Friday, August 8, 2008

Money Matters for Writers: Submission Services

This is the first in a series I'll be adding to from time to time on money matters for writers. This blog being devoted to creative writing, "money matters" refers to spending money on your writing rather than making it. Today, creative writers will be lucky to pay for paper and print cartridges with what they can make from their writing. On the other hand, there are a wealth––as it were–of ways to spend money, and in this series I will try to help you evaluate what is and is not worth the price.

You've read the ads in writer's magazines, I'm sure, for submission services. Depending on what you sign up for and what you can afford to pay, they will do anything from preparing a list of publications you can submit to on your own to preparing a cover letter and submitting for you, as well as tracking your submissions.

Any writer who has gotten serious about the submission process will see the allure in this. Not only is it time consuming to check out various guidelines, make sure your work is formatted properly, and keep proper records, the hardest part can be deciding what publications seem to be the best match for your style. On the other hand, the services can be quite pricey, and given that most publications pay little or nothing, you'll want to think long and hard whether it's worth it, especially as none of the ones I checked out provided any guarantees.

How it works
A little over a year ago I decided to take the plunge and submit my work to one of these services just to get a quote. As everyone should, I confirmed first that there was no reading fee and no obligation to pay for any services if my work was deemed acceptable. My work was accepted (though I did wonder if anyone is ever turned down) and a price quoted of a few hundred dollars for full service, which would include manuscript prep, developing and sending cover letters, keeping my work circulating to a series of targeted publications, maintaining records I could check online, and providing itemized expense lists. Basically, from what I could gather, full service meant you essentially sent in your work and never touched it again until, hopefully, it was published.

Given that the price included postage on the submission, and the SASE, I wouldn't say it was out of line with services provided, but with my business background it was more than I could justify based on the likely return. However, for the purpose of experimentation, I later did try a lower priced option for a little over $100.

The service provided
For that fee I was provided with a list of 25 markets (and a bonus of 4 more), a sheet of mailing labels, a sample cover letter, and tips for submitting. I prepared and printed my story submission, wrote up the cover letter and printed it out, prepared the SASE, and mailed each submission.

For my story of about 25 pages, it cost around $1.80 to send each submission plus the $.42 for the SASE, adding up to a grand total, rounded, of about $75 in addition to what I paid for the service. That doesn't include, of course, the cost of the envelopes, paper, and printing.

What I learned
Being both an editor and booster of all things online, the first thing I did was check out which publications on the list accepted online submissions. At the time there were about five, but I received a couple of replies that asked me to submit online the next time. That eliminated some postage, and I don't think the cost of the individual labels that went unused is worth quibbling over.

Most of the labels I received were for publications I'd submitted to in the past–not this particular piece because I had to provide a list to them of places I'd already submitted it to––but places I'd submitted other work unsuccessfully. Frankly, it was a list of all the places anyone would want to be published. Whether they really did "target" my work is anyone's guess. Six plus months plus later, I haven't received any acceptances. There are four still outstanding, but at this point I'm not holding out much hope, especially as they are some of the biggest names.

Was it worth it?
As with anything else, value is in the eye of the beholder. First off, the service I used estimated 100 submissions for one acceptance. Based on those numbers an acceptance from the first 25 submissions wasn't to be expected, and were I to go for those 100 submissions the full-service would definitely be the better bargain.

The question is, did the service provide anything I couldn't do myself. It's hard to know without going through the cycle again, but I suspect the next round of publications they'd send me would be one tier down and so on. You get the idea. It's really the basic idea behind the submission process, start high and work down. The difference is, I never peppered the market with so many submissions at one time, but I certainly could if I had a mind to.

Another point to keep in mind is that all of these were print publications. Submitting online is much less expensive and researching the markets is a lot easier. As more publications go online or accept/prefer online submissions, the value of these services will diminish considerably.

As for record keeping both for submissions and expenses, I've kept spreadsheets for years. Any writer who can't be bothered, probably shouldn't be in the business.

So to summarize, these services do provide what they promise. None of them promises to get your work into print. They simply promise to do the drudge work so you can spend more valuable time on your writing. If that's what you want and you can afford it, then it's worth considering. Just remember, there's no more guarantee of publication than if you did the work yourself, and you are not likely to come even close to breaking even money-wise.

See Nannette's article on evaluating writing classes on another blog.

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