Being A Professional, The Traditional Way

Who Stole The Mouse's Cookie might be a riveting "true crime" but that's not what the publishers mean by "True Crime Stories."

Who Stole The Mouse’s Cookie might be a riveting “true crime” but that’s not what the publishers mean by “True Crime Stories.”

Selling your Writing in Thirteen Weeks: Week 3

Check out Sarah Hoyt’s previous entries in her new ongoing series chronicling the collision of new media publishing’s possibilities and the opportunities that still remain in traditional publishing:

Introduction, October 5: Payment Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Week 1, October 12: To Market, To Market With Words to Peddle…

Week 2, October 19: Reasons to Brave the Indie Publishing Jungle


Okay, so you want to try traditional publishing.  This is not a bad idea, if you’re writing short stories.  It’s also not a bad idea if you’re writing science fiction and fantasy novels and want to submit to Baen books.  For all else… well, I wouldn’t do it.  However, it’s your decision.  Just don’t say I told you to.

At any rate, whether you’re submitting short stories or novels, first make sure you’re sending them to the right place.

No, I don’t mean anything as silly as mailing – or emailing – your submission to the wrong address, though heaven knows if you’re sending out a lot of submissions sooner or later you’re going to do just that.  Sooner or later you’re also going to put the story in the wrong envelope.  That’s just one of those fun facts: if you’re human periodically you’re going to do something abysmally stupid, because you’re rushed, sick, or just not feeling yourself. That’s acceptable.  Even if this is a magazine and you have reason to think the editor is tracking you/keeping an hopeful eye on your submission – I’ll go into the reasons to believe that later – don’t imagine that a completely stupid mistake like that will be held against you.  Everyone knows periodically you will make a mistake. That’s fine.

What is not fine, though, is sending a children’s picture book, with hand-drawn pictures to a True Crime publisher.  (Not even if it’s a True Crime children’s picture book called If You Steal A Mouse’s Cookie.)  In the same way, it’s not acceptable to send nonfiction books on making money by flipping real estate to a science fiction publisher.  It’s not acceptable to send short stories to a book publisher and (except in certain circumstances, when the guidelines say they might serialize a novel) it’s not a good idea to send novels to a magazine.

So, first thing you do is you go to or to any other listing for the type of market you’re looking for (in the last resort the Writer’s Market book) and you look for markets that might be interested in your work. And, because this is now the internet, use your favorite search engine to look up the potential markets. Visit their sites, if they have them.

Make absolutely sure that you’re sending something this magazine/book publisher will buy.  Look, sometimes we all take desperate gambles.  If your short story is a little bit science fiction and a lot fantasy, and you’re out of fantasy markets, you might try a science fiction market.


Well, take me for instance.  I’ve told you that I made every possible mistake coming up, right?  Well, my idea was that if my story/book was good enough, people would buy it even if it was completely inappropriate.  Look, I was 22 and had been raised on the myth of the genius.

So I sent a horror short story to a fantasy magazine.  They sent me back a personal rejection and a free copy of their magazine, told me how much they loved my story, but that it was totally inappropriate.  Could I please read the magazine and try again?

Yes, I do realize I was incredibly stupid.  I was young, okay?

Yes, I do realize I was incredibly stupid. I was young, okay?

I was twenty two – before you’re tempted to beat me to death with a sock – and believed the whole genius myth thing.  So I thought the story must not be good enough or they’d have bought it anyway.

I never submitted to them again, and indeed didn’t write short stories again for six years.  Don’t do that.  That’s an abysmal piece of stupidity.

The first cut for any magazine or for that matter any book publisher, is whether the story fits their magazine or whether the book fits their line.

Yes, if you’re an established military fantasy (or science fiction) author with your own following, your publisher might – emphasis on might – publish your non-fiction war stories. The rules are different there.  They know any book by you will sell a certain number of copies. But if you’re someone off the street who sends a publisher a book of a type they don’t publish, the book will come back very fast.  They’re just not going to take the market risk.  They figure people buy their brand for a certain thing.  They don’t want to be surprised.

So, let’s say you’ve made sure you’re not sending your sex-robot book to a Christian Children’s Publisher.

This alone will lift you above a good twenty five percent of the submissions.

You’ll probably want to narrow it further by looking at the website and reading about the magazine (or reading a copy if you can get one.)

Yes, both vampires and elves are considered fantasy, and some markets will take both, but if you have a dedicated vampire market, don’t send them elves (unless your elves suck blood.)

Once you have that narrowed down to very few markets, look at the way they wish to get submissions. We’ll go with the short stories first.

Go to the magazine’s site, and look up how they wish you to submit. Some of these sites will have ways to submit on line, and some of them will have forms that you have to fill in.  Some will dictate what subject your email must have.  And some will tell you how to format the online submission.

Do it. Just follow their instructions to the letter. This is no time to get creative.

It’s entirely possible that their software only allows them to view submissions a certain way.  Even failing that, let me assure you it’s much easier for them to consider your short story if you’re not doing anything funny.

For instance, if you’re sending your short story via snail mail, don’t print it on linen paper, don’t use fancy envelopes, don’t stamp anything funny on your envelope.  For years, there was a woman sending submissions to the magazines with a stamp on the outside of the envelope saying “The Aliens Ate my Shorts.”  Not the most professional of images to project before someone even reads your story.

Interviewing for a position as an accountant in a tutu might make you memorable -- but not in a good way.

Interviewing for a position as an accountant in a tutu might make you memorable — but not in a good way.

Look, would you show up for a job interview as an accountant dressed in a ballet outfit with a tutu?  Sure it would make you memorable, but not in the way you want to be remembered.  You don’t want people saying “Well, and tutu guy, really – imagine what he might come to work in.  No.”

