by Phil Geusz
©2005 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
This article is the fifth (and last) in a series of five dealing with the Five 'C's of writing:
Conception, Composition, Critiquing, Completion and Commercialization
I can't say that I feel particularly good about writing a column on this particular topic. In my own opinion, I'm not a particularly successful writer in terms of marketing. I've sold two novels to a small-press outfit for very little money, have sold perhaps a half-dozen short stories to various e-zines, and have seen about as many again published on paper for free. Additionally, I dabbled in e-publishing for a while, and sold perhaps a dozen copies of various novels. This level of success hardly makes me an authority worth listening to, in my own opinion. However, Commercialization is in my own opinion the final stage of the writing process, and therefore for the sake of completeness I'll do my best to describe the process.
Just be advised in advance that I'm not claiming to be particularly good at it.
The first step in the Commercialization process is perhaps the most difficult. Because selling a story is a lot of work, a writer must first make an honest appraisal of his own product and decide if it's good enough to be worth the effort. Selling a story takes a huge investment of time and even money; most publishers (especially first-line ones) require paper printouts of all submissions, and printouts are not free. Nor is postage. Nor, in today's overly-busy world, is time to go to the post office and mail submission after submission. When your submission finally arrives on the editor's desk, it will find itself residing among dozens of other similar submissions from dozens of other hopeful authors, many of whom will have talents equal to or superior to your own. It does not pay to submit work that is second-rate in any way; all edits must be complete, all t's crossed and i's dotted. Even with a truly excellent story to market, the odds against a new writer are at least twenty-five to one against publication. It does not pay either financially or in terms of time wasted to submit anything but the very finest work to an editor. This is doubly true of a first-rate publishing house.
That said, another issue that needs to be dealt with here are the finances of the writing industry as a whole. I am privileged to know a professional writer personally. She once pointed out to me that many experts believe that there are fewer pro fiction writers in the USA today than there are pro baseball players. There are many reasons for this, but the most important for the sake of this column is that it's so darned hard to make a worthwhile profit selling stories today. Demand is down due to the general drop in interest in reading in our society, while the Internet offers an unlimited supply of free, unpaid competition to what few readers are left. While individual authors with massive audiences (e.g., Stephen King) can and do become rich writing fiction, it remains virtually impossible for anyone else to scratch out a living. To put things in perspective, as stated above I've sold two novels and a small number of shorts to small markets. My total combined income from these sales is less than five hundred dollars. This is after an outlay of thousands of man-hours in writing and editing, literally wearing out numerous computers at over a thousand bucks a pop in the process, and spending hundreds more in printing costs and the like for submissions.
My writing may or may not be good art; that's for others to decide. But profitable it most certainly ain't.
So, going into the sales process you have to understand that you're not likely to become rich, and (assuming you've begun the process with the big-name magazines, as I would suggest if you do believe you've created something truly outstanding) the editor is not going to be particularly delighted to find your manuscript waiting on his desk when he arrives in the morning. Most likely his magazine/publishing house is either barely making a profit or else is being run at a loss for the sheer love of the written word, and the editor you so hope to impress is most likely financially worse off than you are. (Certainly, his job security is almost nil, simply because of the troubled industry he works in.) Given this dark financial environment, it becomes obvious that it's going to take something very special indeed to make this individual smile upon your manuscript and bestow a precious check upon you; I ought to know, having been rejected by the 'major' publications a good thirty times at the very least without ever getting back anything more than an occasional encouraging word.
Things are a little better among the smaller publications, especially those who e-publish on the Internet. Pay is nothing or near to it, but frankly even the 'majors' offer little more these days. The editors are often part-timers who labor for love rather than for profit, and there is such a plethora of e-zines out there that the market is virtually unlimited. Very frequently these e-zines present only a very narrow, specialized brand of fiction; if you can find one that caters to your strengths as a writer, it often becomes possible to sell tale after tale. There are drawbacks, however, and anyone submitting to these markets should be well aware of them going in. First, once a story is e-published it almost totally loses its marketability to paper publishers. (There are exceptions; my proudest 'paper' sale to date involved a story that had been previously published on-line. But this is the exception; I was extraordinarily lucky.) E-zines are also notoriously low-paying. The relative pittance you receive, therefore, will probably be all the compensation you ever receive for so much heartache and hard work. Also, while some e-zines will buy rights to your work only for a short period of time (usually 2-3 months), others will put it up on display permanently, making further sales even more impossible still. Plus, an e-published author soon discovers that traditional paper-published writers tend to look down on them with an intensity that is difficult to credit until experienced; going into a writer's meeting and claiming to be e-published is about as likely to win a writer respect among established authors as bad breath. Thus, e-publishing credits in most cases do not further a new writer's career; rather, they serve as millstones around his neck. This may change in time -- I certainly hope so. In the meantime, however, it would be foolish to deny reality.
Submitting to e-zines is a judgment call, really. You'll have the pleasure of picking up a few readers, yes. Plus, you will score at least a small payment. However, the long-term benefits are questionable at best.
