by Phil Geusz
©2000 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
OK, so you're a wanna-be author. You've posted to the TSA-Talk list a few times, and maybe another mailing list as well. And you've gotten good feedback. Maybe even excellent feedback. And you wonder if maybe it's time to try and make the biggest leap of all, that of finding someone willing to pay for your work. It should be easy, right? After all, your stuff is good!
Oh, would that it were truly so simple! Would that the Universe were so cooperative! For a thousand roadblocks lie ahead of ye. But the rewards are high and the challenge exciting for those who would rise to meet it. And besides, it's the only game in town.
Perhaps the first thing a prospective author must learn about is the law of supply and demand. There have always been far more manuscripts circulating about than there have been paying venues to publish them in, and the onset of the Age of the Internet has made this condition worse, not better. (The advent of the PC has created far more new writers than it has new markets.) At a writer's workshop I recently attended, it was estimated by an award-winning editor that nineteen out of twenty short fiction manuscripts submitted to magazines are never sold. Most of the writers in the room found this estimate to be overly optimistic. Even worse, publishers are making little if any money these days, magazine sales are moribund, and publishers are becoming extremely conservative as a direct result. One editor noted that he knew of a writer who won the Hugo for best new writer a couple years back who was unable to get his next novel published on the grounds that it was too risky. He ended up being forced to self-publish despite the fact that (according to this same editor) the new novel was in fact quite good.
If you are truly bound and determined to be a writer, this should not faze you in the slightest. Rather than depressing you, it should spur you on to achieve such a high standard of excellence that your work will stand out from the pack, that it will easily survive a mere one-in-twenty challenge. In my personal experience, any lower level of confidence will sink you before you begin.
Let's assume you've produced a nice little story. You've spell-checked it, of course, edited it at least five times (that being my own minimum number) and had it beta-read by either a friend whose ability you respect or a group such as the TFWF (http://www.integral.org/mailman/listinfo/tfwf) or some other writer's group. In other words, you've sweated bullets to make the story as perfect as you possibly can (and nothing less will get you where you want to be). What's next?
First, you need to find a market for your story. This is not as easy as it seems. Sure, you can simply submit it to magazines you know and love, and this sometimes even works. But the hard reality is that you are an "unknown" writer (or you would not be reading this) and usually well-established magazines will not be particularly interested in what you have to offer. So it is usually a far better idea to buy a "market guide."
There are many varieties of market guide. The larger bookstores usually carry a whole slew of them, and they look like a great investment. But once you've bought a couple, you begin to realize that they are of little benefit to an unknown writer, as they only tend to cover the larger magazines and publishers. The folks you are interested in are usually not listed.
Which leaves the cheaper periodic market guides, such as my own personal favorite. The Gila Queen Guide To Markets (http://www.gilaqueen.com/) has led directly or indirectly to every last scrap of publishing success I've enjoyed, with the single exception of the e-publication of my novel. In a publication like Gila Queen you can find the small markets, the folks who will only pay you $25-$50 for a story but who at least will actually buy your stuff. And once you've sold to them a few times, you can begin to grow into the "Big Leagues". (Or at least I certainly hope so, not having been able to manage this feat myself yet.)
One thing that some writing seminars stress is the need to plow on regardless of rejection slips and to not let rejection get you down. The average novel, I was told, garners ten rejection slips before being published -- and that figure does not count those which are never published. It took three years for me to get Transmutation Now! published, it took me two and a half years to get Kaiten!! published, and <gulp> it took me about 48 hours to get Spirit Path published. Frankly, a lot of it is luck, I sincerely believe.
But a lot of it is also sheer persistence.
Another way to improve your odds (one which I have so far been unable to avail myself of) is to target fiction to a specific market. If Pet Leech Monthly wants a transformation story about a little girl trading places with her companion leech, for example, they will likely post this information in Gila Queen. An enterprising writer can then write exactly what the editor of Leech Monthly wants, even down to word count. (Suggested title: So Sorry, Sucker!) A lot of stories get sold in exactly this way, but alas! I do not seem to have the talent to do this.
It used to be that your manuscript had to meet exacting standards as to format and layout. However, the advent of electronic communications is changing much of this. But be advised that many of the top editors still see computers as "the enemy". They insist on a paper manuscript they can write on with a low-tech blue pencil, typed in twelve-point Courier font, double-spaced and in so-called "standard format". But other buyers want entirely different formats these days, and I've found myself keeping stories in as many as three different formats in order to try and sell them to editors with varying tastes.
And I've never sold one in "standard format" yet.
Gaining publication credits is also of major importance in getting published. (It's sort of like job experience -- you have to have it to get it.) One good way of gaining credits is to submit work to "fanzines" such as this very one, the TSAT. I'm sure Jeff would be glad to see more submissions, unlike most editors.
Let me close this column with one last anecdote. At the last writer's seminar I attended, the award-winning editor mentioned above told us what he wanted to see on his desk. Format didn't matter, he explained, so long as it was complete and legible. But what he wanted was this: When he sat down to read the "slush pile" (which is the term used for unsolicited manuscripts, like the ones you and I send in) he is usually irritated and bothered. It's only rarely that he finds a buyable there, after all, and reading it all is a ton of work which he cannot delegate. So he has his mind on a thousand things -- his uncomfortable seat, his family, his lunch, his tight shoes. And, irritated, he taps a pencil on the desk as he reads.
What he is looking for is a story so powerful that it will make his pencil stop tapping. That's all.
So that's what we who want to sell are after; a work powerful enough to stop that pencil. Do it, and someone will buy your work! After all, they bought mine, which is far from perfect...
PS: And never, ever forget that Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the most-published authors in history, was getting rejection slips right up until the day he died.