Geffen Semach is my colleague at Room magazine, and the editor of the most recent issue, Ley Line. And Geffen has a real 360 degree understanding of the business side of writing and publishing. Listen to learn about all the different hats Geffen has worn in the literary biz and to understand all of the folks behind the scenes in the lit scene.
As this is the third episode in the mini-series of episodes on the theme of agency and finding agency with your writing, of course we spend the most time talking about Geffen Semach’s experience working as an Literary Agent’s Assistant at Aitken Alexander.
We also talk about audiobooks, and Geffen’s current role as Publishing Coordinator for Audiobooks at Penguin Random House Canada.
And I use our time wisely, as they just completed editing the lovely issue called, Ley Line, for Room and I, at the time of recording, was in the final throes of copyediting the Ghosts issue Room, and clearly in need of a bit of a pep talk to keep going.
Links and Resources from this Episode:
- Room 46.2 Ley Line, edited by Geffen Semach
- Geffen Semach on Reedsy
- Aitken Alexander Associates
- Andrew Nurnberg Associates
- Penguin Random House Audio
- Room Ghosts Issue, edited by Rachel Thompson
- Room Designer, Monica Calderon
- The Lit Mag Love Course
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- Rachel Thompson
- Geffen Semach
Rachel Thompson: 00:01
Welcome luminous writers to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast. I am your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world. In each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication, and the journey from emerging writer to published author.
Listen to learn about all the different hats Geffen has worn in the literary biz and to understand all of the folks behind the scenes in the lit scene. Geffen has a real 360 degree understanding of the business side of writing and publishing.
As this is the third episode in the mini-series of episodes on the theme of agency and finding agency with your writing, of course we spend the most time talking about their experience working as a Literary Agent’s Assistant at Aitken Alexanderin London.
We also talk about Audiobooks, and Geffen’s current role as Publishing Coordinator for Audiobooks at Penguin Random House, Canada.
Those are just a couple of the hats that Geffen has worn that we will be unpacking. I use our time wisely, as they just completed editing the lovely issue called, Ley Line, for Room and I, at the time of recording, was in the final throes of copyediting the Ghosts Issue Room, and clearly in need of a bit of a pep talk to keep going. You’ll hear that in a bit. Here is my interview with Geffen Semach.
Welcome Geffen Semach to the podcast. I am so pleased to have you here. It’s been a while I guess since we’ve connected, you just finished editing 46.2 Ley Line. It’s just been released as the current issue of Room right now. Congratulations!
Geffen Semach: 02:01
Thank you. I’m so excited. I don’t know if you remember, actually. But my first issue of Room when I was a shadow, in 2015 was one of your issues.
Rachel Thompson: 02:11
Oh, yes, that’s probably the last time we really worked closely together too because it’s such a big collective as well. I’m trying to remember which issue that was… Was it Family Secrets?
Geffen Semach: 02:12
That might have been it.
Rachel Thompson: 02:14
We’ll have to go through the archive, they all become a blur to me in the past. Although I’m very presently fixated on the one that I…
Geffen Semach: 02:33
Well, you’ve done so many, which is why you’re the pro of Room.
Rachel Thompson: 02:36
I’m saying this for the benefit of our listeners, because we know this but Room rotates between issues with set themes and issues without a set theme and Ley Line, I know is an issue that was a contest issue, which means that many of the pieces published were contest winners. So, the selection for them was out of your hands as an editor, which is not an experience I’ve had, I’ve actually only edited themed issues, I gravitate towards them, but also just how the cards have landed for me. I know you said in your editor’s letter about this, how do you build an issue where predetermined pieces might not go together? You answered your own question, said, flexibility. So, I want to hear more about that flexibility and how that worked in bringing together Ley Line.
Geffen Semach: 03:22
That’s a really good and difficult question. Actually, despite the fact that I answered my own question. You’ve edited open issues. To me, I thought of it in that way as an open issue in the sense that you don’t know what’s coming, and things aren’t necessarily always going to align in the exact same way of creating a cohesive theme. When as judges are choosing, the pieces as I noted in the editor’s letter as well, they’re not actually thinking about a cohesive issue. So, it came down to like three pieces for me, which was personal taste and team taste, which plays a big role. That’s why every issue of Room is so awesome, because we have so many folks on the collective who have such different wonderful taste.
