"Make Us Think, Make Us Feel, and You're In"
Andrew Keating lives and works as an independent public relations consultant in Baltimore, MD. He is the founding managing editor of Cobalt Review. Andrew holds an MBA from Johnson & Wales University where he studied sports marketing and electronic publishing, and will complete his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts at University of Baltimore this spring. His fiction can be found in Stymie Magazine, Medulla Review, and North Central Review.
Interview by Becky Tuch
You launched Cobalt Review in the fall of last year. First off, congratulations! Secondly, what in God’s name possessed you to launch a literary magazine?
Tell us about the name “Cobalt.” I am guessing it refers to the blue theme of the site, which is very simple, clean, and adorned with blue. Is there more to the story?
You are probably going to think this is ridiculous, maybe even childish (either of which I am perfectly content with). Cobalt. Co – BALTIMORE. The editors of this journal all met in the
But get this: On the day of our first editorial meeting, a time in which we had not determined a name (had not even really picked finalists for the name), the Mirriam-Webster “word of the day” was “Cobalt.” Did you know that it originates from the Germanic “kobalt,” which had many meanings? My favorite is that a kobalt was a mythical house elf that was both helpful and vindictive.
Our design was done by Danielle Peterson, our artistic manger, who does exceptional work. Also a graduate of
You publish fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. What would be an example of an ideal submission for you in each genre?
I’d like to answer this question across all forms: fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The ideal submission will be compliant with our guidelines. If that sounds cliché to you, it’s because it is. The shame is that it shouldn’t be a cliché. Literary publications should not have to continually remind submitters to pay attention to guidelines. We put a lot of time and effort into reading, reviewing, editing, designing, and publishing (and ultimately promoting) your work. The least you could do is spend a short amount of time making sure that you make that as easy for us as possible. No editor wants to be jumping through hoops. Many of the web tools out there make it easy for writers to submit a single work to dozens of publications in a matter of minutes. Writers cannot, should not, must not forget the amount of work they are asking the publication to do when they are submitting. That said: read our submission guidelines. For God’s sake, read our issues. If there is a clear disconnect between your submission (in the content, the cover letter, whatever), we’ll reject it flat out.
With that out of the way: there’s nothing we aren’t interested in. For nonfiction, we’ve published a memoir/ghost story, an essay about how humans develop belief systems, and a lot of your traditional stuff. We had a poetry submission by Daniel Romo that was dedicated to IKEA. Then there was the sci-fi/fan fiction in the last issue. We don’t care what “genre” you’re in. Just make us think, make us feel, and you’re in.
Spelling and grammatical errors aside, what is the worst kind of writing to submit to Cobalt Review? Is there an aesthetic that just does not appeal to you?
It is very difficult to say that anything is particularly “the worst.” I remember one week, when we had made a particularly heavy push for submissions, my fiction editor – the very talented Rafe Posey – emailed me saying: “Did we put out a notice for people to ‘send us their hardcore sex stories?’” To push this even further, my poetry editor, Jill Williams (also exceptionally talented), sat me down a several weeks ago, as we were ironing out Issue Three, and said: “There was a lot of cock activity in this issue’s submissions.”
Apparently, despite our clean and friendly appearance, authors of erotic fiction and poetry enjoy sending us their work. We’ve not published any of this. I should say: “We’ve not published any of this, yet.” That “yet” is important.
We did publish a story that was originally called “Poet Laureate of My Clitoris.” It is a great story, and the author kindly changed the title to “Twang.” And oh, my, did that make it feel just a little dirtier. Moral of the story: send us your best work. We will never complain.
You feature “interviews with some of the most influential writers in the literary community. “ How do you define “influential”?
Influence is a tricky thing. I remember, when asking Ben Tanzer to do an interview, even before we had an issue out, coaxing him with: “Oh, but we have Nicola Griffith and Jessica Blau on board.” Tanzer, who has become a close friend since, replied: “Wow, Jessica Blau is everywhere these days, I’m honored.” If that doesn’t mark some sort of influence, I don’t know what does. Later, I’m sure you’ll ask me about my background in PR and Marketing (since this is an email interview and I can read all of your questions in advance). Influence really does come down to who people listen to. Every time Patricia Smith posts on Facebook, dozens of people comment within minutes (at worst, hours); when we published the interview with Steve Almond, we had a decent spike in readership; and so forth. This is influence on us, Cobalt Review.
