Out of My Mind

The Musings of a Woman Who Thinks Too Much

Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron
May 01
You can email me at "nengoron@gmaildotcom" & follow @NelleEngoron on Twitter. My archived radio shows on last season's Mad Men are available (for free!) at: www.blogtalkradio.com/madmentalk **My "Mad Men" commentary for Season 5 is on Salon rather than here -- go to http://www.salon.com/writer/ nelle_engoron/ to find all my Salon articles. **My book, "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4," is available on Amazon in both e-book and print versions.** I'm a writer/editor/consultant who lives in the SF Bay Area. I write about all kinds of things, but am particularly intrigued by movies, relationships, gender issues, belief systems and "Mad Men." (Scroll down left sidebar for links to a selection of my blog posts.) I'm working on a novel and a memoir, neither of which is about Mad Men!

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DECEMBER 12, 2008 11:31AM

Why Can't You Just Get Published?

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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.

To wit:

  • 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?”


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This is partly inspired by my previous blog post, but mostly something I've been writing in my head for quite a while. Felt good to get it out!
I won't deny that getting published is hard work, even when you already have a track record, believe it or not. But here's my advice: make sure the small literary journal or press publishes work similar to yours. This is the best indicator as to whether there's a chance for you or not, and is how I placed my first two books. And as for newspapers and mags, shake the trees for every connection you have. I did this a few years ago and had an 80% success rate with my pitches. (And I too wrote an article about my house hunt, by the way.) Good luck, it's a tough business to be in.
Nice insightful piece, Silkstone. I'm reminded of stories of artists and writers who died in penury, because their stuff simply didn't sell. And now they're famous. (I'm hoping such stories aren't entirely apocryphal.) Were these people not artists and writers while they were alive? Of course they were.
Hey, glad to see a few comments already and I haven't even blog-whored this! ;) Also nice to see a couple names that I haven't before.

Tess, I do try to only submit to mags that I have read enough to know what they like. I think it's still a crapshoot (e.g. the mag I mentioned that gets 1,000 submissions for every 6 they publish). But your advice to work your connections is spot-on - like getting a job, it often seems more about who you know than what you write. I mean, you still have to have something worth printing, but getting in the door is essential.

David, I've actually written a memoir not a novel but it's the same difficult process. The book publishing industry is in trouble these days, so that doesn't help. (I recently read something that compared it to where the music industry was when MP3's and file sharing started to become popular and the record companies had no idea how to react to save their business.)

Rob, thanks! Yes, it's good to be reminded that what makes someone an artist or a writer isn't the validation of others. I definitely embrace writing for its self-expression and for most of my life, it's been about that for me. Trying to put it out into the wider world feels like an entirely different process -- more like a different job, actually! Marketing isn't what most writers are good at. Or to flip it around, most writers who succeed now are also good marketers - and what does that mean for the quality of what is published? Are we seeing more of people with the talent for selling vs. people with a talent for writing?

And when I write that, I'm thinking not of myself, but of the many wonderful writers I've known over the years who didn't get published, precisely because they weren't able to or didn't want to market themselves as you must these days.
god, thank you.

and it doesn't end there. after two to three decades seriously trying, my first book is about to come out. and now the question i'm getting is, "how many books have you written." "this is my first, actually." "oh."

gawd. one is a lot!

they sound so disappointed for me. i'm apparently not very good at it. they have no idea.
A couple of things, on this topic, which should be of great interest but so far is a perfect example of why some things don't get published: timing.

Anyway, by blog-whoring you are doing something else that gets things published: marketing.

I have found that three things count most: working at it relentlessly, sometimes for little or no pay, like on OS; getting connections; being really good at it. With those things and some luck eventually you will get published.

Most people have no idea how hard it is to get something in print and to get paid. And today "being published" is broadening. Try not to worry about what others think. The next time someone asks why you can't get published you could say, "I am published on opensalon.com, along with many other really good writers. Check it out."
and it doesn't ever end, btw. there's a painful/wonderful moment near the end of the second (and far better) recent biopic on truman capote, Infamous, where Harper Lee laments what In Cold Blood has taken out of Truman. it tore him up, and he would never finish a book again. and when he had finished, they asked the inevitable question: what's next?
Ah, Dave. That's so sad, but I know what you mean. People won't let you even enjoy your freakin' moment of glory - you got a book published!!! No, they're asking you how many it's sold, how it was reviewed, when is your next book coming out, too. sheesh.

I have friends who have gone thru this and are going thru it. You're right that for writers, it seems like this stuff never ends. Perhaps that's true for all artists.
While I was responding to Dave's first comment, he and Lea slipped in.

Lea, you have no idea how stuff like blog-whoring (or schmoozing the editor per anecdote above) goes against my nature! I mean I can network, I've worked in business, I can be confident and I'm very good in job interviews etc. But sidling up to people and saying, "Pleeeeease read my writing" just rubs me every wrong way. I feel like a beggar. But...I'm trying. Cuz I know it's necessary!

As for saying, "Yes, I'm published on OS" - well, that seems to trigger more of the same, per what I noted in my post. Many people don't consider this "real" publishing (just as self-published books aren't "real").

Dave, I liked Infamous but I actually loved the movie Capote (and In Cold Blood was a formative book of my childhood, weird as that sounds!). And I think it just absolutely showed the toll that writing and both success and failure can take on someone. Capote is a tragic figure, although much of his trouble was of his own making (e.g. the substance abuse).
I'm a painter. When the more offensive people ask why I don't have gallery showings and sell, sell, sell, I ask them why they aren't higher up on the food chain at their job, or why they don't go to Hollywood and become an instant movie star. I'm retired, anyway, and paint for the hell of it, but that shuts them up.

Maybe they mean well, and are truly impressed, but that's the only thing that they can think of to say to a person who self-identifies as a writer.

Many times, they're asking because they want to look for your work and brag to their friends that they met a real writer!
i think lea nailed it, top to bottom. i love the "I am published on opensalon.com" it's true.

i once felt very blocked and felt i wasn't writing, and confided that to a friend after a multi-page email telling some long anecdote he found very funny. he wrote back and said, "you're writing right now."

that was partly about confidence to pitch some of the stuff i was doing, and also about practice.

i think lea is right on all three counts. and relentless amounts of writing is most important. it needs to be nearly every day--six days a week is a good standard--even if it's just ten minutes some days. every great violinist gets the thing out every days and keeps the fingers nimble.

when i taught undergrads, i based something like a third of their grade on "the pile"--which i said i would measure only by length, not quality. you don't have to spend most of your time trying to make it good, just making it come out.

if you write six days a week, you're far more likely to write something really good one or two of them.

if you write one day a week, you're hardly ever going

candid feedback helps a lot, too. the more brutally honest, the better. almost everyone i know who makes a living writing has either been a staff writer with an editor who would play that role, and/or in a writing group and/or writing program.

