I was recently asked to write an article on literary publishing for a magazine. The editor asked for “advice for writers. You know, tips on writing, submitting, and just general good, common sense advice about handling rejection, etc.”
So this is what I’ve put together. It is based on advice I give in my on-line fiction class.
I’ve love to hear from you readers, with opinions, more tips, or additional questions, before I complete the article.
THE TAO OF PUBLISHING–attitude and mechanics.
As a rule, if you are a writer, you are probably more at home sitting notebook or laptop in hand in than in hustle and bustle of the literary market place, trying to sell your work. However, today there are thousands of markets for even unpublished writers to explore. Trying to publish can either be a dejecting experience of rejection, or a much more positive–and ultimately successful process. To succeed you need both to understand how the markets work, and to bring an attitude to publishing that is not unlike the one you bring to the creative process itself–optimistic, flexible, and even playful.
The most important things to remember when you start off sending out your work are:
1. You will get rejected–probably a lot
2. You must send out your work to get published–it won’t get published out of a drawer!
3. The more you send out–the more you increase your odds of acceptance
One thought to keep foremost in your mind is that with each submission, you are increasing your chances of acceptance. That is because publishing involves playing the odds. When I was a young writer and just starting out I heard a well known poet and author of many books say that he only had an acceptance rate of 1 in 10. This really caught my attention, because I just assumed he had a hundred percent acceptance rate from magazines. I took this one step further–if his rate was 1 in 10 maybe mine was only 1 in 50 or 1 in 100. Not great–but eventually I would get published. So I started to send out in bulk, submitting everything I had ever written to a variety of magazines. Sure enough, my work was soon getting published.
To make this system work for you, have your work ready to go back out the very day they are returned to you. Concentrate not on the feeling of rejection but on the accurate belief that with each submission you come nearer to your goal–publication. This process will be made easier if you don’t view rejection as any kind of real editorial comment on your work. The truth is, the editor has rejected the work simply because she or he doesn’t want to publish it. This is simply a matter of taste–and taste changes from editor to editor. And so who are the editors of small and literary magazines that we give so much imaginative power to?
Editors are not Gods
The editors of most of the magazines you will be submitting work to are not very different than you are. Editors of small independent magazines are usually busy people who love poetry and publishing. Most of the time they go to work to earn a living, take care of the kids, cook dinner. In between all this, they read the piles and piles of submissions that have been cramming the mailbox–real or virtual. I have been a small press editor, and was married to one. My husband’s magazine received about 3-5 submissions a day, which really added up in a few months. So please realize that if it takes the editor a while to get back to you–it means nothing about your work. The editor doesn’t love, or hate it. The editor just hasn’t had time to read it! The readers of submissions at academic literary reviews are often graduate students as well as faculty–also genuine lovers of literature, also overworked. So the same holds true for these markets.
Often the editor is the founder of the magazine, who is publishing it for pure love off a shoestring, a small grant, or even off the household budget. As you continue to send out your work, you may find an editor or two who really loves your work, encourages you, publishes you. These relationships make much of small press publishing worthwhile. But until you develop a positive relationship with a special editor, try to keep a good attitude in general. The editor who rejects your work doesn’t do so from a sense of superiority or even particular criticism. Your work just isn’t quite right for that editor.
Also, rejection slips are not mysterious tests, open to esoteric interpretations. I have a good friend, a writer, who once called me from two thousand miles away, a note of hysteria in her voice. “This rejection slip says ‘send more,’” she wailed. “What do they mean?” Don’t get hysterical like my friend. If an editor asks you to send more in two months–do just that.
In the long run, the way to keep going, to write and publish your work, is to regard all these activities as part of the creative process. Don’t try and publish your poetry to impress your mother, become “famous”, or even feel good about yourself. This attitude will doom you to insecurity at each rejection. Sending out your work, and eventually publishing it, is simply the last step of the writing process. Keep as upbeat an attitude as possible.
1. Keep good records. Some magazines, print or electronic, don’t accept multiple submissions. If you do use multiple submissions, notify every place the submission is out at if accepted. A site like Duotrope offers electronic record keeping.
2. For print magazines, use a self addressed stamped envelop for notification and return.
3. Read submission guidelines of individual magazines and follow them. If a reading period is August, don’t submit in January. If a magazine doesn’t accept electronic submissions, don’t e-mail.
4. Be forgiving. Over the years, an editor may lose something, or spill coffee on it. It isn’t your job to chastise–the volunteer editor probably already feels bad enough.
5. A cover letter is only necessary if pertinent. Don’t send one if all you have to say is–here are three poems. Do use a cover letter to mention mutual friends, follow up on meeting the editor, etc.
One last story–years ago I was giving a well attended reading at the public library. A pleasant seeming woman came up to me afterward and introduced herself as the “editor of X Magazine, who rejected your work.” She thought this would be significant to me, but I started laughing. “Take a number,” I said, “that makes you one of a thousand people!” I’m not sure if she was amused or irritated as she walked away.