by Melodie Campbell
Many readers here know I teach
Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Suburban Toronto. (I started
teaching fiction writing there before the wheel was invented. We had to
push cars uphill both ways to get them to campus...okay, I'll stop
often ask me how to get a novel published. I say: "Walk out of this
classroom right now and become a media personality."
in the class laughs. But it's no laughing matter, really. Most of the
bestselling crime authors in Canada were media personalities first.
It's no coincidence. Being a newspaper or television 'name' gives one a
huge visibility advantage. You leap the slush pile. And chances are,
you know someone who knows someone in publishing.
launching a new career doesn't work for all of us, particularly if we
are mid-career or soon to qualify for senior's discounts. (Of course,
you could still murder someone and become a celebrity. I have a few
names handy, if you are looking for a media-worthy victim...)
order for a publisher to buy your book, they have to read it first. I
know at least one publishing house that receives 10,000 manuscripts a
month. How in Hellsville can you possibly get noticed in that slush
Here's how: Develop street cred by publishing with magazines!
How I got my start:
1989, at the tender age of twenty plus n, I won a Canadian Living
Magazine fiction contest. (Canadian Living is one of the two notable
women's magazines in Canada. Big circulation.) After that, I pitched to
Star Magazine (yup, the tabloid) listing the Canadian Living credit in
my cover letter. They said, "Oh look. A Canadian. How quaint. See
how she spells humour." (I'm paraphrasing.) Anyways, Star published
several of my short shorts in the 90s. The Canadian Living credit got
me in the door.
With several Star Mag credits under my
belt (weird term, that - I mean, think of what is under your belt) I
went to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. They liked the Star
credits and published some of my stories. Then I got a several-story
contract with ComputorEdge.
So ten years ago, when I
had a novel to flog, I already had 24 short story publications in
commercial magazines. That set me apart from everyone else clawing to
get in the door.
Writing for magazines worked to launch my author career. I'm now with two traditional publishers and my 11th book (The Bootlegger's Goddaughter - phew! Got that in) comes out in February.
Writing for magazines tells a publisher several things:
1. You write commercially salable stories.
This is important for book publishers. If you have published in
commercial magazines, it tells a publisher that someone else has already
paid you for your fiction. They deemed your obviously brilliant stores
worthy of a wide enough audience to justify putting their money into
publishing them. It's much like the concept of 'peer review' in the
2. You accept editing. A
magazine writer (fiction or nonfiction) is used to an editor making
changes to their work. It's part of the game. If you have been
published many times in magazines, then a novel publisher knows you are
probably going to be cool with editing. (Okay, maybe not cool, but
you've learned how to hold back rage-fueled comments such as
"Gob-sucking fecking idiot! It was perfect before you mucked with it."
3. You work to deadline.
Magazines and newspapers have tight deadlines. Miss your deadline, and
you're toast. Novel publishers are similarly addicted to deadlines.
Something to do with having booked a print run long in advance, for one
thing. So they want authors who will get their damned manuscripts in on
Here's something to watch out for if you are going to write for magazines:
you are publishing with a major magazine, negotiate a 'kill fee.'
(This doesn't mean you get to kill the publisher if they don't print
your story.) A kill fee is something you get if the mag sends you a
contract to publish your story or article, and then doesn't publish it.
Usually a kill fee is about half the amount you would be paid if they
had printed it.
Why wouldn't they print your story
after they agree to buy it? Sometimes a publisher or editorial big wig
leaves and the new big wig taking over will have a different vision for
the mag. Sometimes a mag will go under before they actually print the
issue with your story. That happened to me with a fairly well-known
women's mag. I got the kill fee, and the rights back. I was able to
sell the story to another magazine.
Which brings me to a
final point: Note the rights you are selling. Many mags here want
"First North American Serial Rights." This means they have the right to
publish the story for the first time in North America, in all versions
of their magazine. (For instance, some magazines in Canada publish both
English and French versions.) But what happens after that? When do
rights return to you? Two years after publication? (Very common.) Or
never? Are they buying 'All Rights?" It's good to get rights back,
because then you can have the story reprinted in an anthology someday.
Make sure your contract stipulates which rights they are buying.
course, I always say, if they pay me enough, they can keep all rights,
dress them in furs and jewelry, and walk them down Main Street. I have
the same attitude re film companies that might want to swoop up my
novels for movies.
Melodie Campbell writes the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series of mob comedies, starting with The Goddaughter. It features a different kind of 'kill fee.'