Sunday, September 5, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : To market: How to sell your short stories

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for To Market : How to sell your short stories :

"Submitting a story to a journal, anthology or magazine might seem as simple as attaching a  Word document to an e-mail and firing it off, but is it? How do you know the appropriate market for your fiction? How much is enough money to be paid for your work? How should you approach an editor? What are the dos and don’ts of getting published in the speculative short fiction marketplace?
Cory Doctorow, Robert Silverberg, David D. Levine, Angela Slatter"

D: Since we do have such a spectrum of time here, I’d like to have a little bit of chronological order going on here, so just  a short paragraph from each of you on how you got started.

R: Well, my model was very easy, but it’s not replicatable, since most of my stories were published in New York after a famous writer moved in next door and introduced me to the editors of his magazine and said I was a great writer and wanted to write for them, and they gave me a chance, I sold 2 stories and we all lived happily ever after.  Mostly what I did was make myself useful, so if they said they needed 75,000 words by Tuesday, I did it, and that was a good way to get started.  It was the personal contacts that really helped, as well.

C: I started sending off stories when I was 16, and I think Bob came to stories in the golden age, whereas I kind of came into fanzines where people maybe read them, but you didn’t get paid anything for it, so I sold a couple of short stories, went to Clarion and conventions, and I think that’s the typical part of my story, and I don’t think I made my writing any better, but it was the personal contacts that I made that helped, and Scott, who published my first work, I worked for him for 7 years as a columnist and was turned down by him time and time again before he finally went through with it.

D: I broke into the industry in 2001, and I became a technical writer straight out of college and never wrote fiction for 14 years because it was too much like work, and when I decided it was what I wanted to do, I went to Clarion, I sold some stories, I entered competitions and that kind of got me into the limelight.

A: I was lucky in the terms that my supervisor was really supportive, and I got my first publication, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet published, and the thing that I really learned was to follow guidelines, because publishers are the ones who decide whether or not you get out of the slush pile, and you should be polite to everyone, because you never know who you’re going to be working with, and I was approached by Tantalus to republish some of my stories as a collection, so I think I’ve been quite lucky.

R: Luck has a lot to do with it, if that one guy hadn’t needed somewhere to move to, hadn’t called Harlan Ellison who lived next door to me, he wouldn’t have introduced me to his editors, and I wouldn’t have been catapulted into stardom when I  was 20.

L: I started off my meeting my collaborator on eBay, because I bought one of his books, and said I hadn’t read any of his short stories and he said we can’t have that, so he sent me some of his stories and I pulled them apart and he said maybe I should do this myself, so we collaborated, and we sold that story, and then I wrote a couple of my own and sold those to Asimov’s and Analogue, so now all of my stories are pre-sold and I’m a Campbell nominee.  I haven’t been writing for 24 months yet, my first story was written in October 2008 and published in November.

D: Something I’m noticing is that all of these stories have a personal element to them.

R: I think you can sell short stories even if you never meet anyone, but not everyone’s Ted Chiang, and I remember going into a magazine that had just started called Infinity, and there was a table about half as long as this covered in manila folders, and he said these were the submissions he had received this week, and this is back when the world was 6 ½ million people.  I handed him my story, and he bought it, and maybe those ones on the table would be read some day, but mine got bought because I was there.

D: Along those lines, I’d only been getting form rejection letters from FNSF so far, and I met the editor, and he recognized my name because of the submissions, and he’d been watching my work get better and he was just waiting for one of my stories that was good enough to buy, and he was actually rooting for me.

C:I wanted to tell the funniest slush pile story I’ve ever heard, which was this guy who would send a terrible manuscript every week to a magazine run by Frederick Pohl – terrible grammar, spelling, everything, and it got to the point where Frederick was leaving the magazine, so he sat down and wrote a personal rejection letter to this guy, saying very politely that maybe he just wasn’t cut out to be a writer and it was a shame to see him spending all this money on postage when he wasn’t improving.  A week or so after Frederick left the magazine, a new envelope arrived, sure enough, from the same guy, with a note inside that read, “Dear Mr. Pohl, thank you for your encouraging words.  I have been sending manuscripts to you for years and have never had more than a form rejection letter and was starting to give up hope, but now I will send you a new manuscript as often as I can.” (Laughter)
R: That’s true, people will always read what they want to read.

