Thursday, 29 January, 2004

Writing for publication

I've been giving some thought recently to writing and publishing outside of the computer field.  In the 15 years that I've been writing, everything I've published has been related to computer software.  The only non-computer writing I've done is posted on this Web site, which hardly qualifies as "publishing" in my mind.

Publishing outside of the computer industry presents some interesting challenges for me.  Mind you, I have no dearth of material.  I can write about almost anything, and given a bit of time to research I can even write intelligently about most things.  Even finding a place to submit my writing doesn't pose much of a problem.  A trip to any reasonably well-stocked book store magazine rack proves that it's possible to publish just about anything.  The problem is getting the acquisition editor's attention. That's something I've never had to do.

I had several advantages when I started writing about computer programming.  First, I was in daily contact with the editors of major programming journals (Dr. Dobb's Journal and Computer Language Magazine) on their CompuServe forums.  When I decided on a whim one day in 1988 to put together an article for publication, all I had to do was email a query to Kent Porter, then the technical editor for Dr. Dobb's Journal. Easy as that, my writing career (such as it is) was started.  At the time, the supply and demand equation was highly in my favor: there were lots of people looking for programming articles and very few programmers who had the desire or ability to write them.  A year or two later I had the good fortune to meet and form a friendship with Jeff Duntemann, who was forming PC Techniques magazine.  The computer publishing business at the time was small and everybody knew everybody else, so if I sent a query to anybody in the business chances were that they knew who I was.  I still had to write good stuff, but with a few writing credits to my name, it was reasonably easy to get a new article published.

By following the simple rule of "always query before writing," I can honestly say that I've never had an article rejected.  I've had a few proposals turned down, but every article that I've submitted has been published.  Does that mean I'm some great writer?  Not at all.  It just means that I was incredibly fortunate.  I know that there are plenty of very good articles out there by authors who just can't get an editor's attention.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to where I started.  How do I get an editor's attention?  I figured I'd pick up a copy of Writer's Market (it's a reference book that lists magazines by topic, how much they pay, who to contact and how, etc.) and find just the right outlet for my article.  And there's where I got my first rude shock.  How long has email been an essential tool of business?  I'll be charitable and say five years, although it's probably closer to ten.  Did you know that much of the publishing industry is still dependent on paper for day-to-day communications?  Many entries in Writer's Market say something like:

Mail queries to (address).  Allow four weeks for response to queries. Eight weeks for response to unsolicited manuscripts.

The first time I saw that I just shook my head.  After seeing it dozens of times for many major magazines, I hardly could believe it.  They want me to print a letter, put it in an envelope along with a few clips from my portfolio, and mail it?  Four weeks for them to respond to a query?  All they have to do is look at the article proposal, check their editorial calendar and my clips, and decide whether they want me to write the article.  Total time: 7.3 minutes if they go get coffee while they're thinking about it.  Are they out of their minds?  Why don't they let me email a query along with links to my clip portfolio?  hat would save them (and me!) an incredible amount of time.

It's a good thing I'm not trying to make a living as a freelance writer of magazine articles.  Just the hassle of printing query letters, attaching clips, and tripping down to the post office would dissuade me from the idea.  It's bad enough sending an email query and waiting a day or two while the editor digs out from under whatever he's doing and gets to the email.  Waiting four weeks or more just to find out if the letter got to the editor would drive me insane.  For the time being at least, I'll limit my queries to magazines that understand how to use electronic mail.  To the others: hire a business consultant and have him drag you kicking and screaming into the 90's.