The next one kind of being the theme that starts to come together towards the beginning as you start accepting those first few pieces. We still had a commission, which was [sysco 04:21] SIDS dirt mouth, and that was the first piece that we had for the issue. That’s where it started the piece. It’s such a dark humor, it’s quite gritty, and the issue gained momentum from there and I would call it overall a very gritty. Oddly, despite me reading a lot of fiction. I am a broad reader generally, but the issue has very little fiction in it being maybe like three pieces of fiction. I think that stemmed from the fact that this piece held so much depth about our interactions with debt and rebirth and self-knowledge, which then just made us gravitate more towards a lot of the nonfiction pieces and poetry that were submitted.
That was part of the flexibility was just letting the pieces lead us. But the last thing with contest issues is also the timing. That’s probably the hardest one, because the timing of the contest will determine WHEN you are going to be able to fill up your issue, which is a tough one, because you don’t know how long these pieces are going to be. So, you don’t know how much space to block off. So, for an editor of Room, you want to be on top of production going on behind the scenes, besides all the creativity, but you don’t know how much space you’re going to need, and whether those pieces are going to fit into what you’ve been accepting so far.
Room editors for contest issues, have the right to not publish everything that makes it into the top of the contest. This has nothing to do with the skill, or how great these winning pieces are. But it just come down to the theme and what is working for the issue and also for space at the end of the day. Because I didn’t get winning art until we were in the finishing line of the issue. Maybe two weeks left to go, and that’s when I got the winning art for the issue.
Rachel Thompson: 06:26
Two weeks before, like going to press?
Geffen Semach: 06:29
Yes. So, I was constantly chasing our wonderful collective colleagues for the short fiction for the CNS, everything constantly trying to make sure that I had everything. That’s probably the biggest thing about being flexible for the contest issue is timing.
Rachel Thompson: 06:49
In terms of readers, and submitters to the contest, I think it’s great to know that something like that might happen, and if their piece isn’t published, it’s like all these other reasons happening behind the scene, I did not know that I’m adding that to my mental library of things to explain to writers, because it’s hard not to take something like that personally, too, if that were to happen and think, “Oh, they didn’t like my piece enough to publish it.” But as editors were often swamped. There’re all these moving parts, and not to make it all about me. But as you know, I’m in the throes of copy editing and gathering everything for our lovely designer. So, I’m in that first stage of putting things into design, I’m a little bit frazzled, and sorry if I appear even tired as we’re talking today, because that’s definitely contributing to that. But I’m wondering if you have any advice for me to find that flexibility? Because it sounds like you really went through it in that issue.
Geffen Semach: 07:42
I would say, over communication, probably with Monica. Monica is amazing at getting together Room and putting us, putting everything in order and sending revised versions. All of this stuff that’s really the messiest period of putting together an issue of Room. So, I weekly or even sometimes every other day was sending Monica, updates of like, here’s a block of text, here is the updated version of this, I still owe you this. I have not been able to do this, and we may not get it. So just that over communication is probably the top thing I would say would benefit any Room editor working with other people.
Rachel Thompson: 08:27
Yes, thank you. I think that’s actually a good reminder for me, because also, when I’m falling behind on things, I get a little bit like, “Oh, that’s kind of embarrassing. I wasn’t able to keep my deadline.” There’s sort of this perfection, maybe it’s the standard that I’m holding myself too as well. I think I just need to communicate a bit more that “Oh, this is going to happen at this time.”
Geffen Semach: 08:48
When it’s so easy to get into your own insular world, as an editor of Room, I think, where you have all of these dates and these things that you’re editing, then at the same time, you also have your assistant or assistant editors on the issue and your shadows, and all of these other people involved in the process, and just let me… It’s not just me, who is putting this together, this is a team effort. I also want to make sure that the next folks who are coming up on their own issues have the skills and the information in order to do that.
Rachel Thompson: 09:19
I try to let them know, maybe not well is happening, but every mistake that I’ve made so that they can be aware of the kind of things that can happen as you’re putting together an issue, because it’s just a lot. I mean, all these things happening. I was like, yeah, I’m going to miss this, I’m going to miss that. Here’s how I caught that though. It’s like trying to foster a bit of that creativity around problem solving too. That’s lovely.
