Making the Right Impression
For the poet or short story writer, submission to quality magazines is an excellent way to build up your CV and potentially get noticed. To increase your chances of submission the most crucial thing is to buy magazines and to become familiar with their output. A database of current Welsh periodicals both large and small can be accessed by clicking here. UK wide listings are available for poetry at the Poetry Library and for short fiction at Story. Before you submit, subscribe. By buying magazines you’re keeping them alive which is good news for you - because they’ll actually exist for you to appear in them in the first place. Whatever you do, do not ‘blind’ submit to magazines - submit without ever having even bothered to read them. It is an exercise in complete futility for you and is a waste of time for the harried editor. It cannot be emphasised enough: there is little use in sending your innovative work to those magazines that are resolutely within the mainstream. Editors can surprise - and the best editors frequently do - but they are unlikely to adapt their entire vision and the flavour of their magazine to suit a newcomer. And there is no point whatsoever in sending your short story to a magazine that doesn’t in fact publish any short fiction. But a large number of writers do precisely that. By identifying the right magazines for your genre and style of work you create opportunities and maximise your chances of eventual success. And, in any case, a good indication of whether or not you are ready to submit your work for publication is the degree to which you engage with the promotion of the literary culture. If you haven’t read the magazines you’re simply not ready. The rule is to first read - then write. In that order, and with no exceptions.
Some magazines have particular conventions when it comes to submission. This is another fairly obvious reason why you should read them before even entertaining being published in them. But there is general protocol pretty much common to all.
For poetry magazines, the general rule of thumb is no more than six poems. Layout should be one poem per page or one poem over two pages, single-spaced, exactly as you would wish them to appear in print. Give all poems a title. Any title, except ‘Untitled’. Do not affix your poems with the bane of any editor’s life – staples. Instead type your name and address at the foot of the poem or else affix a self-address label, and secure poems with a paper clip.
For short stories, do not submit more than one short story at a time. The space allotted for individual stories in a magazine is variable but almost always pretty limited. Usually, short stories will be in the region of 2000-2500 words. Your story should be page numbered, given a proper title and should always be single sided and double-spaced for ease of reading and for editorial remark.
Whether you are submitting poetry or fiction, your work should be on a clean plain white A4 paper and typed. Always enclose an SAE sufficient for reply and/or return of work and do not make an email submission without prior permission from the editor. Failure to do so will in almost all cases result in your submission being binned or ignored. Do not deal in the fussy or affected fonts that some writers fall prey to in the misguided belief that editors will be attracted to them. They’re not. Standard fonts such as Times New Roman or Arial are all that is required. Do not add illustrations to your work. Do not submit simultaneously. Many writers are tempted to do so but if you’re fortunate enough to be accepted by two magazines you’re unlikely to win any fans. Editors put much work into selecting submissions for inclusion into a magazine and if you’ve not dealt fairly with them you’ll have wasted their time and effort. Turnaround time for magazines varies. Some magazines are able to give a good indicator of the consideration time. But generally you can expect to wait around three months for a reply. Don’t pester in the interim, write angry emails or letters. Be patient. A good magazine will always reply eventually. If your submission goes beyond the three month period then you are perfectly entitled to politely and briefly enquire as to the outcome, and withdraw your submission if you choose. Do not send further material to a magazine when you are still awaiting a response from your last submission. Do not resubmit previously rejected material. Editors do not reject material because of space. They reject material because they don’t think its right for them.
For both short stories and poetry, cover letters are a must. But many writers put too much stock on them. If you have some experience of publishing your work or have won a competition or award, then stating this can do you no harm and can in some instances enhance your submission and make it that much more credible. Then again, every writer has to start somewhere. An editor of good judgement and integrity will take a submission at face value. Shoddy work is shoddy work whether the writer has won twenty awards or none. And strong, exciting work is strong exciting work whether or not the writer has a solid publication record or none whatsoever. Therefore new writers should not worry as much as they often do about their inexperience in the world of publication. Rather, they should concentrate on the quality of their work and the professional presentation of the submission.
Nonetheless, cover letters can be important in telling ways. ‘Dear Editor’ is not a good way to begin. Wherever possible, find out the name of the editor and use that (in full). Your cover letter should consist of not more than a few brief paragraphs. State what you are submitting, in what quantity and note that you’ve included an SAE for response and/or return of work. Include edited highlights of successful publication/awards/competition wins elsewhere. Do include interesting, pertinent detail such as whether or not you have professionally studied creative writing or any writing grants you have won.
Do not include random and irrelevant biographical information (whether you are married or single, the amount of children or grandchildren you have, all the places you have ever lived). Do mention if there’s anything in recent editions of the magazine you’ve particularly enjoyed. Such flattery won’t win you publication if material is not strong but it shows you’ve engaged with the magazine and can certainly do no harm. Do not tell the editor what the work is about or where the inspiration for it came from. Do not begin your cover letter by stating ‘This is the first poem/short story I have ever written and I am not sure whether it is any good’. Do not plead for publication, you’ll sound like a crank. Do not ask for feedback on submission or help with your writing career. Editors are busy individuals and simply do not have the time to more provide this kind of support to individual writers – and it’s not their job to in any case. Where a submission is a near miss, however, a good editor will point out briefly why and where work might be improved, and possibly expressly invite re-submission in the future.
