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How to Publish a Selected Collection of Stories by George Singleton

How to Publish a Selected Collection of Stories by George Singleton

You’d think that the hardest part of finally having a publisher go “Hey, it’s time for your Selected Stories” involved the thirty or forty years of cranking out stories, getting a few thousand rejections, somehow placing a couple hundred, whittling those stories into collections, getting those collections published, and so on. Maybe that’ll be the most difficult part for future generations, but not for someone who lived through the handwriting/ typewriter/eighty-seven-different-computer systems of mine. Go ahead and say, “Okay, Boomer.” Tell it to people at cocktail parties wherein everyone’s drinking mimosas and sneaking out back to vape. Yell it out the window. I want these instructions told.

Here’s the thing. Here’s the play-by-play. I’m going to pass up on “revisionist history” and get straight to the Truth, of what happened, of how my day went back on a Thursday.

I walked into Hub City Book Shop, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I live. In the back stood the offices of Hub City Press, a non-profit publisher. (They’ve moved into their own digs since, a block away.) They’d been churning out great books for some time—poetry, essay collections, anthologies, novels, short story collections— and getting all kinds of publicity and awards. I kind of envied the writers getting books published out of HCP, but I lived in this small town, and these were people I knew, and I never thought to send them any kind of manuscript, Selected or not, for it would put all of us in an uncomfortable situation. If they declined a manuscript, they might think I’d be one of those writers who soon thereafter performed voodoo rituals against the editor/ publisher/publicist, et cetera. If they took a manuscript, I might think they did so out of pity.

Listen, at this point I’d had eight collections: with River City, a couple with Algonquin, one at Harcourt which earlier bought paperback rights to the ones at River City and Algonquin also, a few with Dzanc, and one with LSU. Those collections got positive reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, et cetera. Papers in Seattle, New Orleans, Charlotte, Raleigh, USA Today; NPR’s Morning Edition, Garden and Gun, even Southern Living. These were stories that had been published, over a thirty plus year period, originally, in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, Esquire, the Georgia Review, One Story, Story, Zoetrope, Oxford American, and so on. A number had been reprinted in New Stories from the South—the Year’s Best, and the Pushcart anthology. So what? Together, in collections, they all sold maybe 18,000 copies. Maybe 12,000.After returns? Maybe ninety-seven copies. Why would anyone want to do a Selected Stories, things that no one in America reads anymore?

I digress, per usual. Maybe that’s why eight collections sold ninety-seven copies only.

So I walked in, and I saw Meg Reid, the hotshot spark plug Director of Hub City Press. She said, “I want to set up a meeting next week. I have to go out of town, but when I get back I want to set up a meeting.”

I thought, of course, “Oh, crap, she wants me to judge some kind of contest.”

I don’t like judging contests. I feel bad about all the people who don’t win. It’s not worth it. One person gets to dance around in his or her kitchen for an hour—probably drinking mimosas and vaping—and a few hundred writers go, “Singleton’s an asshole! What a dick! I’m glad I returned his last collection of stories!”

Maybe they’d’ve won the contest had they not used so many exclamation points.

I said, “What? What? Tell me right now. Goddamn it, tell me right now, Meg, or it’ll drive me crazy.”

And then she said all this stuff about, “It’s about time for you to have a New and Selected,” and I said, “I’ll do a Selected, but not a New and Selected because I ain’t got nothing new I want to give up yet,” and she said, “Whatever.”

I said, “Okay. Let me think about it. Let me get back to you.”

I don’t know why I didn’t say, “Oh, god, thank you,” right off. Maybe it’s because I needed to get out of there. Did they even have a bathroom around? I thought I might pee myself.

That evening I called a couple writer friends and explained the situation. Both of them—I should mention that my writer friends and I never talk about writing, or business. We don’t whine about who’s getting published, who showed up on Oprah’s Book Club, who won a bigtime award. My writer friends all believe in that saying by Henry James about the House of Fiction having a million windows. We talk about politics, gardening, fishing, our family members’ well-being, dog antics, the Braves, and electricians and/or mechanics who did good jobs for us.

