Coolest American Stories 2023
(Coolest Stories Press, 2023)
It wasn’t long after Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey founded Coolest American Stories that I submitted my short story “Spies” for their inaugural volume. No one was more surprised—and giddy with delight—by its acceptance than I, especially since this would be my first piece of published fiction, and I was sixty-seven years of age, no less. I would become even happier when I’d learn “Spies” would appear with stories by literary superstars such as the award-winning S.A. Cosby, and happier still when Coolest American Stories 2022 would quickly go to a second printing, then a third.
I imagine Wish and Coffey are experiencing an editorial version of surprise and giddy delight. Their anthology, now in its second year, continues to pass expectations. Coolest American Stories 2023 has been available in prestigious independent bookstores such as Powell’s in Portland, Book People in Austin, Book Passage in the Bay Area, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and the go-to bookstore for Columbia University, Book Culture, not to mention—drumroll—in numerous Barnes and Noble locations across the country.
How does a two-person small press operating in a small apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side achieve so much success so quickly? I asked Wish and Coffey about that, and about other aspects of Coolest that distinguish it from other nationally distributed short story anthologies, such as why they respond to submissions the way they do, and how working together on Coolest has impacted their marriage.
D.Z. Stone (Rail): How can you explain the quick, against-high-odds success of Coolest American Stories?
Mark Wish: We have readers from all walks of life—young, old, urban, rural, from all the various demographic labels marketing people like to divide people with—to thank for that success. I mean, if Coolest’s popularity taught us anything, it’s that there are indeed all sorts of readers who are thirsting for stories, by any author from any background, as long they’re interesting. As readers ourselves, we’d noticed that, in the past five or ten years, there were lots of books of fiction that, if you went by the hype, we were supposed to enjoy but that failed to hold our interest—and other readers we knew were saying the same thing. This realization probably paved the way to our founding Coolest in the first place. I mean, it was January 6 (and all the hatred it displayed) that sparked the idea of Coolest—we wanted to publish an anthology that could, unlike all the political stories being told in the US, bring people together—and we knew from our own reading experience that our anthology needed to be interesting to accomplish that goal. Because who can turn their back on interesting? And as it turned out, all we had to do, really, was remain true to our original concept: by making sure we bought and edited stories with it always in mind that, foremost, they should pique and hold onto the interest of readers from all walks of life.
Rail: Were there times when you were lured away from this concept? And if so, what tempted you to stray?
Wish: There were times we were tested. There was the time an author who’d had a story in The Atlantic submitted that story, but that story, much as it had an interesting (kind of sexy) hook, simply went nowhere plot-wise, so to be true to our goal of publishing stories that are unputdownable, we declined. The author became upset with us, and I imagine that if she mentioned to C. Michael Curtis (may he rest in peace) that we rejected a story he’d published, he, too, probably wasn’t exactly happy. In fact, it was around then that Mr. Curtis essentially ended my thirty-year correspondence with him by rejecting a story of my own (drawn from my forthcoming novel Necessary Deeds, which recently has garnered some pretty good blurbs) by sending me an email that said I had no idea how to write an “entertaining” story—so it’s pretty clear there was animosity there. And everyone knows what can happen when one person among the powers that be decides to turn on you—I mean, people in power talk. But Elizabeth and I have stayed committed to our pledge to have our stories connect with as many people as possible, not just with East Coast elites. Because that’s where the true power is, in the hearts of readers everywhere. That’s who made writers like Steinbeck and Atwood famous—the millions of readers worldwide who want story minus pretension.
Rail: Unlike other well-known short story anthologies, you don’t require previous publication. Why is that?
Elizabeth Coffey: Because the requirement of previous publication means your pool of interesting stories shrinks considerably, especially when one considers many venues that publish stories are funded by universities and grants that, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, discourage the publication of bold, candid, striking, extraordinary storytelling—which, again, is what we feel most readers want.
Rail: What I find remarkable is your twice-proven ability to recognize stellar storytelling talent that's on the verge of fame. In Coolest 2022, you signed a story by S.A. Cosby before he broke out into wide fame; for Coolest 2023 you signed a previously uncollected story by Morgan Talty before his Night of the Living Rez became this year’s darling of short story collections by appearing on virtually every major best-of-the-year list and winning the New England Book Award, a PEN prize, and a National Book Critics Circle award. How do you do this?
Coffey: Obviously, we’ve had some good luck—wouldn’t you say, Mark?
