This was the basis of a talk and has sections designed to encourage audience participation. There's a UK bias.

Breaking into print

Contents

So, you have some poems, or short stories or maybe even a novel. You all know about the Writers and Artists Yearbook, you've all seen stories and articles that you could have written yourselves, so why don't you send things off? Today we'll try to identify what's holding you back.

I'll talk first about general issues, then deal with the details about sending off, then what to do after. I'm not going to deal with blockbusters - I'm going to assume you're happy to start at the shallow end. If it all sounds like too much work, don't worry - I'll offer some shortcuts at the end.

What's the point?

I suppose firstly we should look at the incentives to sending things away.

To me nowadays publication is an integral part of the writing process. The only unpublishable pieces are those that aren't good enough - though some are harder to publish than others

Inhibitions and how to overcome them

I stopped being a passive reader and realised I could be part of "the printed world". I read actively, asking myself "could I do better than this?". After that, I conquered my other inhibitions without too much trouble.

Planning

I mostly do literary stuff. Every few months I plan ahead. I look

It helps to know whether magazines will reply in days or months. I've a group of magazines that I regularly sent to, so I know what to expect. Every so often I try a new one.

For articles, poetry and prose, look out for themed issues of general magazines. Sometimes the only way to find out about these is to read the magazines, though often the magazine's web pages help. Also check for forthcoming anniversaries, especially when you can tie them with some contemporary event. Remember that magazines often plan months ahead.


Sending off - Where and How

Good publishers are never short of authors, so don't bother replying to adverts in the press. The details about sending off vary a lot depending on the genre. An SAE is usually obligatory if you're not using the web or e-mail. There's no excuse - when Masefield was poet laureate he sent his official poems to the Times, even he included a stamped return envelope in case of rejection.

Poems and stories

There's is big split between literary and general outlets.

Novels

Different rules apply! Get an agent! See a list of literary agents. Alternatively enter a competition where the winner has their book published.

Some magazines print chapters nowadays.

Preditors & Editors is "a guide to publishers and publishing services for serious writers". It has examples of cover letters, legal advice and much else besides.

Articles

A huge market, one we should take more advantage of. Maybe the easiest thing to do is to sit in Borders for a while and browse through the magazines that interest you. Again, it's a matter of getting into the right mindset and becoming an active participant in the print-world. The money's often good, and you may not need to work too hard - exploit what you know rather than research. Use your past as a library.

Years ago I was asked to write an article about 'Children and Allotments' for a proposed local leaflet. It didn't take long to write. The leaflet wasn't produced in the end, so I put the article online. Where could I have sent it instead? Since then

The opportunities are there. It's all up to you! I think it's easiest if you're already a specialist in something - it's easier to adapt what you know than learn something new - but there are many outlets for common topics too. Many magazines have Travel sections (gone for a walk recently?), food sections and book sections. Or you coud just string together some things you like and call the article "50 reasons to be cheerful" or "5 best things to do" (both of these appeared in a recent issue of "Good Housekeeping"). Several magazines don't accept freelancers though - read the guidelines or "Writers and Artists".

As Jane Wilson-Howarth's pointed out, a headline-grabbing title's very useful.

Don't neglect foreign markets - your knowledge of UK small literary magazines, or Cambridge, or pubs, may not be exceptional but some people in Canada for example may be interested.

And don't forget that you can use ideas more than once - if for example you get lost on holiday, you can use the episode in a travel article, a story, or a letter.

Exercise: List some skills or life-events that could be made into an article. Done anything strange? Anything you learnt something from? Any dinner party anecdotes you could write up? If your partner's trying to impress some new acquaintances, what do they say about you? What did your parents say to humiliate you when you brought a new friend home? How do your children describe you to their friends? What will be written on your gravestone?

Reviews

There are shortages of reviewers sometimes - magazines (especially small literary ones) sometimes advertise for them. Rattle magazine (in the US) have an online list of book that they'd like reviewed. If you ask for one they'll send it to you as long as you send them back a review.

Send off samples (preferably previously published ones) in the first instance.

Some people say that it's relatively easy to get reviews accepted, and that they lead to other opportunities.

Electronic submissions and the Web

Electronic submission to paper-based magazines is cheap and fast, but you still need to do your homework. Don't be sloppy! Many American magazines offer an online submission facility where you need to register first - you'll need to fill in a form but but it's nearly always free, and offers benefits. For example, you'll be able to track the progress of your submission and perhaps look at your record of previous submissions. On the right you'll see my attempts to be published in "Quick Fiction".

The web offers new writing opportunities, a foot in the door on the way to paper-based publication. Web-only publications are increasingly respectable (selections from online magazines are now regularly included in the Best American Series of annual anthologies; online editors can nominate their contributors for the Pushcart Prize; the National Endowment for the Arts permits up to half of one's qualifying publishing credits to be from online journals). Even if you self-publish on the web it can lead to recognition - for example, the BBC have interviews with people whose only qualification appears to be that they publish a blog.