“But Sarah,” you’ll say.  “Something like linen paper is not crazy.  It just shows I care about my story.”

Um… no.  If you’re a working writer, you’re sending out dozens of these stories – particularly when you’re trying to first break in – and that means you can’t afford to print them all on linen paper.  Do that, and you’re saying, “this is the only story I’ve ever written and I’ve labored ten years over it.”

While there are writers who do that and create a perfect little masterpiece, the chances of editors finding a good, readable story are greater if dealing with an experienced, working writer.  Their working experience tells the editors that, probably at a level they never even thought about.  Fit in with the mass or working writers – don’t stand out in a bad way.

The linen paper thing is more like showing up for an interview for fry cook at a diner in a tuxedo.  Just not congruent with the job sought.

Okay, so you’ve done all that and sent your story out… and it got rejected.

If you’re the average beginner writer, your first impulse is to think all of it is wrong, and start revising.

Don’t do that.

There are many reasons for a story to be rejected and only a few of them are quality based.  Of course, should you have a huge spelling mistake on the first line, you should fix that.  (Worst possible of these: a writer once submitted a story to a magazine for which I was slush reading where in the very first line, instead of corpulent she’d written copulate.  I tried to read past the mistake, but it was hard to keep an impartial eye after that.  And most larger magazines would have rejected the story automatically.)  But other than that, resist the impulse to mess with the story.  The most likely reason the story got rejected is that it failed to rise far enough above the slush pile of that magazine on that given day.  Or the editor was looking for something particular for that remaining slot in next quarter’s issue, and your story didn’t fit his mental criteria: too long, too short, too blunt, too purple.  Or they’d just bought a story just like yours. (You wouldn’t believe how often that happens.)  Keep trying. Your luck might be different at another magazine.

My first published short story collected eighty rejections before it finally sold… at pro-rates.  If I’d revised it between each submission it might never have sold.  It would surely had got completely bent out of shape.

Sometimes success just means you kept trying.

Sometimes success just means you kept trying.

So, if you get a story back rejected, take a deep breath and send it off to the next market on your list.  If you run out of markets, either consider indie publishing, or shelve it against the day either a market opens up (true with that first story for me) or against the day someone does an anthology of your works.

But what if an editor tells you something specific is wrong with your story?  Like, your characters are flat?  Or your plot makes no sense?

Resist the urge to rewrite, unless the editor promises to take another look once you’ve done so.  (Even then, at least in my experience, it’s very rare to make a sale after revision.)  The editor is, in the end, just one reader.  In our critique groups we always had a rule of three: “unless three readers point at the exact same problem, don’t change anything.”  You never know, that character you take out because editor A told you it was weird might be the reason editor Z buys the story.

And if you’ve been submitting to the same set of magazines for a while, how do you know an editor is giving you particular attention?

We used to read these signs like tea leaves, and I caution against paying too much attention to things such as your manuscript being held longer.  There’s an ebb and flux in these things, and sometimes they just have more slush to get through.

The main sign that your stories have caught the editor’s attention is that you start getting personalized rejections.  After a while, these rejections might even start giving you specific tips “if you send me something smaller, I can probably buy it” say.  And if you can you should definitely accommodate the editor.

Part of this is that editors want to see that you’re going to be more than a one-hit-wonder.  They want to see more writing from you than the one short story.  If you’re consistently good and send out even a short a month, eventually you’ll catch their eye.  And if you’re close to selling to them, they’ll let you know.

Okay, so that’s short stories.  What about novels?

Novels are a completely different ball game.  For one very few book publishers keep a slush pile, anymore.  I know Baen does, and I’ve heard rumors about TOR and DAW, but since I’m not submitting in the open market I’m not a hundred percent sure.

You must learn patience!

You must learn patience!

Again, go to the book publisher, and see what they’re asking for.  If they have a slush pile, by all means submit to it.  Be aware that the wait is invariably long for these things.

If the publisher says they take only agented submissions, you have to punt back a level, find the agents that work in that field and start to submit to them.

In these days of internet research, research the agents before you submit to them. Remember, there’s no licensing process for agents in the US, and just saying you’re an agent makes you neither ethical nor moral, nor even in fact useful.

Again, follow the process for submission.  (I’m running out of a space here, so I’ll do an addendum later in the week on how to do proposals and queries, in case you don’t know how to do that.)

Again, don’t give up after the first rejection.

In fact, if you’re going traditional, remember these things take time, and there’s a process to follow.

Try to appear professional in all your contacts with agents and publisher, follow the instructions and always, always remember that money flows to the writer.  If any agent, publisher, anyone in the industry asks you to pay them for representation or to be published, or even for a critique (unless their business is specifically as a book doctor) run. You’re a professional and professionals get paid for their services. They do not pay for the privilege of being published. (Of course if you’re publishing indie you might need to pay for support services, but that’s something else.)

Under being professional, the list of things not to do is extensive, but it starts with “do not call the editor at home to yell at them for not having accepted your story yet.”  It does all the way to “do not withdraw your story because they haven’t answered within a week.”

All reply times in the industry are unconscionably long, and if you’re not sure if your story was received, after the maximum reply time has passed, a gentle query is permissible.

But other than that, if you’re going traditional, I recommend you possess your soul in patience, keep sending your stories out, and write the next story.  Very few writers become fabulously wealthy from one book and that I know of no one in the modern era has become fabulously wealthy from one short story.

And while you’re at it, why not try indie, too?  Why not keep a foot in both markets?

So, next week: Everything You Wanted To Know About Starting out Indie.  (This is likely to take a few weeks.  And I’ll do your quick addends on proposals and outlines and queries sometime later this week.)

All photos courtesy of Shutterstock
Suzanne Tucker
B Calkins