Ron Tanner, a site for readers and writers
Survival on the Publishing Scene


A better question, for starters is: Why do you want to get published? Here are some possible answers:

    I want to entertain others.
    I want to enlighten others.
    Writers are supposed to be published.
    Publications will make me a better person.
    Publications will make me more loveable.
    Publications will make me famous.
    Publications will make me rich.

If honest, most published writers will admit to more than one of these motivations. Most will admit, too, that 99% of the writers who publish never see fame or riches. Making it big as a published writer is like making it big in the NBA--or making it big as an actor. The competition is killing. And the market is fickle. Many great writers, like Franz Kafka and Emily Dickenson, never saw their work succeed. Why should you or I?

Okay, maybe we're good-maybe one of us, somewhere, is great-and maybe we'll get lucky. Luck has a lot to do with it. If this sounds discouraging, then put publishing out of your mind, because getting published is all about rejection. For every one of the 40 or more stories I've published, I have received about 10 or more rejections. That's 400+ rejections. I have piles of them.

Dealing with rejection
As we know too well, it's hard not to take a rejection personally. I mean, it's our writing, it's our vision, it's so much of us on the page, how can a rejection not be personal? Truth is, unless an editor knows you personally and says something like, "You're an awful friend," rejections are purely business decisions. Book publishers are looking for two things: accomplished writing and accomplished story-telling. Sometimes they will take one over the other. Blockbuster best-sellers are often strong on story-telling, for instance, and slight on style. Sometimes, no matter how strong the writing, the publisher may think the story unsuitable for the market. This is especially the case in magazine publishing, where a magazine often seeks a niche defined by a particular style or subject matter. Think of the classic "New Yorker story."

This means that, even if you're a great writer, a publisher may reject your story because it's not the kind of story that this magazine seeks. Period. It has nothing to do with your talent or your worth as a human being. That's why in a rejection note an editor may say, "This isn't right for us." And that's why you will save yourself a lot of time, money, and aggravation if you do some research in order to find just the right magazine for your story or poem.

Nevertheless, no matter how experienced a writer you are, rejections hurt. I have known some very talented writers who have given up on publishing because they couldn't stand the relentless rain of rejections. I myself have had some weeks where I've received a rejection-or two-every day. The hardest part of dealing with rejections is that each one may make you second-guess your work: should I revise the story? [I'll talk about stories here, but poems and plays apply.] Am I losing my touch? Will I never publish again?

Less experienced writers often profit from reconsidering their work. There comes a time, however, when your craft is developed well enough so that you worry only about your story (or theme). At that point, the success of your story may simply be a matter of opinion. Some of the most successful fiction I've published was a series of six near-futuristic stories that I knew had to stay just as there were, no matter what anybody else said about them. They remain some of my favorites because they do exactly what I think they should.

That's the ideal, when we create a work we thoroughly believe in, so that rejection becomes a matter of opinion and, as a result, rejection's sting is blunted. This is not to say we writers should be adamant or stubbornly defiant; it is to say, rather, that we should work for a firm vision of what we're trying to accomplish.

Because reading remains a very subjective undertaking, we should accept that our work will not appeal to everyone. Our challenge is to find the readers-first among our friends and colleagues, then in the world of publishing-who think our work is worth their time.

How to get a story or a poem published:

1) Study the magazine you'd like to appear in. Is your work in keeping with the kind of thing that magazine likes to publish? If so, choose your best story or best 2-3 poems to submit. Never submit both a story and a poem or poems.

2) Write a letter to the editor, whose name you take from the magazine masthead. Make the letter short and polite (but not fawning). If you have awards or other publications worth mentioning, then mention them so that the editor may take you more seriously. Here's a sample:

Dear Jane E. Editor:

Enclosed, please find my story, "A Plum Day," submitted for your consideration. My stories have appeared in such magazines as Rocket Ready, Stone's Throw, and Crooked Fence. Last year my story, "Not Again," won the Apprentice Prize, awarded by Pigeon Peck Press.

Should you find this story unsuitable for your magazine, your comments will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Earnest T. Writer

Notice that you do not waste the editor's time by summarizing the story (or poem), nor do you attempt to interpret the work or tout its thematic value. Just keep the letter as short and professional as possible-to show that you are business-like and will not fire-bomb the publisher if he/she does not accept your work.

3) Include in your package an S.A.S.E. (self-addressed, stamped, envelope) for the return of your ms. (manuscript). If you don't want the ms. back, just include a business-sized stamped, addressed envelope and, on the back, write, "Please discard ms."
If you want the ms. back, then include enough postage for the return trip.

4) Place the ms. (one story or 2-3 poems) in a large manilla envelope with the submission letter and the SASE.


Do not submit the ms. to any other publisher until you have heard from this one. It will take anywhere from three months to one year. Yes, as long as a year. Because the market is glutted with ambitious and talented writers just like you and me. The usual return time is 3-6 months.

