A goal to which all poet aspire. Completing a manuscript and sending it out is not the first step. Many emerging poets focus so intently on the first book, that they ruin their chance of ever getting one.

The first step is publication in small literary magazines. While these magazines have a small distribution, they are read by your target market – poets , people who publish poets and people who book poets for readings. In addition, they are critical for becoming eligible for grants. See: Poetry is a business, grant proposals.

A common mistake poets make is to begin at the end. Poets should begin submitting work to small regional journals. After generating publishing credits on their resume, they can begin sending their work out to larger, more well known journals such as: The American Poetry Review and Ploughshares. It is critical to assess your market niche and determine what your opportunities are. This means, in addition to writing poetry, you need to read poetry. Who is your competition? Where are they publishing? How is your voice unique? More important than reading poets is researching editors. Many editors of small literary journals are also poets. Discovering their bias is critical to having success obtaining publication credits.

Avoid vanity presses. See - poetry.com

There are several steps to getting work published.

As Svaha says, above, if you are producing poetry, you want to look at getting individual pieces published before you shoot for a collection, and the same is true of short stories.

However, there are certain rules which apply whatever work you are submitting, and wherever you are submitting it.

Make sure your work is ready.

Edit, edit, edit. Check spelling, check grammar. No allowances will be made for sloppy work -- it shows a lack of care. The editor's job at a publishing house is not to correct your errors but to suggest changes that will make the book more saleable. Before you send anything make it perfect.

Pick your market carefully.

Whether you are submitting a poem or a story to a magazine, a novel or a biography or whatever, you need to send it to the right place.

Check that the publisher you have selected does, in fact, publish your kind of work. If it's a magazine, read a couple of issues. If it's a publisher, check their catalogue.

Consider submitting to periodicals who don't pay but have a good reputation, as this gives you a publishing history.

Find a Name.

Once you have decided on your market, do some research, and find out the name of the editor who deals with your kind of work. It's good manners, and puts them on-side.

Follow guidelines to the letter.

Most publishers ask for work to be printed on one side of the paper, double spaced, paragraphs indented with no space between paras. No matter how old fashioned you think this is, do it. If you don't, your work will probably be rejected without reading it. The same goes for any other guidelines -- these may relate to page numbering, where and how your name should appear on the manuscript, format of files by email or disk. If you ignore the rules, you can kiss goodbye to your chances of seeing your stuff in print.

If a publisher asks for queries, don't send a full manuscript -- send a chapter or two and an outline for the rest of the book.

Put in a covering letter

This should contain a synopsis of the work you are attaching, your contact details, your publishing history, and, where relevant, your qualifications for writing on the topic you have chosen. Nothing else. The publisher really isn't interested in your three lovely kids, and whether you collect carnivorous plants -- at least, not until they have accepted your masterpiece and want to write an author bio.

Do not, and I mean ever, open your letter with "I don't expect this is good enough, but..." If you don't think it's good enough to publish, why are you sending it? (And yes, I have received letters that open that way, in my editor's role.)

Unless it is explicitly stated that the publisher accepts simultaneous submissions, only send to one publisher at a time.

Good manners again -- this isn't like looking for a job, you can't send out multiple applications. If you were to send your book to two publishers and receive an offer from both,you would almost certainly have both offers withdrawn and be blacklisted into the bargain. It just isn't done. Frankly, publishers see more publishable books than they will ever need -- they might like yours, but they don't need it.

Include return postage for your manuscript

This will at least guarantee you get your work back, and some kind of response. If you don't do so, they will assume you don't want your book back even if they decide against publishing.

Be prepared to wait.

Publisher slush piles are huge. You cannot expect a response within a matter of weeks, and it could easily be a year before you get a yes or a no. Once you have sent your manuscript, start working on the next, and accept you are in for a long wait. After about three to six months, you can reasonably send a polite reminder, but don't hassle, unless you want to get a reputation for being troublesome.

Expect rejections.

Everyone receives them. They may be a form letter, or a personal one with reasons, but pretty much every successful writer has a collection of them. Even Harry Potter was rejected before it found a publisher. If you can't stand rejection, don't even think about becoming a writer.

Above all, be patient, and keep optimistic-- the difference between published and unpublished writers is perseverance.

