From her corner in Brattleboro, Vermont, Dede Cummings has carved out a multifaceted career: poet, literary agent, publisher, and book designer. Her debut collection of poems, To Look Out From, won the 2016 Homebound Publications Poetry Prize: “New England poems that transcend New England,” praised the poet Clarence Major.
A little over three years ago she launched Green Writers Press from the kitchen of her home, a publisher that now boasts dozens of titles and a freelance staff of ten writers, editors, and interns. She runs the book design company DCDesign, continues to serve as a literary agent and consultant, and her journalism and poetry have appeared in publications such as Mademoiselle, The Lake, InQuire, Connotation Press, and Mom Egg Review. Cummings’ second book of poems, titled The Meeting Place, is due out in spring 2019 from Salmon Poetry.
As a young writer, it was her impressive work ethic and diverse publishing roles that fascinated me. I sat down with her to ask: how does one stay creative in a life that at times can be overflowing with other work?
Ma’ayan D’Antonio: What made you want to become an agent?
Dede Cummings: When I started out in publishing after college, I worked at Little, Brown and Company in Boston. During that time, I was a book designer. In 1996, when I became a freelancer after I moved back to Vermont, I began to take on writers in the hopes of selling their work to larger publishers using the connections that I made at Little, Brown. I didn’t specifically seek to become an agent until 2005. At that time, I was doing more of my own writing, and I saw the need to help other writers find the best place for their work.
MD: How do you find it best to find new clients/writers?
DC: Back when I started as a literary agent, I sent in my bio and photo to a blog that has tons of followers called Writing and Illustrating. It was incredible, because after Kathy Temean posted my write-up and photo on the blog, my email just exploded with queries! One of the more recent books I sold was called Mountain to Mountain: Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan, which was auctioned to the highest bidder, St. Martin’s Press. That was exciting. I love being an agent, but it is incredibly hard work to sell a book, so I started small and got some encouragement from many of the big New York publishers. I still rep a few writers, and recently sold a book called Immunopatient: The New Frontier of Curing Cancer by Peter Rooney. Most of my writers find me through word of mouth or agent searches online. I don’t have a lot of time to agent, so I mostly write back and encourage them to keep trying!
MD: Do you find it easier to work with new writers or established writers?
DC: As an agent, I mostly work with new writers, but as a publisher, I work with emerging writers and well-established writers alike. I like to work with writers who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and work with me; writers who are helpful and understand that I don’t have all the time in the world to devote to their books since I, too, am a working writer. I usually feel them out as to how willing they are to actively participate in the process. Teamwork is important in publishing.
MD: How do you go about “branding” a writer?
DC: When I first sign a writer, I send them an Author Questionnaire I have developed that has everything in one place. A book description is crucial—a short one, a longer one with a synopsis, and an elevator pitch of around 25 words. A good author bio and an author headshot, along with a list of previously published work and blurbs from other books, or blurbs for the new book from someone well-known in the field. The author folder and questionnaire help us build on the author’s platform.
Rather than using the term “branding” for a writer, I like to apply a mission statement to the work and emphasize how the author is uniquely positioned to write the book and sell it. Rather than the book being the only focus, the author becomes a brand and the book is just one product. Publishers like to go with big platform authors, but some are willing to take a risk on a lesser-known author who has a lot of momentum along with unique sales channels (i.e., they will do a TED talk and travel the country giving talks that are already part of their work; they have a large following due to some success or career path). For example, the author of Mountain to Mountain was a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, in the NY Times, and endorsed by Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner). Publishers were very interested in this first-time author’s platform.
It is very competitive out there in the big wide world of publishing, but good writing is still something that the editors are looking for. An agent’s job is to make a match, to find out what the editor is looking for, what they like and are signing, and have an instinct for what is selling on the market. It is a balancing act that requires a lot of patience and organization, as well as enthusiasm. When I pick up the phone to call an editor in New York, or Minneapolis, or wherever, I usually have my pitch typed out in front of me as back up, but I memorize it and present a short pitch that usually ends with the editor saying, “send it to me.”
MD: As part of the “branding” do you believe every writer should have a website?
DC: Yes, a website is pretty much de rigueur in the business these days—it is nice to have a link to share for the editor and marketing folks to look at where everything is in one place; however, that said, the writing sample and/or book proposal is what really needs to be solid and the attached marketing plan has to be well developed with an implementation strategy in place. Sometimes an editor goes immediately for the sample writing, or beginning of the novel, to see if the writing is good. These first 25-50 pages really need to be tight.