(OS may sound perfect for this, but i think not, by a country mile. people are nice here, especially about the writing. i have rarely seen criticism about the writing itself. that's fine--that's not what this community is about. but that means you better be getting it somewhere else. OS provides a lot of support and encouragement; somebody else better be pointing out the flaws.)

Ernest Hemmingway exchanged work with Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and a shitload of others. Dorothy Parker led the Algonquin Roundtable. Thoreau and (I think Emerson and . . . some other big names I'm afraid of confusing) bounced their stuff around . . .

This stuff tends not to happen in a vacuum. It's always been this way. There's a myth of writer as Lone Individual. Rarely. We learn from each other, make each other better.

Anyone reading this, if you not in a group, find one. Don't worry about them being Gertrude Stein. The group will evolve and you'll gravitate toward your Gertrude. But not if you stay isolated, working it yourself.
I'm laughing at Rob's comment about writers who died in penury, because getting published doesn't guarantee an income, by far. Unless you get picked by Oprah, don't quit your day job. ;)
My friends, several of whom are "published writers" have talked of the horrendous experiences. If you want criticism, enter that realm. I feel your pain. I've had professional writing published but on their content, not on style and these were professional pieces. I've had movie critiques published, poems at an early age, and business related pieces. Never a novel, nor would I want to travel down that road.

Kudos to you that do...
Everything I've ever "really" written has been for educational journals & the like ... only a couple ever made it into print, but I have had a nice career serving on panels ... LOL ... yup ... that's about it for me. I know absolutely nothing about getting published in a magazine or newspaper ... but my neighbor (who has really big balls & works in county education) just called some guy at the newspaper here and said, "I'm emailing you some of my writing. I'd like a column on raising children." ... well, she got the damn thing ... weekly. Thanks for pointing out how amazingly difficult this process really is ... I think I'll stick with OS ... ;)
Oh, Lord, if I had a nickle.

I got my MFA from the University of Michigan a year and a half ago. Before I applied to the program, my senior workshop teacher in my undergrad English program encouraged me and helped in my applications. I said at the time, "But even if I get into an MFA program, what will I do?" He said, "You'll write books someday."

What a lying sack of shit.

Now that I'm an unpublished receptionist, I've given up. I've applied to law school. I've accepted the hopelessness of making anyone read literary short stories.

Sigh! But thanks for summing up the problems involved: next time someone asks me why I'm not published, maybe I'll just send them a link to this post.
I seem to have hit a nerve (as I suspected I might!).

I'm really enjoying reading all these comments, and I swear, it's not just that misery loves company. It's that, as several of you have suggested, it's really hard to understand this process and the pain associated with it if you haven't been through it.

Not that that's any different from most life experiences but for some reason many people seem to think that they know about writing. It's like that famous thing that all writers get at parties when someone hears their profession, "Oh yes, I'm going to write a book some day, when I get a little time." (I read a great article once from a writer who upon hearing this from a surgeon at a party responded, "Oh yes, and I'm going to take a little time off later this year and learn to do surgery.")

Zuma, I'm not surprised you get the same thing as a painter. I've had friends in every area of the arts -- painters and other visual artists, actors, singers, you name it -- and they all go through some version of this.

Dave, I completely agree with the 2 points in your last comment: practice and feedback. I've been in an ongoing writers group for about a decade now and it's invaluable. First, I wouldn't write much if I didn't have that impetus to read something when we meet. Second, the feedback as well as the support has helped my writing immeasurably. (Hi to my Wed night women, I'm waving at you!) I'm always amazed when I meet aspiring, serious (and good) writers at workshops and conferences who don't have any kind of support and feedback system. I don't know how they do it.

And yes, as the old saying goes, a writer writes. It's like exercising a muscle. You gotta keep at it. OS is good for me in that regard, as it gives me incentive to write so I can see it in print and maybe get a few comments.

Mother, we're glad you're here with us! And if this feels good to you, no need to go further. It's important to figure out what we want from writing and then how to find that satisfaction. This could easily be enough...and it's more than most writers get!

Ah Lekkers, I've been there, especially when I was younger. One prof I had (who was actually not a FT prof but a professional journalist) told me upon leaving college to keep writing and "Dare to be great." But I should have read in his weary face how tough that challenge really was.
It's a pretty fucking pathetic situation. If you don't make the "first cut," i.e. get that early job that gives you some connections or a "profile" as the kids now say you're basically up shits creek. They have the conferences where you and go and "hob-nob" like you say kissing ass, but I find it reprehensible.

I did the bar thing too for a number of years, and met some of the gang who made the cut, but mostly they just want to beat their chests and basically view you as the competition. And then you have the problem that most agents are idiots and wouldn't know decent piece of writing if it ate a hole in their ass.

So you can see from this the more fundamental problem for the writer is resentment and letting that resentment take control of them and shut them down. That's about the only thing that hasn't happened to me yet, and I am at least thankful for it. I knew from your comments you're the real deal Silkstone--and who knows, maybe somebody will pass by the blogs one day who actually has a mind of their own, is in the business and connects on some level with the material. (some people say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.)
Let me add something that just came to me. It's how I think. Ultimately, I CANNOT control the vagaries of the marketplace. As you show, it makes no sense. (there is also the blow-job theory, which coming from NYC, I can inform you is not a myth.)

But the marketplace is a "result." If the deeper value of writing or any art is "self-expression," that's what we get paid for--when we get paid. But that doesn't make it unlike any other "business," only on a smaller scale. Adjustments have to be made for that if you intend to keep going.

But what I can control is what I write and how I write it. Then it's a matter of letting the chips fall their way. I did what I can do. I am basically at the mercy of others. Will I know those truly interested when I meet them? Will they be doing me favors--or will I be doing that for them?

To me, it all boils down to the work, and whether or not I'm fooling myself as to whether or not it has any value--and for that I don't need an editor, or an agent or a book out. (I have none and time is running out.) I only need a reader.
I'm laughing at Rob's comment about writers who died in penury, because getting published doesn't guarantee an income, by far.

Oh, my goodness, you're right, High Lonesome. You've made me laugh at my own comment.
I have experienced the same frustrations, although not on the scale you have described. I write and send out things during the winter and summer breaks between semesters of teaching remedial writing skills at a community college, which, of course, means not as much as I should. I always think that dangerous thought: some day. At 10 years old, I thought I would be a famous author by now. Oh, well, I'll keep trying when I can. Blessings to you in your attempts, and to all others who want to bring to light work that's worth reading.
My mother doesn't believe I can write and doesn't understand why I would get a degree in writing because...wait for it...I don't write her letters...my excuse?...I live with her...
Again, I'm really happy to see several new-to-me names commenting here! Talk about undiscovered writers - heh. (and when I have some time this weekend, I'll look at your blogs - I'm sneaking off on a break from a work project right now so can't take the time that deserves).