As for influence on the literary community: I like talking to educators, or people who have done something differently, or people who have their fingers in a great many pies. I’ll be interviewing Matt Bell soon, who has written some pretty awesome stuff of his own, but also publishes The Collagist and is a workhorse over at Dzanc Books. I’ve also seen him lecture at writing conferences. The man is brilliant. Ron Tanner has pushed the program at
I also believe that a different approach is taken in the Cobalt interviews. More emphasis is given to craft, or the writing lifestyle. We talk about how authors promote their books, or the transitions they made between genres, or the way they bring their own experience into the classroom.
One series, which only started in Issue Three, is the publisher series, in which I am interviewing publishing folks (starting with Jason Cook of Ampersand Books) about how they select authors, work with them, promote them, etc. These interviews are very much focused on the writer, and what the writer can expect from the process of working with a publisher – particularly on their first book.
So, influence? I’d say the people we interview are, in our eyes, the people who can give the most insight to positively influence the reader’s understanding of the writing lifestyle.
Tell us about the 2012 Cobalt Writing Prize.
More than anything, the Cobalt Writing Prize is a fundraiser. Like any young literary magazine, we’re all pretty broke. Or, I should say, we don’t have enough money to print hundreds of copies of a print publication every year, or every quarter. However, each editor on staff got into this for one reason: we wanted to put great writing into print. The online edition succeeds in shining light on new and recognized authors, sure. But there’s a glory, a special pride that one takes, in putting something in print.
But I’ll give a brief wrap-up here, with some suggestions. We’re accepting submissions for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry (check out the “ideal submission” answer for some ideas of what we like and don’t like) through June 15th. The authors of the best stuff we get will each receive $100 and publication in our first print issue, which will come out in September. Runners up will also get published in that issue. Non-winners may still get published in our online issue, which comes out every three months (next issue in June).
We’re asking that submitters send a $10 entry fee to be considered for the contest. Remember that this is a fundraiser, so the entry fee goes directly toward the production of the print issues (and the paying of winners). Just think, you could get a 900% profit on your $10 investment! You also have the option of paying $20, which will pay for your entry into the contest, and serve as a pre-order of the first issue.
I’m also tinkering with the idea of opening a supplemental contest for baseball stories, both fiction and nonfiction, which would run until the All-Star break. So keep your eyes open for that.
What has been the biggest challenge for you since launching Cobalt Review?
Flipping the “off” switch. I have far more ideas for Cobalt than Cobalt has time for. Additionally, I think we’ve exceeded all of our expectations for the first year of publication. And once you get a taste of that success, you want to drive harder and harder. The off switch comes in handy in times like that.
I interviewed Jane Delury earlier this year, and, when I asked her about challenges in writing a novel, she said: “There’s a chemical women secrete during childbirth that dulls memory. They forget the pain and the species continues. I’m convinced the same chemical is secreted in the last phases of novel revision.” I understand this profoundly, now.
What has been the most surprising delight?
This is a tough question. Every few weeks, I’m amazed by something new. Just today (April 3, 2012), I received word through my poetry editor that we had received a very lovely note from a poet we had published. He wanted to thank us for our support, as a manuscript including the poetry we selected had received a reputable prize. He went on to say that we were the first journal to have ever accepted work from that manuscript. This was not only thrilling for him, but thrilling for us, to know that it had meant enough for him to write to us, thanking us, when really all we did was accept some fantastic poetry.