Okay. You've written your story or poem. You think it's good. Your friends say it rocks. Your creative writing instructor gave it an "A" and wrote in the margin, "Excellent work. You should try to get this published."

Yeah! Get it published! Uh, but you've never sent your work out before. What do you do?

Step One: Find a Market

Most beginning writers will find that magazines and webzines are their best options for getting their first works published. Writers can often resell their better works (sometimes many times) to anthologies after the initial sale (and, of course, after the exclusivity clause has passed).

How are web publications different than hard-copy magazines?

Webzines have certain advantages. They are often easier (and less expensive) to submit to because you can email your work to the editors instead of having to print and mail your submission. Web publications often have a faster response time and are more receptive to work from beginning writers. It's also easier to find out about web-based publications because you don't have to track down a physical copy to review as you would a regular magazine -- the sites are free and quickly accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

On the other hand, hardcopy publications have a different set of advantages. Regular magazines often pay more for work, and a sale to a hardcopy pub has a certain cachet that webzines can't match. Your Aunt Wilma will be ever so much more impressed when you hand her a slick, shiny magazine than if you send her a URL. Also, hardcopy magazines that have been around for more than a year tend to be more stable.

How do I find out about a publication?

Ideally, if you're a writer, you should already be reading magazines and websites that publish the kind of work you want to sell.

But, since there are hundreds of publications out there, you obviously can't read them all, or even find a fraction of them in your local bookstore. Every year, Writer's Digest publishes a big, thick book called The Writers' Market; they also publish similar books like the Novel & Short Story Writer's Market and Poet's Market. The Writer, Inc. publishes a similar annual volume called The Writer's Handbook. All these books contain the listings for many, many markets, and you can find one to many of these books at your local library or bookstore.

However, the information in annually-published books can be stale. You can find more current market information on the Web. Go to www.ralan.com or do a search for magazines or market listings at places like Yahoo!

Gee, I'm really busy, and it looks like I found all the info I need in this market listing ... do I really have to read the site before I submit?

Yes. Absolutely. You need to visit and read through the site. Any information you find on a market list may be incomplete, out-of-date, or just plain inaccurate. There's no excuse to not check out the site before you submit.

97% of all publications with a Web presence also have guidelines posted or offer them through email. Read them and follow them; editors all have different preferences as to how to prepare/deliver submissions. Most print markets do not accept electronic submissions unless they've worked with you before (this is changing). Many web-only publications don't accept hardcopy at all.

And, ultimately, the best way to know what an editor likes is to read what he or she has already published.

Once I'm at the site, how do I evaluate the publication?

Focus on the fundamentals. Do you like the stories and poems presented on the site? Are the stories and poems presented in an attractive, easy-to-read, error-free manner? Is the site aesthetically pleasing and regularly updated? If you like the site and think you'd like to see your work there, by all means submit.

A note on paying vs. nonpaying publications: My feeling is that you should always shop your work around to publications that pay professional rates first -- this means at least 3 cents a word. Some people feel that any pay is better than no pay and won't submit to nonpaying publications. Others feel that making $10 for a story you worked on for 20 hours is such a trivial compensation that the overall quality of the publication in terms of how the site or magazine looks and what kind of exposure it gives to authors is far more important. Ultimately, it's up to you. There are high-quality nonpaying web publications and paying-in-copies magazines out there that publish professional-quality fiction and which do provide important exposure to new and rising writers.

A note on contest/reading fees: If a publication requests a reading or editing fee, run away and don't look back. You should never have to pay to be published. Although some legitimate contests require a fee, I suggest avoiding those, too.

 

Step Two: Prepare Your Submission Properly and Send it Out

(Most of my comments here relate to preparing work for electronic submission.)

Preparing your submission properly means adhering to the publication's guidelines. Editors don't just make up rules capriciously; they have good reasons for them. One editor may have been burned by Word macro viruses, and doesn't want to receive Word documents from unknown people. Another editor may be using a text-only email package that doesn't handle attachments well, and therefore he or she wants plain text in the body of an e-mail message.

If you do something that lets the editor know you didn't bother to read the guidelines, he/she will not look favorably upon your submission. Put yourself in the editor's shoes: "If a writer clearly didn't bother to take 5 minutes to check out my freely-available site and read the guidelines, why should I spend the 15-30 minutes to read and evaluate his/her work?"