Yes, on the "don't quit your day job" even if you sell something. About 10 years ago, I went to a seminar on publishing and the astounding stat was that if you sold a book and it did well, but wasn't a best-seller, you'd probably make a few thousand dollars. (most writers make only about $1 per book and selling a few thousand is actually good). Basically, even writers whose names you recognize as decent authors may be working for not much more than minimum wage, when you add up all the hours they spent on their books. People who make bank on books are very few - you see their names on the bestseller list.

Ben, that was a really sweet comment - thanks! and I agree about fighting resentment. And disappointment. And negativity. And...oh, well, let's leave it at that.

Lairderg, I know exactly what you mean. People have been expecting my first book since about age 10 as well. I went to 2 high school reunions and then stopped going because everyone who saw me asked when I was going to finally publish the Great American Novel. (I guess it's better than being known as the high school slut, but it still got to me.)

Marcelle, that's just hilarious!
lekkers, great program, congratulations.

i understand the frustration, but i don't see how he's been shown to be a liar. according to your recollection, he said "You'll write books SOMEDAY."

you said it's been a year and a half. it took me more than a decade after my master's program to get my first book. several great writers i graduated with still don't have their first book deal. but they're still writing. some of them. sometimes.

it's one hell of a tough way to make a life. that's the deal.
Sounds kinda like working as a designer in the theater, from which I'm on a hiatus from while home with kids. I was lucky there, I never had to go look for work - I was lucky enough to impress someone who promptly hauled me to his theater where they immediately hired me as their resident lighting designer. No that's not supposed to happen.

I've never tried to get anything published, but I was just thinking about what it would entail. Thanks for the information. I expected it would be similar to the competitive its-who-you-know-and-did-you-get-your-foot-in-the-door world of theater.
Artsfish, yes, I think it would be similar. All creative arts are very competitive.
I just wanted to pipe in a little and tell you how much I appreciate this blog and the comments. It has recently come to my attention that I wanted to write. But then came the questions. What do I do? Where do I go to school? Publish? Edit? Blog? Timing?
Then I stumbled onto OS and everyone (or most) are seasoned veterans of the trenches. And now I recieve comments from amazing writers! 'Published' or not, OS appears to be the cream of the crop. I look forward to gleaning advice from you further.
Thanks for the insight.
i agree with most of what's been said here, but my perception is very different on a few things.

ben, i agree with most of your second comment, but not so much of your first. this part has not been what i've observed: If you don't make the "first cut," i.e. get that early job that gives you some connections or a "profile" as the kids now say you're basically up shits creek.

maybe with the high-profile programs like iowa, columbia and stanford, a lot of people get noticed on the way out. i've read about that. but going through the U Co program, none of us were going to get noticed that way, we were all on our own. and some have made it, all different ways.

a lot of my writer friends are from my undergrad days at U of IL, 25 years ago, and various other connections. i know maybe two dozen people who have published books, and their stories of how they got there are remarkably different.

it seems to me that there are a whole lot of avenues into this biz. i think keying onto one particular way and being frustrated that it's not likely to work for you is selling yourself short. there are lots of ways in.

i think it's also worth saying that i think one avenue which a lot of MFAers key on as THE route--up through the lit journals--is usually a dead end. correct me if others know of many success stories there. i think that's generally a path merely to more publication in lit journals. if that's what you want, fine, but i think a lot of people expend a lot of energy thinking that's their route to a book deal.

i think your perception of the conferences route is also correct: that that's rarely a way in.

i'm curious why you have such a negative perception of literary agents. my perception is that there are several dozen stellar ones out there, maybe up to a hundred. (maybe that's what you meant: that there are merely that many and then quality falls off and most people have to settle for the second-tier. is that what you meant?)

a lot of agents now are former editor, and damn good ones. yes, it's very hard to break in with one of those, but you only have to click with one.

getting the right agent is key. my first one was not right for me, so i put a lot more energy into selecting the second time. i've been with betsy lerner for eight years, and she's the best thing that ever happened to me, with the possible exception of joan walsh. a good agent doesn't just sell your books, she is your primary career adviser, almost manager on big-pic stuff, co-editor of your books (usually the more dominant editor) and your book proposals, helps you choose your projects and refines them, and also your advocate with the publisher when problems arise. betsy has done all that for me, really well. she has also helped with marketing stuff--she rewrote my flap copy a week ago when we didn't like what the publisher came up with (and they loved her draft, so there was no fight). she also warns me when she thinks i'm handling anything wrong.

most of my friends are also really happy with their agents. several of them took at least two tries to find the right one. it's almost like getting married: you don't really know what you're getting into or what you might need in a mate until you've plunged in.

It took me all day to get to this post, and now I have to say, not the best thing to read just before trying to sleep---too depressing:).

Great conversation going on here.

Did you see the NY Times article this week on this very subject? I'll try to figure out how to post it here---if I can't , I'll try putting up a separate post. It is relevant.
silk, i'm not sure about some of those figures you cite. i think the $1/book refers to paperbacks, right? or possibly regional or university presses. i have no idea what they pay.

the NY publishers have a standard royalty schedule, which is 15% of the cover price on hardcovers after the first 10,000 copies. (i think it's 10% on the first 5,000 and 12.5% on the second 5,000.)

for a book priced $26-27, that comes out to right about $4/book on hardcovers.

for paperback i think it's 7.5% for trade and 10% for mass market, or maybe i have them reversed. i can check if anyone wants. but it generally comes out in the range of $1 or a bit more on most paperbacks.

it's true that most books only sell a few thousand copies, but those aren't really considered doing well.

i think 20,000 copies in hardcover is a minor success but definitely midlist (probably lower midlist), and 50,000 would be considered selling very well but still quite short of a bestseller. those would translate to $80,000 and $200,000 respectively, plus paperback (where the royalty is lower, but volume much higher), and possible foreign and movie sales.

so a successful author is going to make a lot more than a few thousand dollars, but probably less than it sounds.

consider that big success of $200,000. the agent gets 15%, or $30,000, so you're down to $170,000.

you have to pay self-employment tax of i think 15%, in addition to federal and state income tax. if you have a day job with other income, maybe your state+federal income tax is 25%, so with self-employment, 40% goes to the government (but you're not taxed on what you paid your agent.) so you're down to $102,000 after tax. about half.

if you work three years writing it and then about a year and a half working 2/3 time on the following: editing phase, all the pre-pub stuff and then promoting it after it comes out, you've spent four man-years on it, probably working much longer than 40 hour weeks.

that comes out to $25,500 per year in take-home pay, but with no health insurance, pension, 401K or any other benefits.

that's for a big success--though not bestseller. if you do well with paperback, foreign, film, you may bring that to $40 or maybe $50K per year.

if you're slower, like me, it can cut your annual take in half.

if you started with the modest success of 20,000 copies, you're looking at about $10,000 year from the hardback after taxes but before health insurance, etc. and in that range, you're unlikely selling to hollywood or overseas, or getting a huge add-on from the paperback. and if you're slow, like me, it's more like $5,000.

that's for a book that outsold the bulk of your peers, but didn't "break out."

so it's very hard to make a living on books, though it can be done. i have a few friends who do it, though most only get part of their income that way, and supplement with teaching, freelancing, etc.
New York Times article on writing and publishing and fairness--- by Timothy Egan:

i thought about it more and a lot of people i know made it into books via magazines, though that may be due to my journalism background, and more a reflection of my peer group.

but it is a good way in. i wasn't really interested in going back into journalism ten years ago, but did what i had to do, and it worked, slowly.

five years in, i thought it was not working, because progress had been slow, and my agent said it typically takes ten years, if you're lucky, and my glacial progress was really good. she also said it's a really good way into books and keep at it, i was maybe halfway there. and it turned out to be almost exactly ten years.

when i started, i thought i'd brush aside naysayers and shoot for the top, so i queried the NYer, Atlantic, Harpers, GQ and Esquire many times. that was a big wasted effort. they're not really entry-level.

