Interview with DongWon Song, Literary Agent and New Adjunct Instructor

Literary agent DongWon Song moved to Portland from New York City almost two years ago. He works remotely as part of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, where he’s on the lookout for “science fiction and fantasy—especially epic fantasy or high fantasy—for both adults and teens . . . [plus] nonfiction, especially food writing, science, and pop culture.” Before becoming an agent, Song was an early hire at digital publishing startup Zola Books and an editor at Orbit Books US; for the latter, he launched bestselling series like The Expanse, beginning with Leviathan Wakes, now a Syfy television show. As of winter 2016, Song will be an adjunct instructor of book editing for Portland State’s graduate book publishing program. If you’re looking for an agent, he’ll be taking pitches and giving a pitch workshop at the 2016 Write to Publish conference on January 30, 2016, and he is currently open to submissions.

I met with Song in November 2015 to discuss his impressive editorial experience, his experiences of fandom as a publishing professional, and how he plans to approach teaching book editing.

Why did you move to Portland?

Mostly [for] a change of pace/scenery. . . . I was still working for Zola at the time.

How did you decide on a career in publishing? Was it a long-held goal, or did you come to the industry another way?

I like to read a lot. . . . Honestly, that’s why you get into publishing: you like books, you want to do more of it. It’s sort of misguided in some ways, because once you actually get in the business, you no longer have time to read for pleasure, and you’re just reading for work. But you get to work with writers, and it is amazing and rewarding and super fun.

Was a publishing career always your original goal, or did you start somewhere else?

To say that it was would imply that I had more direction as a teenager and in college than I actually did, but I always knew I wanted to move to New York. My first job out of school, I actually was working in TV news; I was a research PA for PBS. Working there, I realized I wanted to stay in media, but books made a lot more sense. And I was an English major in college—it was either go into publishing or go into academia, and I chose publishing.

How has working in the science fiction and fantasy genres within the publishing industry affected your experience of fandom?

I had no relationship to fandom before becoming a professional in the field. I was a huge fan, but I wasn’t engaged with other fans in a substantive way. And the experience of being in it, over time . . . I’ve got more and more into fandom as a result. Sort of a process of letting go of some previous ideas I might have had earlier in my life, and now just being an enthusiastic participant in the genre. Having a lot of friends who go to [events] helps a lot; I just get to hang out with them most of the day.

Leaping off from that, how has working professionally in genre changed your experience of reading and selecting books?

I’m definitely more aware of context sometimes. There are certain authors I might not have found otherwise. . . . Nnedi Okorafor, for example, is not someone I’m sure I would have been aware of as just a regular reader. As someone who’s a participant in the genre community, I see how she’s hugely important and exciting, and I’m really into it. And I think it’s a shame that she doesn’t have a bigger profile as a result. At the same time, what she’s doing is very literary, so I understand the reasons why. So I think fandom can make me really aware of things I wouldn’t have been otherwise—and it other times makes me aware of things I wish I wasn’t aware of: the whole Sad Puppies controversy and things like that. There is definitely a downside to being stuck in it as well, because you get caught up in the politics of it . . . but you see something like that happening, and you don’t let that slide.

How do you plan to approach the teaching of developmental editing and other aspects of editing in your book editing class?

My plan is to come at it, really, to talk more about the role of an editor overall. Developmental editing is a component of it, and for teaching the developmental side, it’s less about, “Here’s the structure of this and things you need to do,” and more about, “Here’s how you talk to writers; here’s how you approach thinking about these things.” And what I’d like to communicate is having a holistic way of approaching a manuscript that’s not just about the text itself but about the publishing program. How to edit to a joined-up strategy around cover design, marketing, publicity, and all of those components. How are you going to make sure that this has the best chance once it’s out in the marketplace? I think getting people to think about it from that perspective, rather than as something that’s kind of precious—it’s an artistic endeavour, you’re working with writers, but you’re explicitly on the business side; you’re explicitly someone who is trying to sell books to make a profit.

What are some of your favorite aspects of agenting?

Finding people. I love finding manuscripts. When you run across a thing that’s great, and you’re up all night reading it, that’s a magical moment. And every time it happens, you [think], “Oh, right—this is why I do this.”

What advice would you like to pass on to neophyte publishing professionals?

Meet as many people as you can; just talk to everybody. It doesn’t matter what role they have—if they have anything to do with the industry, just find out what their deal is, how they do what they do, what their job is. . . . Go into bookstores and talk to booksellers. They know more about this business than almost anybody. Talk to writers. Talk to agents, editors. . . . We all get into [this] business because we like to sit in dark rooms and read, because we’re all introverts, so the hardest thing is to go out into the world and say, “I would like to sit down and talk to you or meet you because of X, Y, or Z.” And it shouldn’t be hard, but it is, it’s hard for anybody. . . . It’s not being afraid to go out and ask for an interview or a conversation. . . . I think everyone talks it up [as] schmoozing or networking, and I think that’s true to some extent, but really what you’re doing is learning. At some point, someone’s going to remember you, and they’re going to call you up and say, “We need X, Y, or Z.”