If the editor wants snail-mail submissions in hardcopy only, don't send a disk. If an editor wants to see submissions sent in RTF, don't send an attachment as a Word document. Don't send attachments if they say they only want to see plain text. If you frustrate the editor by sending him/her something he/she can't read, you're not helping your chances.

If the editor wants to see a cover letter, write a good one. Use the same language in an e-mail cover letter that you would in a hardcopy cover letter. Make sure you've checked for grammar and spelling errors before you send -- the ease of submission makes some people sloppy in this matter. Be formal and businesslike, unless you know the editor well and have an established rapport. Don't wax eloquent about your five cats, or try to summarize your story. And don't ever, ever try to be funny unless you're very sure of the editor's sense of humor.

If you come off as a difficult person or a crank in your cover letter, the weary and overworked editor may think, "Gee, this person's stuff is pretty good, but I get the feeling he/she is going to hassle me endlessly if I engage him in any sort of conversation, so I'm better off just sending the standard rejection and not encouraging him."

If the editor accepts attachments, make sure the text of the files is in standard manuscript format, unless the editor tells you he/she wants something different.

Take a little time to learn about file formats and how to make your word processor save files correctly. It's not hard, but you will need to know the difference between an RTF and a PDF.

If you are sending out electronic submissions, be sure you understand your e-mail program, and make sure you know how to format a plain-text submission properly. Make sure your e-mail program is sending plain text and not HTML, because HTML is pretty unreadable to people using text-only email software. Special non-ASCII characters like em-dashes and typographer's quotes will need to be converted to plain text characters, or they'll mess up your manuscript with nontext symbols. Most word processing programs have a "Find/Replace" feature, so this is pretty easy to do. Italic text will need to be indicated with underscores (or whatever the editor prefers).

Make very sure your spacing and line width is set properly so that submissions don't wrap badly (72 characters is a safe line width). Some word processing programs won't give you this info, but many text editing programs will. Set the margins, then when you export the file, have it change soft returns to hard returns, then open the file in a text editor like BBEdit or Notepad (or TextPad, which is a better program) and cut and paste it into your e-mail program.

If the editor can't read your submission easily, you've got a 90% chance it'll be automatically rejected.

Make sure your system is virus-free; sending an editor a virus is not a good move.

 

Step 3: Be as honest as you can in your dealings with editors and publications

Simultaneous submissions are iffy. Editors don't want them because they don't want to go through the trouble of reading/evaluating something if it's already taken. Writers have a strong urge to send a single story or poem to to several markets simultaneously because of the long waits and the low chances that an editor will take something. It's frustrating. If you do this, and a story/poem gets taken while it's under consideration at other markets, be fair to the other editors and promptly send them a courteous letter notifying them that you must withdraw the submission from consideration.

Speaking from experience, it's really, really awkward when you get two acceptances at the same time for the same piece from different publications. You have your pick of where you'd like the story to appear (which is good) but if you mis-handle declining the offer from the editor of the less-preferred publication, you risk creating hard feelings that can haunt you in the future.

Don't try to resell published stories unless the market accepts reprints. If an editor buys a work and then finds out he/she's gotten a retread, he/she is gonna be pissed. This is a good way to burn a bridge and develop a bad reputation.

Editors do talk and compare notes, particularly if they're actively annoyed with a specific writer. And editors have a way of moving up in the world and turning up where you least expect at conventions and such. Today's bush-league zine editor might be tomorrow's acquiring editor at the major book publisher you try to sell your first novel to.

Don't plagiarize. I probably don't need to say this, but if you plagiarize someone else's work, you're gonna get found out, and once you're found out, you are done.

Don't resend rejected stories unless you've rewritten them significantly. Generally don't resend rewritten stories unless the editor has asked to see a rewrite or if it's been a while between submissions (I'd say at least two years, unless there's a new editor or 1st reader). Some editors have long memories, and if they recognize the same submission under a different title, they'll almost certainly reject it and they might view future submissions from you with suspicion.

 

Step 4: Be patient ... and be professional

Once you've sent a submission, wait at least two months before querying unless the editor has indicated shorter response times are normal. If you get no response, query again after another two months. If you still get no response, send a third query indicating that the editor should consider the story withdrawn if you receive no reply.