In These Times and Pacific News Service did well for me, and I know a lot of people who broke into places like that. They only pay a couple hundred bucks, but that's kind of good, because it keps some of the competition down. They're still very selective and highly regarded, but you can get in that way. And you can build from there.

One op-ed in Pacific News Service, followed by some querying is what got me into Salon the first time. I don't know if that's a typical route. It helped that that was one of my better pitches and I ran into Joan, who was News Editor then, and I think we shared some sensibilities. She liked my piece, and it clicked. She might have hated a lot of other things I might have come to her with, or another editor might have hated that one. There's quite a bit of luck and timing involved, but if the odds are 100 to 1 against you every time, that means you have to pitch a hundred times, on average.

I would recommend either of those, and your local city magazine if you're in a small/medium city like Denver. (Not if you're in NY, where New York magazine is a plum gig, or even Chicago.) But those big cities surely have smaller local mags I'm not familiar with. I've never tried this, but I've been told that a lot of niche mags pay pretty well, and are much easier to break into. I mean magazines on golf or wine or parenting or cigars. They do well in ad revenue by playing to a niche.

Basically, start by pitching to any pub that accepts a fair number of unpublished authors. There's sort of a pecking order in magazines and it's very hard to move up more than one rung at a time.

And that's probably fine, because you tend to get much better as you do it, so by the time you work your way up to the big ones, you've got the chops to make it there.

(Not that I ever got to the big ones, but lots of people I know have. I watch, and talk to them a lot about it. In my case, I got my book deal five years in and opted out of the mag world, mostly. It is SO freaking hard to make a living as a freelancer. I managed to live off it for about three years, but barely. Then I started going into debt.)

I would not recommend freelancing as a full-time job. Very stressful and painful. Most people who are good at it seem to take a staff position after awhile and give up the grind. I didn't really want to do that. My primary interest was/is books. I might have done it a lot differently if I had to do it again, though. Hopefully I won't have to. God.
I think I come from the most supportive family in the world. When I told them, at the ripe age of four, that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, they told me I'd be a great artist. When, at eight, I told them I wanted to be a poet, they said that fit me perfect (and didn't mention that about two people a generation can actually make a living from poetry.) By junior high I wanted to be a teacher, and they said I would be a natural. Throughout all of this, I was a prolific (if not fantastic) writer, and they always said how great I was. When I finally told them this year, afraid they would think I had my head in the clouds, that I was writing my first book, they said, "Finally!" Throughout my life, I've had so much encouragement from friends, family, teachers and coworkers.

Yet the one comment about my writing that sticks with me most is from someone who never even read anything I'd written. He was one of the people I respected most in the world, a mentor (though clearly not a writing mentor.) When I commented that I wanted to start writing a book, he quickly replied that I was way too young to tackle something like a book. I should wait to get some "real experience" first.

This really crushed me. It so crushed me that (despite printing out a list of authors who had published even younger than me for him) I allowed it to stifle what I wanted to do. I looked at every attempt at a book as childish, amateurish. I didn't allow that he had never even read anything I'd done, nor did I allow that he was one negative voice in the chorus of positive.

Although I am going after the book now, I really lost years because I listened to stupidity. I'm impressed with your determination, and hope you keep it up.
Appreciate the continued interest in this post!

Dave, thanks so much for all your long comments. I think your advice is great, esp the one to try to break into magazines that are local or more niche until you have some clips. I've heard that advice a lot and I think it's how many writers get their start.

I also think your numbers on publishing are correct. Mine were specific to a scenario that this speaker was addressing (and my own interest), which is literary fiction or memoir. Many of those books are published straight to a ("quality") paperback version, and yes, the royalty is about $1. Most of those books only sell a few thousand at best, except for the rare ones that "hit". Yet you'd know these authors' names, they are considered "successful" or even prestigious and win awards. But most still have day jobs like teaching or write other stuff that pays better because their "real" writing, while successful in its genre, doesn't pay much.

The numbers for hardcover are larger, as you detail, but as you also know it's harder to get published hardcover (to start with, it almost always means a larger publisher, and there are few left and they want mostly very commercial work). And your books don't stay in that form for long unless you sell well (2 months in the bookstore is the frightening number I heard last year, before they're remaindered). Then it's on to softcover if you sold well enough to justify it.

I always heard the threshold for "best seller" was 50,000. And I don't think that's small number, especially given most books even by major publishers sell 10% of that number or less. Yes, there are the mega best sellers that sell 100,000's or even millions of copies, but those are even rarer, of course.

One thing that makes it difficult to know the skinny is that publishers are notoriously secretive about all this stuff, including there is no central reliable source to find out how much book X sold, unless the publisher trumpets it, and they only do this for mega best sellers. I found this out when doing competitive research for my book proposal -- I couldn't find sales numbers on similar books but did find various articles that talked about this lack of transparency.

The publishing biz is still in many ways a"riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" - and they try to keep it that way.
M.a.h., I'm sorry I depressed you! Hope you got some sleep. Thanks for posting the article link - I'll hop over and read it after I finish responding to comments here.

Forgot to also say to Dave that I agree from observation about what you said about finding a good agent. I've also seen friends have to dump the first one and find the good second one.

Raven, it's amazing how one person's comment at a formative age can really whack us, isn't it? I'm sorry that you had that. I do think our writing only gets better with age, because of both life experience but also writing practice, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't all write from an early age. And there are certainly lots of precocious writers that write as if they were 20 years older. Not to mention the writers that are able to capture something special precisely because they are young.
Ah, m.a.h., I had read that NYT Op-Ed - it's great!

for those who haven't, it's ranting about Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin getting book deals while being nearly incoherent. very satisfying rant!
The "depressing" comment actually took me by slight surprise. It made sense once I thought for a sec, but I don't really see it that way.

(Cliche alert, but my honest opinion): Writing is a freaking hard life to take on, and it's personally beat me up a lot, but I'm also deleriously happy.