Interview with Logan Balestrino, Digital Publishing Coordinator at Del Rey Spectra

Logan Balestrino graduated from the publishing program in 2009. In her time at Ooligan Press, she was the Acquisitions Editor/Manager and worked on Brew to Bikes, Do Angels Cry?, and Dot-To-Dot, Oregon, among other titles. She now resides in New York City and works for Random House and its science fiction/fantasy imprint Del Rey Spectra as the Digital Publishing Coordinator. She was kind enough to chat with me over Skype on a Saturday afternoon, giving an honest account of her time at Ooligan and her path to becoming a New York publishing professional.

What did you hope to specialize in when you started in the program? Did that change?

I had big dreams of being an editor, and that’s what I wanted to do, or what I thought I wanted to do. I definitely wanted to do editorial—I liked working with the authors, I liked having that sort of creative outlet, I liked having my fingers in the story and helping develop it. But that’s just not where my life went once I got to New York.

How did it change once you got to New York?

After graduating from Portland State, I still wanted to do the editorial thing. I knew I wanted to move out to New York, so I did that. And I actually worked at Borders for a year, trying to find a job, and got an internship at a literary agency, and then eventually got hired as an editorial assistant, working on business and nonfiction books. I was there for almost two years—I think it was almost my two-year anniversary when I switched jobs—and I think about six months in I started to realize I didn’t want to be an editor working in the business, and doing editorial things made me realize that…it just wasn’t for me. I wasn’t happy. So much of it you have to take home, you’re always working, you’re not compensated very well as an editor, and you have the worst hours. And I just wasn’t working on books that were my passion, either. I always wondered, if I had jumped into a fiction imprint first off, if I would’ve felt the same way. If I had been editing sci-fi and fantasy, would it have been as defeating? But I’ll never know, because at that point I was just so disenchanted with the whole idea of being an editor that I started looking at other avenues, and it was kind of scary because I had wanted to be an editor since undergrad so I didn’t know what to do. It was very stressful. But I was lucky enough that a job opened up where I would be working on sci-fi/fantasy books—which I love—but in the capacity of publishing assistant. I had this unique opportunity to shift to editorial if I wanted to but also explore marketing and digital strategy, which I ended up liking a lot. So that’s how I veered off from editorial to marketing and digital strategy; it was just a fluke that I had a boss who headed up two completely different departments.

Which titles did you pitch and acquire while Acquisitions Manager at Ooligan?

I think the only thing I pitched while I was working Acquisitions was Brew to Bikes. I don’t think we had anything else come in that we thought was ready to be acquired or was appropriate for the Ooligan list at the time. The only title I have in my memory as pitching was Brew to Bikes . . . there’s so much that goes on.

Brew to Bikes seems to be pretty popular still.

That’s good to hear. We really liked it. I wasn’t around much longer after we acquired it so I didn’t really get to see it go out into the world. I occasionally hop onto the Ooligan website on a lunch break just to see what’s going on and everything, just because I do live so far away.

What are some of the specifics of your role as Digital Publishing Coordinator?

I’m in this nebulous position where I was hired as the Assistant of Digital Publishing at Del Rey. They promoted me to Coordinator, but my duties didn’t really change, I just took on more responsibilities. So I’m still doing assistant-role things on the publishing side for the Associate Publisher of Del Rey: [I] pull all of the tip sheets for launches, I put together the agendas for launches, I help [the assistant publisher] keep track of the list and what’s moving from spring to fall . . . a lot of unglamorous administrative [tasks], setting up meetings, setting up conferences, scheduling travel. But then I also get to do fun administrative things, which is helping to plan for comic cons, and I get to do a lot of really fun stuff with that—I put together presentations, I get to work the booth, and set up the booth schedule. On the digital publishing and strategy side, I am in charge of sales reporting and data scraping, not just for Del Rey titles but for all of the Random House Group titles—all of our titles that we run promotions on, specifically low-price promotions on ebooks. I get to analyze that data and put it together in reports and figure out what works and what doesn’t. It’s a really fun learning experience. I like it a lot. It turns out I love spending my day in an Excel grid, and it’s at the forefront of the industry so much now. Occasionally, I will read submissions that people have in that they need more reads on.

Besides being in publishing, what tends to occupy your time?

Watching a lot of anime, ’cause I write season previews for Suvudu—the Del Rey website—every season. I’m always watching ten shows. It’s an addiction, it’s terrible but it’s great, and I love it. I take aerial classes so I do lyra, which is aerial hoop, usually once a week. I read a lot. I play video games. Hang out with friends. Go out in the city. It really depends.

