How do you get noticed as a writer? What are the dangers and rewards of trying to be published? Is there a way of going about it that gets results?
Most states have a lottery. If you submit work to a magazine. literary agent or publisher, think of it as buying a lottery ticket. The more tickets you buy the better your chances, at least by a little. On the other hand if you don’t win at the lottery, you don’t say, “What’s the matter with me, I must not be any good,” you say, “Hey, I didn’t win this time.” That’s the same attitude you need when you get a piece of writing rejected, “Hey, I didn’t win this time.”
If we were rich or famous we would have someone else take care of marketing our work. It’s not impossibly difficult–in fact it’s 90% persistence–but rejection is discouraging. Especially if it’s of something personal, like our writing. Sure, pieces are rejected because they aren’t as good as others being considered. But, they’re also rejected because someone didn’t have time to read them, wouldn’t think of publishing an unknown writer, or because something similar appeared in the magazine a year ago. The sad thing is we seldom know the real reason, and it’s easy to imagine the worst.
We also have this American dream about being discovered. We fantasize about sitting in the equivalent of a Schwab’s Soda Fountain and having an agent gasp, “You’re just what we’ve been looking for!” People who make it feed this myth. They create the impression it’s that indefinable “something” you either have or you don’t have that is being acclaimed. A closer look reveals years of work and self-promotion; but that doesn’t sound magical, doesn’t make them seem special.
If we can’t hire someone to promote us, we have to do the job ourselves. But, just as changing from being a writer (Principle #1) to being an editor (Principle #3) involves changing hats, so now you are taking off both those other hats and putt on a third one–titled, “agent.” What’s going to make you a successful agent of your own work? The same thing that makes someone a success in marketing real estate or building a law practice. Having a plan, doing some quick research, understanding factors that weigh on the decision of the buyer (that is, the editor or publisher), networking if possible, looking for opportunities, and positioning yourself to stand out from others offering the same thing you are. I haven’t said anything about the quality of what you’re trying to get published. This, of course, is key to your getting the final nod, but now we’re only considering how you can be noticed enough to reach that point.
PLAYING THE NUMBERS
There’s something called “the rule of twelve.” It states: Send one piece out twelve times and it will be published. The idea is to in crease your success by increasing your exposure. (In business to business sales, some eighty percent of the people making cold calls give up after three tries. Most decisions to consider seeing a sales person are made after five contacts.) Now, you might start out sending pieces to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and have settle for publication in your local weekly newspaper as twelfth choice–but you’ll be published. The rule also states: If you send out two pieces, six times one of them will be accepted, or if you send out twelve pieces to twelve different places, one will make it.
To begin with select three or four pieces you are pretty happy with (they don’t have to be masterpieces; remember the editor may suggest some changes, anyway, you don’t want it to be carved in granite). Now make a flow chart. Work A goes to magazine #1, work B goes to magazine #2, and so on. If you receive work A back with a rejection slip, read the notice and throw it away (do not save these unless there’s a personal comment on them) and ship work A to magazine #2. If it goes to twelve publications without success, consider changing it, but don’t even trouble about this until the piece has made the complete cycle.
Perhaps the most tragic story of rejection, was that of John Kennedy u. He sent his book, A Confederacy of Dunces, to every publisher. It was rejected by everyone. He became so despondent he killed himself. After his death his mother forced the manuscript on the famous Southern writer, Walker Percy, who used his connections to eventually get it read, and published. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The New Republic called it one of the funniest books ever written and it is still selling well fifteen years after it first appeared in bookstores. So, don’t give up before you win the Pulitzer Prize.
What magazines should you target. There are two ways to research that. The best is to go to a large bookstore with a note pad and look through publications that seem to be publishing the kind of writing you are doing. Ask yourself, how are they making their money? The answer can be through advertising, through subscriptions or by some affiliation, as in the case of some literary magazines with a university. If the answer is advertising, check the kinds of ads they are running. For example, if they have airline ads, and travel destination ads, their sales staff might like to be able to tell advertisers they have an article about Caribbean cooking or a story of a couple rekindling their lost love in Florence. A guest at our bed and breakfast told me about her mother’s breaking her leg on a trip to France, only to find her insurance would not cover the accident because it was overseas. When she returned to the United States she wrote an article about being injured abroad and sold it to a major magazine for three times the cost of her trip (including the expenses of her hospitalization). Realize that magazines themselves are business and need to generate income to exist.
If a publication has little advertising, it probably makes its money on subscribers (bookstores and distributors take up to 55% of the cover price for individual newsstand sales; 50% of the number of issues of the average periodical “on a rack” don’t sell and are destroyed. That means a magazine selling for $3 is worth only 75 cents to a publisher in terms of single copy sales). Can you tell a magazine anything about their readers that provide this financial base? If you can they will pay attention. One woman in a seminar in Chicago told me that her area of expertise was in the area of special sexual needs of people who are physically impaired. She asked me what percentage of the population I thought this was. I had no idea. But, including the elderly, it turned out to be nearly 20% Attached to her article should be a sentence telling an editor, here is information of particular interest to 20% of your readers, and they won’t find this information elsewhere.
I recommend you attach a 3 x 5 card to the upper left hand corner of your manuscript. Unless your manuscript is going to a literary agent or book publisher, a few sentences on this card are all an editor is going to read. Tell the editor, by name, something about the magazine’s readers, why this would appeal to advertisers or something that makes you stand out from the other seventy five to one hundred unsolicited manuscripts that have come in “over the transom” that week.
I mentioned two ways of doing research. The second is to visit your library and, with notebook in hand, look through the directories of magazines and small presses. Put the reference librarian to work for you to select the best for your purposes. These directories give you a description of thousands of places who accept submissions. Important data includes editor names, what if anything the magazine pays for work, and examples of the kinds of pieces it has published lately. Often there are also cross indexes by subject and geographic area that are useful in the back. Never send a piece without addressing the envelope and note to a specific person, even if it means a telephone call.