Dammit! They rejected my submission!

If an editor rejects your work via email, don't hit the "reply" button unless you're going to thank them for their time and offer them a new submission.

Don't ever send a publisher a nasty letter, unless you're sure you'll never have to deal with the editor again (and in most cases, you can't be sure). Particularly don't send them something like "Neener, neener X Magazine already bought my story, idiot!" So what if your story sells to another publication? Magazines aren't interchangeable -- what is publishable one place is not necessarily publishable elsewhere. And you've just demostrated a lack of good grace and sense. Likewise, don't demand an explanation if none was given, unless you really want the editor to really give you a piece of his/her mind.

Yay! They bought it, they bought it!

By all means, celebrate. No sale will ever be quite so cool as your first one.

If there's money involved, make sure you've got a signed contract, and make sure you understand the terms of the contract. Know what rights you've sold and retained. Be sure you understand exclusivity clauses, etc.

However, don't constantly send queries as to when your work will be published or posted. And, once a story is posted, don't deluge an editor with requests for corrections/changes unless the errors were introduced by the publications' staff.

Don't ever, ever start shopping an accepted story around just because you feel it's taking too long to be published. In the print world, it is not uncommon for a backlogged publisher to take two years to publish a story or poem. In the Web world, six to eight months lag time between acceptance and publication is not uncommon, nor is it unreasonable. If you think a publication has gone down, query the editor. If a message bounces, wait a week and send again. If you have a signed contract or otherwise have made an agreement with an editor, then resell the story out from under him or her, you've burned a bridge.

 

Step 5: What to Do If Things Go Wrong

As Neil Gaiman said, there's many a slip 'twix cup and lip in the publishing world, particularly if you're dealing with the small press or semiprofessional publications.

Sometimes, you can have a signed contract and never get published because the magazine runs into financial problems and ceases publication. In some cases, you should get a kill fee for your orphaned story. If you think a publication is going or has gone under, follow the querying advice I gave above. If after the third query you get no satisfactory reply, you can safely consider your story to be freed of the contract and ready to submit elsewhere.

Sometimes, your story gets published ... and you don't get paid. This will happen to you, sooner or later. If polite communication with the publisher does not remedy the situation to your satisfaction, you may need to see legal counsel. I don't recommend calling a private lawyer over a $30 or $50 sale -- it's the better part of valor just to write small unpaid sales off your taxes (if you live in the U.S.) and chalk it up to experience. Instead, what you should always do is to contact relevant writers' organizations to lodge a complaint -- organizations like Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and Horror Writers Association can be very helpful to authors who run into trouble with publishers. Sites like the Rumor Mill at http://www.speculations.com/ and Preditors and Editors at http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/ are also useful.

Whatever you do, if you think you've been screwed by an unscrupulous publisher, don't stoop to their level. What I mean by this is, don't go around on web boards and newsgroups slagging the publisher in public. Namecalling and vicious language can easily backfire and make you look like a troublemaker that other editors don't want to deal with. Speak the truth, but do so as politely and professionally as you can.

Publication and writing success are not the same thing.

Many people equate getting their work published with instant success. It is a barrier that takes dedication and a lot of effort to break. However, more published writers drift into oblivion than reach the pinnacle of the profession. A novel, a short story, or even poetry may make it into print and quickly become forgotten. Your next work should be in progress before the first hits the market, because at some point you must decide what your writing focus is. If you desire to become a full time writer, then you must learn it is a professional business like any other. If you simply wish to write for your self as an expression of the artist within, then publication is not for you. Publication does not make you a writer, ability does. Publication makes you a "professional writer."

The standardized advice given by writer's groups and publications such as Writer's Market will give you the basics about approaching editors, publishers and agents with professionalism. This is important, but it is only the skin of the potato. Manuscript formatting, cover letter ingredients and proper mailing procedures are readily available at any website geared towards writers. Organizations specializing in "helping aspiring writers get published" are everywhere. Most of them regurgitate information that has been known for years and serve as a way for the leaders of the organization (usually a writer or writers) to augment his or her income by charging writers a membership fee to listen to them prattle on about how to go about things. What you need to know is how to get past this mutual masturbation and how to get your delightful and beautifully written work onto the shelf at your local bookstore.

