A Very Fundamental Introduction to Publishing
What I'm Doing Here
In this guide I'll give some basic information on how to go about getting short stories, poetry, nonfiction articles, and novel-length work published. I will certainly not be able to give you all the information you need, but these are things to keep in mind if you do gird you loins and venture into the writers' marketplace.
Who I Am
I am not (she says proudly) entirely without credentials to discuss publishing. I've been sending short stories to harried magazine editors since October 2007, mostly through the internet. I've had 80+ acceptances, including 9 to pro-paying markets (5 cents/word and up, a sort of unofficial cutoff line for You Done Good, Writer Person). I've also had a short book published with an Indie press, and have self-published a guidebook for new professional writers (see my profile for more information). This is stuff I do every day. And it can become second nature to you, too, with a little bit of work.
1. Short Stories and Poetry
These often go to the same markets, thus their being discussed together.
First, the most valuable two websites for short story writers and poets are Ralan's Market Listing (url: Ralan with a dot and then a com) and Duotrope. Ralan is a genre market listing, Duotrope is a search engine (there's another search engine specifically for science fiction and fantasy, called StoryPilot, but it's often out-of-date). Use these to find markets-publishers, magazines, and anthology editors-who might accept a piece the length and genre of yours. For speculative fiction writers, there is also a LiveJournal community, specficmarkets, that announces upcoming submissions periods. There are market listings specifically for other genres, too-try searching "Literary Fiction Markets," or "Romance Fiction Markets," for example, and see what comes up.
Duotrope also offers a submissions tracking system, where you can keep track of where you've sent your stories and how long they've been out. For the disorganized (yours truly), this is a godsend. Unfortunately, as of 2013 they now charge $5/month subscription fees, so whether you're willing to try it depends on the volume of submissions you expect to make and how lucrative you hope your writing will be for you. If nothing else, consider investing $5 and using that one month to do extensive research and note-taking.
The second most valuable website is your chosen email provider. Email submissions avoid the consumption of paper, ink, and postage; they also turn around more quickly and provide a way to save your correspondence automatically. Some markets still accept only hard copy submissions, but they're getting rarer and most of them are beyond a new writer's payrate, anyway.
A quick note , though, on "a new writer's payrate": Just because most new writers do not start earning pro pay from the start doesn't mean you can't try. The idea that you have to, say, start with non-paying markets to get exposure and then work your way up into progressively more distinguished markets is a fallacy. I, for example, started by sending to paying markets and very rarely 'sell' a story for nothing more than exposure. That said, I did not get paid very much for my stories. So unless you've been honing your craft in private for years, assume you won't be making pro sales right off the bat, and invest your postage money accordingly (that is, rarely or not at all. The one exception would be unpublished science fiction or fantasy authors with brilliant manuscripts that might be sent to the Writers of the Future Competition. There are other places well worth your postage, such as Glimmer Train and the New Yorker, but you don't need to go, pardon the expression, go a publishing virgin to those beds. If you want to make the most of being a debut author, get your research down, but not all new authors make a huge splash with their first publication and that is perfectly okay).
The process: Type up your story and save it as an .rtf file (they're preferred over Word documents, which may carry viruses). Use Duotrope or Ralan to find a promising market. Go to that publisher's webpage and, assuming you're impressed that it's a professional and legitimate place where you'd be glad to see your byline featured, find the submission guidelines and follow them exactly. Use Standard Manuscript Format* unless directed otherwise. In the body of your email, type a cover letter.
A cover letter says basically: 'Dear [Editor's Name, found on the site ], please consider this [word count] [genre] story, titled "Title," for [Name of Magazine].'
A second paragraph might contain your biography, namely important writing credits, where you're from, and your occupation if it's of interest. I see a lot of author's bios talk about their pets, but you can save that for after you've been accepted.
Before signing off, be sure to thank the editor for their time and consideration before closing. If you're using a penname, this is usually shown in the signature as: "Thanks so much, sincerely Real A. Name, w/a (writing as) Zorro". Also remember to use your penname in the 'byline' of your story (that is, your mailing address goes Real A. Name, 24601 Jeckel & Hyde street, and then your story is "I Have Absolutely Nothing to Hide" by Zorro).
If the editor rejects the story or poem (and this will happen many times over your career), don't feel down. Heck, you're on a critique site, having your work disregarded and/or dissected and otherwise mistreated should be routine to you. And it's highly unlikely that any editor would be as hard as, say, myself—they lack the time or inclination to tear a piece they're rejecting apart.