I do love this about Room is that we have these different relationships and we come in and fill these different roles and it’s nonhierarchical in that sense as well too which I just really value. So thank you for the little micro-coaching on my copy editing. Present miss at the moment
As you know, I invited you to the podcast because we’re doing a few episodes in a row related to the theme of agencies. So, I’m going to turn us away from editing for a moment to agency, which is intended as both a conceptual theme. But also, we’ve just heard from two writers in our community who recently resigned, but agents, and I know you wear a lot of literary hats, and I want to get to more than just the agent hat. But I wanted to make sure it’s okay to start with your literary agency experience in that role as well?
Geffen Semach: 10:33
Absolutely. I hold such a fondness for eventing and for the agents I’ve gotten to work with, it can be such an important relationship for authors. I know how important the relationship is for agents with their authors as well. So yeah, happy to talk about it.
Rachel Thompson: 10:50
I want to start really with demystifying the role itself, and in composing this question, I thought maybe it’s not totally demystified, because maybe there’s not a very specific definition for it. But can you describe, what you understand an agent’s role is, and maybe even how you’ve seen it vary as well?
Geffen Semach: 11:10
I’m talking about myself wearing a lot of hats in my career, I think that agents wear so many hats. I think that there’s a surly a misconception, but kind of a specified way that people think about agency as when you’re restrict, within publishing, and that’s one aspect to it.
The agent is so many things, they are your first cheerleader, in a sense, they are your career manager, they are a therapist and a friend, they are an advice giver, they are a creative chalkboard, they’re so many things. It’s very hard to define exactly what an agent is, especially when I was assisting, really an agent that I was lucky enough to work with, Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander. I would say, well, I work in a literary agency. What’s that? Most people don’t know that much about publishing. So, the first thing you go to is, well, you know that backpackers or football players, have agents that help them progress their careers, and make sure that they’re getting paid so that they are secure in their roles, and all these sorts of things. That’s kind of how I would explain it to people, but it’s so much more, and something that can really last a lifetime.
Rachel Thompson: 12:34
Yeah, it seems like fundamental to it are certainly from the writers I’ve spoken to who have agents, they’re like, “My agent got me a lot more money for the book than I ever would have asked for.” Because that’s the thing that they understand very well is the money side of the business.
Geffen Semach: 12:49
Yes, they do. It comes down to so many things of understanding the marketplace of being able to match make where a book fits and what editor it should be with. Also, what different publishers have to work with, where the comp titles that are going to help determine where we want to situate the book in the marketplace. Therefore, ideally, it exceeds your expectations, and we hope that the book is going to earn back, we don’t want a situation where an author has to pay back any money. So, it’s very complicated spot, and having a great agent can help you make more money and help you gain the agency to make sure that your book is getting support in-house at a publisher by placing it correctly.
Rachel Thompson: 13:37
That’s a really good point. It’s like navigating all sides of the industry. So not just a shark out there to get the best pay, keep it going but no, what’s honestly how much this book can make in this market?
Geffen Semach: 13:49
Yes, I mean, that’s not to say that any books are better than other books, but it’s still a business. So that part, it can be very helpful to have an agent there. You don’t have to have an agent, but it can be very helpful to have one.
Rachel Thompson: 14:02
That’s something I wanted to ask you about too, because certainly, I’ve published a book as a poet in Canada, it’s really rare for poets to have agents, although my friend, Ellen Cheng-Richardson, who is my assistant editor on the issue, is an agent, which I’m very happy for them. But what I’m trying to say is it’s like it’s not every case where you need an agent, or even where that would be appropriate.
Can you just share a little bit of what you would advise writers who are considering looking for an agent, and maybe some of the important things that they should know before setting it out? They get starting with that question of, do I need an agent?
