Thou Shalt Know Thy Market

Brandon Nolta
by Brandon Nolta

Posted December 29th, 2008 • 8 comments

If you are a practicing writer, or even just occasionally trying, you’ve probably received a rejection letter or two. I’ve got enough to reconstitute a grove. I’ve been rejected by some of the best-known and venerable names in the magazine business, and it amuses me to keep these reminders around. I find it useful, and more importantly, humbling. It’s part and parcel of the business, and one that doesn’t necessarily reflect on you as a writer. The reasons for rejection are as numerous as the stars, and often not as bright.

One of the best rejection letters I ever got was from an online SF magazine. I wish I had kept it so I could quote directly, but it was an e-mail, and those I tend to get rid of, because I dislike clutter. Anyway, after the obligatory “thanks for thinking of us” blah-blah, I got to the meat of it, where the editors stated that they rejected my story because they felt it was too smart for their audience. I kid you not. After I got done rolling on the floor from laughter, I realized that, despite the hilarity inherent in the idea of making a magazine for morons, what they actually meant to say was that I had misjudged their market. And they were right.

Writers put pen to paper for a variety of reasons, up to and including mental health, but in the end, writers really write for themselves. That’s how it should be; that’s where art comes into play. However, we send it to publishers—books, magazines, whatever—for money, and when we do that, we need to understand the market. Just because a magazine says they want crime fiction, and you write crime fiction, doesn’t mean that your fiction will fit into their magazine. If a magazine publishes Miss Marple pastiches, and you send them a noir piece you whipped up after going on an Andrew Vachss jag, they probably won’t be able to reject it fast enough. Paper cuts will likely ensue.

Knowing the market, however, doesn’t mean exercising that subscription to Writer’s Market and seeing what they take, although it can start there. Nor does it mean reading their submission guidelines and saying, “Hey, my poem on Finnish pornography written in terza rima would go great there!” What it means is actually reading the damn magazine. All magazines establish a niche for themselves, and while few are exclusive to the point of total predictability, it doesn’t take long to notice editors are pretty faithful to their likes. However, you do have to read a few issues to pick up the trends, get a feel for the tone the editors like to set for the publication. I’d say you should read at least three issues, and probably closer to six, before you get a fair long-term sense of what the magazine looks for in its published work. Literary magazines, especially the student-run pubs, are an occasional exception.

Just reading one, however, is not enough. If you only want to publish in Analog, for example, go for it. Read the hell out of it every month for a while, then dive in. It’s a good magazine, but it’s not the only one in the field, though it might be by the time you finish reading this post. To know the market, you have to know what the big guns are doing, both to spot trends and to learn about other places to submit your work. If SF is your game, you should be aware of what Asimov’s and The Magazine of F&SF are doing. If crime and mystery is where it’s at, keep up with Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s. For literary fiction, you’ve got lots of small press to keep up with, but The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly are good ones to keep an eye on. It’s not required to keep up with everybody, but you want to know who’s holding pole position. Knowing the trends will help you place a story more efficiently.

Notice, I am not suggesting you tailor your writing to fit a specific market or magazine. There are a few reasons why that’s bad:
a)Such behavior is, to use a technical term, whoring out your talent.
b)It most likely won’t work. Do I really have to explain why?
c)If it does work, congratulations. You sold something you wrote because you imposed a specific end onto it, not because that’s what the work called for. Go back to step a) for why this sucks.

Remember: write for yourself. Send it to others for money. It’s OK to market yourself and your work, but never, ever confuse that with the reason why you created the work in the first place. The soapbox is now closed.

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