If you’ve been unsuccessful in submitting work to a magazine, never write angry letters in response. News quickly spreads. Be professional and accept rejection gracefully. No editor has the last word on quality and what one editor rejects another might just as quickly accept. An editor may well be blinkered to your talents. More fool them. But do remember that aggressive challenge to an editor’s decision can all too easily win you an unfortunate reputation at the very outset of your career and, more seriously, can sometimes border on hate mail. Rejection is part and parcel of the writer’s apprenticeship. Everyone experiences it when they’re starting out - and even beyond that. Learn to handle it with maturity and dignity - and move on.
Submission to agents and publishers: fiction and creative non-fiction
Commercial publishers do not deal directly with authors. Do not send unsolicited work for consideration to them - your unread submission will end up in the recycling bin immediately. If you’re aiming for publication through one of the imprints of the commercials, you will have to go through one of the metropolitan agents. Commercial publishers deal solely with them. Once you have done your research and identified an agent you feel would be sympathetic to your work, you should carefully read guidelines for submission on their website. Some agents require that your initial approach be by enquiry only, stating who you are and the nature of the work you wish to submit.
Agents have their own particular way of doing things, but as a general rule of thumb, a submission will comprise of three chapters and a synopsis (plot outline) of the work. The latter is very, very important. Many submissions to agents fall down with a synopsis that fails to compellingly and vividly communicate the story. Your synopsis is your marketing tool. Do not write a synopsis of ten pages or more. A few sides will do. The need for a good synopsis means that you will need generally to have completed - at least - more than half of the work prior to submission, and have a clear idea of where your work is headed. An agent who likes your work will inevitably want to see more before making a final decision, and many agents prefer to offer commercial publishers a complete work. It should go without saying that the three chapters you submit should demonstrate that you are capable of writing lucid, stylish prose – free of spelling mistakes and grammatically correct. A submission must include a covering letter. This should outline what you have submitted, any relevant publishing history or awards and any other pertinent details. Given the sheer amount of submissions and approaches that agents receive, the fact is that some degree of your time will be given over to the waiting game. Take note of the response time estimated by an agency and do not enquire as to outcomes prior to that. Be patient. Do not send to more than one agent at once – wait to hear from the agent who has your work or withdraw your submission.
Independent publishing has come on leaps and bounds. Recent successes from the Welsh Indies demonstrate that a writer can have a very successful career outside of commercial publishing, with shortlistings and wins in major prizes - as has been shown by the standing of Seren, Parthian and the newly established Alcemi. Some authors inevitably move on to the bigger commercial publishers after making their name but some, like Sarah Waters at Virago, do choose to stay with the publishers who fostered their career from the earliest promise. While the commercials still have the indisputable advantage in distribution and marketing resources (not to mention the comparative ease with which they achieve critical notice in the broadsheets) this is inevitably counterbalanced by the more personal, intimate relationship an author can develop with the smaller house. And then again, in artistic terms, the independent house may provide more licence for the writer to pursue less ‘fashionable ‘projects.
If you’re considering submitting work to one of the independent publishers you should first do your research and read their output widely. Take note, too, of any moratorium – independent publishers publish less than the commercial publishers and from time to time they may not be in a position to consider unsolicited submissions. Most independent publishers offer clear guidelines on their website for how they wish work to be presented for consideration. Read these carefully and follow them to the letter. Generally, though, a submission to an independent publisher is very like that to an agent: a tight synopsis, three chapters and a covering letter. Do not pester publishers for a response. Many independents receive large amounts of submissions. Take note of their estimated turnaround time for a response. Be patient. Do not send out to other publishers. While many do it, it is not considered best practice. After the stated turnaround period has elapsed you are then entitled to write a polite
email or letter enquiring as to any outcome. If you are unsuccessful, many publishers will state briefly why they did not think the work was for them but some will not. Do not approach them for further advice on your career or editorial help. Publishers do what they say on the tin. They publish books and cannot support individual writers through their development.
Inevitably, commitment to a long writing project brings with it a problem. What if you’re on the wrong track and you’ve dedicated a year or often more to a work only to send it to an agent and find it has no future? This is where it is crucial to get support very early on - long before you start trying to bring those dreams of publication to fruition. Get involved in a writers workshop or evening class, look up opportunities for good, modestly priced critical feedback, such as that provided by Academi through its Critical Service. The Academi also provides a Mentoring Scheme by competitive application, giving writers the chance to work with established practitioners in their field to develop their writing. Click here for further details.
Submitting poetry collections for publication
All poetry is handled via unsolicited direct submission. The big-selling, established names excepted, agents do not handle poets. In Wales, Seren leads the way in English language poetry, but Parthian, Cinnamon Press and Gomer also publish high quality poets. In England, the metropolitan publishers for poetry are Cape, Picador and the legendary Faber. Outside the metropolis, Bloodaxe maintains a large poetry list that shows commitment to new voices, as well as featuring leading names. And across the wider UK, there are many small but engaged presses around who, despite the hostile climate for poetry, continue to publish fresh talent. A comprehensive list of poetry publishers in the UK can be found by visiting the Poetry Library website.
Before you submit to a publisher, you should ideally have an entire collection ready. But these days, you should only submit a sample of these - around 15 poems - to a publisher. About a quarter of the typical length of a poetry collection, this will give the publisher a good indication of your quality and whether your work is the type they’d like to publish. Include a covering letter that details your writing history to date, as well as any publications you have appeared in. Work should be presented on clean white A4 paper, single-sided, unbound and secured with a bulldog or paper clip (not staples). At the foot of each poem you should type your address or use a self-addressed label. If an editor is interested in your work, they will want to see the rest of your collection. Response times do vary from publisher to publisher – from one month to three months. If you’ve waited longer than three months, politely enquire as to the outcome of your submission.