Publishing Choices: Going Indie or Traditional?

A Google search of “How to Self-Publish a book” produces about 282 million results.

The Publishing Swamp

No, they don’t all agree. Nonetheless, the amount of information available provides a clue as to how many people are considering self-publishing. This feels a little like landing in a swamp with a large gator.

Rather than starting your search with 282 million suggestions, start with yourself. Your goals are unique. Your work is unique. Make some deep dives into a study of your writing and goals before making a publishing commitment.

As you take that dive, try to set aside any bias that has grown out of what you’ve heard about Indie or traditional publishing. Other people will have had experiences that come out of their own journeys. Yours will be unique. Start by asking yourself some specific questions.

  1. Why do you want to publish and should you do so?

            Personal Writing

Perhaps you write away your tensions or write in journals to create a family keepsake (such as pioneers kept when crossing the country). You might write poems or essays or even fiction, but you’re not into revision and editing. You write and then move on.

Maybe you’ve shared some of your work and have been told “Wow! This is good! You should publish.”

That doesn’t mean you should do so, particularly if the process is going to steal time and energy from the ongoing writing you love. You might consider using nice journal bindings or even scrapbooks. Let your creativity sparkle. If you do a book, you might want one or two copies from an organization like Shutterfly with a mix of your pictures.

            Specific Audience

On the other hand, maybe you want a more traditional book for a specific audience. Perhaps some relatives are having a golden wedding anniversary, and you’ve penned some family stories, poems, or essays that will help celebrate that event.

A specific audience might be slightly broader but not on a commercial scale. For instance, a local environmental organization in my region has talked to me about reprinting its guidebook for water access in our county. Tourists and residents find the book useful to find small coves, hidden beaches, and small parks that are public. It’s unlikely anyone other than this audience will be interested in the book even though it includes some good environmental information. A commercial, traditional publishing house wouldn’t be interested. Self-publishing is the way to go.

Family histories, biographies of little-known individuals, memoirs of military experiences: many books fall into this category. Rarely will traditional publishers be interested unless the person’s story is of national interest such as Margarethe Cammermeyer’s book, the second edition of which I edited for her, Serving in Silence. Her work changed military policy and was made into a movie, which moved it into a larger audience.


You enjoy writing and you want to share what you’ve written with as many people as possible. Your work may not win a Pulitzer, but you hope it will bring pleasure or instruction to anyone who picks up the book. Having the book “out there” is all you want. Again, trying to market to traditional publishers will likely drown your enthusiasm.

My books How Many Words for Rain and Interpretative Guide to Western Northwest Weather Forecasts are examples of “gift” books or specialized books. The first, a mix of photos and poems on rain, was actually accepted by a university press just before the press closed. The second one has done quite well as a humor/gift book but no press would have wanted to risk it, especially for expensive color printing that was essential for the photos to come across well.

            Professional writer

You think your work will interest a broad audience. You have confidence in your writing and public response. You want to be able to do readings, appear at conferences, get reviews, maybe win prizes. Trying the commercial publishers and small presses first might be the best way to go. Indie books can and have done all that, but because of negative attitudes in the industry toward self-publishing, reaching your goals will be more difficult.

  1. What skills/resources do you possess to produce the book?

Throughout much of the 1900s, writers focused on their craft. Publishers had readers, editors, copyeditors. In-house production included designers for the book and cover. The publishers took care of distribution and marketing.

As computers became the norm, many publishers cut back on their services. Writers today are expected to turn in manuscripts that have been edited and proofed (unless the writers have a proven track record). Book production is like a self-checkout line unless you’re a guaranteed best seller. Nonetheless, the publisher carries the financial load and a significant part of the process.

If you go Indie, you become the publisher.

            Basic requirements

Your manuscript will require revision, editing, and proofing. Few writers are good editors of their own work. Editing one’s own work parallels Abraham Lincoln’s comment that any lawyer representing herself has a fool for a client. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but you need to be skilled.