D: “Rejectomancy”, looking at the colour of the paper, the envelope, and did he use the word ‘alas’ or not, if they ask you for more, that’s absolutely a good thing, because that means they want to see more of your work…

C: And it’s not like they don’t have enough.

R: Sometimes editors have to be careful in their acceptance letters, too, like I had a story from Ursula Le Guin, in which I said “This is not top-drawer Le Guin” which meant it wasn’t her best but it was still top drawer for everyone else, and this was just my opinion between Vicky and me, but she decided to share it with Ursula, who said “If he doesn’t like my story, why is he buying it?” and wanted to pull out her 12,00 word story, so I had to call her and say “Just because it’s not your best work doesn’t mean it’s not a masterpiece” and that calmed her down.

C: I’ll bet it did!

R: One of the worst manuscripts I ever received was from a little-known person named Gardner Dozois.  I picked it up and the selling was terrible, the grammar was terrible, but by the end of the first couple of paragraphs, he had me hooked.  I thought “This guy can’t write English, but he sure can write!”  The idea sold itself.

D: I wanted to ask - online presence seems to be very important these days.  Do you guys have a website or a blog?  Are you on Facebook?

A: My agent told me recently that I needed to set up a blog and a website, because people were looking for me, so I’ve gotten better from posting lolcats or videos from Youtube, and there’s a lot of interactions with writers from all over the world, so it’s a great way to have an online presence before you start writing, because once you get published, people are going to look for you, and it’s a good thing to have.

L: I don’t have much of an online presence, I don’t have a website, but I’ve written a couple of articles, and one recently about being a writer for the past year, and different to Angela, I’ve actually sold all of my short stories over in America, so I’m not very well-known here, but I have people come up to me at WorldCon as say they like my work.

D: I’ve had a blog since before there was a word for it, but I’ve had an online presence for many years, and I have a Livejournal blog, and people outside the science fiction community who think Livejournal is mainly for angsty teens and Russians, but there are a lot of writers who talk about the craft on there, and comment on other people’s posts and it’s really supportive (Jay Lake posts quite regularly).

C: We got in trouble for posting the first Clarion blog on Genie in 1992, and there was a little bit of the train wreck where people were arguing online, but Genie was kind of the last time all of the science fiction writers were in the same place.

R: Almost everyone.

C: You were on Genie, weren’t you?

R: No.  I Twitter not, I Facebook not, and I was too busy to be on Genie, I was too busy writing.  I have a website that is maintained for me, and something like Google Alerts that lets me know whenever my name is mentioned on a blog and occasionally I descend from Olympus and reply, and it gives the illusion that I’m connected to the 21st century.  (Laughter)  But I have a question – do you think it’s possible to make a living selling short stories these days?

C: No, because you’re still getting 3-4 cents a word.

R: And that’s what they were paying us in the 70s.

C: Right, and sometimes there are cases where you get offered $4 a word…

R: I’d write for that.

C: But a lot of those are solicitations, and in order to keep getting those, I need to keep up with the ones I get offered, an even if I could, I couldn’t live in London off that.

D: Scalzi lives in rural Ohio and he’s one of the few people who can make a living off non-fiction blogging and novels.

A: I just want to clarify, even if you submit your short story to an anthology, probably the best you’re going to get is $50 and a copy of the anthology.

C: And after you read the contract, and organize to get the money via a cheque and sometimes you need a stamp for the tax office and by the time you’ve gone and collected the darn thing you’ve made a loss, so I decided to start letting them have the rights for free, and saying that they need to publish my story free on the web under the creative commons license as well.  It’s amazing the leverage you have in a contract when you’re not getting paid for your work.

D: If you’re looking for places to send your unsolicited stories, check out and Duotrope.

C: Updated several times a day?  Are there markets opening and closing several times a day?

D: Sadly, sometimes, yes.

