We all can do without competition. Be it for the time of that much sought after nanny for the children, that plum freelance assignment, or that exclusive house in the highly desirable and posh neighbourhood, competition can sour things up pretty rapidly and thoroughly. As professional writers, we are particularly vulnerable to competition, which comes not just from our contemporaries but also from those who are long dead and gone but have left their lasting mark in the annals of literature.
However, did you know that your competition can actually come to your aid? Other writers help us writers make money just by being published. How? Simple -- by providing you with new markets for publication.
Make it a point to read the bios and publishing credits of any and all writers that you come across. Most writers mention a few key markets that their writing has appeared in or will be forthcoming. Some of these markets may be new to you, and just right for your genre. Check out the complimentary copies of magazines and anthologies that you have received to browse through contributors' pages. These are a veritable mine of information about new markets.
Like all freelance writers, I, too, maintain a personal list of markets and have added over a thousand new ones simply by employing this method as frequently as possible. Naturally, the more you read, write and are published, the more writers you will come across and the number of new markets will increase exponentially in proportion.
Nowadays every writer worth their weight in words has an electronic or online presence. This is most commonly in the form of a blog, or in the form of an "official" website. Take a few moments to visit these. Trawl through their "About" and "Contact" web pages to get to a list of all the avenues in which they have been published. You are guaranteed to stumble across new markets on such pages.
As a start, I invite you to visit my own website, Verbolatry, where I have listed all my previous publishing credits with hyperlinks to the markets. Each post is categorised as fiction or nonfiction, along with the genre it belongs to, e.g., Science Fiction, Drama, Humour, etc. Beneath each post are original snippets of feedback sourced directly from editors and publishers, which will give you an idea of their tastes and the styles they are looking for in their publications. Since these comments are also from related or unrelated publications, you can see what other markets are similar or dissimilar to the one that has published the story.
Writers write about many things. However, there is always a particular "slant" to the story, an angle from which they are covering the topic. Read other stories carefully and see if they trigger thoughts about topics that have not been covered by the published story. Then you can write a piece that touches upon these overlooked areas of the subject matter and end up creating a brand new story. You also have a ready-made market, because you know that a particular magazine has covered the topic in the past and will be willing to do so again in the near future, especially if the "slant" is complementary to something they have already published.
For instance, I once read a very short 500-word article on the topic of manuscript titling. The writer had listed some bullet points giving examples of how contemporary bestselling authors usually followed a predictable pattern for naming their books. Click! A bulb seemed to go on inside my head. I began to wonder if there wasn't more to manuscript titling than the sparse few sentences written in front of me. Wouldn't it better if the ideas came from the veritable sources that the writer was quoting, sort of straight from the horse's mouth? Wouldn't these bestselling authors themselves have something useful to say on the subject? Putting my plan into action was, with me, the work of an instant.
Quickly I thrashed out the draft of an article that started with a mock storyline, and with several examples walked through all the different ways in which a title could be found for it. Then, with the help of their official websites and contact information, I got in touch with several of leading authors and requested them to comment on the subject. All -- all -- of them replied and were only too happy to express their thoughts. They provided advice, revealed secret tips and confessed to unusual habits. Et voila! A brand new article full of concrete methods of titling a manuscript was created, the voices of the authors lending weight and expertise to the subject matter and making it stand out of the ordinary. My article then went on to be snapped up by not one but two magazines, one of them the very magazine where I had first read the original piece! In fact, I didn't even to have to make an extra effort to pitch to that particular editor, because he straightaway realised that the material in the article was far more valuable than anything else he had previously published on the subject.
Study previous stories in your target market and analyse them to find out what makes them tick. Why would an editor choose this story over yours? Some talented writers have a very distinct and individual style or "brand" that becomes an immediate recognition factor in all their work. Other writers are very versatile and tailor their writing according to the topic and market. However, regardless of their modus operandi, every writer who has been published has at least one strong point to offer that has caused the editor to select his/her work. These will differ from writer to writer. Find out what they are and then see if you can incorporate it in your writing too to strengthen it.
For example, a popular trade magazine recently ran an article about how to incorporate humour in your work. The article itself was written in a punchy, fast-paced, light-hearted tone and was a perfect example of how to 'lead by example.' I observed how the writer had used hyperboles to exaggerate some situations, how he had used outrageous similes and metaphors in other scenarios to emphasise and highlight, and how an unexpected twist at the end of a sentence jumped out at the reader and served to make the point memorable. It was no wonder that the editor gave the article a prominent place in the magazine as the lead feature piece.
When content is past its copyrighted date, it is open to the public to be (ethically) re-utilised. If you are certain that an old winner will also work in today's market, see if you can re-write it in any way -- perhaps as a screenplay, a parody, a poem, or even make a cartoon illustration out of it! What makes your work unique to you, despite a "borrowed" idea, is the fact that you infuse it with your style, your voice, and your own perspective: no one else sees the world exactly like you do and therefore your point of view is going to be different and will make all the difference. The old greats are always open to new interpretation.
So when does copyright expire? Copyright laws are complex and writers should ensure they know what they are doing to avoid copyright infringement, which is a crime and punishable by law. Ignorance is not an excuse.
In general, for literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works copyrights lasts 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author died. If there was more than one author copyright would last 70 years from the death of the last remaining author. This is different (25 years) for articles' layout or appearance in print, and the situation becomes further complicated if a new edition comes out or a new introduction is added to the work.
[Editor's Note: Do not confuse derivative works, as described here, with plagiarism. It's perfectly acceptable, for example, to write an original piece set in Alice's Wonderland - but it is still an act of plagiarism to submit a copy of Alice in Wonderland to a publisher under your own name.]
When you receive a new issue of any literary or trade magazine, there is usually a page devoted to new and established markets that are open to submissions. Most magazines also have a "Links" or "Friends" section on their websites that lists some popular and favourite markets and markets that are similar to their own genre and style. Voila, more opportunities! The added advantage of such online listings is that since they are in the form of hyperlinks, they can be accessed with a single click, so you don't have to waste time hunting around on Google to get their web addresses.
So the next time you read a story by somebody else, don't be envious; be canny! Your competition can open newer and broader vistas for more work, help you win more assignments and make more money!