All good editors aren’t housed in publishing houses. Are you part of a writing group who will help with critique and proofing? Or do you have the available funds to hire an editor, consultant, or proofreader?

If you opt to hire someone, plenty of professional services are available. Do your homework, and make sure that you’re trusting reliable people and that you’re not over-paying. You can find a list of standard rates at Editorial Freelancers Association. The Literary Marketplace, available at most libraries (it’s expensive) also has extensive listings of all sorts of literary services, including agents and publishers.

Some printers, such as BookBaby also offer such services. They’ll work with your manuscript through design and printing. Again, do your research. Some are very expensive and might not produce the results you’d like.

            The finishing touches

Once the manuscript is ready, the book has to be designed. This includes title choice, basic interior layout, and cover design. Do you have the skills?

Again, you can find millions of Internet sites about book design but, again, they don’t all agree and some suggestions might not apply to your book. If you go with an all-in-one service such as BookBaby, you won’t need to search for a designer.

When working with designers, you’ll walk a fine line between your own interests and the more commercial look most designers suggest. For instance, my last book Quantum Consequences, doesn’t have a cover that “looks like all the other books in its genre,” a recommendation by one design site. However, I had my own reasons for using that cover. Period.

Again, your goals determine your choices. And you can always pursue self-publishing options while you submit your book to agents and publishers: you’ll have plenty of time.


Realistically your cost for self-publishing might be higher than any return you’ll receive from the book, especially if you’re hiring professionals for the final stages. Plan your budget based on what you can afford before publication, not after. Stick to the budget. Turning the book into a huge debt takes all the pleasure out of your success.

Of course, if you go the traditional route, the idea is that the publisher thinks your book will make enough money to pay for costs and provide a profit. For them. You might never receive more than a small advance. Small, nonprofit presses might think the possibility for profit is slight, but they rely on funding from universities and/or donations, and they want good books to build up their reputations and donor lists, not their coffers. Authors often receive only copies as payment, however. Be prepared to spend time in lieu of money; the traditional route allows travel at the speed of a slug on sleeping pills.

  1. Understand distribution.

Even if you decide to go with a publisher, make sure you understand the distribution agreement. Some small publishers offer books only on their Websites. Others use SPD (small press distribution). Large publishers might agree to national distribution but only to those stores that order a certain quantity and with a limited shelf life (maybe only ten days). If enough haven’t sold within that time, you could find your book remaindered before it’s been out a month.

If you self-publish, where your POD/digital book is set up will determine where the book is available. If, for instance, you go with Kindle Publishing, wholesalers can’t order your book. You’ll have to go to bookstores and sell the book yourself.

Other POD companies have broader distribution. For instance, IngramSpark has a large distribution system and within days after your book (print and/or digital) is uploaded, it will be available to wholesalers around the world. You’ll see it placed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and even Wal-Mart. Your local bookstores can order the book on their own computers.

The question of where you want the book to be available is tied to why (see #1) you want to publish.

  1. Marketing

If you want your book to be noticed, you’re going to have to shoulder marketing responsibility whether you choose Indie or a large publisher. Often called “building a platform,” this includes social media, maintaining a Website and blog, making personal appearances, e-mailing friends/family, submitting press releases…the extensive process steals time from writing.

Don’t get frustrated!

To cut down on the post-publication frustration, limit the time you spend on marketing. Plan your activities to get the most out of each minute you spend. You can find a lot of information online under 5-minute book marketing tips.

Again, you can hire a professional, a publicist. Make sure you’ve done your research to find someone who is respected and affordable. Poets & Writers has an interesting article on this.

     5.  Know the History

Once you know your own goals, understanding publishing history will help you understand the processes. Most people know that printing presses and publishers have been around for centuries. Not everyone knows that self-publishing also has a long history (the Internet didn’t birth the idea) with many famous authors. Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens as well as Walt Whitman join contemporary writers John Grisham and Beatrix Potter as self-published authors. See Poets & Writers for a timeline.

