Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Taking the Plunge

By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
2003, Margaret McGaffey Fisk

 

You're slogging your way through damp, melting snow.  Your heart pounds; whether with excitement or fear, you cannot tell, but they seem much the same.  There is no end to your journey.

You shake yourself awake and feel a flash of sympathy for the manuscript you've packaged up to mail today.

Okay, maybe submitting your work isn't quite that bad, but it has all the elements.  You polish your manuscript until you're sure it's the best thing ever written.  You place it in a manila envelope and ship it off to the magazine you've thoroughly researched.  Then, you wait and wait and wait some more, thinking with each passing day the chances get higher.  Every time you think about that manuscript, you say, "They must like it!  They've kept it well past their turnaround.  They must be thinking about buying it." 

Then, the day comes where an envelope appears back in your mailbox: a rejection and not even a personal one.

That sounds pretty awful, so why do writers keep doing it?  Well, all you need to do to be a writer is put one word in front of the other.  Almost anyone can write.  To be a published writer, especially in the commercial markets, you must have persistence.  Each manuscript needs only one acceptance.

To get that one acceptance, the words must be in front of the right editor at the right time.  There's only one way to have any chance of that happening: keeping the manuscript out there seeking until its moment comes.  No editor, right or not, is ever going to choose the story you keep tossed in a file cabinet or buried in a folder on your computer.  Submission, no matter how intimidating, is that story's only hope of seeing the light of day as a published work.

Now, submitting may seem like it has worse odds than the lottery.  If you persist, there's no question you'll rack up a lovely collection of rejection letters to display to family and friends.  However, if you're serious about being a published writer, you'll read the rejections for any tidbits that might improve the story, make changes if necessary, swallow your fears and send it out again.

The only way to win the lottery is to play.  The only way to be published is to submit.

Now on to the technical details:

Formatting the Manuscript

Standard manuscript format is a "standard" with many variations.  The largest formatting differences come between online submissions (especially those pasted into the body of emails) and printed or attached manuscripts.  Because niceties such as double-spacing and tabs are not maintained in most email submissions, a different format is quite necessary. 

For all printed manuscript submissions:

When you send your manuscript through the mail, it is crucial that a SASE (or Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope) goes with it.  Do you really think the harried editor on the 300th manuscript of the day is going to find an envelope, address it, stamp it with their own postage and mail your response back?

Original tradition was to get your whole manuscript back, largely in the hopes an editor scribbled comments in the margins.  That doesn't happen much anymore and, according to published author Lazette Gifford, many publishers prefer disposable manuscripts.  This is something to check carefully in the guidelines, but overall it saves you postage and them trouble.  Do include a standard-size, business-letter envelope for their response, whether the dreaded rejection letter or hoped for acceptance.

And Speaking of Guidelines...

Many publishers, of both magazines and books, now have their guidelines available online.  Checking guidelines is an important step because they may contain critical information and help demonstrate the best way to approach a market.  Though standard manuscript format is usually acceptable, if an editor expresses a preference it's best to know before you print the manuscript.  He may want an actual word count instead of an estimate, for example.

Examples of non-standard information in guidelines:

From ABYSS & APEX:

     "We will not open or read any submissions not sent in .rtf format."

From Cricket Magazine

     "An exact word count should be noted on each manuscript submitted."

From Black Gate

     "Please only send us disposable manuscripts."

From Baen Books

     "We prefer to see complete manuscripts accompanied by a synopsis."

These are just some examples of the information to be found by reading magazine or book submission guidelines.  Other information includes common themes to avoid, specific submission periods, notices of temporary closing to submissions and other important information that could affect your chances.

What do they want?

The categories for genre fiction, at least, are so broad as to obscure rather than aid writers.  A magazine says it wants fantasy, but is that fantasy with short or tall elves, magic or no magic; fantasy that's historical or otherworldly, sweet or tainted?  Each genre comes in so many flavors that the best way to determine what tickles a particular editor's fancy is to read the magazine.  Sometimes that's not as simple as it sounds and can be cost prohibitive.  See if your local library carries it, check the magazine website for fiction samples, and even skim the issue at your local bookstore -- buying it if it catches your attention.

The thing to remember when reading a magazine, however, is you are looking for general trends, not specific plots.  If a plot is in a magazine, it was probably purchased 6-12 months before and the editor has seen 50 other stories playing on that idea already.  Look for whether the editor chooses first person over third (if there are no first person stories in one issue, check a few others before making that judgment), cheerful and uplifting versus dark and angsty, female leads over male or mixed leads, etc.

This isn't an exact science, but reading magazine issues or books by the publisher can help find things a particular editor prefers.  However, editors do change both their preferences and their jobs.  If a story seems right for a market except for one aspect, the worst that can happen is an editor rejects it.

Finding markets

There are several resources on the web for finding markets.  Some of these charge a fee while others are created and updated by individuals for everyone's use.  Whether free or pay, they can be your first step in finding which publishers to check.  However, you should always read the publisher's guidelines directly before submitting.  No matter how efficient and conscientious the market resource provider may be, the magazine itself is always the first to know.