I'm still driving my '91 Nissan Stanza that I bought 17 years ago, I still live in Denver because I can't afford to move to NY, I get most of my groceries from Sam's Club, and I live in a pretty run-down building on a shitty street. I've gone into debt. But it's safe and homey and I'm never hungry, and I splurge on a separate studio down the hall to work.

I've had two bouts of PTSD from covering a tragedy for ten years, and one bout of severe depression about my career about six years ago, where I was having trouble gettting out of bed, and the utilities started getting shut off, because I had not opened my mail for months.

Those were some shit times. But mostly I've really enjoyed it. I love what I do. I still do a double-take when people talk about the relief that the work day or week is nearly over. I'[m always fretting that it comes too soon. I have trouble sleeping often, because I want to get back in here and do more of it.

If I could go back and be reborn as an infant and recast as any kind of person with any calling I chose, I think I'd choose writer. I'd make that bargain again.

It's not for everyone, though. There's a famous quote by a famous author discussing MFA programs for writers, where they asked if she wasn't afraid that the programs actually discouraged a lot of young writers. "Not nearly enough," she replied. (I hope I got that right.)

My mentor in grad school was incredibly encouraging about our work, but on the choice of how to spend our lives, she was much more stern. She quoted that line several times, and said know what you're getting into. It's going to be hard and painful start to finish. Few people ever get a book deal, and if you're one of the lucky ones, wait till the critics take you one. And then people you write about. And then . . .

If it seems daunting now, get out. It will get much worse.

You just have to know that going in and decide if you love it enough to pay the heavy price. Once you do, it's kind of liberating. Or you can decide to dabble, and move forward if/when things start clicking.

Writers don't tend to be great planners, and I think poor planning contribues to the problem. Most writers I met in school had no plan. They entered grad school with student loans already piling up, dug in deeper for three years there (hardly anybody finished in two), and left with big debt and poor job prospects.

most of them took a nasty day job, had little energy left to write nights/weekends and let it slip away.

i've seen some make it work, but it sure seems like stacking the deck against you.

i saw a lot more success from people who went in their early/mid-30s or later--in terms of having seen much more of the world to write about, many more years developing their writing, and a much better financial situation and job opportunities for when they left.

i recommend doing some of your whore-work sacrificing BEFORE you go to writing school rather than after.
I've heard that MFA quote many times and it always makes me laugh. (Although I don't have an MFA, I do have a "useless" liberal arts MA, which I enjoyed getting.)

I agree with everything you wrote. There's also that old saying about not writing because you want to, but because you have to. And most writers who succeed have that kind of, well, compulsion. Like you, Dave, they are eager to write, even when it's hard, even when it causes them pain or lowered standards of living.

I think there's something different operating around publishing, though, which to me is entirely a separate beast from writing.

People can be driven to write and yet never publish or never even want to. Writing is their therapy, but they don't feel the need to share it. Or writing is their craft and they work away at it but never feel it's good enough to share. Or they only share it with a small circle of people. etc.

Other people are not so much driven to write, as driven to publish. They want to be a published writer (for any number of reasons) and they do everything they can to accomplish that.

These 2 activities are entirely separate. One is creating and one is marketing.

Most people are only good at one, at most. Being good at marketing will really really help you get published, but it says nothing about the quality of your writing or your passion for it. I'd say that few great writers and not even very many good writers are also good marketers. So what happens to them?

And to me, that's the sad thing. It's just not enough any more to have talent and send it out and get published. There's a lot more competition and hoops to jump through - including even after you get your book published, when you are now expected to basically do your own marketing for the most part. And publishers want to buy books from writers who have a "platform" - a built-in audience who will buy the book so they don't have to try to sell it.

All this is cold hard reality but it's incompatible with what makes a good or great writer. As I always joke, writers are shy people who write because they don't want to get up and perform in front of groups of people in order to get their ideas out there. And yet that's precisely what writers have to do now.

There have been some articles theorizing about how most great writers of the past would have done if they were writing now. Most would be failures who would never get published, or if they did, would sell very little. Is Emily Dickinson going to go on Oprah? What about JD Salinger?

On the upside, Shakespeare would have made it. But then he started as an actor.

on the economics, you're right, there is a fair amount that goes straight to trade paperback. i'm not sure how much, really, or whether there's more of it in lit fiction and memoir. i've never followed that market closely.

but i'm pretty sure that anyone most of us have heard of has sold a lot more than a few thousand copies of their books, especially in paperback. and if they're winning big awards, they're in hardcover. (do the major awards even accept paperbacks? maybe. i thought they didn't. but i can't recall a paperback on the short list for any of the ones i follow, much less winning.)

you're right that publishers notoriously hide sales figures on the small books, but with bookscan, people who subscribe (like Publishers Weekly) can make very educated estimates.

PW does an annual report on the bestsellers of the year, where they usually cite what the cuttoff was for number of copies sold by the books that spent just a week or two on their bestseller list. i could swear that it's usally around 100-150k , but i didn't want to mention a number without looking it up. i'll go try to find it.

i think too many people get dissuaded by this idea: "there are few left and they want mostly very commercial work."

the NY publishers have consolidated, but they are still pumping out millions of books, most of the adult trade market. the smaller number of corps mean it's tougher for your agent to get bidding going in an auction, but they are still publishing a lot of books.

and it's true that the NY editors are hungry for books that will sell, they are also mostly in the biz because they fell in love with books, and they're actually most eager to find books they love which they can also figure out how to sell. that's their dream. "commercial" can mean a lot of things. it doesn't mean it has to be crap, just a book they think they can find readers for.

go through the bookstore shelves. you will find load of literary fiction and literary nonfiction there, published this year, in hardcover. and most of it will have the stamp of a big NY publisher on the spine. in the bestsellers section, more than half will be big names already. in the "New Non/Fiction" sections, fewer will be, but still a lot. Lots of nonames will be in there, too, trying to break out. And in the rest of the store, lots of nonnames will abound (if it's a big store).

It's tough to get published by a NY publisher just based on being a great book, and tougher still to hit the bestseller list, but it can be done and is done.

Somebody gets there. I plan to be one of them, before I die. Maybe I'll get there, maybe I won't, but I'm going to try.
OK, I found the PW annual recaps for most of the last several years. (The year I listed is year of publication, January story on the previous year):

2004: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA374060.html

2006: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6297555.html?nid=3333

2007: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6404616.html?nid=3333

2008: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6522043.html?q=bestsellers+2007

i could not find the bit about how many copies required to hit the list. that must have been in sidebars. i don't know if i can find them online. (the annual print recap issue has all sorts of sidebar info packed in there. i know i've seen the figure and i think it's in there every year.)

each year's piece also ranks all the imprints and all the conglomarates in two seperate lists, btw, if you're interested in seeing share of the bestseller world. the figures for each big house tend to remarkably similar year after year.

a few tidbits:

"It takes a lot of publishing dollars and muscle to get books onto the national charts, and that's the key reason conglomerates dominate the lists. In 2007, six houses—Random House, Penguin USA, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette and Holtzbrinck—controlled 87.5% of all the slots on the weekly hardcover lists and 83.3% of all paperback slots. Add three more publishers on the hardcover side (see chart, p. 29) and the figure is up to 92.3%; in paperback, four more publishers make the number 93%. This domination by just 10 publishing entities does not leave many bestseller opportunities for the hundreds of other publishers."