Chances are, you will receive a rejection note. I'm not being negative here, just realistic. Probability alone dictates that our chances of publication, even if we are quite accomplished, are slim. Even small literary magazines get as many as 1,000 submissions of poetry or fiction in a single month. You should know that there are many kinds of rejection notes, as follows:
a) the form letter/note: a polite but distancing kiss-off

rejection slip

b) the hey-we-were-mildly-interested form letter/note: small encouragement

c) the second-tier form letter/note with signed initials of somebody on staff

rejection slip

d) the form letter/note with a signed name

e) the form letter/note with a handwritten comment and initial

rejection slip

f) the form letter/note with a handwritten comment and signed full name

g) the form letter/note with critique and encouragement and signed name

rejection slip

h) a letter from the editor him/herself!

i) a note that requests revision

j) the acceptance!

A good way to start your publishing career is to enter writing contests. There are hundreds of them every year (look in POETS & WRITERS magazine, for instance). They have entrance fees but usually give you the contest issue (of the magazine) in return. There are several high-profile student-writing contests every year, including those sponsored by SEVENTEEN magazine, ATLANTIC MONTHLY, and PLAYBOY magazine.

Also, submit your work to (less competitive) local magazines, especially student magazines if you're in high school or college.

Perseverance pays. It takes 2-5 years of consistent submissions to break into the publishing scene. As I said, I average about 10 rejections for every story I've published and so I now have hundreds of rejection slips--bags and bags of them. If you insist on making your work public, then you must submit yourself to the possibility of rejection. Don't take it personally.

YOU SHOULD KNOW: there is little or no pay involved in getting published, unless you've sold a story to one of the really big magazines like THE NEW YORKER. For most literary magazines, there may be payment of, say, $50 and a couple of free issues. That's the scene. NEVER pay anybody to publish your work. If the magazine/editor asks for a fee of any kind, then it is not a respectable enterprise and certainly not a worthy showcase for your work. Writers pay money only for contest entrance fees.

When you publish a story, you give the magazine first North American serial rights. Which is no big deal: you're simply granting permission to that magazine to be the first publication in America to publish your story. Virtually all magazines are interested only in being the first to publish your story. Rarely does another magazine want to re-publish your story later. Once your story is published, you should not submit it elsewhere again.

Some magazines do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. "Solicited" means that one of the magazine's editors asked you to send a story or a poem. You can find out who does and does not accept unsolicited mss. (plural for "manuscripts") by consulting the INTERNATIONAL DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES AND SMALL PRESSES.

Some magazines do not take simultaneous submissions, meaning that, if you have sent this story elsewhere (and it's still out there in the mail), this magazine does not want to see it--because your story may get accepted by that other magazine and therefore you will have wasted the second magazine's time. Generally, for younger writers, I discourage simultaneous submissions. Although I myself have submitted simultaneously many times--due to the pressures of my job as a professor (publish or perish)--I have also gotten into trouble for doing so and am now barred from consideration at 3 magazines as a result.

What about publishing on the Internet?
There are now many excellent online literary journals, some of them--like Slate, Salon, McSweeny's--quite prestigious. If you're simply seeking an outlet for your work, you can probably find publication online after you've reached a certain level of competence. Prejudice against on-line publishing is fast disappearing, especially now that most of the big names in print publishing--like the Iowa Review--promote online versions of their magazines. That said, it is harder to get published in print than online, and the big nameas in print magazines, like the Georgia Review, remain the pinnacle of success for many writers. Unlike conventional (paper) publications, online publications can take hundreds, even thousands, of submissions: they can publish everything they get, so there appears to be little or no selectivity. Gaining respect as a published writer is a matter of publishing your work in highly selective magazines-magazines that have an acceptance rate of, say, 4% (that is, they take only 4% of the manuscripts submitted). If you want to compete at that level, seek out the magazines -- online or print -- that are "competitive."

BOOK PUBLISHING at a glance:
Of the approximately 800,000 manuscripts considered by major American publishers every year (not to be confused with the many more that are submitted), only about 1 in 10 get accepted. Of those, only a handful make it to publication. And yet we are publishing more books than ever before: approximately 170,000 a year. As I mentioned above, very few writers make a living publishing books. Yes, Tom Clancy makes $66 million a year and Stephen King $64 million. There is money to be made. But, unlike other businesses, where you can study clear demands and market issues, publishing is notoriously fickle. Few publishers can figure out what will or won't sell; and many have gone bankrupt attempting to pursue the next trend or fad.

Here are some primary terms and features of the publishing industry.

Advance: Authors receive an advance on publication of their book. The advance is a lump sum, anywhere from $1000 to many millions, on the promise of sales. Authors receive a royalty for the sale of each book. A royalty is a percentage of that sale, usually a small percentage (15%). If the author does not make enough book sales to pay back the advance he/she may be indebted to the publisher and have to pay this off with the sales of his/her next book. Usually publishers don't seek repayment of the advance

Serial rights: these are reprint rights. Authors often sell these to the publishers, who may make money on reprinting the work in magazines and other forms.