Keeping records

Don't send to the same place too often (Iota magazine said that one year a poet sent them 68 poems!). Don't send the same piece to the same mag (editors have excellent memories!). I keep

See my list of what's in the post (messy, but it does the job). I guess I average about 10 pieces in the post at any moment. Sometimes I have 30 pieces in the post.

To help me analyse my progress I make graphs of my results.

For literary outlets you could use an online database like Duotrope.
duotrope
Not only will this help you track your submissions, but the response time, etc, is added to a database so that all Duotrope users can get an impression of how long they might need to wait.

Rejection

So you've read the magazines, prepared your manuscript, sent it off, filled in your spreadsheet. After a few weeks you notice an SAE on the doormat ...

The odds are rarely much better than 1 in 50 even in literary backwaters, so brace yourself. Of course, editors can have legitimate reasons for rejecting good work - they really might be full; maybe they really do have another piece dealing with exactly the same topic - but it's depressing all the same. There are many instances of classics (e.g. the first Harry Potter book) being rejected many times, so it's worth being stubborn. Less well advertised (and far more common) are the self-styled "neglected geniuses" who waste time and money bashing their heads against brick walls. I once had a poem accepted on the 15th attempt ...

If a piece repeatedly fails, maybe you should think about sending it to a different kind of outlet altogether. If the BBC turns your play down you could perhaps make it into a school play or a Whodunnit evening. Your failed novel for adults might be a blistering success with Young Adults.

People who send off material with autobiographical elements have particular trouble with accepting that it's not their soul being rejected, just their piece of writing. Even battle-hardened writers get hurt by rejections. E.g.

In the US there are agencies who will do the submitting for you. There's also

Anything other than a standard printed rejection slip (as from the New Yorker below) is progress. I once received a rejection letter which was 2 packed A4 pages long, from Interzone
Below is a more recent (2008) rejection I received. It softened the blow
Thank you for sending us three of your poems for consideration for Magma 42. I have now been able to read and re-read them a number of times and I've enjoyed much in them. They respond very interestingly to the issue's theme of engagement with feeling and I've held on to them till now in the hope of being able to take "Believing in myself".
However, I'm afraid this isn't going to be possible. The response for Magma 42 has been enormous, greater than usual, and we've received well over 2500 poems. With the pressure on space, it won't be possible to take one of your poems, but I thought you might like to know it was a near miss.

It's worth holding on to rejection slips - the editors might become famous. Here are 4 of the rejection slips I got from David Almond ("Skellig", etc).

Occasionally one gets rejections like this -
Remember Goethe's advice to the misanthropic young Schopenhauer ... if you wish to enjoy (your) life, then you must ascribe value to (love) this world (as it is). Somehow you need to get out of yourself, your intellectual self.

Some online mags offer detailed rejection slips. Here's one I received

 
Editor 1 Vote:        Maybe
Ed. 1 Comments:    I feel like I'm on a tour run by the Ghost of Christmas past.

Editor 2 Vote:        No
Ed. 2 Comments:    Too much distance from the subject

Editor 3 Vote:        Yes
Ed. 3 Comments:    Pulls its strands together nicely.

Editor 4 Vote:        Maybe
Ed. 4 Comments:    Intriguing.

Editor 5 Vote:        Yes
Ed. 5 Comments:    Great sense of style and voice.

Editor 6 Vote:        Maybe
Ed. 6 Comments:    I like the writing, but I'm not sure I understand what's going on.

Here are some tricks I've used to lessen the pain

Acceptance

You'll be expected to write a bio if you've not already done so. Here are some examples

Exercise: Write a bio. It can be straight or wacky. Max 75 words. Say what sort of magazine/publisher it's for.

Marketing

If you have a book accepted, don't expect book-shops (even independent bookshops) to stock it, though you're welcome to try. Organise a local launch (in a bookshop perhaps) and organise some readings. You could organise for several blogs to feature you as part of a "tour". For poetry at least, don't expect adverts and reviews to help. Here's what the Shearsman editor wrote in 2010 - "I used to advertise, but found that it had no impact on sales. In fact, when I cut advertising completely, sales went up by 25%. This suggests that the only kind of marketing that works is the targeted variety. Reviews generate very little sales, although a generous notice in the TLS will have an impact that is immediately noticeable. The same holds for Ron Silliman's blog."

No Reply

When should you start chasing up? I never have. Some literary magazines take several months to reply anyway. Check first that you've read the guidelines - some magazines warn that if you send at the wrong time of year, or if you include insufficient postage, you won't get a reply. Others (especially if you submit by e-mail) say that if you don't get a reply within a month, you've been rejected.

If you don't get paid, well, eventually there's the Small Claims Court.


Shortcuts

Sounds too much like hard work? Here are some alternatives

Conclusions

Looking back, the mistakes I made were mostly to do with investing too little, too late. I should have more quickly subscribed to magazines (I didn't know they existed until my mid-twenties), went to a residential workshop run by a magazine editor, and entered competitions with more dedication.

(At the end, ask each person what they're going to do - pieces they're going to write/adapt, research they're going to do.)

References


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Updated July 2010
Tim Love