Fanzines form the 'lowest' market tier. They rarely pay, and usually are so short of submissions that they'll accept any kind of work that is at least coherent (and often much that is not). This should not be taken as a disparagement of fanzines; these words are appearing in an electronic version of one, and I've treasured my association with TSAT for many years now. Plus, my works have appeared in several others. Facts are facts, however, and paying publishers are well aware of them. Publishing in fanzines is fun, however, and can help a new (or even old) writer gain experience, exposure, and confidence. Fortunately, fanzines don't seem to attract the same scorn that paying e-zines do among the larger writing community, so long as the author does not get a big head and try to claim serious credit for having their work printed there. The only real downsides is that, again, work published on the Internet, even by a fanzine for no pay, becomes virtually unmarketable. This is especially true where the fanzine leaves these works up in perpetuity instead of taking the pages down after a few months. I've lost what I feel were several marketable tales to fanzines, mostly to TSAT. I don't regret it, however, as achieving paid sales and amassing publication credits are not my sole goals in life. I like having my stories out to be read, and enjoy working with the staff here. 'Nuff said.
There are more articles on submitting stories for publication out in net-land than you can shake a stick at, and more cautions on "proper" formatting than I'll ever read. These articles would lead you to believe that if you can manage to get everything packaged 'just so', you're sure to make a sale. In truth, the real secret to selling a story is quality. Sure, editors want a legible printout, and it's never wise to ignore a specific formatting request from any given market. However, several pro editors have assured me that all they really want is hard-copy that is easy to read. While some individual editors probably do throw stuff out if it's not double-spaced and the page-numbers are in the wrong corners, they are a tiny minority. Obey instructions, yes. Absolutely! But know going in that if you get rejected, formatting probably wasn't the reason why. After all, how stupid would an editor be to let a real bestseller slide by because the author used the wrong typeface? Keep in mind that editors are not teachers who will assign your work a passing or failing grade. They are commercial professionals, trying to make a buck like everyone else. Understanding the difference in attitude is crucial.
If there is a real secret to selling stories other than sheer quality, I'd have to say that it's knowing where to submit. Most authorities will point you to commercially-available "Writer's Market" guides, but personally I've found such publications to be totally useless. Instead, I depend on two resources, one being the Internet (especially the list of market links in Cubist's website for writers), and the Gila Queen Guide to Marketing. A well-known pro fantasy writer told me about the Queen, and most of my truly good sales have arisen from leads originating within the Queen's pages. Gila Queen's Guide to Markets is published every month or two, and is therefore far more up-to-date than any bookstore volume can ever be. Even better, the publisher has a remarkably good network of contacts within the industry. Each issue focuses on a different field of fiction on a yearly rotation, with "hot" updates on the entire industry every month. So, for example, it would not be unexpected to see a notice that Magazine X is in desperate need of a Science Fiction story set in San Antonio Texas for a special issue, while Magazine Y is sold out for the next three years and in no need of further story submissions for many months to come. The Queen is an amazingly useful resource, but does have its drawbacks. For one, it does not come cheap. Also, the publisher has been having a series of personal difficulties that have caused issues to be late and even her subscription list at one point to be lost entirely. (This cost me half a year's paid subscription fee, which I've gradually forgiven due to my sheer need for this publication.) Subscribe at your own risk, but keep in mind that I consider it an essential tool for the selling author.
Before submitting, it's also crucial to consider how a given story will fit into the intended market as a whole. For example, I have heard of many writers submitting furry stories to Analog. While Analog is perhaps the premier market for science fiction today, it tends to focus on very traditional 'hard' SF, as epitomized by the works of Clarke and Asimov. While I've seen (and even written) a couple of furry stories that just might be hard enough SF for Analog, they are damned few and far between. Submitting anything but totally science-based work to Analog is generally futile; they do publish some lighter stuff now and then, but their loyal readership is based on many years of doing what they do best. Trust me; they aren't likely to change. In fact, they'd be crazy to try. Submit your 'soft' SF and fantasy elsewhere, and save their time and your money.
The last thing I'd like to deal with here is rejection. Even here I fear I am no expert; I've been rejected far less than most writers as a percentage of submissions. (I credit this largely to the fact that I despise being rejected so much that I rarely submit anywhere that I feel will likely turn me down.) Expect going in that the natural product of your submission will be a rejection letter, and then you are less likely to be disappointed. For what it's worth, my novel Transmutation Now! holds the record among my works for number of rejections; it was rejected eight times before being bought recently for publication by Raccoon's Bookshelf. During this time, I received everything from remarkably positive praise (it went something like, "Sorry, Phil. Your writing looks promising, but this isn't our kind of thing. Send us some good, hard SF, and we'll talk again! In fact, we look forward to it.") to outright ridicule ("This incoherent work totally disparages Southerners; what kind of bigot are you?"). Most often, though, it got a plain, unadorned rejection slip. If you can't live with that, you're in the wrong business.
(It is also perhaps fitting to note in passing that the single most consistent rejection comment I've received is, usually almost verbatim, "We don't buy talking animal stories here." I've received that comment so many times that I've almost totally lost hope of ever selling anything furry to a major market. It seems that no matter how hard the science or how powerful the theme and plotline, furry stories are largely unacceptable to the mass market today solely and entirely on the basis of their being furry -- in many cases, it was clear from the subsequent comments that the editor had read no more than two pages! I deliberately failed to introduce furry characters into my novel Resisting Arrest for about one hundred pages for this very reason. So far, the publishers I've submitted it to have held onto it far longer than any of my other works without getting back to me than any other novel I've submitted. Wish me luck!)
The last key to getting published, in my view, is sheer bull-headed stubbornness. It took me eight years or so to sell Transmutation Now!, and it was a long, hard ride. It's getting harder and harder to sell fiction every year, not easier.
May your road be easier than mine has been so far.