Subsidiary rights: authors sell the subsidiary rights for such spin-off products as movies, videos, dolls, games, etc.

Remainders: these are the books that did not sell from the publisher's first printing. These unsold books are sent to wholesalers who, in turn, sell them at just-above cost to bookstores-and the bookstores sell them to the public at a deep discount, usually half the cover price. Easily, 90% of novels published this year will be on the book store remainder tables next year. Once the book is remainder, it is out of print, meaning that the publisher is no longer carrying that title on its "list" or that title in this form (usually hardback).

List: is short for "publication list," the current catalogue of books a publisher is printing and selling.

Best sellers: This term, "best seller," is similar to "gold record' in the recording industry. It means the book sold a lot, though not necessarily a million copies (like a gold record). Different newspaper and magazines have different criteria for ranking bestsellers; sometimes it's simply the number of books ordered by stores (thought not yet sold). The most famous bestseller list is published by The New York Time's Book Review.

Blockbusters: as in movies, some books are a huge success. The "Harry Potter" series, for example, has sold 164 million copies worldwide by May 02. That's a blockbuster.


Major house: these are the largest publishers, such a Viking, Random House, and St. Martins, and are best known to the general public. More specifically, they are major publishers of "trade" publications, which are books sold to the general public.They sign big-name authors, like John Grisham, and market the biggest selling books, as well as others.
o Since the 1970s major houses have been consolidated increasingly by corporations (this is a trend that bookstores have mirrored since the 1990s).. Largest trade book publisher currently is Random House, for example, with $4.2 billion in sales (as of 2000). It has consolidated several other publishers and now consists of Random House Trade, Knopf (a prestigious literary publisher), Ballantine, Bantam, Random House Children's, and Fodor's Travel.

Small press: these are independent publishers (that is, they are not affiliated with large corporations the way major houses are); they usually deal with "literary" fiction and nonfiction and, as a result, they are often considered "high brow". They print much a smaller number of books than the major houses and have a much smaller distribution.

University press: these most often publish scholarly books. However, in recent years they have expanded to include more popular books, including fiction and poetry. They are one type of "small press."

Vanity press: these are presses that would-be authors pay to print their books. Hence, "vanity" refers to these writers who must pay to have their work published because they can't get regular publishers to take their work. Many writers have defied the stigma attached to self-published books and gone on to win a large readership--which sometimes attracts a major publisher who will pick up the book.

Government press: Government Printing office, established in 1895 to print all documents written by government agencies, is the largest publisher in the world. It prints such things as reports by the Surgeon General, pamphlets on how to prepare your income taxes, childcare guides, house-buying guides, etc.

Publishing categories of books:

    * Trade: general readership fiction and nonfiction
    * Religious: includes Bibles
    * Professional: specialty books for specific professions, such as engineering, medicine, etc.
    * Mass market paperback: widely distributed popular reading, found
    * Textbooks: specialty books for elementary, high school, and college reading
    * University press: mostly scholarly books

Types of Books bought:

    * Popular fiction = 52%
    * Cooking & crafts = 10
    * Religion = 10
    * General nonfiction = 8
    * Psychology = 6
    * Technology, science, & education = 6
    * Art, literature, poetry = 4
    * Reference = 3
    * Travel = 1

Where publishers make their money:
Notice that publishers make the most on training manuals because these are the most expensive, even though publishers sell more fiction (mysteries, romance, etc.)

    * Training manuals = 35%
    * Trade books and mass-market paperbacks 24%
    * Professional books = 22
    * School textbooks = 7%
    * College textbooks = 7
    * Religious books = 7
    * Book club sales = 2

Sales' outlets, by percentage:

    * Super-sized book store chains, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, now dominate the industry.
    * Large chains = 23.7
    * Independents = 14.8
    * Others = 29.1
    * Book clubs = 18.6
    * Internet = 7.1
    * Price clubs = 6.6

1830s: penny press = first cheap, mass-marketed publishing ventures begin with penny publications
1860: dime novels invented, the precursors to the paperback
1891: international copyright law passed by Congress, demanding royalty rights paid to authors
1900: elementary education made compulsory in U.S., which tremendously increases the potential readership of Americans
1926 Book of the Month Club started, bringing more reading into American homes
1939: Pocket Books started = paperback revolution = cheap, affordable, ubiquitous
1941-45: war creates huge readership
1945-1950: G.I. bills sends ex-soldiers to college in great numbers
1950s: college becomes the middle-class expectation
1960: publishing houses begin to consolidate = demise of small-house publishing
1990s: book superstores dominate the scene = demise of independent booksellers
1995: begins
2000: website book sales boom
2000:Stephen King markets a downloadable book

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