Many small press publications pay only in copies. The good news is, since they aren’t paying anything, there’s no reason to please an editor more than yourself. There are five or six thousand magazines. A home does exist for your work if you take the time to find it. You do want to be published. We are social animals and part of our success is in the recognition of others. Plus, it ads a little excitement to checking the mail–like that lottery ticket–if we don’t stake more than we should on it.
I can’t tell you what makes you unique to an editor, but I can tell you it doesn’t have to necessarily tie in with what you’re presenting. Years ago I made my living as a cartoonist. People got a kick out of this at social gatherings, all except my wife at that time who thought it was the equivalent to being married to Bozzo the Clown. On my 3 x 5 card I wrote: “I am a cartoonist, here are some poems I’ve written. Tell me what you think.” At least two good quality magazines thought that was unique enough to give my poetry a good read. I always suspected they just wanted to put “cartoonist” in the biographical introduction to my published pieces. Certainly they had not received poetry form 75 other cartoonists that week. On another occasion I sent some poems to a West Coast publication. They returned them with a letter saying they liked the work well enough, but favored poets from their own region. “Good for you,” I thought and looked up all the likely magazines in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minneapolis and Michigan. On my 3 x 5 card this time I wrote how the publication (and I named it) favored writers from their West Coast region. I concluded, “I’m from the Midwest and I think Midwest magazines should do the same.” Again I had several successes. While looking up addresses I noticed one publication was about five blocks from where I lived in Madison. On the 3 x 5, I wrote, “Dear Neighbor.” The editor called me. She had a question about one of the poems which involved a dream told to me by a former student who was a distant descendant of Edgar Allen Poe. I satisfied her concern and the poem was the first piece in the next issue. A similar thing happened when a friend mentioned that John Updike, not only wrote for The New Yorker, but was a reader for poetry there also. I wrote, “Dear Mr. Updike, I understand you’re a reader for poetry submitted to The New Yorker, here is my best work, tell me what you think.” I didn’t get published in that magazine, but I did receive a nice note from John Updike, saying he was not a reader for The New Yorker, but he had read the poems and they were worth re-submitting. When I later applied for a college teaching position I mentioned, truthfully: “John Updike liked my work.”
Networking takes this one step further. While free lancing as a cartoonist I worked part time in a restaurant. One day the manager asked me at what I was concentrating on so hard. I told him I was finishing a children’s story that gave middle school students an introduction to literary analysis. It was called The Novel Tree. He asked me for a copy and offered to have his ex-girl friend send it to her father, a famous New York children’s author. I didn’t get excited about this until I went to the library and saw that this man had eight or nine titles in the card catalogue. The manager was good on his promise and I received a long critique of my piece from the father. I was disappointed he didn’t like it. But, he was conservative in his approach and my story was not very traditional. Had he liked it, this would have been my introduction to his publisher–because I seized an opportunity, but more importantly because I shared what I was doing with someone who passed the word.
I was more successful with a series of articles on a new construction technique. I was paid by the manufacturer to develop the pieces and sent them to many major newspapers, consumer and trade magazines listed in the public library’s copy of Standard Rates & Data. Ten days later I received a call from an editor of The Christian Science Monitor who said they were going to run the article full page, complete with photographs I had taken. This created a chain reaction that literally went around the world.
The Christian Science Monitor has a wire service used by magazines as far away as what was then Soviet Russia. They reprinted the article even giving the manufacture’s mailing address. Bags of mail came in daily, as well as phone calls, including one from Popular Science who came in to visit the site. In the car I mentioned to the Popular Science editor that the story had already appeared nationally in The Christian Science Monitor. She said that she knew this (it’s what got her to make her visit) and that didn’t matter. “In fact,” she said, “it showed the subject had a good audience.” On my 3 x 5 card to Popular Mechanics I mentioned that this had been featured in The Christian Science Monitor and Popular Science (where it was highlighted on the cover). On the next round when I sent it to Omni, I was able to ad that it had appeared in Popular Mechanics. Omni published it, and then it was on to Life, to Paul Harvey (radio) and to several national TV programs. I’ve since concluded that this approach works for non-fiction. The editorial staffs of most magazines are surprisingly small. They are looking for subjects of proven interest to readers and will trust the judgment of other periodicals to point the way. You help them with this by identifying past successes, though you need to make it clear that what you are sending is a fresh slant. An editor goes through a decision making process in selecting material. If you can help him or her through some of the steps of this process, that editor will feel you really understand their market.
A year and some 20,000 letters after the article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor I had breakfast with the editor, who was passing through Wisconsin. I said that I was surprised the article had been printed without much verification. He admitted that they had had a story that they decided to kill at the last minute. My piece had just come in and was ready to go, so they used it. Despite all the credit I’d like to take, it was still being at the right place, at the right time.
Submitting to literary agents is different than sending a manuscript to a periodical. They’re interested in longer works (there’s not much commission on the sale of the average poem or short story), therefore they will want to see three chapters and an outline. Literary agents want to see for themselves what you have; they are not interested in hype. Publishing houses have greatly decreased in personnel over the last twenty years; literary agents now fulfill much of the initial screening process for them. Most agents reside on the east or west coasts. My advice is to first make sure that you really need one. A physician in Milwaukee told me about writing a book on golf injuries. He went to a book store and found a publisher who had several titles that connected sports and health. He called the publisher, only to be told that they did not accept manuscripts directly, he had to have an agent. He didn’t give up though. He returned to the book store and wrote down the name of the author of a book on jogging injuries. He called the publisher again, told the man answering the phone that he was a doctor and needed to contact the writer of the jogging book. They gave him his phone number in California. The doctor called this author and briefly told him about his work. He asked the author with whom he worked at the publisher. This led to the doctor’s third call to the publisher. He asked for the particular editor who said he should forward him the golf-injury material to him. The doctor said he didn’t have and agent. The editor told him it didn’t really matter. The book was published. Initial sales were slow and there was consequently little marketing push behind it. The doctor wound up with about $2,500 (7% of the cover price). Sometimes getting a book published is only the first of several hurdles.
Several good directories can help you select the most appropriate literary agent for what you have to offer. There are two types of agents: those who make their money from a commission on the sale of your piece and those who charge editing and reading fees–in other words they make their money from you. You want the non-fee charging agent. He or she will only be interested in work that is marketable, but that is your goal in going to an agent. The others may offer advice that is helpful, but that does not guarantee publication. A woman in a seminar in St Louis showed me a critique of a novel she had written. Over time this had cost her $7,000. The comments were valid, but at much too high of a price (and not only financially, the writer was so disheartened that she had spent this kind of money that she gave up writing for ten years). She could have learned more by applying our six principles to one of the chapters of her book.