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"In Praise of Inefficiency, Or: Why I Love Reading for the Gatewood Prize" by S. Whitney Holmes

May 27, 2013

When I joined the staff of Switchback Books in 2009, I was excited to be a part of something that combined a strong mission in which I believe with an artform that I’ve loved since childhood. But when I started reading for the Gatewood Prize that first time, I began to doubt the wisdom of our (amazing and talented) Founding Editors, Hanna Andrews, Becca Klaver, and Brandi Homan. 

I thought surely there must be a better way. 

Because they read EVERYTHING. And not only did they read everything, but they also refused to have the other staff and readers simply vote on submissions to indicate their favorites. Nope. They discussed EVERYTHING.

At the time, I was the managing editor and I thought surely I must be doing something wrong if it was going to take THIS LONG and THIS MUCH ENERGY to read for the Gatewood Prize. Wasn’t it my job to make sure projects got done on schedule? How would we ever get a book made?

But the books get made beautifully, thanks to a staff and editors who are incredibly passionate about the books they work to bring into the world. And a big part of that is because of how we operate the Gatewood Prize.

Our inefficient, at times exhausting, process is what makes the Gatewood Prize the sort of contest to which I’d want to submit my own manuscript.

That’s why I want everyone to know how we do it.

Our editors read every single manuscript that is submitted to our contest. We also recruit a rotating group of readers—some staff, some not—to read the manuscripts, as well.

We don’t ask our contest readers to vote on whether or not they think we should publish a manuscript. Instead we ask them to indicate whether or not they want to discuss it, and we have them label their reaction to the manuscript. When we’re looking for serious finalist contenders, we aren’t interested in looking for the manuscripts with the best “average” vote. (One might imagine that would lead to “average “ books.)

Instead we seek the manuscripts that evoke a strong visceral reaction from one of our contest readers.  We give everyone who reads for the Gatewood Prize the power to shout from the rooftops how much they loved or hated a manuscript and everyone on our staff will listen.

While some of our finalists are certainly manuscripts that we all loved, we eschew a reliance on consensus. Many of the books that become finalists for our contest aren’t loved by everyone who read for our contest. When some loved it and some hated it, we know we’ve really found something substantial. 

Hours and hours of conference calls go by before we come up with a group of finalist manuscripts, which we pass on to our judge each year for the final decision.

When you submit to the Gatewood Prize, your ears will likely start burning. Chances are good that some Switchback Books staffers and editors are having vibrant discussions about the work you’ve been kind enough to share with us.

The deadline for the Gatewood Prize is June 1.  Submit online today.


S. Whitney Holmes was born and raised in West Virginia. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, and others, and her chapbook, Method of Loci, is available from dancing girl press. She is the Executive Director of Switchback Books and also edits for The Offending Adam.

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