Free Online Market Resources with reasonable reputations for accuracy and being updated:

Ralan's SpecFic & Humor Webstravaganza

     http://www.ralan.com/

Spicy Green Iguana - The Speculative Fiction Magazine Resource Site

     http://www.spicygreeniguana.com/index.asp

Paula Fleming's Market List

     http://home.att.net/~p.fleming/Sfmktall.html

Little Behemoth's Market List - Paying Markets

     http://www.glasgowstreets.com/behemoth/writeresources/lbml_ab.html

Pay Online Market Resource:

Writer's Market (Also available in a print version at your local library or bookstore.)

     http://www.writersmarket.com/index_ns.asp?status=0

Another effective way to find markets is to explore the "Woo-Hoo" lists on various writing websites or the sff.net newsgroups.  These are places where people report their sales, often including turnaround and market tips.  Some sites, such as Critter's Workshop, only provide this information to members, while others publish the information for everyone.

Some open sources for recent sales information:

Forward Motion member sales are listed in Vision under "Good News From Forward Motion."

     http://www.lazette.net/Vision/

Online Writer's Workshop Newsletter

     http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/newsletter/current.shtml

And Now the Decision Making

Determining which types of markets you want to submit to is completely personal.  All anyone can give you is guidelines and preferences.  The decision has to be yours.  There are many markets out there and submitting to any of them has the potential to see your words displayed to the world.  However, the impact of those words can be significantly different.

For Short Stories:

Short story publishers, whether magazine or anthology, mainly fall into four broad categories: fanzine, for-the-love, paying and pro markets.

If you are writing for the fun of it, fanzines or for-the-love markets are perfectly fine.  You can even post on your own website and hope to gain some readers.  Doing these things severely limits any chance a paying market will ever publish that work, so be aware of what you're giving up.

If you're serious about being a professional writer, you'll want to submit only to paying and preferably pro markets.  The current definition of pro is 3 cents per word, published 3 times a year minimum, and with 2000 or more paid subscriptions, though this definition is flexible between market resources.  Also, the definition may be changing for science fiction and fantasy magazines because of decisions at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's of America.

Publishing credits in paying markets do not have much of an impact on pro market submissions while the editorial standards for paying markets are often as high as the pro markets.  With that in mind, it is possibly better to send the manuscript through the gauntlet of pro markets first.  If it's good enough to be published, why not go for the highest pay and recognition?  A cover letter with Asimov's or Realms of Fantasy publishing credits stands out where publishing credits from John Doe's Very First Ezine won't, even if you receive $10 or more for the story.  That said, it's the manuscript that makes or breaks the sale.  Big names on the cover letter might get it read faster, but only the story can get itself published.

For Books:

Books are pretty much the same as short stories but the markets have different categories: vanity, small press, epublisher and large press.

A vanity publisher takes your money and produces a set number of copies.  Vanities rarely check the quality of the work and are considered the equivalent of self-publishing.  Since there is no true submissions process, few vanity or self-published books are considered real publishing credits.  Sometimes, through strong promotion efforts, these books gain recognition, but it is not an accepted route to publishing.

Small press publishers, as their names imply, tend to have fewer resources for promoting their books and smaller print runs.  That said, they are considered better markets for unusual books and can really stand behind the books on their list.  A large press may not give the same level of individual attention, especially to books by newcomers, since their list is so long.

Epublishers are gaining recognition but there are still a lot of questions about their viability, right or wrong.  Steps like BarnesandNoble.com's decision to cancel their e-book line seem to highlight the instability in the market.  However, many e-book publishers are making decent profits and the number of handheld users who read electronic format books is still growing.  Most likely, epublishers will gain in recognition and market share over time, similar to the acceptability of some online-only magazines.  Five to 10 years ago, online-only magazines were considered vanity publishing or worse, but that is no longer the case for all of them.

Many times writers also get more say in the process from epublishers.  In addition, more epublishers still accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts than do large presses.

Large presses are the Holy Grail of writing.  Most science fiction or fantasy writers want to be published by TOR, Daw, Baen or other genre leaders.  These are the publishers people see readily on the bookshelves at the store and library.  The important things to check for here are whether unagented works are accepted and what their submission lengths are, as these do vary from publisher to publisher.  Writer's Market is a good resource for book publishers and Ralan's (http://www.ralan.com) also has a reasonable list.  With large presses, there is never any question you are "Published" with a capital "P" but their slush piles are deeper and so turnaround can be a year or more even for a negative answer.

Note: The requirements for submission packages can vary significantly between book publishers.  Review their guidelines carefully to determine what you need to provide.

And a Final Word on Tracking

Whatever your system of tracking where your manuscript has been sent, it's important to know where a story is and where it's been.  Even with a good tracking system, you can occasionally make an error and send two stories to the same market or send the same story out twice.  Without a system, the odds of an error get much higher.

Whether you're the type to fire and forget or obsessively watch the mailbox, here are some techniques that have proven useful.

1) Include a self-addressed, stamped postcard with your manuscript that the editor can drop in the mail to say it got there.

2) Figure out the return date based on their published response time, add at least 2 weeks if not a month and put it on your calendar.  That's when you should start thinking or wondering about it.

Tip: Turnaround times are tracked at http://brain-of-pooh.tech-soft.com/critters/blackholes/  and in the 'sff.writing.response-times' newsgroup based on reports from individuals.  These can sometimes give you a more realistic idea of how long to wait before expecting a response or querying on the status of a manuscript.

3) Check out the newsgroups on sff.net.  Many magazines have editors who post slush pile updates on their newsgroups.  For Realms of Fantasy, you can see the slush updates here: http://www.geocities.com/roflist/slush

Tip: Directions for accessing the sff.net newsgroups can be found at http://www.sff.net/maintenance.asp

 

While there's always more to learn about the submission process, this information should be enough to get you started and get that first manuscript out the door.  The thing to remember is even famous authors had to go through this same process and they have the rejection wallpaper as well.  Once again, each story only needs one acceptance.