Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Some Advice for Selling Nonfiction

By Filip Wiltgren
Filip Wiltgren


eing a fiction writer doesn't always pay the bills, and that's where dabbling in journalism can work wonders. Nonfiction markets pay better and are quite easy to sell to due to their high throughput. Here is some advice that might help you get your articles sold. 

Disclaimer: I'm based in Sweden so this advice is based on Swedish conditions. But as far as I hear they're pretty similar to conditions around the globe. 

Sell first, write later

In the fiction market, unless your name is King or Clancy, you need to finish your tale to make the sale.

But writing for a nonfiction market the opposite is often true. This is because newspapers, and to a lesser extent magazines, are built around the ads.

Three quarters of the income of a regular, morning paper comes from ads. The ad department gets first shot at the pages and after that the articles are fitted around them. So your article has to fit what the editors want which is easiest achieved by asking them first.

The proper procedure for making a sale consists of calling the freelance editor or the managing editor of whatever topic you wish to write about, and presenting your idea. If the editor is interested he'll then set the length of the article, hammer out the angle of the story with you (unless he accepts yours without changes).  He might ask whether you can provide pictures and state how much he's willing to pay for such an article.

On occasion the editor might be interested but not sure if you can handle the assignment, especially if you have no reputation and can't show a clip archive. You might be able to sway him by offering to write the article “on spec”, i.e. on a speculative basis. It's like writing fiction, you write but get no assurance that your article will be published. Even if writing on spec try discussing your salary now, if you write first you'll be in a worse bargaining position.

Don't sell yourself short

The pay in the nonfiction market is vastly higher than in the fiction market. Whereas a fiction market is considered pro if it pays more than 3 cents per word a normal rate for the nonfiction market (at least here in Sweden) is 15 cents -- per character. That's just short of a dollar per word.

This is because a freelance journalist has to cover all the costs, such as phones, travel, insurance and taxes, and still make enough profit to live of his writing.

The editors I've been in contact with all agree that they instantly spot if a writer is professional by the wage he demands. Hobby writers are often in awe of the idea of getting published, and thus willing to write for free or for a nominal fee.

Ironically enough trying to sell your work at bargain prices only makes it harder to get published.

Sometimes the price is discussed in days, as in how long it will take you to research, prepare and write the article. According to guidelines from the Swedish Journalists Association a full days work (8 hours) should be worth around $800. In reality the pay is often less, but seldom lower than $400 per day.

Remember to ask whether they want exclusive rights. If so the price goes up. Online rights? Same thing. Today the standard is one year of web publishing included in the price of the article, anything above that should get you more money.

You can also try getting a kill fee -- that is what you get paid if the publication cancels your project. Usually as a beginning writer you get no kill fee but it doesn't hurt to ask, especially if you think they're very interested.

Sometimes you can persuade a short-on-cash editor by offering cheaper second, or shared, serial rights. That means that if you find another paper willing to publish the article you'll sell it to them too. This can backfire though. I know several magazines (but not daily papers) that do not accept second serial rights. 

Look for the not so obvious markets

A common error I often made was to look at the subject of an article I wanted to write and then look for papers or magazines that printed stories of that type.

Such papers are already overrun with similar articles. So getting published requires a very high level of skill, knowledge of the subject and a reputation for doing good work.

On the other hand, a local newspaper might be willing to publish a specialized story if you can link it to something in their area. Recently I sold an article about a chain mail armorer to a local newspaper because he happened to attend a convention in the city.

Selling to a non-obvious market has the advantage that you'll probably be the only one selling that kind of article. If they're interested you'll have no competition.

Some beginning writers worry that the paper will steal their idea. I've never heard of that happening. Not only would the paper set itself up for a legal process, but often the paper does not have the resources or expertise to write about your subject. That's why they're hiring a freelancer. 

Remember the bill

The freelancer calls and complains that he hasn't been paid.

"Well", replies the weary editor, "you have to send us a bill first."

A bad joke amongst freelancers but also a situation that most editors I've spoken with have encountered.

So don't forget to send the bill. Money doesn't show up by itself!

Things to think about when writing a bill:

·        your name / the name of your company if you have one

·        the name of the editor to whom you sold the article

·        the name of the publication

·        the title, or designated name, of the article(s)

·        the conditions of the sale (exclusive/non-exclusive, online rights etc.)

·        the agreed upon price

·        how the money should be paid (bank account, money order, postal draft etc.)

·        the latest pay by date, usually 20 or 30 days after the bill is sent

·        the consequences of missing the pay by date (such as incurring extra fees or penalties)

·        the date the bill is printed and sent

·        a bill number that the publication can refer to (I use the date and a number such as 20030617001)

In addition to this you may need to include taxes, such as VAT. Check with your local tax or IRS office. Usually taxes aren't included in the price of the article so you make a little bit extra here, but you have to pay that to the government. 

Send a confirmation letter

After you've managed to sell your article it's a good idea to mail the editor a short summary of what you have agreed upon. This is to ensure that both of you have the same idea of what is required of you. It's not fun to write an article and have it returned with an angry letter stating your incompetence and the slim chances you have of ever making a sale to that publication again. 

Never, ever miss your deadlines

If you feel that you might miss a deadline call the editor immediately. You might feel humiliated, but even professionals miss their deadlines. The key thing here is to tell the editor ahead of time. He might be able to shift other articles around, or pull something from the archives.

But if he's about to go to print and your article still hasn't shown up and he doesn't know why, he won't buy from you again. Ever. There are millions of hopefuls who want to sell him material.  He has no need to hire those who aren't reliable.

If you're selling a feature story you might get away with breaking the deadline if you tell the editor. But remember, if you're selling a news story, tomorrow it may no longer be news.

It's often better to send in a somewhat rough story than to miss a deadline. Of course, a shabby story lowers your chances to make a sale again but, in my opinion, it won't antagonize the editor as much as missing a deadline. 

Dare to write nonfiction as fiction

There is a truism in the news media. Begin with the five questions of WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHO and HOW.

That means to get all the facts across as early as possible. It comes from the days of manual typesetting when the typesetter cut a long article from the end, chopping of words until it fit on the page.

But in today's world of editing software there are no typesetters, and the editor can cut words wherever he wants. That means that articles can once again be written using a correct dramatic structure.

Not all editors like this. Many older editors insist on the five-question format. But more and more the skills needed to be a successful fiction writer are necessary to be a successful nonfiction writer.

So if you can, try writing your article using all the tools in your writer's toolbox. And if the editor doesn't like that he'll just ask you to change the format. No big deal.

Just remember that using all the tools doesn't mean changing reality. Nonfiction is just that -- Not fiction. Don't invent things that aren't there to make a story better. If you're found out just once you blow your chances of being published in a nonfiction market again. 

Get a portfolio

Editors are often wary of buying from an unknown source. They've never met you, never heard of you and don't know whether you're reliable.

That's when you whip out your portfolio and show them your clip archive. What? No clip archive? Then create one.

Write some articles for online magazines and non-paying magazines. Even if you don't make much money from this you'll be able to point and say "Sir, for a sample of my work please read my stories in Beehive Monthly." If you've never been published at all build a website with your work samples. That's what some successful writers do, so why not you?

BTW, Vision is a good start for your portfolio, you know... 

Say you're a fiction writer

Don't be afraid to use your fiction experience as a bargaining chip. Being a published fiction writer is often considered of merit in the newspaper community. That means you're a good and creative word-smith and perhaps a breath of fresh air in a stale environment. Many journalists crank out formulaic articles that are the same every day. You, as a fiction writer, will be innovative and interesting to read.

And that sells both newspapers and articles.