If you could, what would you change—if anything—about your path to becoming a publishing professional?

I had such a great experience at Portland State and at Ooligan and I learned so much and it’s a great program, but I think if there had been a way for me to get an internship in New York while I was doing that—I wonder if I would have been able to get hired quicker, because so much of the industry here is having that experience [in New York City] and just having someone in the hiring circles know your name. Most of my interviews didn’t happen until after I was interning at the literary agency. It’s so hard. The change probably would’ve had to have been going to a school in New York, but I’m happy with the school that I chose.

Anything else you’d like to share with current or future Ooligan students?

Learn as much as you can. Make as many contacts as you can. And get an internship. Even in Portland, especially if that’s where you want to stay—get an internship. Ooligan gives you that great hands-on experience and is like an internship in and of itself, but the dynamic of a separate, established publisher is so different, because you don’t have so many staff to work on everything like you do at Ooligan. Other than that, don’t give up!

MFA vs NYC: A Debate

On October 23, 2014, the graduate program in Book Publishing and Ooligan Press presented latest installment of the Transmit Culture lecture series, “MFA vs NYC: A Debate.” The crux of the discussion: Chad Harbach, an MFA creative writing graduate, founder of n+1 Literary Magazine and bestselling novelist, claims in a 2010 article that the American literary scene is split into two cultures: one centered around New York publishing and the other around MFA programs. (See below for full video footage of the debate.)

The panelists included:

  • Dan DeWeese—Portland author, founder of Propeller Books, and creative writing instructor in the MFA program at PSU.
  • Eliot Treichel—Eugene author, MFA graduate, and instructor of writing at Lane Community College.
  • Lee Montgomery—Portland author, graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and former editorial director of Tin House Books.
  • Betsy Amster—literary agent, former editor at Pantheon and Vintage, and former editorial director of Globe Pequot Press.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Per Henningsgaard, the Director of Publishing at Portland State University.

Highlights included:

The panel was asked if MFAs are strictly producing literary fiction, as Harbach infers in his article and DeWeese responded, “I think that [. . .] may have to do with just the nature of being in school in general where there’s kind of a cool way to be: Carver-esque. You know, to affect an attitude as if you’d lived pretty hard and seen some stuff. And then the students who want to write about another planet start to feel like maybe they’re not as cool.”

Amster replied, “I think fishbowls in general are dangerous—the kind of fishbowl that you’re talking about. And I think that New York can be a fishbowl. That’s why I think [the MFA vs NYC concept] is a false dichotomy. To me there’s a lot of overlap between New York and MFA programs in the fishbowl department.”

When asked if it is true that literary fiction doesn’t sell, Montgomery answered, “As a publisher, it was very hard to sell literary fiction. It was very discouraging.”

The panel was asked if the goal of an MFA program is not to develop bestselling writers—literary fiction is a genre that often struggles to sell—then what really is the MFA’s aim?

Treichel responded, “If I were going to design an MFA program, it would incorporate aspects of book layout and design and marketing [. . .].”

Dr. Henningsgaard further prompted the panel: “So is it just art for art’s sake? Is that what MFA programs do?”

Montgomery replied, “[. . .] If you’re getting an MFA in creative writing, it’s a good time to write and not worry about the marketplace [. . .]. A writer needs time to write.”

The panel was asked if they think Harbach’s critique is reasonable—that the MFA writer is writing with the hope that their work will stand the test of time whereas the New York City writer is writing strictly for now.

DeWeese replied, “I don’t think it’s the most reasonable critique, no . . . with all due respect. I think it’s kind of odious because it’s at once slandering everyone from some kind of implied position of above-it-ness. Because he both has an MFA and a $650,000 [advance], he has conquered both worlds—and revealed the flaws of each. That is what I find most intolerable.”

Amster responded to the question, “I don’t think [New York publishers] are thinking twenty years down the line, but I don’t blame them for that actually because there’s an immediate need to stay alive as a publisher and a business. I think they end up publishing really fine work [. . .] that will stand the test of time.”

Finally, during the Q&A, the panelists were asked if they feel that MFAs were wasted on the young. Montgomery responded, “[. . .] it depends on how screwed up their childhoods are.”

Full video footage of the debate:

  1. Introduction of the panel
  2. Question One: Is there a stylistic mark of the MFA writer?
  3. Question Two: Is the MFA producing only literary fiction?
  4. Question Three: Is literary fiction selling?
  5. Question Four: What is the aim of the MFA program?
  6. Question Five: Is MFA writing aiming for quality while NYC aims for immediate sales?
  7. Question Six: Is the MFA too white?

To dig deeper into the MFA vs NYC conversation:
Junot Diaz, referred to in the panel discussion, responded to Harbach’s article in an essay published in The New Yorker.