Geffen Semach: 14:41
That’s a hard one. As someone who’s worked in agenting, and the finest I hold for it. I think it’s great to have an agent. When you have the right agent when you have that great relationship, it’s a really beautiful and supportive relationship and can just really help a career bloom and a person bloom, when you feel like you are supported by somebody else who believes in you. Some have an agent; I have seen people not have agents. As we know, the big five publishers, it can be a lot harder to get published by them specifically without an agent. That can come down to not just the fact that lots of these publishers and the imprints don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, but also relationships within publishing. And part of an agent’s job is to have good relationships with all the other folks in publishing, whether it is editors or publishers, foreign rights, folks, scouts, people in film looking to acquire film rights. So, there’s a lot of things that agents have developed the relationships in order to help a career and books reach as broad an audience as possible.
Rachel Thompson: 15:53
That’s really good to think about all those things. Sometimes it’s just hard to know exactly where to position your book. Maybe for those folks who aren’t sure, maybe it’s like, “Okay, we’ll try the agent route and see what kind of feedback we receive.”
Geffen Semach: 16:07
Rachel Thompson: 16:08
Would you say that’s good advice?
Geffen Semach: 16:10
It is good advice. One thing to also consider before reaching out to agents, is the fact that your agent will believe in you and support you. Part of that belief is also the fact that they believe that they can place the book at a publisher, and they do get money out of your book. So, some folks choose not to have an agent, because they will take usually 15 to 20%, of what you’re getting. That isn’t necessarily a huge amount, but they are being paid for the work that they’re doing. So that’s one thing to consider.
Another thing to consider is, I see a lot of authors just throw everything at the wall and seeing what sticks when it comes to finding an agent. I can see why folks would do that. It’s hard to find a place when there are so many people out there writing and worrying. But finding an agent is matchmaking as an author trying to find the right person for them. That does include a lot of research. That means finding someone whose books on their writers on their list reflect the kind of writer that you are, and the sentimentality that you have, because you want someone who gets you. That is going to make all the difference too, is finding the right comp titles for the kind of author you are, and being authentic when you are courting an agent, noting what they’re interested in, where their career is headed, as well as where yours is headed.
Rachel Thompson: 17:41
Yeah, that speaks to me of the importance of research. So, it’s like really putting in that legwork rather than sending things out scattershot, which probably seems maybe faster just to send to anywhere. But also, it’s probably going to pay off in dividends if you actually spend the time really looking into the correct person who’s going to be that match for you.
Geffen Semach: 18:04
Rachel Thompson: 18:05
I’m interrupting my chat with Geffen Semach, my colleague at Room to let you know that it was when I started editing with Room magazine that I first can see of my Lit Mag Love course, I had been submitting and publishing with Lit Mags for a few years when I joined the collective. As soon as I started reading submissions, and working with other editors there, I could see that there was so much I had misunderstood about how Lit Mags work. Even now, seven years later, in this era of greater transparency, I think there’s still a big gap between what writer’s think is going on at Lit Mag and what is actually happening.
I put all that knowledge to bridge that gap into the Lit Mag Love course. And then I added so much more that helps you explore who you are, as a writer, get focused in your strategy to submit to journals, and not to mention motivated to actually do it.
If you’ve benefited from what you’ve learned in this or other episodes of my podcast, I think you’d get a lot out of this course that is all about publishing in journals.
The Lit Mag Love course will help you get a big YES for your writing from a literary journal.
The five-week course normally runs twice per year. But this year, I had to adjust my schedule. So this is the only time it will be offered in 2023. It starts later this month; the course comes out with lots of support and feedback from a warm cohort of writers. Seriously, I’m always blown away by the caring and thoughtful interactions that happen in each session.
You can learn all about the Lit Mag Love course, find out what writers say about working with me, and then sign up at rachelthompson.co/litmaglove. We start very soon and I hope to see you in this session.
I know your work has spanned countries and different sides of publishing. You’ve been at top literary and foreign rights agencies and independent and big publishers as well as magazines including Room. Can you tell us more about your other literary hats and what you enjoy about each?
Geffen Semach: 20:07
Well, typically I started off more in literary magazines with Room. I’ve been with Room since about 2016. It’s just such a wonderful magazine, folks are so passionate, and creative and fined, and it’s been around for such a long time. It’s wonderful to see how it continues to evolve and sit the landscape of the authors that is publishing or from artists that is publishing, I love the literary magazine landscape. I think my last issue was 43.4 or so, which was Twine. I remember publishing a really fantastic story that stayed with me, and then seeing that author published another short story recently in Hazlet. I’m just really seeing their growth as an author. I think magazines are such an important place for writers to find their community and editors as well, to find their community and to receive the space and the autonomy to grow and be seen. That’s really wonderful to me, and I’m still in love with Lit Mags, and will continue to be.
