Submitting to Literary Magazines 101: Professionalism

I am truly honored to have Vince Gotera as my guest today. Vince writes poems and stories, as well as the occasional creative nonfiction. His books include the three poetry collections Fighting Kite, Ghost Wars, and Dragonfly, as well as the critical study Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans. Vince serves as Editor of the North American Review, originally established in 1815, the longest-lived literary magazine in the US. He has been a Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa since 1995. He earned an MFA in poetry writing and a PhD in English from Indiana University. Gotera writes:

In a couple of days, I will be starting my tenth year as Editor of the North American Review — a tremendous privilege and honor since the NAR is the longest-lived literary magazine in the US, originally established in 1815.

About a year and a half ago, in a Facebook group titled “MFA in Creative Writing,” as part of an online discussion of editing and publishing, I dashed off an impromptu list of my pet peeves as NAR poetry editor. This list quickly took on a life of its own and was re-run on at least one other writerly blog and perhaps others. (As the movie Dorothy said of the Munchkins in Oz, blogs “come and go so quickly” so I can’t be certain how widespread the list “viraled,” so to speak.)

In any case, here (officially) is the precise text of that offhand list, originally written on 29 August 2007:

Okay … for me, the “turn-off” is different for each poem I ultimately reject. Here are a few immediate turn-offs, in no particular order:

• Botched ending … forced, too explanatory, too “universalized”
• Clumsy use of form … for example, if sonnet or sestina, etc.
• Slow getting going … should rock from first line down
• Too much full rhyme … I prefer slant rhyme
• Uninformed line breaks … be aware of lineation effects
• Abstract or image-less … unless experimental
• Superficial topic or handling
• Obviously unaware of poetic tradition(s)
• Cover letter explains poem … inexperienced submitter
• Poem sent with vita or résumé … very inexperienced submitter
• Says “copyright …” … does writer think I’ll steal the poem?
• Centered lines … unless important for theme
• Badly edited … errors, typos, grammar, etc.
• Font too small … many editors are older and have old eyes
• Monotype font or font too fancy … hard to read quickly
• Pseudonyms … let’s back up our writing with our names, ppl
• Handwritten … usually from prisoners, though I’ve accepted poems by prisoners.

There are other turn-offs but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

I do want to say that I don’t just drop the poem. My eyes touch every word. I read very quickly and wait for the poem to say, “whoa, you’re reading too fast.”

I also want to say that not every poem we take is already “perfect.” if a poem has something good going for it but has errors or whatever, we are willing to work with the poet in the proof stage. Not full workshop of course … that would be inappropriate … but suggestions and queries. In the long run, though, the writer’s in charge, of course.

Well, I’m grateful Pat has offered me a slot here as guest blogger. I would like to use this opportunity to expand on and clarify some of the items in that offhand list above. And maybe, if she’ll allow me, devote some later guest blogging slots to other pet peeves.

Today, I want to address professionalism in submitting to literary magazines. Five items above plus one other are germane. What I will say below about these six items are part of what many people — both writers and editors — refer to as “unwritten rules.” Oh, incidentally, what I’ll say below pertains directly to poetry, but of course writers of other ilk are welcome to adjust my advice for their own genre(s).

(1) The Cover Letter. Many writers don’t include a cover letter at all. The reasoning, I suppose, is that the editor will of course know why the poems are coming to the magazine. That’s okay, but I personally like to get cover letters because I think they’re polite. If they’re handwritten and say something like “Some poems for the magazine,” that would be fine. Our grandmothers told us we should send nice notes, and that’s what the cover letter should be. Sorry if I seem fussy here; I just think the transaction between the writer and the editor should be civil and friendly. A cover letter certainly can dispose me favorably (a little) toward the submission. Especially if a cover letter is fun or entertaining.

But … don’t try to impress me in your cover letter. Don’t tell me you were published here or there. Or that you have published so many books blah blah blah. When I see that in a cover letter, I don’t read it. For me, the poem and only the poem can get itself into the magazine.

Definitely do not explain the poem in your cover letter. As an editor, I’m trying to gauge how readers will understand the poem, and I don’t really care how you read your poem. Or what you meant. Or what poetic form or style you used. If the poem can’t “say” all that for itself, it’s not getting into the NAR.

It’s a good idea to list in the cover letter the titles of the 3 to 6 poems you’re sending. This will make our lives easier should your cover letter get separated from the poems. Not likely to happen but it could.

(2) Résumés and Vitas. Sometimes writers who know the cover-letter pitfalls listed above will instead send a list of publication credits. From my point of view, that’s equally annoying. Actually, more so, because it’s not as friendly as an actual letter.

