Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
"Dear Author, We are pleased to accept..."
Thus begins the letter you'll keep forever, even frame -- your very first acceptance letter. You feel like dancing, shouting, kissing the ground this highly perceptive editor walks upon. You're a writer! In the midst of this first-sale euphoria, however, it's easy to forget that your job as a writer isn't finished. In fact, it has just begun. That "first sale" can be fraught with pitfalls for the unwary writer. Here's how to avoid some common mistakes writers make when they receive that first acceptance.
Don't neglect your market research. Obviously, this is a mistake that should have been avoided before you even sent out your submission! I've included it here, however, because this simple omission causes more grief than any other "first sale" mistake. There's nothing worse than finding out after you get that wonderful letter that a market doesn't pay as much as you thought, or pays for other types of material but not what you sent them (e.g., for short stories but not for poetry), or requires more rights than you are willing to give up, or pays on publication and won't be sending you a check for the next two years. Such unpleasant surprises can take all the joy out of that first sale, so don't make yourself vulnerable to them: Do your market research in advance.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. Many writers are afraid to ask an editor for specific details about their "first sale," for fear that such questions will brand them as "newbies," or anger the editor. You have a perfect right, however, to ask how much you're going to be paid, and when, and when your piece might be published -- assuming these details aren't spelled out in the acceptance letter or contract. Far from marking you as a "newbie," such questions show that you are in fact a professional, for they are the type of questions every experienced writer asks. In fact, if you don't ask them, you're sending the message that you may be too timid or inexperienced to stand up for your writing -- or your rights.
Don't sign a contract you don't understand. Some publishing contracts are short, sweet and straightforward, fitting nicely onto a single page. Others maunder on for pages, in legalese that would make your eyes glaze over if they weren't already going blind from the small print. If you're confused about terms like "exclusive" vs. "nonexclusive," or "distribution" vs. "publication," you're not alone. Before you sign, you need to know exactly what you're authorizing the publisher to do with your material -- and what you'll have the right to do with it once it's published. There are many articles on the Web to help you understand contract terminology, but the best approach is simply to ask the editor what a confusing clause actually means.
Don't give away rights you don't want to lose. One common "first sale" mistake is to assume that you'll never want to use that piece again -- so you might as well give the publisher whatever rights they ask for, up to and including all rights. I did this myself on one of my first articles, and always regretted it. You never know when a new market will appear that would be just right for a reprint of that old article, or when a new anthology will put out a call for stories just like the first one you ever sold. If you haven't retained reprint rights or anthology rights, you're out of luck. Watch out, as well, for clauses that give the publisher the right to reprint, resell, or distribute your work without paying you any additional money. Finally, make sure that you're being adequately compensated for the rights you do sell; I've seen publications demand all rights in perpetuity to a piece in exchange for as little as $10!
Don't hesitate to follow up. Many writers are afraid to "nag" an editor about a payment that hasn't been received, or about when their article is going to appear, for fear of alienating the editor. I've known writers who have gone for months waiting for a check, or some word from an editor regarding the status of their work. It's true that no editor wants to work with a writer who calls or e-mails every day, but learning when and how to follow up is another part of being a professional writer. It's also a good way to find out what sort of publication you are dealing with. If, for example, you e-mail about a missing check and receive a helpful response from the editor (and actually get your check a week or two later), you'll know that this is a good publication to work for. If, however, you receive no response to repeated letters, invoices, e-mails and phone calls, you'll know that this is a market to avoid in the future.
Don't sign a second contract until you've been paid for the first. I once received an e-mail from a writer who wanted to know how to get an editor to pay her for a column she'd been assigned to write. It turned out that by the time the writer got around to asking this question, she'd already turned in more than a dozen columns -- without even being paid for the first one. While it's always a good idea to follow up a sale with a fresh submission, it's also wise to hold off signing a second contract until you're absolutely sure that you're going to be paid for the first one.
Don't assume that your prose is flawless. New writers can be astonished -- and dismayed -- by the amount of editing that takes place on their first publication. I know I was! One of my first assignments was to write for a local newspaper, and I quickly noticed that only about half of my words were actually making it into print. When I checked the edits, I realized that I was still writing like a college student, with long expository paragraphs and lots of "padding" to meet instructors' demands for "a ten-page paper". Once I learned to keep paragraphs short and prune my prose, my published articles started to look a lot more like what I'd sent in -- and I began to sell a lot more of them. So don't be offended if your first (or second, or third) sale comes back looking very different from what you submitted. Instead, study the changes and see if there is anything you can learn from them. (Occasionally, of course, you'll find that your work was simply rewritten by an editor who believes that "editing" means making everything sound the same.)
Don't assume this is your "only" chance to get published. When you've been struggling for months or even years to make that first sale, that acceptance letter looks like your "big break." Consequently, you may be terrified of doing anything (such as asking questions or trying to renegotiate a contract) that might jeopardize the sale. In reality, however, your first sale is exactly that: Your first, and quite probably the first of many. Far from being your only chance to get published, your first acceptance is an indication that your writing skills have advanced to the point that you are likely to be published again and again. So don't be afraid to ask questions, and if the answers to those questions aren't satisfactory...
Don't be afraid to say "no." It might be hard to imagine turning down that first offer to buy your material. But if the answers to the questions you've asked aren't satisfactory, then that may be exactly what you have to do. If, for example, you find that an editor expects you to hand over every conceivable right to your material, up to and including the right to post it on the back of a bus on Mars in 2050, and offers you chicken feed in return, you may want to think seriously about saying "no." You may also decide to say no if an editor wants to make unacceptable changes to your work -- such as changes that would alter its overall tone or meaning. You might decide to say no if an editor refuses to provide specific information about payment, publication dates or contract terms. And sometimes you might decide to say no because your dealings with the editor are giving you a very bad feeling about the publication.
Asking questions, following up, gathering information, and even "saying no" won't get you blacklisted in the publishing world. They will ensure that you remain in control of your work, your rights, and your future as a writer. By avoiding the mistakes most commonly made by new writers, you will also ensure that your first sale is something you'll always remember fondly, as opposed to a lifelong source of regret.
This article originally appeared in The Writer.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.