I started my career in traditional publishing, in London at Profile Books, which is an independent publisher. I learned a lot there as an intern about the business of publishing and creating longevity, for an independent publisher. Profile is really exceptional in it. From there, I went into Foreign Rights, also as an intern. I think I learned a lot about relationships there, uniform rights, everybody there is so cool.
Andrew Nurnberg. They all speak multiple languages, and they know everybody, and they travel a lot. But they also just love reading. I don’t know how they accomplish so much. They read so many things. So, I learned a lot there about landscapes in different countries, marketplaces in different countries and relationships. That’s actually how I found my job at Aitken Alexander was at the London Book Fair, where I met somebody and that led to my role as Sarah Alexander’s assistant at Aitken Alexander. An agenting was somewhere that I was able to find who I was a lot more so as a reader, and someone working in publishing and just allow myself to be who I am, which is very social, a voracious reader of everything. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a reader of everything. I think that there’s a fresher in publishing these days to really narrow down exactly who you are as a reader, then I’m broad. I love that about myself. I think it’s allowed me to see publishing as a bigger picture of not just solely one genre, or one type of publishing, which I think has been a real boon to my career generally.
Also, just agenting I really love for the relationships, I had just the real luck, and joy to work with some truly lovely authors, while working under Clare. I developed truly special friendships with in a creative place, and also from a personal place and receiving postcards from them, and being able to work on their work with them is just something that I hope so dear, I’m so thrilled to have.
Geffen Semach: 23:48
Now, I spent some time a double day at Penguin Random House Canada, where I got my first taste of big publishing. That was an eye opener. Then I found myself in audiobooks, where I am currently, when I think audio is a really wonderful space. We have issues with production these days with paper with all sorts of things. We don’t have those issues with audio and from standpoint of accessibility, we think audio is a really cool space to meet all kinds of readers. I love that you can also do it on the move, which is fun, because I spend most of my life walking with a book in front of my face and bumping into everything.
Rachel Thompson: 24:35
Yes, I’ve done that myself. Also, I’m really enjoying listening to books lately. In particular, for some reason craft books, we read a lot of craft books in our community and I’ve just found it’s nice to hear it and be able to move around and saw how I process the ideas better, pause and jot notes when I need to. That’s really exciting and it’s great just to hear that trajectory and all the different places where you fit into the different roles in the literary industry and also the relationships and the ways that those kind of vary. I love your eclecticism, too. I think that’s really a lovely thing to hear. It almost feels like definitely the ethos that you bring to Room and then is part of what Room is about, too is like this sense of belonging to. It feels so lovely compared to, “Oh, no, I only read this. I’m only looking for this narrow, thin slice of the pie,” when the pie is so delicious all around. I’m not trying to run a trail of it.
Geffen Semach: 25:34
You owe all the pie, yeah.
Rachel Thompson: 25:35
Exactly. Or have cake, if you don’t like pie, too. I was going to ask you, what are the more satisfying experiences, but I think you’ve really covered a lot of that too, picturing you at that book fair. It just feels in itself, there’s a whole story that you’ve told us about your journey through all these different places and spaces and the foreign rights, folks who are speaking all these different languages. I think it’s great to really humanize all these different characters, too, that are involved in the industry and understand there are all these different corners, these different moving parts. Thank you for taking us on that journey through many of them.
I’ve mentioned and I’ll say it again, our theme is agency. So, one of the things that agency in terms of the conceptual term, is that requires intentionality and self-knowledge and reflection. So, I’m just wondering, what does agency mean to you, Geffen?
Geffen Semach: 26:31
I think the word intentionality comes to mind. Sometimes it can feel like not enough progress is being made, or things are moving too slowly to feel the successes or the fruits of all of our labor. I think when we’re able to slow down and take note of the steps that we’ve paid in and see the kind of trajectory of our growth, I think that that can kind of lead to a sort of ceiling of agency that where we’re supposed to be right now, doesn’t mean that it’s forever.
