Publishing Success for Writers: Studying the Markets
Once you've written a few stories, and your family and friends have told you they're wonderful, you'll want to send them out into the world to see how they fare. Are you writing short stories that would fit best in magazines? Children's picture books? Chapter books for middle grade readers? All of the above? There is no rule that says you should start with any particular format or age group. Whatever you are doing, though, study as many published examples in your target format as you can. Get a copy of the magazine or publisher's submission guidelines. These can usually be found online, though they may take a bit of hunting to find. Try the "Contact Us" link, or type "submissions" in the search box if there is one. If you can't find guidelines, there should be an e-mail address for general questions, and you can send an e-mail asking where the guidelines are.
Study each publication's guidelines, paying particular attention to any word count limits. If a magazine wants stories of no more than 800 words, then you won't want to bother sending a 1,200 word story.
If you have a particular magazine in mind, look at as many copies as you can get your hands on. You may also find some sample stories at the magazine's website. Count the words in each story even if you have read the guidelines. You may find that the average story is significantly shorter than the limit specified in the guidelines. Make a list of the problems characters are facing in the stories you read, and choose stories of your own that have similar subject matter, or write your own stories with a target publication in mind. Study the writing styles of the authors who are published in the magazine's pages. Do some typeovers to get these authors styles in your own fingers. Also, study the "Letters to the Editor" section. Some magazines print reader letters asking for advice. If a child writes in asking what to do about a situation at school, you might write a story that covers this situation. You will have the advantage of knowing that your story deals with a subject that is on the minds of the magazine's readers and editors.
The average children's picture book is 32 pages long, due to the way books are printed and bound. Eight large sheets of paper are folded four ways each and bound together. While your children's book could be a page or two less than 32 pages (the publisher can leave a page or two blank), publishing a 33 page book might require re-tooling of the entire printing plant. Note the number of pages in the books you are studying. Also note the average number of words per page and words per sentence. Although you don't need to illustrate your own books (unless you happen to be a professional illustrator), note the ways the words and pictures work together to create the story. Make notes on the some of the aspects of each story you read. What kinds of situations are described? Are the main characters children? Animals? How many characters are found in a given story? Also, note the different publishers who produced your target books. Can you find any trends in the various books a particular publisher puts out? If so, you will have clues on which publisher might be most receptive to reading your own story.
If your interests run toward longer books for older readers, study several of these in the same way. Note the number of words per chapter and in the entire book. You can estimate the word count of a longer work first by counting the number of words in each of several lines of text and then dividing by the number of lines you've counted to produce an average line length. Then count the number of lines per page, and the number of pages in the book. Multiply the average line length by the number of lines per page by the number of pages and you'll have an idea how long a book is.
Study your publisher's guidelines for any particular formatting specifics they may request. In general, manuscripts are double spaced, and typed in Courier or Times New Roman fonts. Short stories begin halfway down the first page, with the story's title centered, and the author's byline centered beneath it. Longer books generally have a title page, and the story begins on page two. The first page should include a header listing your name, address, e-mail, phone number, and a word count. If the target magazine prints both fiction and nonfiction, specify that your manuscript is fiction. The header of each following page should include your last name and the story's title, along with a page number. If the pages get jumbled, the editor will be able to get them back in order if necessary. There are several online resources describing standard manuscript format.
While your word processing software can give you an exact word count for your story, this is not necessarily the word count you want to use. Your target may request an exact word count, and then you should use it by all means. Otherwise, estimate your word count by counting the number of double-spaced pages and estimating 250 words per page. The reason for this is that dialog often takes up more space, since a new line begins as each character speaks. A story with a lot of dialog will take up more space than one with less. The magazine you're writing for is limited by the space on its pages. Your word count estimate will tell the editor how much space your story needs rather than exactly how many words it has. In your header, note your approximate word count by saying "about 1,000 words (or whatever approximate length you have determined)."
The best way to gear your work toward a given reading level is to study published stories and emulate their styles. You will be surprised at how sophisticated some children's writing can be. Most word processing programs have a tool to analyze the grade level of a particular piece of writing. Type "grade level" in your program's search box to find it if you haven't used it before. This tool can be useful in highlighting words you have used that might not be appropriate for younger readers, but it is by no means the final word. Markets with very strict word lists, such as publishers of easy readers, will often have word lists available by grade level, and if you are working with these publishers they should give you access to these lists.
