For Love or Money

[November 2007] I’ve written about this subject before in On Writing Horror as part of an essay on marketing myths. However, I thought a real-life example might help drive a message home.

Four years ago, I read a call for submissions for a royalty-only e-anthology. If there’s anything you should run from faster than a royalty-only anthology, it’s a royalty-only e-anthology.

“Royalty only” means you don’t get paid up front for your story. You are promised a pro-rated percentage of a fraction (typically 50%) of the total proceeds from sales. In theory, that sounds promising. If the book sells a thousand copies at $10 each, you’ll be getting a cut of $5000. Assume twenty authors in the book and all stories roughly the same length, and you’re looking at about $250, not bad for a short story.

The problem is, very few anthologies sell a thousand copies—especially those from the small press. A hundred copies is more like it. My largest royalty check for this type of anthology is $18.00. Not quite as attractive as $250, right? And that’s the largest check by an order of magnitude. I have received two checks for one anthology in the amounts of $1.05 and $0.87 respectively. Laughing all the way to the bank, I tell you. And when you translate that into the number of eyeballs on the page, well, it’s a sad, sad situation, as Elton John once said. I’m not going to get into the debate between writing for art and filthy lucre here. Suffice to say that I like getting paid for my work. It’s one of my favorite things. I also like to have my stories read.

If print anthologies are a tough sell, e-anthos are worse. The rumored wave of online readers has yet to materialize in number, and the demise of books—printed books—has not yet come to fruition. People are staying away from electronic books in droves. If an e-anthology falls in the wood, no one will read it. (At least no trees were sacrificed.) Your precious story will be “lightly published” at best, and first serial rights are gone forever. Any subsequent appearances will be as reprints, and you’re not likely to get $250 for one of those.

Naïve as I was, I wrote a story for the anthology, submitted it, had it accepted, and had the gumption to feel proud of the accomplishment. I wish I could plead youth and foolish innocence, but the truth is, I wasn’t all that young. Foolish, perhaps. Innocent, arguable, at least in the ways of the publishing world. Desperate, more like—desperate for publication credits and willing to sacrifice any number of things to get there.

However, as it turned out, fate had other plans for my story and me. The publisher behind the e-anthology closed up shop and the editor returned the story rights to me. What was once accepted became unaccepted, and I had the story back in my grubby little paws, unviolated.

Remarketing stories written for theme anthologies can be problematic. I didn’t know what to do with the story, so it stayed in my filing cabinet for a while. Dormant, but not dead. A year or two later, I saw the guidelines for a no-entry-fee contest (the best kind!) that I thought the story might fit, but only after some fairly major reconstruction. For one thing, my story was set in the wine district of Australia. The contest mandated that the stories be set in New England. I needed a wine district, mountain overlooks and a beach. Fortunately, after a little research, I was able to find all of these where I needed them. A complete rewrite also removed many of the elements I included in the original version to make it fit the anthology theme. A completely different story went off to the contest. I had high hopes—I always do.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t win. However, the contest organizer informed me that several judges had rated my story highly. That gave me more confidence, so I printed out a fresh copy and aimed high.

Last week, I received an acceptance letter from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I have a list of top-tier markets, places I’ve dreamt about being published. Cemetery Dance magazine was one, and I’ve had the good fortune to publish both fiction and non-fiction in that periodical. Others on the list include Asimov’s, F&SF, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine…and EQMM.

What do these dream venues all have in common? They’re pro markets, true, but there are a decent number of those around. These are pro markets that have been around for years. Decades in many cases. And they have significant circulations. That means visibility. That means exposure. Don’t let any other type of market seduce you with the promise of “payment in exposure.” The only place where you’ll get serious exposure is in a book or magazine that appears on the shelves in your local bookstore or is sent to a large subscriber database. Your readership will instantly expand far beyond the people who restrict themselves to small press publications. People from Seattle to Key West and San Diego to Presque Isle (look it up) who like crime fiction will have the opportunity to read my story. Tens of thousands. EQMM, launched in 1941, is the longest-running mystery digest of all time and has a circulation of nearly 200,000.

That’s so much better than the six people who might have paid to download the e-anthology that never was. Including four friends, a guy I work with. And me, of course.

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