The Scarecrone Story
Since we just passed the one year birthday of Melissa Broder’s book, Scarecrone, I thought I would repost the Origin story of the book, which was originally published at the PGP Tumblr. I think it’s interesting to people who wonder about the publishing process, getting their own book accepted, and for those who paid attention to the book’s release and want to look back at our expectations for it last year.
Sometimes I like to tell the story of a book and how it came to be. If you were at the release party for Edward Mullany’s first book, If I Falter at the Gallows, you heard selections from the two-year-long email conversation between Edward and me. Last year at the release of Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves, I published a piece about the book at The Nervous Breakdown. With erstwhile Penguin editor Tom Roberge, I wrote about Shane Jones’s Light Boxes at BOMB.
Here I’d like to tell the story of SCARECRONE by Melissa Broder, which comes out tomorrow. Tomorrow!
I should note at the outset that it’s actually not a very interesting story—which I think is fitting. Not fitting for the book, which is anything BUT boring, but fitting for how books usually get done. While the process is filled with emotion for the writer (of course), it’s also a narrow path and one that most writers, published or not, are familiar with. You write, you submit, you wait, you hear back, you wait, you respond to edits, you weigh in on design concepts, you wait, you post on Facebook, you post on Tumblr.
Having said all that, though, I realize there are some anomalies in the SCARECRONE story.
Like, I think it’s interesting that Melissa actually submitted the manuscript during PGP’s open submissions. PGP had published her previous book, Meat Heart, quite successfully, and given how many writers whom I haven’tpublished that have backchanneled me their manuscripts, it would have been normal for her to do that. “Hey Adam,” she could say in an email, “want to look at my next book?”
But on July 1, 2012 she submitted a 21-page selection called “SKY MALL” and said she had 60 more poems, but she knew I was busy.
I guess I was, because I didn’t respond for four months. My intern had read the poems before me. That intern was exceptional. She read all 300+ submissions and made summary notes. About SCARECRONE she wrote:
Philosophically coherent, but also very sexual. I would prefer it to be less sexual, because the philosophical bits are very good—balanced between imagery and philosophy. Almost prophetic until he starts talking about his dick.
Funny that she thought Melissa was a guy from this. Melissa, does that make you happy? I bet it does. But look at how good she was at encapsulating submissions:
“Perhaps not weird enough for PGP, but I like these.”
Anyway, that description isn’t actually in my wheelhouse. I’m a little antsy about publishing things that my mom would object to. But I responded to Melissa, saying it was “cheering” to receive her book. I said the poems in SKY MALL were sexy and I liked them a lot. The first line of her manuscript then was, “Penelope is waiting and she is wet.” (Now this line appears on page 41.)
I asked her if she wanted it to be a chapbook or what. I said it would be 2014 before we could even think about getting the book out.
Melissa emailed me back to say book book, and yes—to keep her in mind for 2014 and we’d reconvene in 2013 when I had gone through more submissions and ironed out the catalog. She also noted in that first email a new title idea:
Last thing: after I came up w the title SKY MALL, I thought of the title SCARECRONE. A lot of the work contends w the horror of aging in terms of sexuality, existential fear, the body, death, etc. Like, if MEAT HEART ends asking ‘why can’t we make the whole story up?’ SCARECRONE is like ‘here’s why.’
In March of 2013, Melissa sent a more complete manuscript. She had received an offer from another excellent and longlived indie press to publish her next book, so with this update she offered me a soft sell. Another door was opening, and if I didn’t want to do SCARECRONE I knew it would still get out in the world. I got to reading the manuscript with that in mind, and Melissa and I kept talking about the different options.
In my heart of hearts, though, I always knew I wanted the book. I told her that when, ten days after sending the book, she checked in. So she politely declined the other press’s offer and to me she said “ok so you def have to publish it :)”
On July 3, one year after the original submission, I received the final manuscript. Melissa hadn’t ordered the poems in any way, and she also noted that some of the poems should be cut—but she didn’t tell me which ones so she wouldn’t influence my opinion.
She also suggested some potential funding opportunities, so we could do a larger initial print run. That was the first time I considered doing aKickstarter.
I replied, “I just read the first 10ish poems and skipped around some and in this book I’m finding a lot of cosmic / body unity or maybe frustration or disparity. It’s profane but it’s personal. And it’s gritty. I’m looking forward to how the cover is going to match all of this.”
When putting Meat Heart together, I went through the manuscript offering what I considered light editorial notes, then Melissa and I would gchat about her poems. That was fun. We’d spend a couple hours on a few poems, and her explanations added a lot of clarity to my understanding of the book. Having gone through that process, I became a better reader of her poems, and poetry in general. I also developed a lot of trust in Melissa as a writer.