My advice to writers starting out is to keep trying, read the work in your field, apply for residencies (like Bread Loaf, The Vermont Studio Center), and set the bar where you feel comfortable (maybe try for The New Yorker anyway!). I recently had a poem accepted online by Green Mountains Review after trying for a number of years to get my work published there. One more piece of advice on the road to getting your work published, would be to attend the AWP Annual Conference and soak it all in and make connections. This year, they had an agent pitch and quite a few writers got picked up on the spot.
MD: What would you say your greatest literary accomplishment is, and why?
DC: Without hesitating, I will say that I was completely blown away at the young age of 21, when a poem of mine was accepted by a then-prestigious magazine called Mademoiselle in New York City. They even paid me money for it and my college made a big fuss about it (I graduated with a poetry prize that year), and my parents were thrilled after having warned me during college that majoring in English with a focus on poetry was going to be a dead end career-wise! Then, I’d say having my first poetry book published (To Look Out From, Homebound Publications, 2017) and a book deal for my second poetry book (The Meeting Place, Salmon Poetry, due out in 2019) was the second-biggest accomplishment for me. I already had seven books published traditionally, but they were all nonfiction titles in the health and holistic living field, so having my creative work published was by far the greatest thrill.
MD: As a writer yourself, do you find it easier or harder to be an agent?
DC: Now that my own writing is really a part of my life (as mentioned above, I was a late bloomer!), I am not as focused on being a literary agent. Being an agent and an editor is a very specific skill that can be rewarding (when you sell a book, or when you edit a great book and help it launch as a published work), but it is also time consuming and I just don’t have as much time as I would like to devote to being an agent. I don’t want to commit to signing a new writer unless I can devote everything I have to help them get published, so I decline many queries due to my day job as a book packager and a publisher.
MD: How does it feel to have your own collection of poems be out there for the world?
DC: When I give talks to writers’ leagues, or workshops, I always mention the fact that it took 30 years for me to get my first creative writing book deal—the audience usually groans!—but I always tell writers
to “never give up.” I have been writing poetry all my life, but I never had the time to really devote to putting a sequence of poems together in a full manuscript until my kids were all away at college and out of the house. I was accepted into the summer program at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2013, and the Vermont Studio Center in 2016. After my time at VSC, I submitted my first full poetry manuscript to five contests and actually won one of them much to my surprise and delight! When readers tell me that a particular poem resonates with them, or gives them hope, or they delight in the way the poem speaks to them, I am so touched and I am finally able to say “I am a poet,” because from about the age of thirteen, I wanted to have a book of poetry of my own – it was always there in the back of my mind.
Now that my work is out there, I love getting feedback from readers and I especially like being able to read my work out loud to an audience. Poetry, after all, is lyrical and reading the words using cadence and emphasis really helps to bring the meaning to fruition. Hopefully, my work will continue to resonate with listeners and readers. My best and most cherished reader is my mother, who has always encouraged my work since I was a teenager. She is a great editor, too.
MD: How do you find inspiration for your writing? And how do you keep that momentum going?
DC: It was our very own Vermont poet, Robert Frost, who said he walked every day in his beloved woods to “do his daily work.” I took that to heart when I began writing poetry in my middle age (not the “dark wood” of Dante though). I felt like it was a necessity for me to get away from the hubbub of being a publisher and working in front of the computer sometimes for hours, to walk 3-5 miles every day (at least). It is where I can be alone with my thoughts and observe nature and the simplicity and endurance found there. It was Thoreau, in his journal, who said “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
MD: I also saw that you write for radio. Do you find that the writing is different for radio and podcasts?
DC: I have to say writing for radio has made me a better writer, at least I hope so! My editor at VPR, Betty Smith, is an amazing editor. She is demanding in that I have to write my own lede and then fit everything I want to say into under 400 words. I can usually spew out (think Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird to “write a shitty first draft”) 1,500 words in a flurry… I like to write my first draft without a critical voice breathing down my neck and just “get it out.” Then I begin the process of cutting, “killing your darlings,” as Faulkner said. This editing and cutting process has made me appreciate the fact that your words have meaning and they carry weight, so it is worth it to make them sing.