On a happier note, if your story is accepted, your next step is to provide any information the editor would like for promotional material (now is the time for links to your website and the author's bio featuring your pets), and then to sign a contract granting the magazine permission to publish your work. If you are a minor, a parent or guardian may need to cosign. The contract isn't something to sweat, as it really only becomes an issue if you go against its conditions, which would be a kiss of death for your budding career—word gets around; editors talk to each other. Pay attention to clauses about editing (there are occasional horror stories about editors rewriting stories without consulting the authors; this does not happen at legitimate publishers), publication rights (where will you story be printed? How long is it 'exclusive', before you can sell the story as a reprint?), and payment (how much and when will you receive it?).
The third option between acceptance or rejection—yes, there is one—is a rewrite request, where the editor liked the story enough to give it a second chance. Don't waste this opportunity. Read the editor's comments closely and revise accordingly (most of my rewrites have been accepted, including several professional-paying publications).
A final note: do not submit any previously published work unless the market accepts such and you mention the piece's previous publication history in your cover letter. Posting a story or poem on Livejournal, DeviantArt, MySpace, Fictionpress, or any non-password protected section on a forum counts as publication. You have given away first world electronic rights and can now only sell the story as a reprint (and explain in your cover letter that the story you're trying to sell can be found for free on your blog, which is a bit embarrassing).
Most of what I just said about fiction goes for poetry too, except the pay is worse and standard formatting is a little different. Last time I submitted poetry anywhere (less said of that the better), I included line numbers. Microsoft Word is capable of that, and a google search will show you how. Poetry is a fantastic way to express your creativity, and there are magazines featuring poetry in every genre-from literary to science fiction haiku-as well as some small presses selling poetry collections. Well, offering them for sale. I want to encourage your dreams but I simply cannot be dishonest enough to get your hopes up that you will ever see more than $50 at a time for your poems, and that would be a high amount. On the other hand, there is that creativity thing and building community with other word artists and the respect of your peers, which I guess sounds nice.
Selling nonfiction requires, ironically enough, a good deal of research. I don't know of any databases listing nonfiction markets—but I suppose it would be difficult, since nonfiction doesn't have genres so much as areas of interest. If I were to start writing nonfiction articles, I would personally start by browsing Duotrope again (in recent years it's started adding nonfiction markets to its database), and in their submission guidelines some markets announce they are also accepting articles, mostly on pop culture topics. Also look for websites and magazines where you get your information on your topic of choice, as they may be seeking submissions.
Articles can be written "on spec" before they are accepted by a market, or you could instead send the magazine a query letter briefly explaining your proposal for the nonfiction piece. Query letters have some advantages, like the opportunity to tailor your article to the editor's preferences, and some markets accept only letters and no unsolicited complete articles. This is the opposite of fiction, where editors usually want the whole story before they nibble. Writer's block has something to do with that. Although writer's block affects nonfiction writers too, as anyone writing a term paper can tell you, so do watch out for that. You need a lot of discipline to make it as a freelance article writer.
Nonfiction can be "bought" for free (some markets pay for fiction but not for articles, and a rare few vice-versa) or as much as $1/word for top markets (the most pay I've seen offered for fiction is 25 cents/word, and that was for invited writers. It's a crapshoot). Speaking of invited writers, my sister, a haiku artist, has been invited to write articles about haiku in some magazines—unpaid, but good for establishing credibility and gaining exposure. But I wouldn't count on being invited to write articles unless you are very good and what you do and/or belong to a small community of specialists. I do have a handful of friends who enjoyed a well-paying hobby writing articles for fanzines, as well as game, book, and movie reviews.
Some markets count reviews as different from other nonfiction and offer different pay rates and submission policies, while others treat them the same. If you find the thought on sharing your opinion on Nicholas Sparks' latest diabetes-inducing brainsnack less daunting than exploring the effects of falling wheat prices on sub-Saharan Africa for World Wheat Economics Quarterly, first, you're not alone. Second, go for it. Although again, I don't know of any specific listings of markets looking for book reviews, so you'll have to use your Google- or Duotrope-fu.
3. That's Not A Story But You Can Sell It Anyway-Art
I once badgered by super-talented then-boyfriend to submit his Photoshop paintings to some sci fi magazines that were looking for cover art. He sold one for $50. I should note that somehow I am currently single.
Even if I am not your significant other, you can do what he did just with your own inner cheerleader to do the badgering. Lots of midgrade and fan-level magazines are hungry for cover art, as are some Indie publishers. If you're a talented art student you can even get your portfolio together and approach some of the higher-ups. Look at submission guidelines for details (which is where me-as-a-girlfriend came in handy again: I made a list of all the science fiction magazines I knew that had open submissions for art).
Get an agent. Really. Agents know how to sell books, they know how to get more money for the books they sell, and they can guide you through the harrowing process of negotiating a contract with a publishing house. It takes a very strong personality to argue on your own behalf in this sort of thing, and as a new writer, you are at a disadvantage if you attempt it. Agents generally get you more money (or reserve more rights, which you can then sell for money) than you would get on your own, which makes them more than worth their 15% cut of the resulting revenue.
