Short Stories: What A Publisher Thinks

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the fabulous Meredith Curnow, the Knopf Vintage Publisher at Random House Australia. Looking after both fiction and non-fiction, her list of writers is a veritable “who’s who” of Australian literature, including Patrick White, Frank Moorhouse, David Malouf, Catherine Harris, Tom Keneally, Gail Jones, Nick Earls and Kate Forsyth.

When I met Meredith it was during the Library of Unwritten Stories, an event organized by the NSW Writers Centre. She came to be interviewed by me in front of a group of fellow writers, about ten of us in total. I have to say – she blew me away. I was expecting Meredith to be the imposing, power-dressing, briefcase carrying, eyebrow-raising type. After all, this woman is the gatekeeper to so many people’s dreams. Surely she would be a little bit Devil Wears Prada, with a pinch of Donald Trump thrown in.

Instead, she was friendly, approachable, incredibly honest and she carried a handbag and some kind of rucksack; not the scary figure I’d envisioned at all.

“If you call the office and ask to speak to me, you get put through to my phone,” she says, shattering my impenetrable fortress illusions. Yes, within ten minutes of speaking to Meredith I realized how unlike the scary mainstream publisher I’d imagined she really was; right down to her author interactions.

“Every Monday night I have trouble sleeping,” she confessed. “Mondays I usually have to respond to writers in some way.” This is just one example of how lovely Meredith is. Still, after ten years in the business, she hates saying no to authors. Not the devil incarnate after all.

She is also quick to point out that if you are unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of one of her, or any other publishers “no”, to keep on trying.

“Don’t think a no is because no one likes your work,” Meredith says. “Keep trying other places. Submit, and submit widely.” Meredith adds the reasons for a publisher’s rejection can be anything from the publisher already having similar content in the works (“one year, I had several pitches for stories about Henry James”), to them not representing the genre you’re pitching, to simply already having a lot of projects committed for the year ahead.

Getting published is easier if you have a few tricks of the trade.
Photo: iStockphoto

Meredith admits she is a bit of a rare publisher in the sense that she will eventually get around to reading every manuscript she is sent, even if it doesn’t comply with her company’s submission guidelines. She admits, though, that some of her colleagues aren’t so generous with their time.

The fact that some writers wouldn’t follow their request comes as a huge surprise to me; if you go to all the trouble of spending months or years on your work, wouldn’t you take every care to ensure you had complied to the website guidelines to increase your chances of being published?

I decided to focus on the positive, and asked her about her reading. Do you need an agent to be read by Meredith Curnow, or are unrepresented clients of interest to her, too? Meredith is quick to point out that no, you do not need an agent – but if you do have one, she is likely to read your manuscript sooner, simply because the agents will call her, email her and harass her until she does.*

When asked about the short story medium, Meredith was again refreshingly honest and blurted out without hesitation “We’re scared of them”. She enjoys them as a medium, but, generally, they just don’t sell. End of (short) story. She did mention, though, that she will usually publish perhaps two short story collections out of the 12 to 15 releases she looks after each year, and that Random House Australia are now participating in Short Cuts, an online short story release program started by Random House UK, and that they have plans for a short story erotica (“Surprise!”) and Romance digital collection in the near future.

My chat with Meredith quickly reached the allotted hour, but not without me finding out what would blow Meredith away in a short story collection pitch.

“Voice,” she replied. “And boldness.”

Meredith Curnow is the Knopf Vintage publisher at Random House Australia. The Library of Unwritten Stories is run by the City of Sydney library and the NSW Writers Centre.

*NB: This is not an invitation to harass Meredith as an unrepresented author.

A cheats guide to this post:

a)     Publishers are not the scary, evil beings who enjoy rejecting aspiring authors we may have thought they were (maybe)

b)     “No” isn’t necessarily “Your work sucks”; it can just mean it’s not the right piece for that publishing house.

c)     Follow the submission guidelines, no matter who you submit to. Not everyone is a Meredith.

d)    While you don’t need an agent to get a publishers attention, it may mean they read your work sooner – the power of harassment is strong.

e)     Voice is all encompassing and still one of the standout points of any book.

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