Nonetheless, the advent of computerized POD in the 1980s was the start of serious negativity toward self-publishing. The stigma’s heart beats to the drum that the best product comes from a large company, that a self-published book is inferior to those that make their way through the mazes of large houses or small presses.

Some of that bias is justified.

The 1980s birth of POD companies offered few choices. Marketing options were scanty, expenses were high (in time if not money), and the results were unpredictable. Self-published books tended to look self-published: poor paper quality, odd sizes, print variances, uneven pages, etc. Poetry usually was scrambled.

The industry has improved, at least in regard to looks and publishing quality. In fact, many large publishing companies rely on POD or digital resources these days after that first rush following the release date. However, some wholesale buyers still check stocks (trying to weed out Indie books) because returning POD books can be an issue. Indie publishers must consider allowing returns of books to offset that concern.

Another problem with the initial stages of self-publishing in the late 1900s was that everyone could and did publish anything. The only limitation was financial. A flood of books that needed revision, editing, and proofing dampened reader enthusiasm, turned off reviewers, and frustrated wholesalers.

Keep in mind that commercial book quality also varies from publisher to publisher. Some big houses turn out cheap looking books that sell cheaply. Also, reviewers’ negativity extends to the writing now and then. Just because something comes from a big press and is written by a famous person doesn’t protect the work from reviewers. An example comes from the The New York Times about Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King:

What you may well come away thinking is: meh. For a book about resetting gender stereotypes, this one clings surprisingly tightly to them.

That best seller, released by Scribner, was obviously not injured by negative reviews. The key to that paradox is our love of branding/love of the popular. Many people would buy a Stephen King book even if they first had to slay dragons.

Our belief in branding, again, is one reason we don’t trust the “anyone can self-publish” concept. Children make out specific Christmas lists (no surprises, please) and people get mugged for particular shoes. I knew a kid who was bullied in school because he wore K-mart clothes.

Consider how we brand authors, expecting them to stick to one genre, even one character. One of my friends who writes for a major publishing house had to start using a pen name when she wanted to write a different genre. Striking out on your own is challenging (even frightening) in our cliquish society.

Because of all of this, if you go Indie, expect to be marginalized. This applies to anything you do, not just books. For instance, Stagecoach Mary Fields was the only woman allowed in saloons in Montana in the late 1800s, but she wasn’t welcome at church socials.

So if your Indie books are apt to be marginalized–shunted aside by book stores, libraries, and readers–why bother? As mentioned above, a lot of that depends on your goals.

In addition to the reasons mentioned earlier, some of us are worn out on the pitching, wooing, and begging that often goes along with submissions, query letters, and maneuvering through the conference and workshop networking.

Forty years ago, the process felt a little more like professional networking. Over time, as publishing companies continued to merge and gobble up smaller companies, the ability to be unique, an individual, in the publishing world lessened. Respect for authors dwindled. These days, months can pass with no word back from agents/editors; in fact, some never reply at all.

Even if a book is accepted, the results could be disappointing. If the book is low on the publisher’s list, even placement in bookstores can be a problem. You won’t find your book in the window. Some books never make it to market even after being accepted.

Disappointments don’t happen to only “bad writers.” John Gardner wrote for 15 years before The Resurrection was published.

I was furious. You know, I’d read novels by people I thought were awful compared to me. And I’d read my rejection slips. . . . But I was stubborn. And I covered myself. I became a medievalist. I wrote many articles and translations so that I knew I’d be safe all my life, and then I wrote [fiction]. If people asked me what I was I’d say ‘I’m a writer,’ because the next question was ‘What have you published?’ And I’d be embarrassed. . . . by Louise Sweeney, interview June 26, 1980     The Christian Science Monitor

No Easy Answer

To succeed with an Indie or traditionally published book, you’ll need tenacity and patience. For an Indie book you’ll also need to either study your craft intently or pay for experts who can help with the editing, proofing, designing and maybe even the marketing. In my opinion, learning ever more about writing and publishing will benefit all writers no matter which route they choose; you can’t lose by knowing your craft.