That’s why, this time around, Melissa and I agreed that my editorial role would be smaller. As I thought of it, my job was to put them in order, weed out the runts, and attend to the overall tone of the book. Melissa said, “when u r sequencing the book, just frontload the shit out of it w the good poems”
Adam Robinson: hahaok, i will consider thatwhy notMelissa Broder: just stuff the frontAdam Robinson: yeahthen an amazing last poemMelissa Broder: too bad it’s art and good is subjectivehahahhahahahayes.like a donutAdam Robinson: then like 4 pages of fart jokesMelissa Broder: just leave the middle blankAdam Robinson: “poem poem poem yadda yadda”on pages 17 – 65Melissa Broder: 17-65 just a picture of someone’s mom yellingAdam Robinson: all different mom’sMelissa Broder: the moms of internet lityellingthe book is called ‘why isn’t your book in barnes and noble?’the subtitle is: ‘what’s wrong with you’Adam Robinson: has to be barnes and nobleswith the sMelissa Broder: HAHAHAHA‘why isn’t your book in barnes and nobles?’Adam Robinson: get a haircut and a real book poetryMelissa Broder: lol re: ‘real book of poetry’okok okAdam Robinson: okMelissa Broder: okbyeAdam Robinson: ok
When she sent it, SCARECRONE had 90 poems in it. I cut 22 of them in my first pass. Melissa was mostly okay about that but held her ground on a few. I was okay about that. I wanted the book to be about the same length as Meat Heart. “Not least,“ I said, “because it almost seems like a sister book to Meat Heart (though even angrier).” I told her that we could trade the poems back and forth like baseball cards, if she wasn’t happy with my cuts.
Looking at the list, many of the 22 I removed are still in the book, and I’m very happy about that.
I also said that the book needed “a few more unadulterated lovelies, things that flatter the reader and make them willing to get dark with you.”
Now that the book is out in the world, I am wondering how “the reader” will find it. Is it as relentless as I thought it was? Melissa did send me a bunch more poems that I thought were really bright and hopeful.
And we did do a lot of trading back and forth. Looking back at our email, which Melissa had titled “Baseball Cards,” there was quite a lot of trading. This was partially because I accidentally edited from a manuscript that wasn’t the final one she’d sent me, therefore had omitted a few newer inclusions. These new poems provided a context for some of the others. It almost became a different book for me.
My line edits were mostly like, “Puke is too vile here” or “maybe this poem could be three stanzas.” Sometimes I was more inscrutable than the poet, such as, “I want to follow ‘violence me’ with a more specific line about how violence.”
During the course of all these edits, I realized that Melissa and I have a difference of aesthetic preference in certain ways, but those are usually superficial things based on my own prejudices. Like, I dislike the use of the word “boy” in almost any context not referring to male humans under the age of 10 or all dogs. Melissa seems pretty into it. After typing out my thoughts in this regard, I deepened my understanding of the complexity of Melissa’s language and intentions.
By October 12, Melissa and I had agreed on the final manuscript and had input all the changes. By this time, I had also already roughed up an interior layout.
Already the cover had been underway for months. Melissa likes to spearhead her cover art, and I’m okay with that after seeing what she came back with for Meat Heart. She doesn’t do the work herself, but she has impeccable taste and knows good designers. She and I had been going back and forth with a brilliant artist who had a concept we really liked, wherein the text was broken up into two words and set vertically over the entire cover—in the same layout as it is now. However, there was something too crisp about it which neither of us could convey.
Eventually Melissa brought in another designer—Alex Merto—who right away came back with exactly the same basic design, and he did so never having been told of the previous cover concept. And Alex’s version had the grit I was anticipating when I first read the poems. It was so simple! After Melissa and I went back and forth for months, Alex somehow swooped in and immediately worked up the perfect cover.
I love that the title of the typeface he used is “Alternate Gothic”—surely there is no better font name than that for a Melissa Broder book.
And from that point on, the job for Melissa and I consisted primarily of going back and forth on whether to use the word “cock” or “dick,” to fix some dropped italics from the poems, and to change the spacing on the line height for various poems. The book has three conventions for line spacing.
Once that was finished, I placed a big order with McNaughton & Gunn. They make the prettiest books. And because this cover is primarily black, I knew I had to go with them. The printer I normally use is great, but something about their laminating process makes printing black books more challenging. They scuff and peel.
Then I printed 40 Advance Reading Copies via Createspace. I don’t know if that POD solution reflects poorly on the books when they arrive at the trade magazines, but it’s so cheap and quick that I’ve been doing it for the past few books.
Melissa put together a good list of major outlets that like to have copies well in advance of the publication date, and I sent the books out with a press release. I like to handwrite a little note, too, “Hey PERSON, thanks for having a look! I hope you like Melissa’s new poems”—something like that.
But don’t follow my footprints here. I’m the worst at getting media attention. Melissa and I discussed this over text messages not long ago. We are happy that this will be an indie success, the sort of book that eschews the traditional processes in favor of the hype of human contact, the sort of genuine, P2P, grassrootsy “did you see that Broder thing” groundswell that is more fun anyway, and more in line with what I like—publicity I can feel. The kind I understand because it comes from enthusiastic people like me.
I feel very pumped about that. Already, even before it’s out, SCARECRONE has brought in a ton of responses, from people posting pictures of their copy, to emails like one I received this morning “I gotta say, it’s amazing. Not just content-wise…I think it’s also the most beautiful looking book y’all have put out yet. Shit’s elegant.”
Here’s the thing about publishing: everything up until this point has been easy. It’s taken a year and a half, but like I said, it’s a narrow path. You follow the steps. There aren’t too many ways to break the mould when it comes to the process of getting a book to the sales channels. When I worked at a hotel, we called everything I’ve talked about here “the back of the house.” And it’s fun stuff.
But tomorrow the real work begins. Everything Melissa put into writing SCARECRONE, all the time and effort that has gone into making something beautiful is about tomorrow and what comes after. And that job is to get the book to people who will enjoy it, be inspired by it, continue the conversation it’s participating in.
The entire reason I got into publishing was because I want to participate in the cultural conversation. Melissa Broder had her hand up, and I called on her, and with SCARECRONE she has something vital to say.
P.S. If you are going to the AWP conference, you will have many opportunities to see Melissa and buy her book. Go here for details.