What ever you do, never send a résumé or a vita; that really smacks of inexperience. Of not knowing the “unwritten rules.” There may be fields or disciplines in which one sends a vita with a submission, but not in the literary magazine world. Sending a résumé or a vita could possibly dispose me against your work. What I mean is that your poems will have to work that much harder to catch my attention. It could happen … the poems could be so good that they make me overlook the résumé faux pas but that would be a rare occurrence indeed. It’s never happened, actually, in my twenty years of poetry editing.

(3) Copyright. The experienced writer should be aware of how copyright law works: that as soon as you write something, you own its copyright; in other words, you only have to show that you wrote something and when to defend your copyright. Inexperienced writers, on the other hand, will sometimes fear that their poems are leaving their hands and could be stolen by someone at a magazine. So they will include a copyright notice on the poem itself.

This is quite an insult. An arrogant one. First, this practice suggests that you think your work is so good that the editor or some other staff member will, instead of publishing your work, be driven to steal it. Second, this tells us you think we are thieves. Do you think this makes us friendly to your poem?

There are how-to articles and books out there that say put a copyright notice on your piece. That is old advice for an older time and is no longer necessary in today’s copyright environment. So just resist doing it. Your chances of getting published will increase. What I mean is that the poem will have a chance of a better reading without a copyright notice.

(4) Fonts. Something that we see quite often is a poem that has been printed out in 9- or 10-point font. Sometimes even smaller. I’m not really sure why people do this. Perhaps they’re trying to save postage. Or they want to squish their entire poem onto a single sheet. Who knows?

Look at it this way. When you are interviewing for a job, do you make it difficult for the interviewer? Or annoying? Do you dress in garish colors that make it hard for the interviewer to look at you directly? Do you whisper your answers to the interviewer’s questions so that you can almost not be heard?

What you do with fonts can be equally deleterious. Let’s face it, editors are writers who have some mileage on them; and that mileage takes years. So quite often, an editor will be someone with older eyes. How do you think the miniature font you’ve used to get your poem all on one sheet will be received by that editor with the graduated bifocals or trifocals? There is no problem with having continuation pages. In fact, when I send out poems, I use 14-point Times to make sure they are readable by all.

Speaking of Times font: I would dissuade you from using a typewriter font like Courier. Those are harder to read than Times or Palatino or Georgia or some other standard non-typewriter font. Remember that the editor must read quickly. For example, at the NAR, we read 7,000-10,000 poems a year. If the poem is hard to read fast, there’s a possibility it may not be read at all. Ditto with fancy curlicue or script fonts. Hard to read. Bad. Also sans serif fonts like Helvetica. A little easier to read but not as easy to read as Times. You may think Times is boring but it could help you get published.

(5) Pictures. No. Very bad. No pictures with poems. Even if you’re sending an ekphrastic poem — one based on a painting or a sculpture, for example. The enclosed or attached picture is a definite tip-off that the writer is inexperienced. An ekphrastic poem has to be good enough to stand on its own without the visual image next to it. In a blog, including a picture next to a poem is a plus. In a submission, BIG minus. Just say no.

(6) Pen Names. This last one is not the same kind of no-no as those above; it is not patently a bad idea. Nevertheless, it is still a no-no (at least for me). Pseudonyms were important to publish in previous decades for many reasons; one of these is that women or minorities had a harder time getting their work accepted without a “good old boy” name. This situation has changed, however, and people who use pseudonyms often do so now for romantic reasons. Or because they feel their poems are somehow NSFW (“not safe for work,” as we sometimes say in Internet slang).

A pen name some poet might think romantic, like “Valentine Lovesmith” or “Genevieve Queensryche,” is just straight-out silly; the real name of an American 19th-century romance writer, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte), helped to make her a bestselling success story, but taking on a name like that won’t work today. I feel writers should stand by their own names; their poems should carry the weight and significance of their real names. Not all editors will probably agree with me on this, but I suspect a majority of them will.

Okay, that’s it for now. I hope you will see the sense of these “unwritten rules.” Basically, for me, it’s about friendliness and civility, again. Editors are your friends. They want to publish your work. They want to discover the next great poet. So make the submission easy for editors, professional, and your poems will be able to shine on their own as they should. Good luck with your writing and with your submissions.

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Radio Interviews and How to Get Asked Back

When I was asked me to be a guest on a  blogtalkradio show, I immediately posted a discussion topic on Facebook, and my writing community there came through for me with some wonderful suggestions. Chuck Collins was especially generous, and he gave me permission to share his wisdom with you. Collins says:

Here I am an expert, no modesty needed. I have been a broadcaster for more than 30 years. There is one simple rule: there is no such thing as a yes or no answer. If you stop reading here, you’ll be fine.

