Publish and Be Careful

As I’ve no urgent writing projects on the go right now, I’ve turned my attention back to submitting work to publishers. There are never any guarantees in publishing, but I have a few tips to help ensure the process is as painless as possible.

Keep a close eye on what you submit and when

I maintain a spreadsheet with the following columns: Publisher, Submission guidelines, Closes, Date entered, Decision notified, Title(s) entered, Entry method, Overall submission count (target 52 per year).

Most short story and poetry publishers insist that you don’t submit a given piece to any other place until they’ve accepted or rejected it. If a piece is rejected, I use the strikethrough font effect so I know it can be sent elsewhere; if accepted, it’s noted on a separate spreadsheet. Note that agents looking for novelists usually don’t mind if you send to several places at once.

Be early

Right now, we’re heading into the Christmas and New Year period. Publishing lead times can be so lengthy that it’s far too late to submit festive pieces, as editors will now be planning for Easter or even summer. Yet there’s also an opportunity here: if you’re inspired to write a piece this December, there’s plenty of time to refine it and submit it in summer next year for next December.

Unless instructed otherwise, use a standard manuscript format

On his website, writer William Shunn offers a range of templates that contain all the information publisher needs, such as your contact details and pen name. Occasionally, you might be asked to use a certain font or a different layout. In those instances, always read the instructions carefully and follow them precisely.

A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan
A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Be selective about entering competitions

This is perhaps a contentious point, but it’s a purely personal point of view.

When you send work to a publisher, there is almost never a charge. For a competition, there’s almost always a fee, and it can be up to £5 or sometimes more. Assuming an average fee of £3, entering even one competition a week can cost more than £150 per year. Aside from the financial aspect, I’ve had experiences where competition rules have been badly phrased or even self-contradictory, leaving me unsure how to enter.

That said, there are a few competitions I make a point of entering because they’re so prestigious or because the potential payoff would be worth it, which brings me to my final point.

Look at the reward offered

It’s a fact of a writer’s life that some publishers want your work without payment or other reward, usually with the well-worn line that they can offer exposure. If you do simply wish to make your name known, then by all means enter your work, but be clear about this from the beginning. I generally take no payment only when it’s for someone I know personally, or if it’s for charity.

Otherwise, the least I’d expect is a contributor’s copy of the finished book and/or a cash fee, however nominal. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to create a publishable piece, so never be afraid to charge for your work.

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Bang for your buck.

I realised recently that I hadn’t sent off any work to publishers for rather a while, and now I’m beginning to make up for it.

When you submit short stories or poetry on a regular basis, you quickly realise there are two broad types of market.

  1. Directly to publishers. This is where an publishing house invites submissions of single poems or stories for an anthology, often on a set theme, and an editor decides what’s included. There are usually no charge to send in work and the author is often paid a flat fee or a rate per printed word.
  2. Competitions. This is where an organisation invites submissions, often on a set theme, and a judge or panel of judges decide who wins. There is often a charge to send in work, and the winner usually receives a cash prize along with publication.
English: Wil Wheaton at the 2011 Phoenix Comic...
English: Wil Wheaton at the 2011 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least that’s how it should work. However, I’ve been involved in more discussion of late about places that aren’t giving a fair deal to their contributors. This includes Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton, who was asked to write for the Huffington Post in return for ‘exposure’.

I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from a couple of poet friends that a popular magazine follows a similar ‘exposure’ model with the claim that they’re a small press and are unable to pay. At least one of these friends has been professionally published elsewhere and will no longer submit to this magazine.

I’ve also recently spotted an advert for a competition with a £10 entry fee or £11 if submitting online, and the prize is to read your work at their event. To me, there’s a lot wrong with this.

Firstly, the price difference is not explained; contributors appear to be penalised for not wasting paper. Secondly, it’s still around double what you would expect to pay to enter a competition. Thirdly, there’s not so much as a nominal cash prize offered, nor any mention of a contributor’s copy.

My advice is to be clear about your reason for sending your work to a particular place. Ask yourself whether the reward is proportionate to its quality and to the financial position of the publisher.

That principle still applies to charity or fundraising work. This year, for instance, I’ve been invited to perform at local landmarks to raise funds for the maintenance and restoration. As I know the organisers, I’m clear that I’m donating my time and work to these causes. One of them even offered me travel expenses, which I declined.

But don’t think everywhere is out to get you. Gutter magazine offers a two-year subscription rather than cash payment, which I consider to be fair, while feminist zine Artificial Womb is a tiny operation but makes a point of paying every contributor.

And a final piece of advice: Wil Wheaton wrote that the exchange he had with the editor wasn’t unpleasant, and that he didn’t blame her for company policy.

Echoing this, it’s always a good idea to be civil to editors no matter how the conversation ends. We’re used to reading about authors and other celebrities who act like divas, but if you develop a reputation for being difficult – especially at the start of your career – word will get around quickly and potentially close off avenues you hadn’t yet explored.