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Finding Good Markets, Avoiding Bad Ones
by Paula Fleming

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Writers whine a lot. I'm no exception. Writing is hard, market research time-consuming, manuscript packaging laborious, manuscript tracking tedious, waiting for responses onerous, getting rejected dejecting, and even selling not always a good thing when the market turns out to have problems.

While whining in moderation is just fine, there are, of course, more productive ways to deal with these trials. In this article, we'll focus on that last whine -- on inept, unfortunate, or just plain rotten markets and how to avoid them. We'll also take a moment to appreciate the all good markets. When you think about it, we really are fortunate that editors are willing to read mountains of submissions, publishers are willing to pull together issue after issue or project after project, and readers are willing to buy them. It's not as though we're providing food, shelter, or health care after all. We're just writers.

The best way to sell only to good markets is to avoid submitting work to bad ones. It is often (not always) possible to tell the good markets from the bad ones through just a little research. Before we talk about how to do that, let's define a "good market."

What Is a "Good" Market?

For the purposes of this column, a good market is one that does what it says it will do. Generally, that means:

  • Assuming your manuscript conforms to the guidelines, someone looks at it and responds within the time frame mentioned in the guidelines.

  • The rejection may be a form, a checklist, a personal note, or a lengthy critique; and it may be on any size, shape, or color of paper. However, its tone is not rude.

  • The acceptance either spells out what you can expect to happen next, or it informs you when you will know what happens next. This information includes: what rights are being purchased; when your work will be published; when you will receive payment and how much, if applicable; and whether you will be asked to approve changes or review proofs of your work. This information is consistent with that in the guidelines. The sale is not final until you have returned a printed or email contract.

  • If anything changes substantially between sale and publication, the changes are communicated, and you have the option to withdraw your story.

  • Your work is published at the time and in the format that was communicated. The publisher makes a reasonable effort to publicize its release and gain readership.

  • You receive payment and/or copies when and in the amount you expect.

A market is "good" when it meets your expectations. I'm not telling you what your expectations should be. That's your business. Some writers feel that anything less than a professional rate of pay, as defined by Science Fiction Writers of America, Horror Writers of America, or other writers organizations is bad. Other writers think that waiting more than three months for a response to their submission is bad. Still others get upset if their work isn't available on the Internet for their friends to read without paying. As I said, what you want out of a market is up to you. The important thing here is that the market meets your expectations.

Our expectations are formed by first and foremost by the market's guidelines. We can filter out most disappointing experiences by reading guidelines with a critical eye. Here are some clues that signal that a market is likely to disappoint.

Possible Signs of Trouble

  • The guidelines are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. Do you want the editor who writes, "Submissioning doesnt garentee expectance," to prepare a publication in which your work will appear? Do you want this editor to judge your work?

  • The guidelines don't state a clear editorial direction. "We don't publish poetry, but might look at it if it's not too long." "Genre doesn't matter, but send us your best stuff." "We're looking for fantasy, and maybe some other genres. Send it and let us decide." Such statements indicate that the editor lacks a clear goal for the publication; if they don't know what they want, you don't know what to send them, nor is the publication likely to strike a chord with readership.

  • No payment information. 'Nuff said. If the market doesn't pay, then the guidelines should say so. If it does, then the payment rate(s) should be listed.

  • The guidelines change substantially every month or two. Mind you, it's a good market that regularly updates its guidelines to say that, "We've only got one slot left for the next issue, and it has to be a story under 3,000 words," or, "We're not seeing enough hard science fiction, so such stories will get an extra hard look right now." However, watch out for what I call Wild 'n' Wooly Waffling. Now we pay; now we don't; now we're a paying market again. We're closing to submissions until we get caught up; we're going to reading periods; we're closed until next year. Send manuscripts to John Deere in Kansas; send them to Jane Doe in Oregon, and if you sent something to John, we're not sure what happened to it; send them to Jolly Roger but only via email.

In addition, comparing the guidelines to other information about the market can raise red flags.

  • The guidelines say the editor is now reading for issue #20, but the latest issue of which you can find evidence is #10. (Check out the market's own website as well as Tangent Online, Locus, and SFF.net's sff.publishing newsgroups, especially sff.publishing.market-report newsgroup.)

  • The guidelines say the response time is four weeks, but writers report turnaround in excess of six months. (Check out The Black Hole and the sff.writing.response-times newsgroup).

In addition, here are three more warning signs that a market may disappoint you.

  • It's on all the market lists, it hasn't closed to submissions, but it hasn't published an issue for quite some time, or it publishes very infrequently. The chances are high that such a market is backlogged with purchased material that hasn't yet been published. Even if the editor loves your piece, they will likely as not respond, "I would love to publish this, but we are overstocked. If you cannot place it elsewhere, please feel free to try me again next year." Even if you do sell to this market, then the chances are high that your piece will sit in their backlog for years until they can publish it. If seeing your work in print or on-line is important to you, then avoid publications that aren't publishing.

  • The market is new and claims it will alter the universe by its existence. Grandiose claims from a market that has yet to present a product to readers should be taken with a 16-ton block of salt. Launching a publishing venture is very, very difficult. Publishers with a realistic vision of how often they can publish, how many projects they can take on, what they can afford as far as production quality and promotion, and how many paying readers they're likely to draw -- these folks are more likely to make you a happy writer than the idealistic neophyte who starts three magazines and two trade paperback imprints and thinks they're going to reach over 100,000 readers in their first year of business.

  • The editor and/or publisher is someone with a track record of disappointing publications. This information is hard to find out, but after you've been researching markets for a few years and keeping your ear to the ground, you'll develop a memory of certain names. These people are not evil! Well, okay, maybe they are, but that's not why you should avoid submitting to them. Actually, I believe that it's the best intentioned, most idealistic folks who are likeliest to take on more than they can do, thus disappointing us. I'll say it again: running a publishing venture is very, very difficult. People with health problems, tumultuous relationships, and insecure finances are unlikely to make it work.

How Being a "Good" Writer Can Help

While no amount of research can completely eliminate risk, you can significantly reduce your chances of an unhappy sale. In addition to watching out for bad markets, we can also make sure that we aren't "bad" writers the ones that editors kvetch about when they're together.

  • Read the content guidelines and believe them. If the guidelines say "no graphic violence," don't send your slasher-turns-girls-into-meatloaf story. If the guidelines say "open January 1 - 31," don't send them a story in July. If the guidelines say "short-shorts to 1,000 words only," don't send a 1,300-word story because you know it's so good, they'll just have to take it.

  • Read the formatting guidelines and believe them. One format pretty much fits all for hard copy submissions, but do check to see if the editor has preferences that vary from the usual. Some examples include "no cover letter" or "disposable ms only." For email submissions, formats vary widely. For instance, some markets want attached files, while others delete unread any email with an attachment.

  • Finally, do be thankful for the good markets. Be courteous toward editors who are doing their utmost to meet their commitments. In other words, even if you think a rejection is the stupidest thing anyone's ever said about your work, don't fire off an argumentative letter. And purchase copies or subscriptions from the markets that treat their writers well. After all, if we'd like to see our work in such publications, we'd probably enjoy reading them, right?

Copyright © 2002 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.


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