If You Want to Publish A Book, Read This
When I reached out to Marcela Landres, I told her I wanted to talk about mentorship. I certainly wouldn't be where I am today without the teachers and colleagues who saw something in me, who pushed me to apply for opportunities when I didn’t feel qualified or talented enough and who have supported me throughout the years by responding to my emails, listening to my rants and helping me with story ideas. But while my conversation with Marcela, who works as an editorial consultant and whose mission is to help writers get published, began with mentorship, it ended up being about a lot more – how the publishing industry works, the challenges that editors and writers of color face when pushing for diversity and what to do if you aspire to publish a book.
Can you tell us about what you do?
People mostly know me from back when I was an editor at Simon and Schuster. As you can imagine, there aren’t many Latina book editors in the publishing industry and there were fewer then. I worked at Simon and Schuster for about seven years and I’ve been freelancing ever since. One of my passions is helping all writers, but Latino writers in particular, get published. I also publish an e-zine specifically for Latino writers called Latinidad.
What is your relationship to mentorship?
If you’re seeking a mentor, you’re asking for help. My parents are both immigrants from Ecuador and they did not raise me to ask for help. I was taught to be self-reliant. If we needed money, we didn’t ask for money, we didn’t create a GoFundMe page. We got a second job, we created a side hustle, we did what we needed to do by ourselves.
The way I was raised, not to ask for help, carried into my professional life. And therefore my relationship to mentorship is not as a mentee, it’s as a mentor. Once I was sort of in the door, my instinct was to turn around and help people and be like, “We need more Latinos in here, let's try to get them in here!” I tried to be very open and accessible to anyone who wanted advice, whether it was a writer looking to get published or an agent looking for Latino writers. In any way, shape or form, if I could help a Latino move on up or move on into the room I was in, I would. I was more comfortable giving help than asking for it. And I was much more comfortable being a mentor than being a mentee. And I think that’s true of immigrants in general — we are the help, we’re not the ones who ask for help. I’m still that little girl, I still have to teach myself how to ask for help because my parents did not teach me to. I don’t blame them, it wasn’t their fault. It’s way larger than them. And it’s also part of being female.
A lot of mentoring opportunities were created by writers of color for writers of color. It’s that “by us, for us” mentality. We don’t expect to find help from the gatekeepers, so we just create it ourselves. Whatever programs are in place have come through that. It hasn’t been people from these outside, marginalized communities asking the powers that be for help. We create the help ourselves, amongst ourselves.
What’s one thing you learned from working in the publishing industry?
Your greatest weakness is your greatest strength and vice versa. Being the only Latina in the room for much of my professional life, I stood out. The other thing that made me stand out was that I grew up in New York. The typical person who works in book publishing is not originally from New York. And they’re also not blue collar. I grew up blue collar. I grew up the daughter of immigrants. I grew up Latina. I grew up in the projects. You don’t typically find all of those four things in a book publishing professional. The average person who works in book publishing is a middle to upper class white woman, sometimes a middle to upper class white man. So the fact that I was these four things all in one body made me stand out in every possible way in every room I was in.
And I learned early on, I think when I was in college at Barnard, that these people found me fascinating. They thought I was cool just for breathing. When I got to publishing, I worked that to my advantage. People immediately wanted to know more about me and wanted to talk to me and wanted to listen to me and I would use those opportunities to pick their brains and observe them and what they were doing. And I think that unfortunately still holds true today if you’re a person of color or a blue collar person trying to break into publishing, or even as a writer. The average person who works in publishing is politically correct and wants to be. They want friends who are Latino and Black, but they don’t always know any. So my approach was to be like, “Oh, you want me to be your token Latina friend? Okay! I’m going to pick your brain. I’m going to take notes and you’re going to help me.” And for better or worse, I think for writers, the same thing applies. The people in book publishing want to know you. They want to put writers of color under contract and publish them. They just don’t know where to find them.
Was it difficult to publish diverse voices as an editor?
When I was at Simon and Schuster, I spent the first three years telling agents to send me Latino writers. And what they would invariably say to me was, “That is a great idea, where can I find them?” As an editor, it wasn’t my job to find writers. Editors have connections with agents and agents go out and find the writers. But every agent I talked to literally did not know where to find Latino writers. So I had to go out and be an agent, even though it was not my job and I wasn’t paid to do it. I would fly out on Friday night, go to some writing conference somewhere, give a workshop for Latino writers on how to get published with the specific intent of being in a room with Latino writers and telling them, “Hey, submit to me sans agent and we’ll figure out the agent thing later.” I would come home Sunday night and go back to work Monday. This was before there were all these resources online and ways for writers to connect with editors and agents. So that’s what I had to do, because the agents were incapable. If you are a person of color and you’re looking for writers of color, you have to go outside your job description and do work for which you are not paid and take time from your personal life to publish writers of color. And that’s something that your colleagues don’t have to do because while they might be happy publishing people of color who come their way, they’re not going to get on a plane and go look for them the way I did.
What advice do you have for writers who want to land a book deal?
Learn as much as you can about the business side of publishing. I find that writers are artists and most artists make the mistake of just focusing on their art — and you can’t blame them, that’s instinctive. But that’s not what gets you a career. As a writer, you really have to know the business side. Most writers don’t want to do that, which is why most writers are unhappy with their writing career. I think accepting the fact that writing is a career, and like every job, there is grunt work, is the first step. It’s not about the writing. Writing is secondary, I hate to say. You need to accept that you’re going to spend 70% of the time doing stuff that’s not writing and at best, 30% of the time doing stuff you are passionate about, which is writing. The 70% is doing things like reading contracts and dealing with promotions and bookstores.
The advantages that writers have now that weren’t available back in the day is that social media is this treasure trove of information. No one has an excuse now for not being able to learn how the business works. Go online and research all the writers and agents and editors who are publishing the books that you want to write. Follow them on social media. There’s a slew of them who are sharing information you can learn from. You’ll get a sense of how people think and what their world is like. And some writers especially may be very generous with information about fellowships and programs that might be helpful to writers.
Forget about the people who were published twenty, thirty years ago. Publishing was a different world back then and the obstacles and challenges that they had to overcome to be who they are are not the obstacles and challenges you’re facing. Focus on the writers who are five to ten years ahead of you. Especially if their first book was published in the last five to ten years. What contests did they win? Maybe you should be submitting your work to those contests. What magazines were they published in? Maybe you should be submitting your work there. I forget who said this, but some people would say, “Don’t hate, take notes.” That’s the way to approach it.
Below are mentorship programs for writers recommended by Marcela.