Agency is where we meet a lot of hope, but also the obstacles as well, and overcoming those obstacles, or sometimes letting them not letting them take us down. But being knocked over by them is I think where we need our agency, if that all makes sense.
Rachel Thompson: 27:29
That really does. Yeah, I’m thinking agency is related to resiliency to that idea of getting back up after getting knocked down too. Thinking about that, I guess that was knocks, when have you felt the most agency in your life, in your writing life and the least?
Geffen Semach: 27:47
felt the most agency looking sometimes wrongly and sometimes correctly. I think where I’ve been able to identify where I had actually had agency is where I have found progression in my writing, and in my career and life generally, I think it can be very easy to get caught up in the momentum of other people and what other people want. That said, I think I’ve also found the most agency, when I have a group around me and community around me to collaborate with. I think that that has helped me grow is just not being my own soundboard.
Rachel Thompson: 28:24
There’s a little paradox in there a bit too. It’s like agency also requires outside takes are that sounding board of trust, I assume really trusted people in your community.
Geffen Semach: 28:34
Absolutely. Trust is a big one.
Rachel Thompson: 28:37
I want to thank you so much for sharing your story, and taking us on that journey through the different literary roles, Geffen. I have a final round for people to finish some sentences. So, if your game I’d like to do with you. So, the first sentence starts…
Being a writer is…
Geffen Semach: 28:53
It’s so hard. But maybe I just need to lean into the cheese. Just say, writing is hard. There’s no other way to write besides writing. That can be lonely and it can be devastating and it can be joyful. But I would say it’s hard.
Rachel Thompson: 29:15
Rejection for a writer means?
Geffen Semach: 29:18
Rejection for writer means a time of grief and a time of birth.
Rachel Thompson: 29:24
Then finally, writing community is…
Geffen Semach: 29:27
Writing community is like gift.
Rachel Thompson: 29:30
I don’t normally refer to the video in these interviews, but there’s like a big smile that came on your face when you talked about writing community. So, I feel like I need to mention that because it’s just lovely. I guess I’m seeing my own smile in that because I just love writing community so much as well. Thank you for being part of my extended writing community through Room as well, Geffen.
Geffen Semach: 29:52
Well, thank you for bringing me into it and bringing me into your community and having me on the podcast. It’s so fun to talk about publishing and writing. This is just such a joy.
Rachel Thompson: 30:06
Thank you, again.
That was Geffen Semach my colleague who by the way, built the best audio for it just for our conversation. I’m really grateful to them for being on the pod and for coming in with such enthusiasm. Geffen is an editor at Room magazine, as I mentioned, and like I am, but that is just one of many, many literary hats they have worn. So, I hope you liked learning about all those different environments and roles, and that gave insights into the business side of Writing, Publishing and Shining so particularly on the publishing side of the biz.
The Lit Mag Love course will help you get a big YES for your writing from a Lit Mag you Love.
Learn more about the course and sign up at rachelthompson.co/litmaglove.
The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by me, Rachel Thompson and my co-producer for this episode is Meli Walker. Sound editing is done by Adam Linder of Bespoken Podcasting. All of our episodes have transcripts, and in the past months of episodes, these have been transcribed diligently by Diya Jaffery. Thank you, Diya! I’ll add some links to Diya’s social handles in the show notes, as well. You can learn more about the work I do to help writers, write, publish, and shine at rachelthompson.co. When you’re there, sign up for my Writerly Love letters, sent every week and filled with support for your writing practice.
If this episode encouraged you to explore more of the publishing side of the literary world, I would love to hear all about it. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am still off of social media. It’s become a bit of a permanent hiatus. So, I don’t expect to be back there anytime soon. You can tell other luminous writers about this episode. You can do this by sending them to the podcast at rachelthompson.co/podcast. Or tell them to search for Write, Publish and Shine wherever they get their podcasts.
Thank you for listening—I encourage you to keep writing with agency, luminously!
Geffen Semach: 32:01
My name is Geffen Semach. I’m coming to you from Vancouver located on the traditional ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Salish peoples. My pronouns are she/they.
Rachel Thompson: 32:15
And I am a guest in the South Sinai, Egypt, on lands historically and presently occupied by the el Muzzina Bedouin.