Publish date:

David Schmahmann's Empire Settings

"I think, if (Empire Settings) does well, it will be a case study in what it is about the commercial publishing industry in New York that makes it tick and that makes it catch things and miss things."

Empire Settings (White Pine Press, October), by David Schmahmann, is an interracial love story told against the backdrop of South African apartheid. Schmahmann was born in Durban, South Africa, and is a trial lawyer in Boston. A portion of Empire Settings appeared as a short story in The Yale Review in 1988.

It's a simple question really, yet it's one that has David Schmahmann "totally perplexed": "How can something be so unwanted on one hand, and then—just overnight—be the hottest commodity in New York?"

That "something" is Schmahmann's novel Empire Settings, and by "unwanted" the author is referring to the more than 100 literary agents, editors and publishers in New York who rejected his manuscript (some on more than one occasion).

Schmahmann began the "very soul-destroying process" of trying to get published in 1994, when he sent his manuscript to 40 different agents before finding a taker. His agent then spent the next two years submitting Settings to different publishing houses—with each one taking a pass.

"If any of those people had sort of told me to keep my day job and go and boil my head, I would have actually known that perhaps I was barking up the wrong tree, but they never did that," he says. "In fact, all of the rejections were filled with very flattering descriptions."

Finally, Schmahmann—submitting sans agent—found White Pine Press, a small and well-regarded literary press in Buffalo, N.Y. But, while White Pine was interested in publishing the book, it would take a "year or two" for the funding to become available. So Schmahmann decided to hire Florence Tambone, a publicist who would be able to help with promotion once the book finally was released. But it was Tambone's involvement prior to publication that changed the work's fate.

Soon after taking Schmahmann as a client, Tambone showed the manuscript to Danny Wilson—the producer behind the film version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale—who, in turn, optioned the movie rights for the book and showed it to several agents, including Robert Gottlieb. As the founder of the Trident Media Group and Schmahmann's eventual agent, Gottlieb took the book back to the major houses for one last shot.

And this time—for reasons still unclear to Schmahmann—they all took notice.

"There was a bloody bidding war (for softcover rights) between the same idiot publishers who said no twice," he says. "They could have had it for 50 cents, and there they were bidding in astronomical numbers to get it back. It makes no sense to me."

It may not make any sense, but in the fall of 2002—one year after its hardcover debut from White Pine—Penguin Putnam's Plume imprint will release a paperback edition of the very novel several sister imprints rejected.

"I think, if it does well, it will be a case study in what it is about the commercial publishing industry in New York that makes it tick and that makes it catch things and miss things," he says. "This may be a success story, but there's blood in it I tell you."


Writer's Digest November/December 2021 Cover Reveal

Revealing the November/December 2021 issue of Writer's Digest: Magical Writing. Featuring advice from R.F. Kuang, Alix E. Harrow, Maggie Stiefvater, Tobias Buckell, Ran Walker, and many more.

The Lane Report: Market Spotlight

The Lane Report: Market Spotlight

For this week's market spotlight, we look at The Lane Report, the business publication of Kentucky.

Exercise vs. Exorcise (Grammar Rules)

Exercise vs. Exorcise (Grammar Rules)

Let's look at the differences between exercise and exorcise with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Your Story #115

Your Story #115

Write a short story of 650 words or fewer based on the photo prompt. You can be poignant, funny, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 5 New WDU Course, A New Webinar, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce five new WDU courses, a new webinar, and more!

NaNoWriMo: Making the Most of Community

NaNoWriMo: Making the Most of Community

Books, much like children, sometimes take a village. Let managing editor and fellow WriMo participant Moriah Richard give you tips for engaging with your online and in-person NaNoWriMo community.

From Script

Film and TV Show Reviews and Writing What You Know (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, Script contributor Tom Stempel reviews the latest in film and television show releases, an exclusive interview with Lamb screenwriter Sjón, and much more!

Why We Should Read Middle Grade Fiction as Adults

Why We Should Read Middle Grade Fiction as Adults

Young Adult fiction has surpassed its own demographic by being acceptable to read at any age. Why have we left middle grade fiction out of that equation? Here’s why we should be reading middle grade fiction as adults and as writers.

What Are the 6 Different Types of Editing?

What Are the 6 Different Types of Editing?

When you reach the editing phase of your manuscript, it's important to know what kind of editing you're looking for in particular. Author Tiffany Yates breaks down the 6 different types of editing.