Know What You Want!

16 Jan

When it comes to submitting your work or writing for a specific market, it really does pay to know what you want to get out of the transaction. Often you will read writers dispensing advice such as ‘never submit to a market that doesn’t pay’, which is all very well as it goes. Sweeping statements are never good. Rather than dismissing specific markets as beneath you (or becoming trapped in low or non-paying markets when you have saleable work), you need to be informed. You need to know what you want out of your relationship with a publisher and make sure you get it.

The first thing you need to know is what the magazine or anthology you are submitting to is or will be like (assuming appearances bother you). Only once or twice have I had the misfortune to encounter someone who had expected something different to what I was producing, the vast majority of contributors to and readers of Atlantean products appreciating what they received (the problem is more common with reviewers, who sometimes seem to miss the point that a free broadsheet is, by its nature, not in the same league as an expensive hardback volume of poetry). But it is all too easy to imagine that you are contributing to a glossy magazine with a wide circulation or a splendid anthology when what you are actually submitting to is a plain small press magazine with a small readership or a chapbook. Generally, a little research or a polite query can establish just what you are dealing with and help you to make an informed choice. Alternatively, in the case of magazines, submit something short initially and, if you are pleased with what you see in print, submit more substantial work in future. Once you know, you can decide if it is for you – and, once you have established a relationship with a suitable publisher or editor, maintain it so that you know who you are dealing with and what to expect.

However, an informed choice is not just about knowing about the press – you also need to understand what you are offering. An established professional writer will be doing their income no favours if they submit to non-paying markets, but an unpublished writer may find it useful to start in the small presses to gain a few writing credits and some valuable feedback and confidence, and even a successful writer might benefit from the publicity of having their work appear in other markets relevant to their field, even if they are unpaid or poorly paid in comparison to their regular publishers. An important thing to consider is what rights you are offering – you can offer First Serial Rights only once (the clue is in the name), although they can be subdivided by region (so, if you’ve given away First British Serial Rights, you can still sell First American Serial Rights). If you believe that your work will sell, you should try it with commercial markets first as many publishers do not accept reprints and those that do usually offer substantially less; as long as you retain your rights, there is nothing stopping you from offering it elsewhere as a reprint later. There is no reason why previously published work must sit mouldering, unwanted in a drawer. Although some publishers seem allergic to reprints, the fact that it has already appeared in print should indicate merit. Even if they can’t make you more money, reprints can help keep your name in the public consciousness, raising your profile and helping you to sell more work.

You also need to consider whether your work will actually sell. Not everything is commercially successful (that’s not to say it isn’t popular, only that there are no or few paying outlets). Poetry isn’t likely to make you rich, nor are genre short stories – naturally, genre poetry tends to be least profitable of all. In particular, things that do not fit cleanly into a specific genre or niche are hardest to place of all. In these cases, if you want to see your name in print at all, you will probably have to accept that you will never be paid for your work (at least, not until you’ve built up a following willing to purchase your books!). You’re not undervaluing your work or talent by facing reality; of course, if you establish yourself as a successful writer in your field, you may eventually be able to request payment, and there is no reason why you cannot sell work that fits into profitable niches.

Finally, you have to consider if money, fame and the like are what you actually want out of the deal. Success, obviously, usually consists of putting in a lot of effort, not only with the product but with marketing and refining it – in the case of writers, getting your work out to the right publishers at the right times and understanding the markets and their readerships so that you can tailor and target your work appropriately. Some writers might yearn for success, but the reality of work and family might be getting in the way – they have two choices, they can either hoard piles of their writing in the hopes of one day selling it, risking that it might never leave the drawer, or they can get some of it out there now, which may even lay the groundwork for future success. Many writers do not particularly care about success in terms of reward, they live to write and just want their work to be enjoyed. Such writers should ignore the naysayers and submit to wherever they get the urge; the small presses were made for you! You might never become widely known or earn anything, but your writing will be read and enjoyed – and, who knows, you might just have a lucky break at some point. If you just don’t have the time, energy, health or inclination to research markets and face the inevitable rejection that will come before you establish any level of success, or if you just love to write more than you enjoy being rewarded for your work, you will be happy just to see your work in print.

The only area of publishing that should be avoided is Vanity Publishing, as that exists to fleece the writer rather than help them. Of course, with the rise of self-publishing, it can be difficult to tell where legitimate companies providing services to self-publishers end and Vanity Publishers begin. The best test is that the former will be honest about how far their services extend, whilst the latter will offer more than they will actually deliver. So, a publisher that claims to provide all traditional publishing services but expects you to pay is probably dodgy, whilst a company that provides specific services whilst expecting you to do the selling and marketing is likely to be legitimate. There is no stigma to self-publishing and it is perfectly legitimate if it meets your needs and you can afford the costs, but you should always avoid Vanity Publishers. Even if your work is not commercial, if it has any value at all, you should be able to find someone to publish it without it costing you a penny – and, if your work has no value, you’ll only be paying to be embarrassed if you do travel the Vanity route.

It has to be remembered that writing is like any other talent or skill – you can turn it into a career or treat it as a hobby, or something in-between. What you make of it is up to you and you alone. All that matters is that you know what you want and are properly informed before making a decision.


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