Tell someone that you’re a writer, and they will almost inevitably ask, “Oh, what have you published?”
Or if they’re really rude: “A published writer?” (Always asked in a very suspicious tone of voice.)
Those of us who have been only modestly published or are working hard to get published dread this question, especially when our listener hasn’t run the “getting published” gauntlet.
If I’m feeling courageous or energetic that day, I try to explain that getting published is the ultimate crapshoot, a quest that requires at least two or more (and often all) of the following ingredients: talent, commercial appeal, connections, timing and luck.
You can be talented but write stuff that’s not commercial and therefore will be a very hard sell, other than – perhaps -- to small literary magazines (where you will be competing with hundreds of others who are writing and submitting stuff that’s also not commercial).
You can be commercial but lack connections that get your work read (first of all) and once read, put at the top of the pile. An editor may choose to publish a different piece on the same topic simply because s/he knows the writer (and/or that writer is known to the public) even if yours is better. Editors find it easier to publish known quantities and to reject strangers. (There’s no pain involved in sending a form rejection letter, as there may well be in rejecting a writer you already have a connection with.)
You can have talent, connections and commercial appeal (surely the trifecta of getting published!) but if your timing is off, you’re screwed. Come in too late – after someone else has written and published the same type of thing (even, again, if it’s not as good as yours), and you will be told, Sorry, kid, we already ran that story. But being ahead of trends isn’t any good either. Literary history is rife with tales of now-famous writers who were ahead of their time and therefore disdained by editors, publishers and/or the public. You have to hit the spot at exactly the right time. Do that, tap into the zeitgeist, and you may even have a bestseller, even if what you’ve written is, well, crap. As in life, so too in publishing: Timing is almost everything.
- Finally, you can have talent, commercial appeal, connections and timing but then there’s always that one last random element of luck. I wrote a very timely piece about our exasperating (and so far futile) four-year quest to buy a house and had it almost placed in our city newspaper this fall – when the stock market crashed. As my contact at the paper said, events overtook me. Suddenly there were far bigger and more pressing stories for the financial and real estate sections than one couple’s frustrations with the boom-and-bust housing market, no matter how much they’d liked my story.
I had another stroke of bad luck this past year after doing something that goes completely against my nature: I seized the opportunity to schmooze the editor and publisher of a prominent literary magazine at a conference. I’d submitted off and on to his magazine over the years and been rejected each time, albeit with several encouraging handwritten responses from one of his manuscript editors.
But then the miracle occurred: After a great conversation about writing, the editor-publisher spontaneously asked me to send him some of my work, with explicit directions on how to get the package to him personally – only to have his staff fail to notice what he’d had me do and put my envelope in the slush pile. A few months and follow-ups later, I got things sorted out, but by then the interest I’d managed to raise in him during our meeting had been forgotten (as had I, no doubt) and they passed on my work once again, albeit with some encouraging personal feedback and the now familiar request to “please keep trying.” (As a portrait of my odds, this particular magazine gets over 1,000 submissions for every half-dozen it ends up publishing each month.)
Which brings me to Open Salon.
Even friends who are also writers have asked me why I don’t just package up some of the “great writing” that I do here and get it placed in a “real magazine.”
If I try to explain why that’s hard at best (because placing anything topical is very difficult unless you have an established forum like a column, or at least an ongoing relationship with an editor who will jump on your work before it’s dated), and at worst outright impossible (since print publications don’t want anything that’s appeared online), either their eyes glaze over or they accuse me of being “too negative." (Or sometimes both.)
No matter what facts I present them with, no matter how much I explain all the tactics I’m trying, they keep coming back to one question: Why can’t I just send stuff out and get it published?
“Because it’s just not that simple,” I say. “I wish it were.”
The truth is, I do “send stuff out” and like the vast majority of submissions by all writers, it gets rejected. I keep doing it, trying different methods and outlets, but the cold hard reality is that many writers and almost no “civilians” want to hear how long the odds are for getting published when you are not a “name” or established writer.
So when people excitedly give me a suggestion of something that they think will lead to getting published, and I tell them that I’ve either tried that very thing (and am still trying it) or that their idea just won’t work (because, for example, The New Yorker doesn’t publish unknown writers) they seem utterly crest-fallen or actually irritated that they can’t just solve my problem on the spot.
And then my own frustration has to take a backseat to theirs, as they fix me with a hard stare, seemingly convinced that somehow my attitude is the real issue, and ask me once again:
“You’re such a good writer, why can’t you just get published?”