In Our December, 2016 Issue:

Q & A with Peter Stampfel, Submissions Editor of DAW Books


If there’s one thing that aspir­ing writ­ers think about, it’s how to get pub­lished and break into the indus­try. For many of us pur­su­ing writ­ing careers here at Met­ro­pol­i­tan State, we don’t know the first thing about how to get started.

I’ve invited Peter Stampfel, Sub­mis­sions Edi­tor of DAW Books pub­lish­ing house, to pro­vide insight for prospec­tive authors of the sci-​fi/​fantasy genre. For 36 years, Stampfel has been the first to view man­u­scripts. Stampfel and his col­leagues helped dis­cover such fan­tasy authors as Tad Williams, Patrick Roth­fuss, and Mer­cedes Lackey. What fol­lows is an edited and con­densed ver­sion of that conversation.

What are some of the qual­i­ties in a man­u­script that jump out to you?

If I want to keep on read­ing it. If I’m still read­ing after about 25 pages, I’ll put it aside for another look.

Really lik­able char­ac­ters are impor­tant. Sur­prise me. Get the story going, hit the ground run­ning, plot-​wise. That’s the top three. We’re not inter­ested in unhappy end­ings. Unlike main­stream, peo­ple who read genre fic­tion want uplift. Hor­ri­ble things can hap­pen, but then finally the light breaks through. Over­com­ing huge odds, unstop­pable, pow­er­ful evil being thwarted, is a com­mon wish…Many plots are strug­gles. Good peo­ple are fight­ing bad things, that is more com­pelling. Fic­tion requires conflict.

What are some of the dis­qual­i­fiers that make you imme­di­ately reject a man­u­script?

In most cases, by the first page it will let me know there’s no sense in going on. This is true of the major­ity of man­u­scripts. For instance, if the same word is used twice in the first para­graph, it’s a sign that skills are lacking…You want really inter­est­ing char­ac­ters. I find that an ear­mark of a really good writer is really good names. Often, [man­u­scripts] come with maps. I look at the map and see what the places are called. Usu­ally the names are pedes­trian. They’re clunky, ill-​chosen, unat­trac­tive words. They don’t roll off the tongue. Well thought-​out names are not a needed fea­ture; it’s just a thing that really good writ­ers tend to have.

The writ­ing keeps get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter. There are a lot of books that would have been eas­ily com­mer­cial in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but [now] the busi­ness is dom­i­nated by the big book stores who are reluc­tant to take on a new writer. In order to pub­lish a new writer, the writer has to be pretty phenomenal.

What was it like when you came across Patrick Rothfuss’s man­u­script for his first book, “The Name of the Wind”?

It was actu­ally Betsy [Woll­heim] who came across Pat’s book. Betsy read the first page and thought, “My god. Here it is. The Holy Grail.” The book had been sub­mit­ted to three pub­lish­ers by our favorite agent, Matt Bialer. Both of the edi­tors at the other pub­li­ca­tions were will­ing to pay more money. Betsy said [to Pat] “You have to come with us. I will put you on the New York Times best-sell[er] list.” … Patrick Roth­fuss was an once-​in-​a-​lifetime find.

The Name of the Wind” starts with the main char­ac­ter in the bar. It talks about the three lev­els of silence. It’s one of the most grip­ping first pages I’ve ever seen in my life.

What is the advan­tage to hav­ing an agent?

Any­one can call them­selves an agent. There are agents we know about, but most of the agented man­u­scripts we get are from self-​proclaimed agents, who tend to not have a clue. Some of the man­u­scripts we see from them would have been unsuc­cess­ful three decades ago…As a rule, the unso­licited man­u­scripts tend to be of a higher qual­ity, by-​and-​large, than the ones com­ing from agents. How­ever, if it’s a rep­utable agent like Matt Bialer or Rus­sell Galen, we can be sure that the qual­ity is higher.

How do you meet a rep­utable agent?

It’s really hard to get an agent to look at your stuff. Your best bet is to do short fic­tion. Sci-​fi and fan­tasy are about the only mar­kets for com­mer­cial short fic­tion any­more. A major­ity of tra­di­tional writ­ers start out writ­ing as fans. Once you have been pub­lish­ing short sto­ries for a while [you get] some feed­back and hope­fully some notice.

In 2012, you advised new authors not to sub­mit man­u­scripts over 120,000 words; how­ever, some of the most suc­cess­ful authors reg­u­larly pro­duce far length­ier books. Comments?

If you’re an unpub­lished writer, it’s a bet­ter use of your time to not write some­thing that lengthy. I just rejected a book that this guy in Aus­tralia had been work­ing on for seven to eight years. [He] would’ve been bet­ter served for a first novel to not have taken that much time.

Are epic length books a fad, or are they here to stay?

Most peo­ple want to read shorter things, as a rule. If the book is amaz­ingly great, then they’re delighted with a big book. It’s harder to sell a really long book that isn’t phe­nom­e­nal. Peo­ple have less time between tele­vi­sion, video games, and social media.

You’ve said an author must be pas­sion­ate about writ­ing to be suc­cess­ful. You’ve also said that some authors have that pas­sion, but no writ­ing skills. What advice would you give to writ­ers who have the pas­sion, but have yet to develop the writ­ing skills?

If I was a pas­sion­ate, but not-​that-​skilled a writer, I would self-​publish. “Fifty Shades of Grey” was self-​published. There were a num­ber of books that were rejected by pub­lish­ers, then were self-​published, and went on to be phe­nom­e­nally successful.

Per­se­ver­ance is extremely impor­tant. If you’re a real writer, you’ll be com­pelled to write whether you’re sell­ing or not and you’ll just keep on doing it. The line used to be, ‘It’s one book in a thou­sand that’s pub­lish­able.’ I’ve found that it’s closer to one book in three or four thou­sand that is actu­ally publishable.

Have most of the man­u­scripts you’ve seen been pro­fes­sion­ally edited?

Most of them have seen an edi­tor before they got here. Just a guess, but a sub­stan­tial num­ber have been edited by some­one besides the writer.

How impor­tant is the cover page?

No more than one page is the hard-​and-​fast rule. I don’t want to hear about your friends and rel­a­tives, or friends that aren’t rel­a­tives that say it’s great and that it’s gonna make a great movie. I’ve heard that, oh, you know, thou­sands of times, and it’s absolutely meaningless.

Do you have any other sug­ges­tions?

If you can attend a writer’s work­shop, that’s good; if you have a writer’s cir­cle, that’s good. Work with peo­ple doing the same thing, pick each other’s minds. Get a good edi­tor. On the other hand, there are a lot of pro­fes­sional edi­tors who are like con artists.

How does one avoid a con artist edi­tor?

Ask which suc­cess­ful authors they have worked with, check Yelp, Bet­ter Busi­ness Bureau. Vet the hell out of them.