Your submission guidelines will tell you whether a market prefers e-mail or postal submissions. Many of the larger publishers only accept unsolicited manuscripts via snail mail. Many of the smaller presses only accept e-mail submissions. The guidelines will also tell you whether it is permissible to submit simultaneously, meaning sending your manuscript to several markets at once. Follow the guidelines, as failure to do so usually results in your manuscript being ignored.
Include a brief cover letter with each story you submit. Make an effort to find the name of the editor who will be reviewing the manuscript, and address your letter to this editor if possible. If you're not sure, address the letter to the editor in chief. It is always preferable to address your letter to someone by name than to write "Dear Sir/Madam" or something equally generic. In your letter, note the name of the story, and that you are submitting it for consideration. If you have any relevant prior publishing credits, list these to let the editor know you have had some success. Include relevant groups you belong to, such as the S.C.B.W.I. Do not describe your story's plot in a magazine submission. Let the story speak for itself. For a longer book, a synopsis may be in order. Study the guidelines to find out. Above all, though, keep your letter brief. Its main purpose is to let the recipient know you are sending this manuscript to a person rather than a faceless company, and you are greeting this person by name. Cover letters for e-mail submissions that mention the target publication by name let its editors know that you are not sending out twenty blind carbon copies to twenty different magazines. They want to know that you have studied their publication and only submitted something that at least attempts to fit with their needs.
If you want to receive a reply from an editor you have submitted to by snail mail, it's up to you to provide the envelope and postage. This is known as a SASE, or "self-addressed, stamped envelope." In the days before computers and photocopiers when each submission had to be typed by hand, writers sent along large envelopes and enough postage to have the entire manuscript sent back if it was rejected. The same copy of a returned story would go out to a different market. After a story was rejected by a few different editors, it began to look dog-eared or even coffee stained, and the next editor to receive it would immediately know it had been around the block a few times. Nowadays it is more common to include the words "disposable manuscript" in your header, and send a stamped #10 envelope (standard business size) with your submission. Your editor can then reply to you without sending the entire manuscript back. This method will save you a lot of money in postage over time. Though it uses more paper if you submit several times, the paper can be recycled.
It can often take a long time to receive a response when you submit a story for publication. It's not uncommon to wait three months or more. If you have several stories submitted, it can be difficult to remember which one was sent where and when you sent it. Start a log for submissions on your computer or in a notebook. It can be a spreadsheet or simply a list of your stories, where you sent them, and what their current status is. Some markets' submission guidelines will encourage you to follow up if you haven't had a reply in a certain period of time. With a submission log, you won't have to guess at whether it's appropriate to follow up. You'll have the exact date you sent the manuscript and can follow up as needed.
The Waiting Game
If you want to publish your work, patience is more than a virtue. It's a necessity. You might wait a long time to hear back from an editor
Don't Give Up
Writers are a little bit like major league baseball players at bat. The best hitters in baseball have .300 batting averages, give or take a few points. This means that they are likely to hit safely about three out of ten times. They are twice as likely to strike out, hit a fly ball or hit into a double play as they are to get on base. As a new writer, your average will likely be worse than this. Even after you have had some success with your work, some of it will still be rejected. Learning to live with rejection is another essential skill you will need to succeed as a writer. As Jerry Cleaver said in Immediate Fiction, "A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit."
Why Editors Reject
Receiving a rejection does not mean there is anything wrong with your story. One of the chief reasons editors reject stories is the sheer volume of submissions they receive. Judy Burke, managing editor of Highlights for Children, reports that her magazine receives upwards of 600 fiction submissions per month, while the magazine only has space for two or three short stories per month. This means that 597 stories have to be rejected per month, no matter how good they are. As much as magazine editors want to read every story they receive, they simply don't have time. They might glance at the lead, or they might not have a chance to read your story at all.
If an editor does take a look at your story, there are plenty of reasons he will reject it that have nothing to do with its quality. He may have just run a story that is too similar to yours. He may be looking for a particular theme for the next issue and your story doesn't fit. He may just be having a bad day. Editors are people too, after all. If an editor does reject your work, he probably won't have time to tell you why either. Don't assume a rejection is a comment on your work. Try submitting the story to someone else. If you receive several rejections for a story, you might consider revising it. You also might see that your writing has improved since you first wrote this story and decide to retire it and submit your more recent work.