Wish: No doubt. But I think there might be more to it than that. Shawn’s Blacktop Wasteland—and then Morgan’s Night of the Living Rez—sold well because lots of readers could relate to them, and, again, that’s because they present damned interesting storytelling. And apparently, like us, a good number of judges for the various major awards have thought like us: if you tell an engaging, tense, suspenseful, down-to-earth story, lots of people will like it. There’s no rocket science involved in this notion. It’s been there all along in any publishing house’s sales figures, and it’s right there in reader reviews online for any given published book. People want bona fide storytelling, with plenty of twists and turns and powerful endings—as opposed to three hundred pages of blah-blah-blah.
Rail: So you read customer reviews on Amazon? You don’t think some of it’s fake praise from publicists—or unfair criticism that’s the result of trolling?
Wish: We do read reader reviews, on Amazon and elsewhere. It’s an abundant free resource that we think offers the key to publishing success. And after a while, you can tell which reader reviews are real and which aren’t. If a five-star is loaded with vague, hyperbolic praise or a one-star is entirely dismissive without offering any analysis, you simply ignore that review. But there are plenty that have a ring of truth to them. It’s like being at a party and listening to an angry blowhard or an obsequious ass-kisser and then listening to someone who’s leveling with you. You quickly hear the difference.
Rail: How do you feel when you need to reject a piece?
Wish: Not great. As a person who submitted hundreds of short stories for more than thirty years, I know how rejection feels: no matter how many times it’s happened to you, it puts a dent in any happiness you might have going that day. So to turn down a story is never fun. And the fact that, so far, we’ve tried to personalize every rejection with at least two reasons why that story could be in Coolest and at least two why it won’t be makes responding to submissions a significant chore. For one thing, personalizing responses takes a helluva lot of time. On top of that, we now know there are some writers who—much as we respond personally to do them a favor—will lash out at us because our feedback is specific to their manuscript. I mean, they lash out privately, and sometimes online. At first this anger of theirs shocked me, because when I was the fiction editor at the original California Quarterly and then at New York Stories, writers would thank me to no end if I responded personally to a manuscript of theirs, particularly if I suggested how they might revise or told them what I’d been seeing too much of. But now—well, apparently it’s a new world of writers out there. It seems to be more of an impulsive, impatient one that expects acceptance and monetary payment without anyone suggesting revision.
Rail: What have you done to lift your moods on the dark days when publishing Coolest successfully feels like an overwhelming thing to do?
Coffey: When we’ve felt overwhelmed—and bear in mind we do much of our work for Coolest from 4:00 to 8:00 a.m.—we walk over to one of the basketball courts in Riverside Park and shoot three-point shots as the sun comes up. Given Mark’s rickety knees and the fact that I’m only five foot two, this seems like an odd thing for us to do—but there’s nothing quite like it for us, maybe because doing it serves as a metaphor for how difficult success in publishing is. And the thing is, even despite our limitations, we do make shots every once in a while. For my part, when the ball swishes through the net, I feel a pure joy that clears my mind of doubts and helps me focus on Coolest’s successes.
Rail: You tell people via Facebook and Twitter not to submit manuscripts wherein the protagonist is a professor or student or start with someone drinking in a bar. You say please try to be different. Why do you say this, and do you think anyone inclined to write such a story listens?
Wish: We say it for the same reasons we give personal feedback when we turn down a story. One of those reasons being we don’t want writers to waste their time and $1.50 submission fee by continuing to send us the same things we know our readers would consider the opposite of interesting. In fact, most of the time I tweet something from Coolest’s Twitter page (@JustCoolStories) that tells writers we’ve seen too many manuscripts that do this or that, it’s because I’ve just read like five out of seven submissions in a row in which, say, the setting is academia and the first thing the protag does is sip from their beer. It gets to the point that you think, Why not go public with this problematic homogeny? Why not remind them that we’re here primarily to please many readers, so that each writer who’s drafting can focus more on the quirkier milieus of human existence they’re authorities on, then tap those milieus for extraordinary storytelling?
Regarding whether writers listen to this online advice we give via tweets, it turns out they do. Sure, we’ve heard about a few Negative Nancys chatting about how we’re more open about our goals than other venues that publish stories, but there are far more writers emailing us thanks and, even more important, sending us stories that are more in line with what our readers might love.
Rail: Has Coolest impacted your marriage? What happens when you disagree over whether to include a story?