When we aren’t hosting a contest, we offer a submission category that allows the writer to donate with their piece. The donation was set at $5.00, and we offered that if you were willing to make a donation, we would promise that you would not receive a form rejection, regardless of how we felt about your story or poem. In fact, we offered a written critique of your work – whether it was accepted or declined – that rivaled a critique you would receive in a writing workshop. This process benefited everyone. It built a stronger relationship with that writer, naturally. It helped keep our costs down for the first six or seven months. And it helped the writer understand what we were looking for in their writing, and how – if it was not acceptable at the time – they could improve it moving forward. The response that came from this process was astounding. Though we rejected far more donation/submissions than we accepted, we found that those who had received critiques would either re-send us edited stories, or they would re-submit a second or third time. Notes of thanks became a regular thing. When we came up with this idea last June, we couldn’t think of anyone else who had done it. No writer likes getting a form rejection, especially if the publication was one they had truly put a significant amount of effort toward.
This system not only gave us a chance to better communicate with our submitters; it also gave our submitters a way to support our fledgling publication in a way that simultaneously helped them with their craft. I still can’t get over how positive this experience was for all involved (I was initially quite nervous it could backfire on us somehow).
Aside from being an MFA candidate with numerous writing credits, you hold an MBA in marketing. How does this affect the business of running a literary magazine?
I don’t have any advantage over any other editor, that’s for sure. In many ways, this business is hit or miss. And it’s always a team effort. I may be doing a lot of the behind the scenes stuff – coordinating the web content, setting deadlines, etc. – but I’m an editor just like any other. And as much as the editors rely on me to make sure the issue goes live when it’s supposed to, and that the contest is managed, and the money is allocated, etc., I rely on them to meet deadlines, work with authors to improve content, etc. They make my life infinitely easier, and I hope that I do the same for them.
The MBA, more than anything, opened up a career path that sent me into public relations. Having a chance to be the director of public relations for a publishing company was not unlike being a manager for a literary journal. It’s all about creative content management. You’re dealing with talented people, a ton of writing and editing, constant outreach, and most of all, you’re the face of the company. Additionally, you’re always on deadline. The way I run Cobalt has me on weekly, sometimes daily deadlines. I’m always looking for new ventures. My editors and my designer, and my social media manager, would all very likely tell you that I am incessantly pestering them to look into one new tool or another for our Facebook profile, or our website. I’m backed up until at least September for author interviews, and I keep having to postpone reading events, because there are just too many things happening at once and it seems like everything Cobalt does is more successful (and therefore more time consuming) than we anticipated.
Can you share with us some awesome tips about how we should (or shouldn’t) be marketing ourselves as writers?
I had lunch with Ron Tanner, a widely acclaimed author and educator in
That said, social media is far from the only “tool” that should be in the writer’s toolbox. Go out and take a business class or two. Take intro to marketing, or intro to public relations, at a local college. I swear it helps. Courses like this will force you to approach your self-promotion (because with most publishers these days, you’re going to be doing a great deal of the legwork) in an organized manner, to plan ahead, to target audiences in different ways, even if your subject matter has a broad reach.
All in all, there is no amount of marketing experience that can be detrimental to you. I am not telling you that “there is no such thing as bad press” (because that’s total BS) or that you should flood the market with your messages (notice that I use the word “flood,” implying disaster). Remember that the ready-aim-fire approach is always going to be more successful (in this market) than ready-fire-aim. Keep your finger on the “off” switch.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
There’s always a stack, that’s for sure. Currently, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, and I always keep a Joseph Heller book on my nightstand. Right now it’s Good as Gold, my favorite book, which I have decided to read for a third time.
What books do you wish were on your nightstand?
I wish David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest were on my nightstand. That is only because I have not summoned up the courage to tackle it. Considering that in the last four months, I have read two 600+ page novels, and dozens more, I suppose there is no excuse.
Also, it’s April, so I suppose I should be reading more baseball books. But there simply aren’t enough good ones out there. Chad Harbach surely alleviated that, but I can only read The Art of Fielding so many times in one year. There is the excellent April online edition of
What is one question you wish someone would ask you about Cobalt Review?
As I mentioned earlier, we get a lot of erotica. I would love it if somebody would email me and say, “Hey editors, do you publish erotica?” And I could very politely email back, “Not really. No. Probably not. Though, we could. I think you should submit somewhere else first.”
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.