Know your markets

I occasionally overhear part of a conversation where someone mentions Duotrope and the other person admits that they’d never heard of it before before. What? I think to myself, How can you not know the holy grail of market research known as Duotrope? Then I remember that all knowledge is subjective and that, one day, I didn’t know what it was, either.

Presumably, you know how to brush your teeth, comb your hair, and tie your shoes but you don’t really think about the acts themselves. You learn, you internalize, and then you do without conscious effort. The basics of writing are much the same way, from the act of forming a complete sentence to submitting a finished manuscript. The following advice is purposely simple, a primer for those just getting ready to submit.

Goals

People usually dive right into the research and flail like a swimmer at high tide. It’s an approach I’ve used on more occasions than I’d like to admit but there is  better way. The first thing you should do is ask yourself a very important question: what is your goal?

We all write for different reasons; understanding yours will save you a lot of frustration later. Assuming you want other people to read your work, I look at three factors primarily.

What kind of exposure does the market have? If I can get more readership posting to my blog than if they published a story, they’re probably not the right kind of market for me. Figuring out what the readership numbers are is a dark art. There are ways to see gritty, probably inaccurate numbers on some website, but look at the website itself. Is it easy to read? If you google their name, do they show up? Do they have a Wikipedia page? Are other people talking about them? All fairly easy things to find within a minute.

Money flows towards the writer — Yog’s Law

Secondly, what is their pay rate? This can be a sticky subject for some, and is very subjective based on your goals. Publishing is often a for-the-love effort by the editors and some markets only offer token payments, if that. If, however, they are a for-profit venture, have a shiny, professionally-developed website and are selling subscriptions, I would expect a semi-pro rate. Writers create content, and if that content is sold, writers deserved to be paid for their effort.

Some of the very best markets don’t pay at all, and that’s okay, too. You come to know who they are. Electric Velocipede. Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Sybil’s Garage. They pay little to nothing but are highly respected for the quality of their work and as such are read by fan and editor alike.

Breaking into a prestigious market is a perfectly valid goal. Take a look at the award-nominated and winning magazines and you’ll find a who’s who of markets that are high quality and well-respected. Selling a story to any one of them is a point of pride.

Market research

Now that you have an idea of what you’d like to achieve, the real work begins: finding your markets. In days of old, you would have lugged out the doorstop known as the Writer’s Marketplace. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way, kid. Your search begins and ends at Duotrope. (Ralan.com, I should note, is genre specific and has good listings but doesn’t have any search functionality so I generally leave it for secondary research.)

With Duotrope, you can search for print or electronic markets, by pay rate, by genre, etc. Once you’ve narrowed down the results to fit your goal, I urge you to pay close attention to the details. You’ll find detailed response time reports so you can see what other Duotrope users are experiencing from their submissions. You can also see the average acceptance/rejection rate based on those numbers. The statistics are only so accurate, but when I see a market with a 65%+ acceptance rate, I know that they’re probably taking every legible submission not written in crayon and that’s doesn’t fit with my goals.

Even though I know my markets, I re-check their Duotrope listing and website from time to time, to see what’s changed. Editors move on, formats change, and markets close. You’ll also hear praise and damnation from fellow writers based on person experience. I keep a spreadsheet of markets that I’ve submitted to, make a note if I or someone I know has had a bad experience with them, and make a priority list, by story, of where I want to submit.

Submitting

You’ve written your story, you’ve found your target markets, and now it’s time to submit. Follow the guidelines, ask questions if they aren’t clear (because sometimes they aren’t), and learn to love Standard Manuscript Format. William Shunn has written the definitive guide to Standard Manuscript Format. My friend Kaolin, a geek of the highest order, also wrote a nifty tool to automatically generate your final document.

Rejectomancy

Everyone will tell you that this way lies madness but it’s a case of do as I say, not as I do. That said, there are plenty of ways to scry your stories fate. Duotrope lists the expected and actual reported response times for any given market. What’s even better, if you sign up and track your submissions, they offer an RSS feed listing the recent responses of markets you have a pending submission at. This can be a useful reminder. You might find that your story has been waiting three times the current average response time. It might be too soon to query but it is a good reminder for checking your spam folder.

Most markets will list how long you should wait before querying. Even if others are receiving responses before you, resist the urge to query early unless something has obviously gone missing (your submission disappearing from the market’s status page, for example).

Plays nice with others

The more you submit, the more likely it is that you’re going to interact with an editor. You’ll rack up a stack of rejections both form and personal, rewrite requests, and hopefully more than a few sales. You’ll develop a working relationship and reputation with these editors. Be professional. Communicate clearly. Above all, don’t be an asshole.

Handling rejection

When your rejections wing their way home again, be prepared to resubmit. I allow for, at most, a 24 hour cooling off period before sending a submission back out on its way.

Log your rejections in your spreadsheet, in Duotrope’s submission tracker (because good statistics help us all), and/or in the Rejection/Acceptance log. Make a witty comment on Twitter or Facebook or behind the closed doors of your writer’s group. Keep the message positive. Don’t assail the market for rejecting you — editors will see and remember your name in a bad way.

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  • John Remy

    Adam, this is a seriously helpful post. Thanks!

  • Andy Taylor

    I think you nailed this for people new to submitting. I struggled with Ralan’s for a while until I discovered Duotrope.