Before I reached the decision to go Indie from now on, I had forty years of publishing, editing, and teaching writing to back me up. My work was included in many books from different presses. Although I was still marketing to magazines for short work, I no longer had patience for spending years running in a hamster wheel to get a book read and accepted. Sometimes marketing a book takes longer than writing one. I’d done that with earlier novels that now sit in boxes (maybe I’ll resurrect them).

Acceptances were often worse than rejection. I’d had books accepted by both agents and publishers only to have train wrecks: the agents couldn’t sell the book in their allotted time; one publisher accepted one of my books then backed out because his partner didn’t like the book; in another case, the publisher who accepted a book went out of business before the book was printed. Bah! Humbug!

Find your own path!

Now, as a practicing curmudgeon, I’m most interested in doing what I want to do. I’ll switch genres. I’ll set up covers or designs for personal reasons that don’t fit with current marketing trends. “Indie” stands for independent: don’t let the industry creep in and convince you that what you want to do is “wrong.”  I’m independent in every sense and loving it.

In other words, I’m having fun writing again, a quality that too often has become lost in the “industry.”

Having fun is perhaps one of the best reasons to self-publish. Enjoy it!

Genre Discussion: Helpful Guide or Straitjacket?

The other day, I ran into a friend while I was talking to a librarian about my new book. My friend asked to see my book. She looked at the blurb on the back and said, “Oh, dear, I have a terrible time with books like this. Fantasy. I just don’t understand it.”

“Well, it’s science fiction…” I began, but she was shoving the book back at me.

“I just don’t like dragons and swords and stuff like that.”

“Not all fantasy has that,” I said, abandoning a discussion of both my book–which lacks dragons and swords–and science fiction.

“Yes, it does,” she said.

I started listing some books I thought she would like, everything from The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord to Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Most she hadn’t read (because it was fantasy) but “Oh, I loved Mists of Avalon!” she said and then added, “But that’s not fantasy.”

“Of course, it is,” I said always willing to state my opinion.

A couple days later, I ran into this friend again, this time at the post office. She was bubbling over with excitement because she’d talked to her son about the Golem and the Jinni and found out he’d read it and loved it. She’d started it, and she loved it, too. I don’t know if this is going to open up her thoughts to reading outside her “usual” genres, but it points out how writers can fail to reach readers and how readers can miss out on great books because of genre:

  1. Readers become trapped in the idea that genre defines a book’s content, theme, style.
  2. Writers find themselves trapped into writing stories that don’t take unique paths.

Writers suffer the most damage. Genre conventions dictate what they can write and/or how they can write it. That can smother creativity. This starts early in a writer’s career. For instance, one of my friends was denied admission to a university MFA program because she wrote science fiction. Many programs still limit work to “literary.” It’s not just academia. For instance, writers in the fantasy genre must be careful to not mix character origins. Take care not to mix a mythological god in a story with randomly chosen creatures such as dinosaurs and the Cheshire Cat. 

Of course, all these genre boundaries shift about. What a shock when genre fiction writers became recognized for their literary accomplishments; for instance, writers such as Vonnegut and LeGuin have work that science fiction writers sometimes now claim as “literary science fiction” and the academic world calls, simply, “literary.”

Sometimes this classification game begins to look as complicated as listing all the animal species (a couple million or so). Wikipedia breaks down the “common fiction genres” into 25 categories. Various departments of education often cut that down a little, but in reality the genres multiply as professors of literature (one of the fields I taught for decades) bring books into the classroom. The classifications become as narrow as the hair on a villain’s chin.

Of course, many writers shrug off the rules and write what their imagination dictates. This often results in wonderfully imaginative and unique books, which is what I’d say about Redemption in Indigo and Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. Each page is a surprise.

Even cross-genre (or genre bending) writing has become a genre. I keep seeing articles such as “Three rules for writing a cross-genre novel.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for writing rules. Grammar and punctuation (I was a teacher after all) are essential, in my opinion, for clarity. Rules also apply to style: show don’t tell, for instance. Essentials of plot and scene building keep a story from dying on the page. On the other hand, one purpose of learning rules is to know how and when to break them effectively. For instance, a well-used sentence fragment adds spice and characterization.

“Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form…. Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects….Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls….”            –from “Diligence,” A Mencken Chrestomathy–H. L. Mencken

So sometimes, if you’re willing to pay the penalty, genre rule breaking is an option (including cross-genre rules). For instance, in my last book Quantum Consequences, I used science fiction as the main genre; however, I took on fantasy to account for the origin myth of elves and dwarfs as well as some abilities of central characters. I was aware of the fact that I was violating many traditions of the fantasy field. In so doing, I also knew I was limiting publishing options. Few big publishers want to risk a book that breaks with genre tradition unless the writer is already well-known and popular.

Look how hard it was for Stephen King to move out of horror. Even so, his work is sometimes still restricted. I recently read an article that said he had mastered almost all the genres except literary. I guess that means that his nearly 20 awards for writing won’t ever include a Pulitzer.

So who wins in this genre box building?


In literary circles where analysis is the name of the game, genre allows for historical, social, and cultural contexts. Taking something apart to study it is SOP.


Libraries and stores know where to shelve books. Publishers and publicists know where to market.


Marketing is easier if you write mysteries that follow the genre boilerplate. Finding publishers and readers is marginally easier. One writer I know has churned out five or six books a year by following this practice and now has almost 200 books attributed to his name. Readers devour such books in the same way that my husband eats potato chips (except the books aren’t fattening). Likewise, getting publicity is easier if you have a clear genre.


Readers who don’t want surprises, don’t want their assumptions challenged, also benefit. If they pick up a Regency romance, they already know the time period, the basic plot (romance), the likely class of characters, and the outcome. Readers who don’t find the expected in such a novel will be as upset as a Texan who orders sirloin steak and gets tofu. That doesn’t mean either the Texan or the tofu is bad. Likewise, genre preferences don’t make advocates “bad readers.” Books for escape (entertainment) have an important place in our culture. This, for the same reason, means that writers of such books are not “bad writers.”


With all that said, the controversy over genre continues. Some writers and readers like risk, like taking a literary journey where no one has gone before. Natural rebels? Eager to tell their own stories in their own ways? More in love with the art and craft of writing than publication? Or, for readers, more in love with meeting unexpected people and traveling on unexpected paths with uncertainty always in the balance and utter delight only one sentence away?

We need those who write within conventional structures and those who don’t.

Sometimes the unconventional becomes conventional. Edgar Allen Poe and Anton Chekhov pioneered the short story. Murasaki Shikibu penned the world’s first novel (according to most sources) The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century. Short story and novel are now standard conventions.

Who knows what the next convention will be?

Whatever it is, the result will no doubt be named and placed in the growing hierarchy of genres becoming standard, like steampunk novels today.

Publish Your Writing: 7 Steps to Success

Oh, No! Not Marketing!

Every writer–every artist in every field–whom I’ve met dislikes marketing, yet the modern world thrives on marketing. Of course, it thrives on creating art, too, and countless books, classes, and conferences have material telling you how to get words on the page and complete work.

Unfortunately, less is available on marketing. The problem, of course, is that without marketing, your work can wind up packed away on thumb drives and backup drives forever. You can avoid this with a few simple good marketing habits.

  1. Identify your goals. This is the big picture.

Not every artist has visions of The New York Review of Books in mind for his/her best-selling books. Some do. Some want to self-publish and some don’t want to publish at all. Your goal will determine where, when, and how you market your material and yourself.

For instance, you may want to write poems for friends or family or write a family biography or short blurbs to go with photos. You want to write well, and what you have to say is important, but marketing doesn’t play into the writing, the results, or the satisfaction. Your choice will be whether to do a photo book or maybe a small book with a limited number of copies. Many companies do this, such as Blurb, Shutterfly, and many others.

If your goal is to self-publish to a larger market–that is, you do want to get your work out there and read–don’t assume you can skip marketing. People who self-publish work hard (and daily) to put their work where readers can find it. Plan on building up a Web presence (everything from social media to an author Web page). Look up the Web presence of other authors for ideas.