A little physical prep is good. You certainly don’t want to jump off the treadmill and pick up the phone. You want some water nearby (you will get dry-mouth). And you want to make sure the room from where you take the call is totally quiet and you are the only soul present; that includes pets.

Write down the person’s name and city on an index card that you can see almost without looking at it. I don’t care if you are talking to the local swap-meet guy or Larry King, you will forget. Good idea to know the time zone at the destination of your talk. It’s also good to know a little bit about the interviewer, Simple things such as is he or she a parent, of a certain racial or ethnic group. Google him or her!

Be in comfortable clothes, but wear clothes! No sweats or jammies. That will give you a false sense of empathy. A good interviewer will want to throw you off at least a little. Stay sharp.

A bad interviewer will not know where to place the question mark. They will qualify a question to death. Be ready to interject your answer; trust me, he or she will thank you for that.

Have a clock or timer near. I like to use the timer feature on my iPhone. No answer should go longer than 2 minutes. That sounds like a long time, it isn’t. Ideally you want your answers to be in the 90 second range. I am not suggesting you obsess over time, just be aware of it. The interviewer is.

Assume that the interviewer has not read your book and never will. And you don’t care. It is the listener you want to get interested in the story.

Talk about the story or the subject matter. If you get a groupie question such as, “what made you start this project?” Talk about the genesis of the characters and the plot. It really doesn’t matter where your head was at the time. And yes, say the title of the book as often as you can.

One thing to keep in mind: good radio sounds like a conversation but it is not. We know this from composing good fiction. Nearly everyone can write, but few can craft a good novel. Nearly everyone can speak, but few actually sound good on the radio.

You can have a pleasant conversation with a host. Come away feeling good about the segment and not compel a single listener to buy your book.

You must help the host create an atmosphere that is as magnetic as your story. Use your voice to paint a picture that the listener MUST complete by buying the book. In short you need to convey passion, emotion and attraction.

This is not casual. It is quite deliberate. Have you ever heard or seen Garrison Keillor give an interview? There is always something that makes you wonder. It doesn’t matter what you wonder about, but he sticks in your mind long enough to take action, click on Amazon and buy the book. The host talks about the interview after you are gone. If you are lucky even the next day, perhaps replay it, podcasts it on their website! Mr. Keillor is a master of both art forms, but we can certainly learn from him.

The radio interview is a remarkable opportunity. You do not want to become a quivering mass, but you want to serve yourself first.

Generally the people listening to the interview are not interested in us. But we can give them reason to choose our work over the literally millions of options. Convince one person, that is really all you have to do.

If you are on a show about books and authors then you can relax some and just be yourself while still keeping the work central to the discussion. But if you are lucky enough to get on mainstream radio you are expected to perform, not as a radio professional but as an artist. We are supposed to be interesting people, we who have the nerve to create.

As far as selling, there are many ways to do this. The best way is make the product irresistible. No amount of begging can compete with a must-have product. Of course you never want to say, “please read my book,” but you can say “I have reserved a number of books just for your listeners. I will gladly sign them and for the next 24 hours wave all shipping costs.” I don’t believe in discounting the price, that is an insult to those who have already paid full price. But shipping, now there’s a coupon.

There are several ways to get asked back.

Sound like you belong there. This is delicate because you want to remain the “junior partner” in the presentation. In this dance, the host leads.

Remain humble, but not sycophantic. Know your stuff but when possible attribute your knowledge to others the interviewer and her audience may know and admire; maybe even interviewed recently. “You had a great interview with X on your show last month. He is a strong inspiration…” Show that you are a fan of the show, too.

Don’t ask for anything from the show! Arrange to have the show recorded yourself and offer to link the interviewer/program site to yours.

Thank both the host and producer in writing. Let them know how much you enjoyed the opportunity and are available anytime they would like you back…”

Don’t try to be funny. The key word here being TRY. You WILL be funny, don’t worry. You can even prepare a humorous story, but it will come naturally and that is the most engaging and memorable.

Here’s something from the AP Interviewing class: Relate to the audience directly as much as possible. This takes practice. For example. Instead of saying “When I find an author I like…” say “when you find an author you like…” same sentence, same set up. We know that the most magnetic words heard on the radio is one’s own name, short of that is “you.”

