One of the books I’ve saved for absolutely no good reason at all is my 1979 Writer’s Market. All right, I’ve saved lots of books (lots and lots) for absolutely no good reason at all, but this is a badly out-dated reference book in an era that eschews reference books even if they’re current.
I don’t know that reference books can be considered current, because reference sources on-line can change in an instant and not wait for a publication date several months away. That was one of the arguments put forth by software companies for why you should buy an on-going subscription rather than just pay once for the software on a disc: they would provide real-time updates rather than bundling them for a year. (Never mind that it’s much more lucrative to charge an on-going subscription fee rather than realize a one-time purchase from people like me, people who are still using Office 2007 because it covers all my needs and cost $25 to put on five — five! — different computers.)
But back in 1979, when I was in high school and of a mind to be a Writer, the way to go about this was with the indispensable Writer’s Market, which, like software, had to be purchased annually to stay current.
As the title suggests, this book was a marketplace: it provided listing upon listing of periodicals that accepted work from freelance writers. If I’m remembering correctly (because of course I don’t know where my 1979 copy is), it provided the magazines’ addresses, phone numbers, names of editors, rate of publication, cost of a sample issue, anything a writer would need to know to send off a hopeful packet of freelance papers, be it article, story or just a pitch, an idea for a future article/story.
This could be an expensive endeavor, if you did it right. First you would research potential markets by getting sample copies to see what the magazine’s style was and what topics had recently already been covered. Then you mailed off your manuscript with a return envelope stamped with adequate postage. Braced for rejection, you provided enough postage that they could return your entire manuscript when secretly all you wanted to give them was a #10 envelope in which they could send you a congratulatory letter and a contract agreeing to print your piece for 5 cents per word or whatever they paid.
By the time I was out of college and on to the 1984 Writer’s Market, I found within its pages a publication for one-act plays. I had written several of these for a class, so I sent one off (not bothering with the sample copy to see what the publication was like). Then I waited however long the Market told me it took that magazine to get back to queries. And I waited a little longer.
Then I sent a follow-up asking for my manuscript back. Which was stupid. The editor, who had not yet gotten around to reading my play, apparently skimmed it and sent it back as I requested. I don’t recall the exact feedback, but there was the impression that it might have gained some traction with him had I let him get to it at his own pace, which for all I know might have been a year later. Which is way too long to sit on something that you don’t want the author shopping elsewhere, but since all I did with my play was tuck it back in my files where it remains to this day, what did it matter how long he kept it?
I was not a very good freelance writer. My friend KT was diligent at it, and the late Ed Quillen, himself a prolific freelancer, stood in amazement of one of his daughters (Abby, I think) and her tenaciousness in the business. But it’s about marketing (as the title of the book implied), and I’m just not very good at that.
I didn’t sell fruitcakes door to door like I was supposed to for band in high school — I don’t even think I hit up my grandparents. My mom might have bought one, which would have been very nice since she didn’t like fruitcake. I think we might have been supposed to sell magazines for the sophomore class, but that went even less well.
I got a full-time writing job, as a reporter, within a couple of months of graduating college. In my spare time I sent out some manuscripts, like the play, and I shopped a novel around. It got two readings with one literary agency, first with a reader and then the agent herself, which is not bad, and the feedback was generally positive, but the book had a female protagonist and the agent told me it would need to be a romance to sell. (I’m hoping times have changed, and that female characters can want more out of life than romance.)
Which amounts to, “If you just change your entire book, I’m sure we can sell it.” This happened to a writing classmate in college, who had a short story nearly accepted by one of the big teen magazines (Seventeen, maybe), offering her something like $1,000 (back in 1983 and back when we were college students and that was a huge pile of money) — but only if she changed the ending of her story to make it a romance. I don’t know if she had reached a decision by the time the semester ended, and I don’t know whether she opted for artistic integrity, which doesn’t put bread on your table or give you the publication credits needed to boost one’s career, or changing the intrinsic nature (the very fabric) of her story for big cash.
Our teacher had purposely had my classmate workshop the piece and then asked us all which option to take, and the class was fairly evenly divided on whether to sell out or not. All these years later, and I still wonder from time to time which option she took.
I know which option I took, a few years later: I took my manuscript back. I entered it in a prestigious Colorado writing contest a year or two later, and got rave reviews from two of the judges — but the third one seemed to have disliked it greatly, and that score pulled me down and out of the semi-finals.
That may have been the last time I sent any fiction out. I just this past week found, while cleaning at work, an empty box suitable for sending off a novel, but of course no one probably sends boxes anymore. I imagine everything operates electronically these days, and you would send a PDF. After, of course, you sent your query letter with the requisite number of sample pages and an outline of the rest. If that’s what they still do.
Up until I read an article by the editor of some sort of comedy website about the e-mail replies he gets when he sends a rejection e-mail, it hadn’t even occurred to me how much the world of writing submission has changed. I know print markets dwindle by the day, and with so many of us putting out free content, I hadn’t realized that there might be on-line places to submit work, perhaps even for pay.
It’s a brave new world out there, and it has all passed me by, even as I cling to the remembrance of my plan to be a writer. Or I will cling to it, once I find it somewhere in this house.