“Yes. Do it, now,” both friends said. One guy, who’d been on the New York Times Bestseller List and had a book of poems with HCP, said, “If I had a book of stories ready, I’d go with Hub City Press, I swear.”

So. Done deal. Easy-peasy, as they say. I called the next day and told Meg, “Let’s do this thing,” or something like that.

Here’s where the Hardest Part About Getting a Selected Stories Published by an Old Person begins. She said, “All right. Pick out about thirty stories, and mail them to me in an attachment.” She said she would read them through, make suggestions, offer up an idea about arrangement.

I might’ve been silent for a time on the phone.

And then, in what probably sounded like a a buffoon speaking—think Lennie from Of Mice and Men, or Forrest Gump talking about Jenny—I said, “I know what an attachment is, Meg, but I don’t have all these stories in my computer.”

I didn’t say, “It’s not even close!” because that would’ve required an exclamation point.

Lookit: Out of the thirty stories I wanted, maybe six or so had been originally written on a typewriter, then sent out to magazines with an SASE. And it didn’t even matter: When those stories came out in collections, they ended up being different, in certain ways, than the originals. Throw in the mix how my particular House Style sometimes differed from a magazine’s House Style, and how a publisher’s House Style differed from a magazine’s. Then, because of Satan’s invention of “Track Changes,” what I had in my computer, or floppy drive, or disk, or thumb drive—if I had them—wasn’t the same as what appeared in the final collection of stories.

I understand fully how it might’ve sounded braggadocious when I listed off those aforementioned publishers, magazines, and journals—and that no one’s reading up to this point—but it was to show how stories thin or thicken from Chicago Manual of Style stirring.

I blame, really, the Chicago Manual of Style.

I’ll jump ahead and say how Meg said, “Okay. Well. Huh. I guess we can get your books, rip out the pages, and scan them.”

I should mention that somewhere in between I had said, “I’ll be willing to re-type all thirty stories,” which was true. And which might’ve been a quicker resolution, as it ended up. So, this “scanning” panacea sounded like a great idea to me. Shew—that would keep me from having to do more work.

You’d think that with all the technological advances we’ve made over the last thirty years—not only with computers, but with inventions like that Alexa thing, and cars that know how to stop when an obstacle approaches, and security doorbells, and dog-chips—“scanning” would’ve been conquered. Not so.

Meg sent me the first of about, oh, what ended up being forty, drafts of You Want More: Selected Stories. Sometimes whole passages went missing, or at least lines. “Pom-poms” showed up as “porn-porns” (which I thought about keeping). There was a “Porneranian” in a story.

Periods became semi-colons. Commas became semicolons. Blank spaces between words became semicolons. I know—and I’m of the “maybe use one semicolon per book, if any” tribe—deep-down that there’s some kind of Semi-colon Appreciation Society that colluded, much like certain senators hoping they’d never get mentioned in an on-going investigation.

But, also, semi-colons became commas, or periods.

Too many hyphens became em-dashes. Em-dashes became hyphens. I swear to god that somewhere in that new manuscript the word “her” became “hen.” The statement “I love her” showed up as “I love hen.” Nothing against poultry, but it just didn’t fit with a white man and black woman in South Carolina, in love, wondering what to do with what they foresaw as a formidable problem in their future.

The lowercase letter O became the lowercase letter A. Vice-versa. Lowercase I’s became uppercase I’s. Double quote marks became single and single quotes became double. Ls became 1s.

Throw in a copyeditor hired out from not-here who changed things like “I want only to drink” to “I want to drink only…” or not knowing that “y’all” is spelled thusly, not “ya’ll.”

On and on. So. In summary, as any first-year college student taking an English 101 class might understand, save everything. Once the story comes out in a book, go back and re-type exactly how that story came out finally. Spend more time re-typing the stories than you would writing new stories, sending them out to magazines whose editors might want to put thoughts in quotation marks (wrong, I think), or thoughts in italics (wrong, too) and ones who don’t (right). Keep said stories in a folder. Every time your computer dies, make sure you have a disk, a thumb drive, a Cloud, a whatever-the-fuck’s-next.

Or just write, because spending all this time on technological worrying—in the end, really—might cut your output by, say, 99%. Or ninety-nine percent. Or 99 percent. Or ninety-nine %.