"With about 200,000 titles published annually, less than 1% make the national charts. As we have said many times on these pages, the bestsellers are the books that get the most attention. But more often than not, the other 99% are what makes publishing worthwhile. "

"Debut novels had one of their poorest showings in 10 years. Only two—Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (Morrow) and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen (Bantam)—made the weekly charts. Dominating the fiction charts were veteran players"

(it's been different in previous years. the 2004 story said):

"For the last three years, debut fiction has fared well. In 2004, nine first-time novelists took up about 14% of all available slots on the weekly hardcover fiction lists. In 2005, first fiction was down to 10%: seven newcomers plus two first fiction titles from the previous year."

I was speaking from my experiece. I've got 40ty years of it in NYC. I don't send out my material any longer. It isn't worth the effort. I've been given the bums rush one to many times, and when I've made the effort to find out who the person has been who gave it to me discovered nobody was home.

It could just be what one has to say, and what I have to say hasn't found a listener. I'm glad you made it, at least for one manuscript, I get you as a caring and insightful guy. At least I can blog and they can't shut me down.
Dave makes a great point. I am a published author. The "little" caveat is that a French publisher bought my manuscript and published it last fall. The good news is that I got a check and it was decent. The bad news is that I can't read my own book! Then the questions, "How is the book doing? Why can't you get it published in the U.S.?" "When will it be published in the U.S.?" Every time I try to get an ego over it, I get humbled. Great post!
Thanks for all that data, Dave! I've been mostly offline for a couple days and am trying to catch up so haven't looked at your links yet. It is interesting that it's so much harder to get firm data on publishing than it is on just about any other industry in the US (I bet getting steel production numbers is easier!). It's still a voluntary and entirely patchwork reporting system, AFAIK, and the publishers often seem loathe to disclose sales except on their big sellers. (And sometimes to their authors, as I hear tell -- under reporting sales to authors is supposedly nearly as common as creative accounting is in Hollywood.)

MaryT, thanks - and that's funny! What a fascinating experience to sell your book but only in another language.
Sorry, Dave, there was so much in your last couple posts that I'm still digesting it!

But wanted specifically to say, yeah, I think the selling of literary fiction and memoir (my genre) is very different from your genre (non-fiction, reportorial-based material). The short version is...you're in a more commercial, salable genre.

You can also do things like sell a book before it's written, on a proposal, whereas fiction and memoir are only sold after being completed. There's a huge amount of competition in literary fic/memoir, and only more so every year. And yes, much of it is sold straight to paperback, including books that go on to win awards. And not all award winners sell much. I've been at quite a few writing conferences with authors like that!

e.g., I attended a workshop in the early 1990's taught by Robert Olen Butler just after he won the Pulitzer Prize and despite having several books published already, he'd been slogging away teaching at a small state college -- and continued to do so after winning the Pulitzer. That's not uncommon. And...I don't think his books before or since the prize winner have sold much.
I know I'm late to the party Silky - but oh man! I think there should be some sort of help group on submissions! The same can be said of screenplays. On my first go 'round, I sent out nearly 300 query letters - just to be able to submit the script! On my second script, I didn't do nearly as many and I first sent out about 25 via email and got requests from 12 - not bad odds. Shockingly good odds. And one of the first to respond is the production company my script is in Development (hell) with now. It can happen. Don't get discouraged.

It's quite a maze we must work through. I took it on as a "extended learning" class in my head. Another thing to try is getting an agent. I know, I know.... There are several books on the market that list all the literary agents, what they are looking for and who you should submit to. They are LOOKING for writers to represent. Once I get these boxes unpaced, I can give you some titles that might help.

Bottom line though - KEEP WRITING!

Maybe we should start a paper/mag ourselves just so we can all get published!
Oh, I guess the really important thing to remember is to use spell-check! unpaced=unpacked......
Well, I doubt I would ever get published, truly haven’t tried not thinking I have enough going to have others what I write. It took a couple of years to finely take the advice of friends to even blog. The loved what I wrote and felt I should share it.

I write small vignettes, kind of memories. Now beginning what is a series on OS, not literary but regarding music, folk music and folklore. Working for the last several years with Folk Musicians presenting concerts and working with Festival as well as radio I can say the music industry is similar in trying to get recognized as well.

In regards to having your work taken seriously, in Folk Music Steven Foster’s influence on contemporary music is huge and yet few are aware of him or that he died broke 150 years ago.

I must admit I had to overcome the intimidation I initially felt for posting to OS as so many bio’s read “teaching creative writing, writer, published in so and so, MFA etc.” You get my drift.

For me I come from a “knuckle dragging Neanderthal, machismo, testosterone poisoned” occupation not necessarily known to produce literate individuals let alone a writer. So for me, I am just glad people read what I write and have to admit with the feedback I have received look to see my head finely fit my writers hat, I doubt I will outgrow it though as OS has far too many excellent writers , far better than I can aspire to become.
"...or actually irritated that they can’t just solve my problem on the spot. "

Yes, yes, and more yes.
the publishing world is changing and maybe you need to follow one of the age old routes of doing it yourself. not for everything, but for some. you obviously have an audience here and it could translate into book sales... some of the options available to us are not terribly expensive (nothing is free unless you don't value your time)... i'm involved with folks who do this in the Bay Area...

maybe do a small book and see what happens. the slog through agents and traditional house can be demoralizing.

by the way, i thought the author royalty came off the wholesale price (which can be 45% of the retail) rather than the cover price -- but i suppose it all depends on the contract.

and it does take a fair amount of effort, time, and money to publish a book -- it's just so sad that publishing is looking more like the movie business and going after blockbusters whereas in the past they often used best sellers to support the books they felt were "important" but not might sell as well.

so many other hands -- there are so many publishers -- just keeping track is hard to do.

keep writing. keep putting it out there. ideas and words and books matter.


great thread.

silk, i write lit fiction too--though i haven't had time in quite awhile--and so so many of my published friends, whose experience i rely on. and my first book proposal i got an agent to accept and hawk to the NY publishers was a memoir. (different agent, my first, and it didn't sell.)

you're right that fiction has to be written before you sell, but memoirs do sell on proposal. i know that for sure because i went to market with one--and my agent assured me they didn't want to read the book, just the proposal and one sample chapter. (all the big books on book proposal included memoirs as well.)

it's very tough, in all genres. and believe me, selling a book about dead children was no easy feat. yes, it was a famous crime, but there was massive early resistance first on the idea that the mass media exposure made a book unnecessary, and later that no one would buy a book on such a depressing topic.

it's all about finding the right topic for you, and also developing your voice to the point that editors and agents want to represent it. and as lea said, getting yourself out there.

if it's out there, and they like it, they will often come to you. my salon About The Author years back said i was working on a memoir, and several big NY book editors emailed asking to see it. that doesn't mean they were ready to buy. i decided it needed a complete reworking and then got diverted, so i never showed it to them, so i'll never know. but it was the first step. (and i stayed in touch with them, asked them for advice. one was jon karp, who ended up publishing my book nearly ten years later.)

bottom line: it's really hard to make a living, or even get published, but it happens. most don't get there, but some do, and it can be you if you want it badly enough and get good enough.
i thought the author royalty came off the wholesale price (which can be 45% of the retail) rather than the cover price -- but i suppose it all depends on the contract.

a lot of people seem to think that, but no, for the big NY publishers it is standard, based on the cover price.

there are all sorts of exceptions for remainders, book club sales, ebooks, etc., but for conventional sales, that's what it is.

