Seal Press of Emeryville, California, was founded 30 years ago with a single, hand-printed volume of poetry and the intention to provide a forum for women writers and feminist issues. Currently an imprint of Avalon Press, Seal has published many groundbreaking books since 1976 that delve into diverse issues such as women’s health, parenting, travel, popular culture, women’s studies and current affairs.
Acquisitions Editor Brooke Warner joined the company two years ago, after spending five years as editor of North Atlantic Books in Berkeley where she edited two anthologies, Panic: Origins, Insight and Treatment and Abu Ghrab: The Politics of Torture. Each month, many nonfiction manuscripts on women’s issues cross her desk. Each year, Brooke chooses 20 that will make it into print. Here she talks about what she looks for and how to get your book proposal noticed.
What catches your attention when you review a proposal?
BW: Sometimes a cover letter draws me in. Other times, something feels like the right fit but needs more work. So I ask the writer, “Would you be willing to rework this a little bit and make it ‘Seal-specific’?” I’m developing relationships with authors even before the proposal is finalized.
What do you consider to be “Seal-specific”?
BW: What I meant by this is that I’ll work with a potential author to bring out the elements of a given proposal that make it more geared toward women, or to bring out a certain tone. With some of my younger authors I’ll encourage them to let loose a little bit, to not be afraid to unleash their voice. Some writers are very cautious in proposals, trying to cater to the broadest readership possible. So sometimes I can see that a writer has something but maybe it needs to be narrowed, or maybe they just need permission to break free from a format or structure that’s limiting to them in certain ways.
Do you work with authors directly, even if they don’t have an agent?
BW: Yes, although manuscripts solicited through an agent have an advantage, because I know a lot of time has been spent on the proposal before I see it. I’m really looking for professionalism in a proposal.
Do you see any trends in the topics of books you’re looking for in the year ahead?
BW: There’s a lot of criticism that anthologies, mothering memoirs and books by sex workers have been overdone. We publish those kinds of books, but we look for a different angle. Maybe a memoir by a younger mother who’s able to reach an audience who doesn’t connect with the memoirs that are out there by women who went through that experience ten years ago, or someone whose writing is distinctive and who tackles her subject from a different vantage point. I spend a lot of time looking at comparative books and thinking about how we can make a topic distinctive through its hook or packaging.
What if an author’s subject has been written about many times before?
BW: Writers shouldn’t think that because there are a lot of books out there on the same topic that theirs won’t sell. In some ways it’s an advantage, because we know there’s a market for it.
How do you feel about working with first-time authors?
BW: I genuinely like to help emerging writers. We can take risks on first-time authors because our expectations are more realistic. We don’t have to sell 50,000 copies of a book to be successful. We generally run shorter print-runs than the larger houses and we operate on a smaller scale, and so for that reason we are able to publish books that might be overlooked by the big houses. Also, we can publish books that seem risky to big houses in terms of voice. We have a reputation for publishing edgy books, and sometimes these authors aren’t right for a mainstream publishing house because the work is too raw. So that’s a positive for us.
How can writers increase the chance of their proposal being read?
BW: Target their cover letter to a specific house that publishes books like the one they’re writing and a specific editor at that house.
Do you have advice to writers submitting to Seal for the first time?
BW: Spend time looking at the submissions guidelines (which are posted on the website, www.sealpress.com). People may spend a lot of time on their proposals, but then not enough time making sure they meet the house guidelines. The guidelines are pretty clear, and meeting them is a basic thing that makes a good impression on an editor. Sometimes people want to skip one of the steps called for, but they’re doing themselves a disservice. I’m going to have a year-long relationship with this person, and I want to know that she has the stick-to-it-ness to get through the process. I want to think, “This is someone who really wants to be at Seal.”
Visit Seal Press to learn more: http://www.sealpress.com/
Cindy Hudson writes for national trade magazines, regional magazines, online publications and daily newspapers. Her Web site, www.motherdaughterbookclub.com, and its companion blog, www.motherdaughterbookclub.wordpress.com, publishes reading lists, book reviews, author interviews and other book club resources. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Portland, Oregon, where she writes weekly for The Oregonian. Visit her online at www.cindyhudson.com.