Finally you can forget all this and still do great! The worst interviews I ever had were with radio people — Don Imus, Howard Stern, etc. The best were fiction authors who would rather lick a porcupine than talk on the radio. That’s because I admire what they do and was genuinely interested in the craft. You’ll sense that from Rita and other good interviewers and the time will fly by.

Marketing the Old-Fashioned Way

My guest today is Sherrie Hansen, author of Night and Day published by Second Wind Publishing, LLC. Sherri writes:

So you’ve written a wonderful book. Friends and family who’ve read it rave about how good it is.  Now all you have to do is to figure out how to get it into the hands of the hundreds and thousands of other people who you know would enjoy it.

Marketing your book can be far more intimidating than writing it – especially for a writer who is more introvert than extrovert. For me, it is not so much the lack of courage, but lack of time that comes into play.

Whatever your reason for not getting your book out there, conquering a few easy marketing strategies can make the difference between your book being a success and not.

I’m not a marketing expert by any means, but I’ve owned and operated a fairly successful bed and breakfast and tea house for 17 years, and I have learned quite a bit about promoting a product. Here are a few ideas that I’ve come up with for marketing my recent release, Night and Day, that I hope you’ll be able to adapt and use to market your own books. 

(Note:  In this article, I will concentrate on old-fashioned, non-internet marketing ideas. )

1.  A couple of weeks ago, I personally visited several grocery stores and specialty shops in my area with a book in hand to let them know about Night and Day. One shop owner handed me cash right then and there and said they’d call when they needed more books. They’ve already called to order 2 more. Other shop owners seemed more skeptical, and wanted to have the books, but on consignment.

One woman wasn’t there when I stopped by, so I left a book for her to take a look at. When I returned a week later, she had read half of it, and was  saying things like, “What are you doing living in St. Ansgar, Iowa? You should be in New York City writing full time – you have such a knack for this! The book is wonderful! I love it!” and “If I don’t get my Easter ham in the oven, it’s going to be your fault. I can’t put this book down!”

While not everyone is going to react to your book with such enthusiasm, all it takes is one person – in a store, a community, an area, and the word is going to get out. Word of mouth is always the best advertising. Giving away a few books to people you think might be good cheerleaders might really pay off.

2.  I also sent out a letter to a dozen or two shops in areas mentioned in my book. For Night and Day, I targeted Scandinavian specialty shops, quilting shops, and book stores in areas of Minnesota mentioned in the book, as well as areas of Iowa and California with high concentrations of Danish settlers. So far, I have only had one positive response, but it was definitely worth my time. And, once I follow up with a personal visit (I’m planning to head to Red Wing, Welch, Cannon Falls and Blooming Prairie, MN as soon as I have more books, and a free day.)  I hope to land a few more placements for my book. You can find email and mailing addresses online if you visit the chamber of commerce pages for the community you’re targeting.

3.  Offer to do a book signing at the shop’s next sale, open house, or special event. Shop owners are always looking for ways to attract a few more customers. Some shops have wine tastings, or craft demos, or participate in community celebrations. Ask if you can come to their next event and be part of the excitement. Everyone I spoke to reacted enthusiastically to this idea. I’ve even been invited to do a book signing at the Book Loft in Solvang, CA next January when we’re out on the West Coast. It might have something to do with the fact that I offer to bring a plate of Melting Moments (a little Danish butter cookie my family has always made) with me when I come.  A unique slant can catch their attention.

4.  Woman’s groups and clubs, church groups, community groups, most any kind of group enjoy special speakers. I’ve been on several committees, and it’s a constant challenge to find someone to speak at our monthly meetings. Prepare a 10 – 15 minute long talk on some aspect of your experience, and contact libraries, churches, friends, community centers, senior citizen centers, and let them know you’re available. Odds are, they’ll be delighted, and you’ll soon have an opportunity to present your book to a captive audience! I will be speaking to a local writer’s group this Friday at 10 a.m., and another, in the next town over, sometime next month.

5.  Send out press releases to area newspapers, radio and television stations. Include a blurb, a bio, a photo, a list of places your book is available, and hopefully, a slant that makes your story unique. A unique slant might be how you were discovered, how the story ties in with a local legend or current event, or what inspired you to write the book in the first place. Most of them will go in the trash, but if even one picks up the story (who doesn’t love a “local girl or guy done good” story?), it will have been worth your while. I taped my first radio interview yesterday, for a station in Atlantic, Iowa, a large Danish community a couple of hours south of here. Who knows what will come of it?

6.  Offer your book as an auction item or special prize for your favorite charity, a church bazaar, or a local contest. Most places will also let you leave a stack of business cards or book marks to maximize your exposure.