(you can confirm w/ PW and/or any books on writing publishing, but i've been under contract with three of the big five--Random, Penguin and now Hachette, and that part is exactly the same. the bulk of the contracts are essentially the same. and you can see what is specific to your contract, because the way they do it is send the boilerplate contract with changed clauses struck out and the new language in the margin. (so you can see what your agent got you, for example--though i have a feeling that there are a bunch of things that agents generally ask for and are routinely changed, so that every new author thinks, 'wow, look what my agent got me!')

i have no idea whether the rates are different and/or nonstandard for local, regional and uni presses. i would guess that the rates are lower, since they can't make their profit on volume.
I know for a fact literary agents read stuff on Open Salon looking for work, for what's that worth.
glad to hear that, bob.


i can't say i know it, because none of them have contacted me. damn!

(actually, i don't recall any agent ever contacting me, but book and mag editors and a film producer have.)


that reminds me of one other potentially useful anecdote: i had to query like hell for most of my breaks, but one of the big ones came effortlessly. my first op-ed in the NY Times came when an editor there called and asked if i wanted to do a piece for them. (i was incredulous, and actually asked him, "Does anyone ever answer no to that question?")

i also asked him how he found me. he wanted a rare reported piece for their op-ed page, and the event was going to be in denver, so he said he googled "denver writer." he clicked on the first ten or so, skimmed through our work, read more on the ones he liked and when he decided he liked mine best, he called.

i assume he had primarily seen my salon work, since that's most of what i had out there then.

you never know who the hell will come looking for what, but if you keep putting enough good shit out there, you drastically raise your odds that they'll run into you.
You're exactly right, Dave. Just keep throwing paper airplanes out your window and one will stick. I know my own agent reads stuff here (and I was embarrassed for a moment worried she saw maybe some of the stuff I posted!). If you get in Salon cover you're definitely having some agents see your stuff. The key is exposure. It's hard to be bashful and modest AND a successful writer.
Hey folks! my head is swimming with some untimely virus but I got email showing I had all kinds of new comments and so checked in here (esp mystified as I haven't posted anything new for days).

I'm too fuzzy-headed right now to respond to specifics of your comments (although I enjoyed them all!) but just wanted to post to say I'm so thrilled to see that this post has had "legs" (as they say) because I think so many of us have had the same frustrations. And sharing not onlly that but also what has worked (for at least some folks here!) is a great thing - the best thing about online communities like OS.

so thanks and I hope to be back with less fogbrain in the next day or two and respond more specifically.
I sent out a lot of stuff about a decade ago, then got tired of being turned into a mail clerk. Why bother? it isn't worth the time and money. Maybe with electronic submissions its a lot easier, but I would guess they stil demand SASEs and manuscripts to hang onto for 6 months. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try try again. Then give up. There's no use being a damn fool about it" - W.C. Fields.
I live in a rural area and we have two, small, local newspapers that come out once a week. The population here is pretty educated, but there was nothing ever worth reading in the papers. Finally, I told the older paper I wanted a column and I was coming back every week until they said yes.

Well, they did. I got ten bucks for each column and I wrote two a month. That was the deal. Well, it was the hottest thing in the paper and after a number of years, I asked for a raise up to 25.00 per column.

The opposing paper heard about it and offered me 30.00. I took it. It's only 60 bucks a month, but I look forward to it--grocery money, and I have a reputation in town for being a good writer.

I got so many requests for past columns that I self-published two books and sold them in my studio, making a decent profit/return on my initial investment. (Unless you have a guaranteed outlet to sell your books, I don't recommend self-publishing.)

I've recently finished a novel I've been working on for a long time. It's a long shot to get published. I'll give it a year. If nothing happens, I might just self publish this, too.

Hey Gary! I didn't realize someone had commented on this post recently. I appreciate your sharing your experience, which serendipitously is an insight into just the scenario posed in Mari McNeil's current blog posting where I just mentioned this one of my own again! (whew, I feel dizzy just trying to write that kind of circular connection.)
Great post, Silkstone. Unfortunately, it's very true and people who are not writers, or who have not attempted to get published, do not understand. The comments on here are terrific, too. It explains why I spend my time writing here on OS rather than work on marketing my kid lit book. This feels nice. Marketing? I think I'd rather pry out my eyeballs!
Silkstone, I've just spent a very long time reading this post/thread, thinking all along that it happened tonight. Toward the end, I eagerly looked at the time stamp on one of the last comments, hoping to see that you guys were all still around, discussing this, that I'd see something close to my time here of 1 am. Come to find out this party is long over--that you all talked back in December! Count me as seriously disappointed to have missed it but lucky to have found it (no idea how).

So much insight going on here, and generosity on Dave's part for giving everyone the skinny. And I'm with you on the demoralizing truth that being talented in writing is not enough, that selling is necessary as well. Like you, selling is not my cup of tea. I'm not interested or good at it. The funny thing is that I've hardly tried. I get all muddled when I begin to think I'm going to get into the magazine market. I get the bible, The Writers Market, and I pore over it and pick out my targets but then it fizzles. I did send a couple of things out way back in the 90s and got rejected--Parenting type mags--and not having a forum like this, I had no idea that everybody gets rejected a lot. I was sort of devastated. In retrospect, just three or four rejection letters feels like a ridiculous threshold to have become a barrier. But I didn't know.

I do have a few questions. One is the idea you mention that publishers don't want stuff published online. Do they specifically ask if the material you're submitting has been published online? Because couldn't you just delete the post in question? Or is there something about promising exclusive rights that specifically includes a clause that your material has not been published online. I ask this b/c someday I'd like to publish a series of vignettes about my teaching experience, but I like to try them out here on OS. I've really only done one so far (my post called Middle School Substitute) but I am working on another one that is appropriate for Lincoln's birthday and I was going to post it. Do you think that I shouldn't if I want to someday include it in some kind of published work? What about changing it very slightly, so that when you are giving it to the publisher, you can honestly say it's not been previously published?