You’ll be contacting bookstores, conferences, and workshops with ideas for classes or readings, talks, and classes. Have a professional business card. Make up posters to leave with bookstores. Have a blog and send out emails to subscribers. Write reviews and post material on other authors’ pages. In other words, daily get your name printed somewhere. This is also true if you go through a small press. Set this in motion as you write; don’t wait until you publish (that’s too late)!

If you publish through any traditional channels, you’ll find that publishers will expect you to build up your Web presence and promote yourself, too (you’ll hear the word platform, which is described in the previous paragraph). However, you’ll probably have some guidance and help along the way if you’re with a larger press.

The first step to having that large publisher, of course, will be to have your work accepted, and to do that, you have to continually submit.

  1. Schedule marketing daily.

Tomorrow is only a way to procrastinate.

While marketing isn’t something you need to obsess over as most of us do over our writing, it’s important to do daily for the simple reason that if you don’t, you’ll look at your marketing journal one day and discover that it’s been a month and you’ve done nothing; that you don’t have anything actively making the rounds of editors; that you just don’t have the energy to “start over again.”

In addition, the more material you have “out there,” the less you’ll be concerned about each submission.

As with writing, I recommend that you set both a minimum and a maximum time to spend marketing every day. The reason for both is simple: you need to trick yourself into avoiding procrastination techniques. If you don’t limit your time and you’re having a good day, you may spend the entire day working on marketing. Then you’ll use that as an excuse to not market the next day–or for the next week.

This time should be spent reading publications, prowling the Internet for publications (don’t forget libraries), and checking out various directories of publications (such as CLMP’s Literary Press & Magazine Directory, and Poets & Writers databases of magazines, presses, agents, etc.).

Each day send out at least one submission.

Rationalization and procrastination are best buds.

  1. Keep a list of likely publications, presses, agents for your work.

To avoid endlessly searching through lists of calls for submissions, create your personalized list. Include only publications that use material similar in nature to what you write. For instance, if you write mostly dramatic monologues on love, don’t bother to include publications that want only cyberpunk poems.

Part of this list creation requires that you research publications. Make sure they are places where you want your work to appear. Make sure that you’re not signing away all rights and know what your rights are. Decide whether you want to publish online only or if you want to focus on print publications.

Of course, in order to make this list, you have to know what editors are publishing. This means you have to read: publications, submission guidelines, and magazine listings.

Writers too often skip reading publications. Excuses abound: there are too many! they cost too much! I don’t have time!

Protestation is a cousin to procrastination and rationalization.

In short, if you don’t read publications, you will find that you irritate editors who receive work inappropriate for their publication; also, you will be guaranteeing that you’ll receive more rejections than acceptances; finally, you will spend more on wasted submission cost (reading fees and entry fees, for instance) and wasted time. This is a lose/lose situation.

Not reading publications is akin to a nurse who administers medication without bothering to read the patient’s chart.

Even if you can’t afford to buy a copy of every magazine being published today (who can?), almost every magazine has a website offering story samples to read for free. If the stories that the publication editor has chosen for examples are histrionics laced with characters who can’t speak coherently and who are riddled with drugs, sex, and violence, then that is what the editors want. I’m not saying the stories aren’t good or that they don’t depict an aspect of our society, but an editor isn’t going to suddenly switch from dramatic, teen drug culture to a deep character study about a woman in her 40s who can’t find work.

A good way to gain access to more magazines is to form a group of friends to share efforts. Each person can subscribe to or buy one issue of a magazine; swap them among yourselves. More on group marketing below.

Don’t forget about anthologies. These often provide more diverse opportunities than you’ll find in literary/small press magazines.

Anthologies may be based on a theme or a region or a topic. You can find many of these simply by using your search engine to look up “anthology submissions” or, to be more specific “fiction anthology submissions.” Beware of anthologies that include all submissions if writers buy the book or pay a fee (do your research); such publication is almost like not publishing at all.