C: What, things like “I am paying a penny a tweet for flash fiction”?  Wait, I’m not!  (Laughter)  But I used to read Salon a lot, back in the day, and  wrote a story that I thought might fit for one of their magazines, and the editor asked me what a fair going rate for literature was, so I said I thought a dollar a word was fair…

R: Fair to who, Cory? (Laughter)

C: Well, they were paying feature article rates for normal articles, which is $1-3 per word, so a dollar a word for fiction was quite reasonable.

D: There are two very important things I’d like to tease out from what you just said, “I wrote something that I thought would fit”, so it’s best if you read a little bit of the thing you’re submitting to get an idea of what they’re after, but you have to be at least somewhat and preferably deeply aware of the markets to which you are submitting, because you might end up waiting 2, 3, 6 months for a response only to hear “sorry, this isn’t our kind of story” and you don’t want to be wasting your story’s time like that.

C: If you’re prostituting yourself for 25c a word, the problem is not that you’re prostituting yourself, but that you’re being underpaid. 

D: I was solicited for an anthology, and I looked at the theme, and I thought “What a dumb theme.  Who’d want to write that?” and one of the stories from that anthology is nominated for a Hugo tomorrow night.

C: That’s great, actually, I’ve got a story nominated at the Hugos tomorrow night and I needed an introduction. (Laughter)

D: The idea just didn’t appeal to me.

R: And you shouldn’t write for something you’re not interested in.  Going back to your dollar a word, Cory, I was asked to write a foreword for an L. Ron Hubbard re-issue, and I asked how much it would pay and he said “Oh, 2 or 3 thousand dollars” so I said “Okay, three thousand”, so it’s worth asking for more, and even if you don’t get it, the second offer is always going to sound better to the publisher.

D: Nature is a good magazine, if you can write for them, they have a very specific readership, and they will buy reprints, or podcasting, EscapePod will get your story to a lot a listeners, even if you don’t get paid.

Q: Multiple submissions?

A: Some magazines will be okay with multiple or simultaneous submissions, and don’t piss off the editors, because they will remember you, so you need to read the guidelines, that’s part of your job as a writer.

D: You should always check the website, don’t rely on someone else’s word for it, but if it doesn’t say, assume the answer is no.

R: That’s how you get automatic rejection letters.

C: I spend a lot of my time reading slush, and I’m always looking for a way to get onto the next one, and if there’s some technical issue I can use to disqualify the story so I don’t have to read it, I will, because I’ve got so much to get through, so follow the submission requirements and you have a better chance of being read.

Q: Wouldn’t it be better to do multiple or simultaneous submissions because some magazines take too long to respond?

D: My way of getting around this is too just keep writing, and keep your stories in circulation.  As soon as one comes back, send it out again, and forget about it and keep writing, because it’s not worth it to get in trouble for simultaneous submissions.

R: If you send your story to two parties, and they both accept it, you’ve lost two markets, because they will never deal with you again.

C: And things may be rejected quickly or slowly, and it’s difficult to tell whether it’s a slow rejection because they’re seriously considering it, or if it’s sitting on the desk unopened, or if it fell behind a radiator.

D: And if it’s been a while, send them a query, and usually that will knock loose a rejection letter, but sometimes it will knock loose an acceptance letter, and the sales are what really make it worthwhile.

Q: ???

D: No, there is no short fiction market that wants to see anything other than the full thing, and I mean anything under 40,000 words as short fiction. 

Closing thoughts

R: Just keep putting one word after another, and keep sending them out until either you lose heart or someone agrees with you.

L: Don’t get cocky, don’t send out multiple submissions, always do what the editor wants.

C: Perseverance, as Bob says, is key, and this is kind of heresy, I know, but I was doing this for 10 years before I got published, and some of my friends at Clarion decided no, it wasn’t worth it, and there are lots of things that can make me happier than spending 100 years waiting for arcane little slips of paper with poorly worded English saying ‘this isn’t what we were looking for’ and that’s okay.

D: but if you do want to stick with this, I’d say send out a story that comes back with a rejection letter within 24 hours, just keep it out there, and get feedback from the people who can give you feedback, so you can improve.

A: Yeah, keep writing, keep improving, and perseverance really is the key here.

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