I’m sure there are many other ideas that you can use to market your books, but hopefully, this short list will jog your creative impulses and help you get started. If not, make a list of what kind of people you think would enjoy your book (who is your target customer?) and where you are most likely to reach them.  Then, make a list of each place, area, craft, hobby, or profession mentioned (hopefully in a positive light) in your book, and start thinking about how you can market to those niches.

You HAVE written a wonderful book. Now it’s time to tell the world!

How To Do a Blog Tour

Marshall Karp, the author of Flipping Out, is an award winning former advertising executive, a playwright, a screenwriter, and a novelist. He has also written, produced, and executive produced TV shows for all the major networks. Karp says: 

When Pat asked me to write about my Blog Tour I had to remind her that I have less knowledge of Blog Tours than Sarah Palin did of Russia.

But before I started writing novels, I spent 25 years in marketing. I have promotion in my DNA, so I am always thinking how do I push my franchise toward the tipping point. And while I am hardly an expert on blog tours, I’m learning fast, because I’m in the process of doing one.

Since my publisher can’t afford to fly me from city to city to promote my books (actually, no publisher can) I realized that I can still travel the World Wide Web

If you’re thinking about a blog tour, here’s my version of how to do it.

First you research and recruit bloggers who talk about books. Some are better known than others, but if you’ve been published in the past, and you set up a Google alert with your name and title, Google will notify you whenever your name pops up on the web. That’s how, over the past few years, I have found bloggers who give positive reviews to my books — even though they bought their own copies, and they never imagined they’d ever be contacted by the author. But when I find them, I either email them directly or comment on their site. I’m genuine in my appreciation, and they’re floored because what the hell — I’m a real author, and usually they are bloggers who love to read — although some have their eyes on being published one day.

And then a bond is formed.

So I suggest you line up bloggers. Three months before your pub date send them ARCs. Assuming your publisher sends advance copies to bookstores and libraries, they should have some left over for bloggers. Then set up a calendar. Let’s say you’re doing a 15 day Blog Tour. You give each of your 15 selected bloggers one exclusive day on that calendar in which to review your book. You become available on that day to be a guest on that blog site — either doing Q&A, or an email interview, or writing q guest blog. You also should do a quid pro quo, which includes posting a Blog Tour calendar and giving a permanent link from your site — sending your fans to the blogger’s site.

This takes a lot of time, and I won’t know for a few months if it’s worth it. But at least you can do it from home. Which is good if you’re shy. Or you’re tired of having a TSA guy with a big wand pull you aside and ask if you’ve ever had this done to you before. (It’s a straight line I can never resist and my wise-ass answers have gotten me into a lot of trouble.)

As much time as it takes, ultimately it probably takes a lot less time than a 15 city tour. Let me reiterate that I am a Blog Tour Virgin. I’m planning one — but I have no first hand experience, just information. But I do have first hand experience at doing book signings. On my first signing for my first book, I sold 140 copies, and the store ran out. Friends and family. Second store signing — 25 books. Friends and family who couldn’t make it to the first signing. Third store signing — all I heard were crickets chirping. So for me a Blog Tour feels like a worthwhile experiment.

Booksellers and librarians are your very best allies. They handsell. Even in those cities where I flew in and only half a dozen people showed up at a store signing, the bookseller was grateful, responsive, and got to know me and my work well enough to sell my books day after day, appropriate customer after appropriate customer, long after I left.

I still am friends (real and virtual) with many of those booksellers. The same goes for librarians. My first thought when I found out that 14 people were on the waiting list for my book at a local library was — what kind of business plan is that? Sell one book and 14 people get to read it? I soon learned that libraries are a Mecca for book people and while many people may borrow your book, if they like it, they usually spread the word to their friends who buy books.

Sorry to ramble on. No editor handy. In fact I’ve gone on so long I can’t believe anyone will read this far. So I can get it off my chest right now and tell you that Jimmy Hoffa is buried in my basement, and I won’t have to worry about recriminations.

One last thing. Writing books is a not-so-delicate balance of art and commerce. Nobody expects you to be a natural at the commerce part. As you go through the marketing process, try to stay in touch with the Inner Joy. You started with 500 blank sheets of paper, filled them with your ideas, your words, your emotions, – with everything that is you, and now it’s a Real Book.

Hey, there are lots of people who can keep you from becoming a world famous, best selling, household name author. But only one person can prevent you from feeling the sheer joy and exhilaration you get every time you say . . . I write books.

See also:
Review of Flipping Out  review by Pat Bertram
Titles: What Makes a Good One by Marshall Karp
Conversation with Marshall Karp, Author of Flipping Out