Another way to find markets is to read the Best of …; these are anthologies that include stories from a diverse range of literary magazines. Libraries usually include, for instance, The Best American Short Stories. You don’t need to spend a fortune on your reading regime and you’ll learn a lot about what different magazines like.

Ultimately this will save you time, effort, and frustration.

  1. Don’t cross anything off your list too quickly.

Don’t be too quick to skip a publication just because the description has a word or two that you think can’t possibly apply to you (i.e., your personal bias). For instance, the annual calls for submission to Orison Books uses the term “spiritual” often, but the publication is not limiting itself to organized religion or even religion at all. Read deeper to find out what the editors do mean and whether you might not be writing something that fits the editor’s interest (such as material that illustrates the mystery underlying characters’ actions and goals–their spiritual natures–or magical realism). Research is careful and detailed examination, not skimming.

Finally, don’t cross magazines off your list because their prestige intimidates you. For instance, your work may be right for The New Yorker; if so, submit there. Don’t decide not to do so just because you don’t have a “name.” On the other hand, don’t submit to prestigious magazines just because they are prestigious. Submit only if they fit your work.

  1. Pay attention to the editors and staff on publications that seem right for your list.

If the publication has material you enjoy reading and that is similar in message, tone, genre, etc. to what you’re writing, learn more about the editor and staff’s writing, particularly where it has been published. Those publications may also like your work. Then you look up those publications and get the names of that editor and staff, and so forth. If you keep following this trail, you’ll get some repetitions, but you’ll also add to your list of publications (magazines and anthologies) that are likely to accept your work.

  1. Form good social connections.

Writers usually need alone time for creation, but no writer can market today without creating social links. Create your author’s Web page, your Facebook page, your Linkedin profile, your Twitter account, and your Wiki page and update them frequently. This is related to platform building above.

Also, attend readings, conferences, and other events to support other writers. Find out how you can be included in future activities. Have a professional business card to hand out. If you have books, always have a few copies with you.

Do not carry around manuscripts to drop on agents or editors!

This is unprofessional and although you will be remembered (and discussed), the reasons for such discussions won’t be helpful to your career.

  1. Keep a meticulous journal.

Include the list of likely markets, your submissions (including the results and dates), your activities, and your writing credentials. Many people keep this online and many prefer a hard copy journal. For those of us who expect the worst, keep a hard copy even if you prefer online.

As part of this journal, keep your list of credentials (resume), publications, readings, and online links up to date. You may think that, as a writer, you won’t need a resume, but if you’re going to apply for workshops or grants, you’ll be glad to have the resume handy.

Interestingly, I’ve had to refer back to these journals often. Don’t erase or throw them away! See sample below.


Ultimately, if you write and market every day, you’ll find that your publication success increases steadily. Then when you hear other writers bemoaning the number of rejections they receive for every publication, you can advise them on the best way to market.


Marketing Journal




How to Get Rejected Without Getting Read

Writers’ Fatal Flaws

Computers spread out temptation to lure writers away from the task of writing rather like a bakery’s street front window lures people away from their diets.

The greatest temptation of all rises from the variety of font sizes, types, and colors–as well as styles, templates, and layout options–that technology offers. The worst possible outcome is, of course, that writers will begin to replace careful revision and editing (not to mention creative sweat) with making words look good on the page. I’m reminded of my students who like to make words lively with punctuation!!!?**

The second worst outcome is that editors and agents will reject–without reading–manuscripts that display the writer’s creativity with page/font manipulation rather than simply providing clean, crisp text that lets excellent writing shine.


Most editors and publishers are very clear about their submission guidelines. In fact, the most common request is that authors “follow standard manuscript formatting,” a three-word request that assumes writers understand. Some understand but don’t care. Some don’t understand what that means. However, this is a vital directive to use and to understand to avoid getting rejected without getting read.

This old-fashioned approach has a serious purpose: editors/publishers read a lot in a hurry.