Say Thank You
It's a great idea to send your editor a thank you note when she rejects a piece of your writing. It may seem like the last thing you would want to do, but here's why it can be a boon to your writing career: it is a form of free advertising. Sending your editor a thank you note gives you an excuse to put your name in front of her. The next time she sees your name on a manuscript, she may find your name familiar (though she may not remember why) and give your work a closer reading than she might have otherwise. Sending thank you notes also lets editors know you have a professional attitude. It shows that you understand their jobs and you know that their rejection is not a personal attack on you. Writing thank you notes is also great for your own attitude. Instead of stewing over your rejection, pull out a thank you note and send a quick note to this editor. Doing this will help you remember that rejection is part of the publishing process, and you are not going to let it discourage you. It is also nice to be the one to have the last word when an editor sends you a rejection.
The Rejection-Proof Writer
The rejection-proof writer seeks safety in numbers. Write and submit a lot of stories. When one is rejected, you'll have the comfort of knowing you have several more out there that still have a chance of being accepted. As you keep reading and writing, your work will improve, and your chance of success will go up. Think of the .300 batter in baseball again. If he has one at bat in an entire season, chances are he'll strike out. If he bats a hundred times, though, he'll probably get on base thirty times, and chances are he'll score a few runs.
Remember that you are not your work. If you are a new writer, your writing may really need work before an editor can accept it, but this is no reflection on you. You may be a wonderful person, a great parent, a skilled professional in some other field. Writing is only one thing that you do. Don't make a rejection a commentary on your worth as a person.
Be a Pro (Even if You Aren't)
Even if you haven't made a dime yet as a writer, it's never too early to adopt a professional attitude. Sending thank you notes is one excellent way to demonstrate professionalism. Once you are lucky (or skilled enough) to hear personally from an editor, be the kind of writer that an editor will be eager to work with. If an editor sends a story back suggesting a rewrite, immediately send a thank you note, rewrite the piece in accordance with their suggestions, and submit it again. Even if you aren't sure the editor's suggestions will make your story better, give it a try. This editor may have more experience than you about what is likely to work for his readers.
There are stories out there about prima donna writers who have gone to war with their publishers over the wording of a single line. Famous authors may have the clout to exercise more control over the editing of their work than a new author will. Sometimes young writers hear these stories and mistakenly think that this is how a writer should act. Your best course of action is to give your editor the benefit of the doubt when it comes to constructive criticism and the editing of your work. An unpublished prima donna is an editor's worst nightmare.
If an editor suggests a change that you truly feel will destroy the integrity of your piece, then by all means say something. If an editor wants you to cut a scene or delete a character and after careful thought you cannot agree; if you would rather see the piece rejected than rewrite it to this editor's specs, then by all means stand your ground. You may be right and your editor may choose to go along with you. The key is to pick your battles. Avoid quibbling over a word or two and save your arguments for big changes that you feel are unacceptable.
Rights and the Writer
When you write a story and fix it in a permanent medium (a paper manuscript, a computer file, or even an audio CD of the story being read) you own it's copyright. It is not necessary to register your copyright with the Library of Congress in order to claim it. Registering a work is merely a form of protection should someone ever try to infringe on your work. The copyright owner of a work controls who can copy and distribute this work and how long. When an editor offers to buy a story of yours for publication, she is offering to purchase the right to copy your work to some degree. There are a variety of different rights which can be sold. Some publishers buy all rights, meaning that they will control distribution of this work permanently. Others buy first serial rights, meaning they have the right to be the first to publish your work, but after a certain period of time the right to reprint it will revert back to you.
As a new writer, it is best to consider accepting whatever terms a publisher might offer a publisher might offer as a way of getting your work into print. Having publishing credits to your name is a great resume builder. Rather than worrying about whether a particular agreement will help you or hurt you financially over the long term, consider accepting it and seeing your work in print. When you are a veteran writer with lots of credits, feel free to be choosier about what rights you accept. It is better to see writing as a lifelong career than it is to try to maximize the financial return on every word you write. If you sell all the rights to a major publication, they may make a lot more money on your work than they pay you, but your byline in a major publication will probably net you far more work (and money) in the long run as well.