Coffey: We’ve always worked closely together on writing, so Coolest is a natural extension of what we’ve always done—though certainly busier. For me, Coolest has taught me to be a better listener and to be even more organized, because with the many moving parts of Coolest, our own writing, and the everyday aspects of family and socializing and, you know, living, there isn’t a whole lot of room for error.
It’s rare that we disagree over whether to include a story, though it has happened. Usually, one of us will fall in love with an author’s unique voice, premise, and characters, and while we might recognize that the story itself has some inconsistencies and needs some tweaks, we’re sure those issues can be resolved with a little editing. But sometimes, after one of us feels iffy and we both then really dive into the story, we realize we can’t answer basic questions like Why did the protagonist do what they did? and What was behind their attitude toward the other characters? In other words, we realize the protagonist’s motivation isn’t clear. At that point it’s easy for us to agree to reject, because that motivation must come from the author—their worldview, their experiences, their imagination are what spark a story and keep it going, make it come alive on the page—and they need to go back to the drawing board to examine their protagonist’s motivation more closely and see how that affects how their story plays out and how their protagonist changes along the way.
Rail: Elizabeth, can you explain your inspiration for the design of the paperback version of Coolest, for its exterior and the interior?
Coffey: For the cover, we wanted a type-driven design with colors that would pop. I chose the typeface for its subtly offbeat letterforms—the rounded top of the A and the flare of the R catch the eye and signal that something unexpected will be found within. And the unusual color combinations on our covers underscore that theme. The interior picks up on the cover, with the same typeface for the display and a classic design that lets our authors’ stories do all the talking from then on.
Rail: Did you send out advanced copies of Coolest 2022 and Coolest 2023 for review? Any reviews result from this effort?
Coffey: Competition for print review space is intense. With so many newspapers and magazines folding in the past few years, the number of print venues that publish book reviews has diminished significantly. And of the local newspapers that remain in print, many have stopped publishing book reviews altogether. On top of that, we’ve learned that some highly respected venues are charging pretty much every small press for their reviews, and we don’t believe “pay to play” venues such as these will be respected for very long, so we won’t be sending them ARCs in the future. Despite all these challenges, we sent out a good number of physical and digital ARCs for our first two volumes, and we did get some rather favorable review attention, for example in Washington Independent Review of Books and the Sante Fe Reporter. Of course, particularly because we live and operate right here in Manhattan, we’re still waiting for that mention in the New York Times. As much as reviews are important, however, we’ve found that word of mouth is the most effective way to widen our audience. We’ve been invited to talk about Coolest on several podcasts, we’ve attended AWP, and we’ll be at the Brooklyn Book Fair this fall.
Rail: Barnes and Noble is now selling Coolest 2023 nationwide. Without book reviews in the “usual” industry places, how do you think this happened?
Coffey: Two words: quality and hustle. For both volumes we’ve sent personal emails to every independent bookstore we could find across the country, letting them know about Coolest and asking them to carry it. And we attached BLADs so they could see our cover and read several of our stories—so they could be hooked by our authors’ storytelling. And many of them have! A huge shout-out to Book Passage and Book People and Book Culture and all the other indie bookstores across the country you’ve already mentioned, and all the other indies that stock Coolest in their stores. For Coolest 2023, I took a chance and included Barnes and Noble on my list of stores to contact, and a couple weeks later I got an email telling me they’d contacted Ingram with a large order. And here’s where quality comes in: I credit our authors foremost—their amazing stories, we’re quite sure, are what make Coolest stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Rail: What do you think the publishing establishment thinks of Coolest, if they think of you at all?
Coffey: We have no idea. Though it’s kind of tough to imagine that anyone in charge of reviews, even at the Times, hasn’t noticed that Coolest 2022 included a previously unpublished S.A. Cosby story and that Coolest 2023 included a previously uncollected Morgan Talty story.
Wish: On the other hand, book review editors are busy—and, well, even though Coolest 2022 went to a third printing and Coolest 2023 already has far more five-stars on Amazon than the latest O. Henry Prize anthology, we are, after all, only a husband-and-wife-run small press.
Rail: You’re saying that facetiously, aren’t you?
Wish: Yes. But only somewhat.
Rail: What would you advise someone who’s looking to start a short story anthology?
Coffey: Publishing a short story anthology that readers will enjoy is incredibly expensive, hugely time-consuming, often thankless, sometimes heartbreaking, nearly always frustrating—and yet one of the most satisfying things either of us has ever done. So I’d say go for it.