Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Waiting by the Mailbox

My two-week book hiatus is over. I’m happy to get back to my draft, but it was refreshing to work on some other things for a while. One of my main projects during the break was to submit my first piece of writing for publication. I dusted off an old short story, polished it, and submitted it to a few magazines. It will likely be rejected, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the process so when I submit my novel, at least I'll have had a dry run.

Unlike for novels, magazine submissions don't usually require an agent; you can submit directly to the publisher. But the odds are stacked against you. Most magazines get thousands of submissions a year for just a few slots, and they publish less than one-half of one percent of what they receive. And these are the little-known literary magazines. For something like The New Yorker, forget about it.

If your story is accepted, you do get paid, but it's nominal - like 50 bucks. After you factor in materials (postage, envelopes, paper) and labor, you probably make around one cent per hour. And that's if your story sells. Good thing I'm not in this for the money. Still, coming from my last job at a company where we'd get a $1,000 check, a party and a T-shirt every time we accomplished anything, it's quite an adjustment.

The other maddening thing is the speed of the review process. Once you send out your story, you wait. And wait. The magazines’ average response times range from 2-6 months. That's months. This seems unfathomable in the age of sub-10-second blackberry replies and instant updates on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. One publication said it responds to manuscripts in ten months. It takes the FDA ten months to review a 300,000-page new drug application -- and they're a government bureaucracy.

Speaking of the FDA, while researching the publication process I kept thinking the magazines should implement something like the drug industry's Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA). This was the law which allowed the FDA to collect fees from drug manufacturers to fund the new drug approval process. In turn, the FDA is required to complete its reviews within a certain timeframe. In the years after the act was passed, the FDA was able to hire more reviewers, and the average drug approval time dropped from over two years to less than a year.

If magazines charged a reading fee, but guaranteed a personal response to your manuscript in, say, two weeks, I bet writers would jump all over it. Particularly beginning writers like me who are desperate for feedback. The magazines could probably charge 5 or 10 dollars a submission to make it a viable business model, but I'd gladly pay 50 bucks if it meant that in two weeks I'd either know if my story was getting published, or I'd know it was rejected and why. Plus, if there were a fee, writers would be more selective about which pieces they submit and to which magazines. And, with all that revenue coming in, the magazines could pay writers real sums. Maybe I'm onto something here... anyone know anything about running a magazine?

Another archaic part of the process is that, while a few of the magazines accept electronic submissions, the majority still use regular old snail mail. You can't even send via FedEx because many of the addresses are P.O. boxes. But there is an upside. If you send a hardcopy of your manuscript and include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE in the publishing world), you are more likely to get it back with an actual human comment on it (a so-called "good rejection"). Also, there's something supremely satisfying about dropping packets into the mailbox. I felt like I was applying to college again.

The best part is I have a rekindled interest in my bricks-and-mortar mailbox. I get all my bills electronically, and no one writes letters these days, so I used to go weeks without getting a single viable piece of mail. I would check it every few days, only to find a ball of junk mail jammed in there. Not anymore. Now, I'll be excitedly running to my mailbox like Ralphie in The Christmas Story, hoping for that Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring. Because there's always the possibility that behind those Nordstorm catalogues, I'll find a letter from a publisher that says, we want to buy your story, and we loved your writing so much that we were wondering... do you have a novel?


  1. Are you going to tell us which magazines you went for? I had a letter to the editor published in Thrasher magazine. No joke. Maybe I can dig that up for you for a good laugh. In fact, maybe it is time to frame it and put it next to my teeth and San Diego Clippers hat.

  2. Ralphie...oops, I mean Brain! Reading your blog has been as enjoyable as reading a good book! Glad you are doing so well and congrats on reaching the "first draft" status!

  3. "It takes the FDA ten months to review a 300,000-page new drug application -- and they're a government bureaucracy."

    Ha. I like the business idea you have brewing there....not bad at all. I used to be a reader and got totally chewed out by the editor at the magazine for being too slow one time. Tell you what though. I bet those 300,000 page drug applications are more interesting than 95% of the crap those the poor, usually volunteer, readers have to turn around. Have some empathy, man.