Secondly, on the idea of an agent--Do people just hire agents without any actual manuscript yet? I mean, would you hire an agent if you wanted to simply explore the commercial magazine market more than the lit market you've been looking at? I don't really understand the agent thing, and living in Cleveland, I don't even know where they are in relation to me.

I suppose it's silly that I'm spending time writing this when you probably won't be back to this posting. Maybe I'll PM you and force you back here! Thanks for generating such a good discussion :)
Lisa and Lainey, FTR, I do check back on older posts to see if they get new comments and am happy to see if they have a life beyond the first 24 hours or so!

Lisa, I hear ya. Prying eyeballs out sounds just about right to me. (Although my preferred expression has always been, "I'd rather stick pins in my eyes" to convey what I hate to do.)

Lainey, thanks for PMing me and I'm happy to respond!

I agree Dave was incredibly generous with his advice here (and on some other threads). I have bookmarked his thoughts as they're so meaty they bear re-reading!

Re: online publication. I advise going to the websites (everyone has one now) of any publication you are thinking of submitting to and looking for their Submission or Writer's Guidelines. This will tell you more than Writer's Market does, and be up to date. All the sites I've seen say that they will not accept anything that's already appeared online, period, including "on a blog" (to make it clear they're not just talking online mags).

I think there are 3 main reasons for this:

One is a kind of snobbery held over from print days mixed with the "have you really been published or just..." (fill in the blank, including "self-published" or "published online"). Online publication is now not only often equivalent to print but can get you greater exposure but that's a fairly recent phenomenon. It was considered a wasteland or outlet for losers until then and some still see it that way.

A second reason is that something that's already appeared online isn't fresh and may already have exhausted its readership. Magazines want what no other publication has.

The third thing is pragmatic, which is to avoid publishing something that is plaigarized. It can be devilishly hard to determine who wrote something online (esp since so many people publish under pseudonyms) and of course it would be all too easy to steal someone's online work and send it in somewhere.

As for can you do it and get away with it....keep in mind that editors can Google just like the rest of us. And deleting stuff doesn't necessarily remove it. There are cached pages, and there's also the chance someone quoted from your post or linked it somewhere online. I would bet that when editors get down to publishing something (or even saying they will buy it) most now first Google a unique phrase from the manuscript to see if it turns up anywhere. It takes a minute and it could save them scads of grief. (An exception would be if you wrote about it on a blog that is private -- i.e., invitation only to view. Even then I've seen phrases pop up online on searches, but you just can't access the whole post.)

So the short answer would be....if you want to use your writing again, I wouldn't publish it here, at least not in whole form. I think just changing a little wouldn't be enough to satisfy an editor who checks on your work, and again, I think most probably do. If it's really a substantial rewrite, that would be different.

As for getting an agent...you don't hire them, they hire you. You have to win an agent the same way you win a publisher -- by giving them some writing that they think they can sell. That's what's so tough about it. And it's unlikely an agent will take someone on who has only written short pieces unless they've been substantially published -- e.g., had pieces in prominent mags or newspapers. Most agents are looking for writers with book projects, because that's where the money is. If you have a full-on proposal for a non-fiction book or a fully written novel or memoir, that's the time to look for an agent. But first read some recent books on that process, including how to write a book proposal - it's a very specific document, and agents now require them most of the time (all the time from "unknown" writers) -- it used to be be only publishers did, but the bar gets ever higher, alas.

I hope all that helps and isn't too discouraging! If you have shorter pieces, I'd suggest sending them out to smaller mags and targeted publications -- e.g., there must be professional orgs associated with teaching that would love well-written first person pieces from teachers. I'd look for mags like that and start there vs. more general interest mags, although if your stories would appeal to parents, that's a target audience too. (both parenting mags and general interest) IOW, think about smaller markets to get started, as Dave advises.
Thanks, Silkstone, for your thorough and thoughtful answer. I take it, then, that you do not write on OS anything that you think is otherwise marketable? This presents a bit of a problem for OS, doesn't it, given that they have made it clear that excellent writing content is their priority over social networking? It seems that everyone is saving their best stuff for other venues, which kind of encourages the community aspect here.
You're welcome!

Yes, someone just commented in another blog thread (I think it's "Why I love OS") that this issue and also the TOS which suggests Salon may own the content probably contribute to it being more of a community site than the writer's site that it's supposed to be.

And, no, I don't post anything here that I'm thinking of submitting somewhere. Although I can't say some ideas that float through my posts might not get recycled into a later essay or something else.

But another way to think about it...what do you want in terms of "getting published"? And can that be fulfilled by posting here on OS? If so, then post away and don't worry about it. It's a long shot to get your work in print, in any case, so it's possible you could be saving it and then it won't end up out in the world at all -- including if, like many of us, the hard work of trying to get published isn't something you want to invest your time and energy into.
You're right that it seems silly to save stuff that may not ultimately get published; I've thought about that. I've also considered that building a body of excellent work on OS may in fact be used somewhere along the way. That is, a fairly well received body of work here (in terms of EPs or loyal readership or something) may turn into something fruitful later, and if that means putting good stuff out there now, so be it. Do you know what I mean?

I'm someone who really does want to turn this writing into something paid, although I'm quite realistic about the prospects of actually supporting myself on it. At no point am I expecting to do that. But I currently work part-time and I like the idea of transitioning into writing for pay or teaching writing at the high school or college level. (I used to teach English at a business college but then stayed home with kids and they have since required more than a bachelor's in English. Problem is that my master's degree--to be obtained in about six months--is in Interdisciplinary Studies, not English or MFA). Some of the work I'm talking about was submitted for a literary journalism grad class taught by an Iowa Writer Workshop MFA prof, and she suggested, unsolicited, that I try to publish it. But I don't really know where to begin. She mentioned that a nearby college, Kent State, just published some sort of education-focused, creative nonfiction collection and I just missed it. Is this what some of you are talking about re: "lit journals"?

Isn't it weird talking about this so coldly and calculatingly? This is what I hate, b/c I don't want to be presumptuous about any of my work. Art work of any kind is just so in the eye of the beholder and it feels really weird to the creator to be talking about it in such marketing terms. It's really hard for me to approach this prof and ask, "What did you mean? Where else should I go?" I find this awfully hard.
I would definitely talk to that prof if you still can! And anyone else who knows about publishing or writing from firsthand experience - pick their brains all you can.

I don't know what terms I used but I was thinking of professional journals or magazines oriented to teaching. Not only are small mags like that far less competitive, but they are the target audience for your subject matter vs. a general interest mag that publishes all kind of stuff. Your odds are just hugely greater of getting in print, esp as an unknown writer.

I also hate being calculating about it all, but that's what it takes, I think. If you're serious about trying to get published, esp for pay, then I'd suggest doing some research by reading books on how to get published, as well as searching online for tips. There are ways to do it but they tend to be less glamorous, including writing for trade publications and smaller mags, and usually on a broader range of topics.