Friday, 20 February 2009

The Waiting Game

Helen Stafford sent a note along with her latest assignment asking a question that many students ask;

"I've submitted several articles and letters and haven't heard back from many, despite sending a chaser letter too. How long should I wait?"

Welcome to the joys of a buyers market.

The problem is, not every magazine has a huge staff. Yes the Vogues, Cosmopolitans and Country Life magazines may have a long list of staff on their editorial contacts page, but actually, many of them will be working for more than one magazine. The editor may have a PA, but she's probably sharing her with three other editors. Come down the circulation scale and the editorial staff often dwindles to nothing. The editor may be the only member of staff, and whist that means they have the job of editing the magazine, it also means that they are the filing clerk, accounts clerk and chief tea maker too.

Just step into their shoes for a brief moment and answer this question: Do you answer every unsolicited item of mail that comes through your letter box, or email inbox?

I quite agree that common courtesy would suggest that if a writer sends some material and encloses a stamped addressed envelope, then the least an editor can do is return it in the SAE saying 'thanks, but no thanks.' And therein lies the crux of the matter. It isn't really the waiting that is a problem, it's the not knowing, isn't it? I've often said when running workshops at writer's groups and courses that I really wouldn't have a problem if an editor just shoved my work back into my envelope having written **** off! across it. Why? Because at least I know where I stand!

So what's a writer to do? Actually, I believe there's a few steps you can take.

  1. Understand the publication's frequency. Weekly magazines work about 6 to 8 weeks in advance, monthlies can work 3 to 4 months ahead, whilst quarterlies may be working 6 to 9 months ahead. So don't consider chasing a weekly magazine for at least 3 months, a monthly for 6 months and a quarterly for a minimum of 6 months, but preferably 9.
  2. When you're going to send a 'chaser' letter or email, be tactful. Tempting though it may be, don't demand your manuscript back and if you don't hear from them in 48 hours threaten to send round the heavies (much as you'd like to.) It is not unheard of for items to get lost in the post. The first time I 'chase' a submission I write a letter to the editor enquiring whether he/she can advise me if my manuscript arrived safely in their offices, and if not, could I send a duplicate? You'd be surprised the number of times, this elicits a reply. Now don't get me wrong, I'm well aware that an editor saying, "No, we didn't get it," may be lying - my manuscript could have fallen down the back of someone's desk in the office, but at least now I can get back to the editor enclosing the duplicate with a sentence saying "Please find a copy of the article, that you asked for."
  3. If you send a chaser letter - wait a similar amount of time before sending any more, i.e. 6 to 8 weeks for a weekly, 6 months for a monthly, and so on.
  4. If you still hear nothing after a couple of letters, you will understandably be quite frustrated. This is when I issue my final letter - I advise them that according to my records I sent them X article on X date(s) and if I have not heard from them by X date (usually one month), I assume that they are not interested in the piece and I am free to offer it elsewhere. After the date has passed, you can then rewrite it, angled at a different market.
This advice differs slightly, if you are writing something topical. I often state in my feedback to assignments that work with a topical hook can have improved chances of publication. It gives an editor a reason for using such a piece in a particular issue. Now obviously, if you submit a piece of work with a topical hook and the editor fails to respond, you are well within your rights to chase it up sooner than the timescales I've suggested above. Editors quite understand the need for topical material to be considered promptly.

Let's imagine that I've written a piece about Halloween now and I've sent it off to a monthly publication. Monthly magazines will be putting their October issues together around July time. So if I've submitted it now at the end of February, I need to hear back quite quickly. Because of the topicality, an editor would quite understand if I queried whether they were interested in the piece at the end of April. Querying then, gives me time to re-jig it and submit it elsewhere before July when the October magazines are being collated. So consider if your submission had a topical angle.

So, follow some sensible guidelines and always be polite when you chase. Remember, there's no law that says an editor has to respond to every letter that he/she gets, so coming across as annoyed and irritated won't help your cause. Offer the editor a 'saving face' option (i.e. it was lost in the post) and you may just encourage them to reply back to you.

Congratulations go to Helen for her persistence with a piece about the Session Courts in Lancaster which will be published in the local newspaper soon. And I'd also like to say well done to:

  • Dave Cullen - for his articles in Best of British (he's had one published in the November, December and January issues, and the magazine is holding onto 4 more for possible use - and have yet to make their mind up on another 9!), and his success with the 'Rude Jokes' section in That's Life magazine. They may only be small fillers paying £15 a time, but Dave's had £60 from this one slot int he magazine.
  • Rosemary Wells has had a letter published in the Daily Telegraph and an article published in the Methodist Recorder.
Keep up the good work everyone.

Good luck!

1 comment:

  1. As usual Simon you have hit the nail on the head and offered good advice - I sympathise with Helen as I am also playing the waiting game (as I recently bloged) Fortunately I had an email acceptance in 5 mins the other day but that was an all to rare experience!