (He was laughing, but something told me he wasn’t joking. And he wasn’t. Ha ha.) I have to admit, though, I am one for one so far on not losing money. I hope to keep this profitability streak going in 2023 with James Reich’s The Moth for the Star, an ambitious metaphysical horror-thriller, and a sweeping anti-epic by Gemini Wahhaj entitled Mad Man, both publishing in the second half of ’23.
CS: What is something you wish more writers who submit manuscripts to 7.13 Books would do? And what do you wish they would not do?
KB: Learn how to write a query letter. I think some writers assume that if they’re not going for an agent, they don’t need to know how to write a query letter, that it’s essentially a waste of time. The first problem with that is you’re selling yourself short to start with: You should always go for the top in any endeavor, and to go for a literary agent, you have to know how to write a query. The second problem with the Waste of Time Theory is it’s sort of insulting to the presses you are submitting to, presses that are staffed by people querying agents and publishers themselves, people who have devoted time to learning how to write a query letter.
Another major “Do” is to research the marketplace and the press you’re submitting to. This echoes my last point in that I think writers assume if they’re querying a small press, they’re just gonna go ahead and let it fly out there, hoping for the best. Again, this runs the risk of alienating the editors and publishers you’re trying to appeal to. Finally, after you run your five thousandth spell-check, the last thing writers should do is check that the names of the presses and/or editors in the body of their email match the names of the presses and/or editors they are submitting to.
In terms of things not to do:
Don’t provide a one-page description of each of the short stories in your collection.
Don’t tell me what another editor said when they rejected the manuscript.
Don’t call your book a “fiction novel.” This may sound picky, but it’s always bugged the heck out of me, and I guarantee I’m not alone.
I could keep rattling these off, but as an editor I try to stay positive. You can check my Twitter feed for the occasional ill-considered dispatch from the slush pile.
CS: How has being an editor influenced your own fiction writing?
KB: Being the last set of eyes on a piece of work forces you to be critical of it in a way writers themselves have trouble being. You’re able to look at elements like story and structure more clearly because you’re not as devoted to the prose, the particulars of the characters, and other idiosyncratic details. A lot of writers, particularly literary writers, get lost in their own prose, what stories mean to them personally, and character details they’ve plucked from real life. Applying this perspective to my own work, particularly the short stories I’m currently assembling into a collection, has helped me see pieces at their most essential level.
CS: Would you discuss how you begin drafting a novel, and how is it different—if it is—from how you begin drafting a short story?
KB: For me, there’s not much difference. I don’t normally outline or make notes. I just start writing, which means it takes me a long time to finish anything. Except, once in a while, when it doesn’t. That’s the thing about writing and writing advice that I find both interesting and maddening: So much of writing is pure trial and error. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t keep doing it. If something works for you, keep doing it.
Honestly, it seems a minor miracle to me that any of us ever finish anything. Oh, I know there are people with much more deliberate processes than mine—the detailed outlines, the color-coded charts, the string maps that make you think of Carrie in Homeland, the character sketches and [literal] sketches of characters, and so many other techniques writers use to organize their thoughts. And I think that’s all great if it works for you. For me, though, I have to be intensely interested in what I’m doing. And making outlines doesn’t quite do it. Until I have to make outlines to figure a way out of the mess I’ve made: That’s when I make outlines.
CS: From your editorial/publishing-industry professional’s perspective, since you began writing seriously and publishing your work, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve noted in the business?
KB: I started writing seriously after I graduated from college, with a BSc in accounting (ha ha!), but I’ve had very long fallow periods. I didn’t really send anything out when I was in graduate school. The whole process was so different then: You had to print material out, make copies, and send a self-addressed stamped envelope if you hoped for any reply at all, which usually just amounted to getting the manuscript back.
Clearly, the process is vastly different now and, I think, so much more user-friendly—though there’s still a lot of labor involved on both sides of the transom, but it seems to me there’s more thought involved in the labor now, rather than all the clerical tasks of photocopying, addressing envelopes, and trying to figure out how many stamps to use.
CS: What are the main benefits and challenges of publishing a book with an independent press?
KB: Well, let’s do the challenges first. You don’t have a corporation behind you, which means normally you don’t have a dedicated PR aide from your press. You don’t have the same sort of marketing/promo budget . . . or a marketing/promo budget at all, really. You have a harder time getting the trades to look at your book and a harder time still getting book-review editors to assign your book to someone who might actually read and/or like it.
Your press won’t normally print a thousand or two thousand or a hundred thousand promo copies and give them away to critics, librarians, general readers, booksellers, and, perhaps most importantly, contest entrants on your behalf.
Yet, in spite of all that, there are benefits to being with a small press. The primary benefits are in freedom: freedom from having to deal with seventeen different layers of corporate nonsense, and freedom to realize your artistic vision—whatever that is.
Christine Sneed is the author of two novels and two story collections, the most recent of which is The Virginity of Famous Men. She has two books forthcoming in October 2022: Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos and Love in the Time of time's Up: A Short Fiction Anthology (as editor). Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, Ploughshares, and New York Times. She is the faculty director of Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies’ graduate creative writing program. She also teaches for Regis University’s low-residency MFA program. She lives in Pasadena, California.