In the years since I first wrote this essay I feel I need to interject: I am suggesting that, if you want your story to be published and widely read, you should get an agent who gets you a publisher. There are increasingly ways around this, including selling to an e-press/small publisher and self-publishing on your own. They are not yet the most efficient way to get your work out, although for some genres (like LGBT romance, and erotica for all subgenres) epublishing is not at all a bad way to go. There are people who make a living off selling ebooks. I am not one of them and I cannot tell you how to become one of them. You came to this essay because you have wonderful stories, but you are uncertain how marketing them works. Publishers know how marketing them works. Get a publisher. Get an agent.
To get an agent, you need a query letter and sometimes a synopsis. A query letter explains the main points of your novel, including genre and length, and includes a short biography of yourself, especially a list of relevant publishing credits if you have them. A synopsis is a brief (one page is usual, with a longer three-page version for more in-depth representation) summary of your story, including the ending. Read the agent's guidelines (you can find agents representing your genre through a search engine like AgentQuery or QueryTracker) and follow them exactly, sending a query letter, synopsis of the specified length, and/or the first few pages or chapters of your novel as required. If the agent likes what they see, they'll ask for more of the manuscript. If they like that enough, they may offer you representation. Congratulations, you're one step closer to seeing your novel in print.
Now I bow out and leave it to your agent to guide you through the rest of the novel publishing process—that's what you're paying them for, anyway (for the record, the process of representation by agent to editor seems similar, for what I've heard, to your representation to the agent, only on a far ascended level).
A brief note on representing your story yourself to an e-press or small publisher: basically, take that package your sent to the agent, but send it instead to the publisher. Doesn't cutting out the middle man make things more efficient? Well, it gets you more quickly to your destination, but your destination is not Penguin. Your book is less likely to get on bookstore shelves and may be less likely to be taken seriously by readers and reviewers, depending on genre. I am myself published with an Indie publisher and consider myself an ebook author, and it makes me some money, is good for bragging rights (I landed an internship once because I could say I was a published writer with a book out), helps me reach readers who don't do short stories, and is good fun all around. But if I had a longer novel I invested lots of time into and wanted to see some money and acclaim for, I'd look higher.
Again, this depends on genre. If you have an experimental novel with hyperlinks, get ye to Kindle Direct and self-publish away. If you're a cult leader and your temple gathering of 15,000+ promises to buy your book out of the back of a truck, send your order in to the printer of your choice (make sure they're just a printer, and not a vanity press that tries to gobble your rights or sell you unnecessary services-even cult leaders don't deserve that), and get going. And if you have a too-steamy-for-the-bookstore shelves read (though you'd be surprised...and I don't judge), peek at those romance epublishers. For that matter (have I mentioned the not judging part yet?), Christian fiction has some very accomplished niche publishers as well. Genre matters so much. But for most people, for their first book, look at agents.
What You Need to Succeed in this Business
Most importantly, you need persistence. I myself procrastinate like heck and often forget to send out submissions for weeks at a time (not good, given the lengthy reply times of some markets), but I hate to see a job unfinished. That dogged work ethic is how I've achieved any success I have (that and, of course, a manageable grasp of grammar and some experience in composition and crafting a sentence). Patience is a virtue as well, but one enforced here by necessity—you do not tell the editorial team of the New Yorker to "hurry up." You will need to be able to endure rejection of your work and keep submitting. Once your story is published that hardened hide you've built up will help you weather the reviews (which, by the way, are never to be argued with and probably shouldn't be replied to at all, with rare exceptions). It helps, also, to be reasonably prolific so you have a body of work to sell.
This is a business for optimists, preferably stubborn ones. It's also, as you might imagine, a business for fluent, insightful, original thinkers who have a talent for expressing themselves in writing.
Don't be intimidated by that.
I close by wishing you the best of luck and encouraging you to try your hand at selling a story, poem, or article. It's a worthwhile experience with many rewards. And if you want to find out more, take the initiative and research, ask questions. That includes asking questions of me—if I know the answers, I'll be glad to give them; if not, I'll try to point you to where you can find them. I can name 3 people I have personally connected to their first sale/publisher, and I've also work as a freelancer in submissions mentoring and manuscript editing. I'm completely approachable with plenty of thoughts to share.
*William Shunn has created the webpage describing standard manuscript formatting for short stories. Google "Shunn-standard manuscript format". Or just search "standard manuscript format" and Shunn's website will be in the top results anyway. Who is William Shunn? I haven't the faintest idea. But he knows standard manuscript format, and if you follow his lead soon you will, too.