Today's publishing market is tougher than it ever has been for first time writers. Why? Years ago one had to undergo the painstaking effort of sitting behind a typewriter and putting together a first draft of a novel or story, editing with the old red pen and typing a new draft. You continued to draft until you had something you felt worthy of submission. Not everyone had the patience or stamina for that. These days, anyone with a computer who knows how to spell and thinks they have a good idea fancies themselves a writer. As a result, publishers are flooded with manuscripts and the slush pile has grown to impossible proportions. Adhering to professional guidelines becomes more important, as nothing will reach an editor's desk unless all submission criteria has been met. Information about submission guidelines is so easily available and well known that many aspiring writers are now able to get past that first gate. What is someone with legitimate talent and ability to do?

The best work may often go unread or read only by a moody editor's assistant. Unsolicited submission is a roll of the dice. For a writer looking to get their first published piece, small markets, especially non-paying ones are the best bet. If you foolishly cling to the idea that your first novel is an instant best seller, go back to the drawing board. Instant glamour, fame and huge paychecks are not hanging from a tree waiting to be picked. If you think writing is an easy road to millions, here is a bit of advice, winning the lottery is much easier.

Learn to promote yourself.

Like most fields in the entertainment industry, self-promotion and networking is a key to success. Writing has become part of the entertainment industry and much less an issue of literary perfection. Small publications, literary markets and other avenues still exist, but they are financially strapped. You may be able to get your work in print through these avenues, but if becoming a full time writer is your goal, or if you want to start earning an income from your writing, you will have to face a difficult realization. As good as your work might be, if there is no market for it, no one will publish it. Therefore, you have to aim your work for a market even though the market may change by the time your work is ready for publication. Frustration is normal. Enjoy it.

In the industry they will ask you (1) What market is this work aimed towards? (2) What successful published works is it comparable to? (3) Why should we publish this and how is publishing it going to benefit us?

These are the questions you will be asked, in one form or another, by an agent or editor. Be ready to answer all questions to their satisfaction. The important thing to remember is that you must sell both yourself and your work. This is a package deal, and it is foolish to believe you can present a manuscript that is tuned to perfection and then go home and hide in the refrigerator. Develop a thick skin. Accept rejection and criticism as a way of life and a way to learn. Whiners, nags and defensive people are hated in the publishing industry and no matter how good their work might be, their work may go unpublished or unpromoted because no one wants to deal with them.

Shouldn't my work speak for itself?

The simple answer is "yes." The more honest answer is, "don't count on it."

How do you find someone willing to publish or promote your work?

  • By demonstrating that you are easy to work with and are very able and eager to produce what they are looking for.
  • Expose your work as much as possible in every available venue. Be incredibly prolific. Don't cling to one manuscript or one style. Write constantly and write about everything.
  • Find ways to meet and relate to people in the industry and casually mention that you have something you are working on. Enter contests, attend conventions, show up at book signings, meet and network through every imaginable venue. You never know who you might meet so get yourself out there. When your work comes across someone's desk, make sure it stands above a standard blind unsolicited submission.
  • Carefully select times to name drop. "Yes, I was talking to Lois Christiansen the other day and she mentioned your name." Be honest when you do it. They will see through your bullshitting, even though they expect a certain percentage of bullshit.
  • Establish a strong rapport so that they become interested and they tell you that they would like to take a look at your manuscript or samples of your work sometime.
  • Learn everything you can about the clients an agent represents or the writers who are the cash cows of a publisher. Look for trends in the material and gear your promotion towards those trends. Does their catalog seem to have a large proportion of strong female lead characters? Steer talk about your work towards the strong female lead in your work, and if there isn't one, rework your novel so there is. This is not selling out, this is adapting your work for publication.
  • Most importantly: Be willing to change your work to meet their needs. If you are unwilling to change your work to meet the wants and needs of the editors there is no debate, just a simple "We're sorry, this does not meet our needs at this time." If your work is too sacred to change, keep it in a desk drawer for yourself where you can enjoy it always. If you are looking to get published, learn to accept that what eventually comes out in print will be much different than what you originally typed out on paper. The problem most writers have when it comes to publication is an inability to change and adapt. By showing that you are willing to take direction and work with agents, editors and publishers on their own turf you will have taken the biggest step towards the world of publication.

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