When you tell people, especially non-writers, that you write children's stories, you will inevitably get "the question." The question is some variation of: "Oh, so you're a writer. Have you published anything?" The implication is that if you are really a writer than of course you will be published. You of course know that this is not strictly true. You have to be a real writer before you can get published, but don't bother trying to explain this to whoever is asking the question.
If you have published a story, even one, then this question is easy. The answer is yes. If you haven't published yet, it's important to have an answer ready for this question. Something positive like "no, but I'm confident that I will be" works fine. Something honest like "not yet. I'm still learning the craft" should work as well. It doesn't matter what you say, but having an answer prepared will help you keep from hemming and hawing or becoming defensive. Don't let someone else convince you that you aren't a real writer when they probably don't know the first thing about the publishing world.
If you have published, the next question will be "where?" If the market you have sold to is small or obscure, don't be embarrassed. The person asking you has no idea how stiff the competition is even for small, obscure markets. Proudly tell them the name of the publication, give them the website address, and move on. Better yet, you can imply that you're surprised they haven't heard of this market themselves. Many people have an unfortunate tendency to want to knock other people down to size. They are society's version of the inner critic we talked about earlier. Since they aren't doing anything to chase their dreams, they are suspicious of anyone else who is chasing a dream. Just like you need to silence your own critic to do creative work, you need to silence society's critics as well. A pat answer that makes it clear you are not afraid or embarrassed by their questions is usually enough to end the matter.
There is far more you can do to further your career as a children's writer than simply sending stories to magazines or book publishers through the mail. Don't forget about the people you know and your own community. Once you have a few stories to show, let everyone know you write for children. Offer copies of your work to parents you know. Be armed with answers to "the question" to guard against the negative people you'll meet. Offer to read your work at a local school or library. You might start by offering to read other people's published books in a regular story hour. Once you've developed a regular audience, you might approach the librarian or teacher you're working with about reading your own story to the kids. If you have written a picture book, find a way to get some illustrations. You might connect with a budding illustrator who would be willing to illustrate your work then use the product as a sample for her portfolio. You can also have your kids do some illustrations, or invite the children in your story hour to contribute pictures for the book. Children who are accustomed to thinking that books are impersonal objects in libraries will be fascinated not only to find that they can meet real live authors, but better yet, they can even help to illustrate stories for themselves.
You can share your work with a wider community by building a website. Include a picture of yourself, a list of your publication credits, if any, a short bio, and post a few of your stories online for others to read. There are plenty of low-cost webhosting providers, and designing a basic website is not much more challenging than using your computer to write a story.
If you do publish a story on your website, be aware that it is unlikely that a magazine will publish it, since it is widely available for free. You'll have to write more stories to submit to magazines. But don't let this deter you from putting a few stories on line. You stand to gain a lot more in readership than you stand to lose financially (by missing out on the money these stories might have earned if they were bought by magazines).
Self-publishing is now a far more affordable option than it ever was before. With P.O.D. (print on demand) technology, you can design and publish your own book, and print only as many copies as you need. There are some setup costs involved and the cost per unit is higher than if you were to hire a conventional printer to produce a thousand copies of a book, so this approach is not without expense. Producing and marketing your own book is a huge job that requires publicity and management skills that go far beyond simply being a writer. But with P.O.D. you might elect to print a small number of books to sell locally or distribute as demos of your work. What if the next time someone asked you if you were published, you said "yes," and then pulled out a copy of your book for them to look at?
The self-publishing route is something all modern authors should consider, but a thorough treatment of it is far beyond the scope of thisarticle. While there are a number of resources on the web that discuss self-publishing, many of them are sponsored by companies who want to talk you into publishing with them.
Do it for Love
Writing stories for children is not a quick path to riches and glory. The work is solitary, the competition is stiff, and the pay (if you're lucky enough to get paid) may not seem like much when you consider the work you put in. But there are few more challenging and rewarding paths the aspiring writer can take. The chance to ignite a child's imagination, the opportunity to help a new reader enjoy reading, the ability to teach children while entertaining them, these are rewards that will mean more to you than all the money or fame your work could produce. Children are the future of this world, and who knows? One day a child could grow up to change the future for the better, and that child could be one who grew up inspired by stories that you wrote. Enjoy what you're doing, and keep at it. When all is said and done, the rewards may be more than you ever could have dreamed.
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