  • Consequently, their eyes are tired.
  • They’ve had too much coffee.
  • They have deadlines, and they want to find the information they need in a hurry.
  • They’ve had to send out more rejections than they’d like.

If such an editor/publisher looks at your manuscript and has to hunt for page numbers or your contact information or is faced with a font that is challenging to read on the page, then your work is apt to be dismissed before the content is assessed.

This isn’t editorial arrogance (editors want to find good material); however, such random or creative formatting and disregard of submission guidelines is most common among amateurs, which is an indication that the writing and marketing platform might not be strong. Because editors/publishers have a lot to read, they must have priorities in trying to find the best material as quickly as possible.

Also, following the directions in the submission guidelines indicates that you’re a writer who respects what others need, that you’re easy to work with, that you understand professional protocol, that you’ve overcome that fatal flaw.

Another issue is that if you’ve inserted creative formatting–word art or text boxes or font that shimmers, is shadowed, or is otherwise “creatively” designed–this causes problems when the material is set up for publication. If, for instance, InDesign is used, then when the document is uploaded, a lot of the special formatting will be turned into tedious corrections for someone to make. If you have a standard Word document with standard formatting, the conversion is much simpler. If the manuscript is being exported for ePub, then standard formatting is even more important.

In this era of self-publishing, the need for standard formatting even applies to yourself. The more creative you are with presentation, the more likely you are to have correction nightmares in setting the document up for POD or ePub.


You’ll find lots of information out there about how to write well and how to research markets, but the vital advice on how to follow guidelines and how to understand what directions/terms mean can be more difficult to find. That material is out there, and taking the time to find it is part of a writer’s job.

However, common sense is the best resource. The most common guideline requirement is for “readable” font (some even specify font, such as boring old Times New Roman). A clearly readable font is serif although debate continues about whether it’s clearest on a computer screen (and most manuscripts are submitted online). Recently, Times New Roman has been criticized as old-fashioned, but it’s still popular among editors, as are Arial and Courier, because it’s easy to read. Writers Digest offers clear guidelines at Formatting a Manuscript as do many other sites.


When computers became as common as telephones, writers became increasingly responsible for their own editing and layout. Many writers began hiring copyeditors, layout designers, and book doctors (see Critiques & Editing for Writers on this site) to help with manuscript final drafts. Some have chosen to do it all themselves, which can be as difficult as it is for lawyers to represent themselves. Manuscript presentation is not something one should allow the ego to protect; if you’re going to fight for something, make it your prose, your characters, your plot, and even your grammar/punctuation, not your font.

Some Added Don’ts to avoid Getting Rejected Without Getting Read

  1. Don’t bind your material. That includes spiral, hole-punched folders, and burlap twine.
  2. Don’t print double-sided.
  3. Don’t send cookies, candy, or cute cartoons about rejections.
  4. Don’t complicate the mail system by requiring a signature at the post office, etc.
  5. Don’t write a cover letter that explains away reasons for not following standard guidelines or other submission guidelines. Examples are many:
    • I know you don’t usually like romance, but …
    • Although you don’t want Westerns anymore, this one is different because…
    • I’m submitting my entire manuscript, not just the first 25 pages, because…
    • To understand why my book has no punctuation, you have to understand that…
  1. Many publishers are using online submissions in part to avoid some of the above issues. Don’t circumnavigate a publisher’s submission routines. For instance, if a publisher or agent wants email submissions only, you’re wasting your time sending something via USPS. Likewise, if no email submissions are wanted, you’re wasting your time writing an email to request an exception.

Disregard any of the above IF the submission guidelines request, for instance, candy bribes.

After saying all that, don’t feel you should never take advantage of your control over text. Adding emphasis, such as the capitalized IF two paragraphs up, or examples, such as the colored text in the second paragraph, can be useful.

Preparing your work for submission is the same as preparing yourself for an interview. You dress appropriately so that you won’t have barriers between you and your skills and the interviewer. You prepare (dress) your manuscript in the best way possible to make sure that something such as font doesn’t create a barrier between the reader and your important message.