26 October 2013

Market First, Write Second

by Michael Bracken

NOTE: I am sincerely pleased to welcome my friend and two-time Derringer Award-winning writer Michael Bracken as a guest blogger. Even though he is the author of several books--including All White Girls, PSI Cops, and Tequila Sunrise--Michael is better known as the author of more than 1,000 short stories, including crime fiction published in Big Pulp, Blue Murder, Crime Factory, Crime Square, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Espionage, Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin, High Octane Heroes, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Muscle Men, Needle, Out of the Gutter, and many other anthologies and magazines. Additionally, he has edited five crime fiction anthologies, including the three-volume Fedora series. Learn more about him at www.CrimeFictionWriter.com and CrimeFictionWriter.blogspot.com. (Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) — John Floyd

Though the ability to self-publish through Kindle and other platforms is changing publishing, most beginning and mid-career short story writers who desire conventional publication are quite familiar with the write-submit-write-submit process of writing a story, sending it to the best paying/most prestigious market and then, if the story is rejected, sending it to the next best paying/next most prestigious market and working down a list of markets until the story is accepted or no markets remain.

When writers take a write-first, market-second approach to publication--this is the approach touted by most advice-givers and how I began my writing career--they are following a time-tested path to publication. Over the course of a long-term career, though, a highly prolific short story writer may have multiple opportunities to flip that process on its head so that they take a market-first, write-second approach. I know I have.

I'm in my mid-50s and have been writing professionally since I was a teenager. I am the author of more than 1,000 short stories and have had one or more short stories published each month for 124 consecutive months as I write this. Almost every short story I write gets published and these days I rarely write short fiction on speculation.

Following are some of the ways a short story writer can follow a market-first, write-second approach to publication.

Writing to Order

This happens when an editor provides an outline, a word count, and a deadline, and it results in a guaranteed sale. Some editors build their publications from the inside out, preferring not to rely on the randomness of slush pile submissions to provide all of their publication's necessary content. Instead, they work with a handpicked group of writers to provide all or a significant portion of their publication's content.

I thought this practice died with the pulps but I discovered this practice was still alive and well in the early 2000s when I became one of those writers.

I have been writing women's fiction for most of my career, breaking into one magazine after another through slush pile submissions. The editor of one magazine returned some of my slush pile submissions with extensive revision instructions, which I followed, and then published the revised versions. Once I understood what she wanted, she began publishing my slush pile submissions without requesting revisions.

One day I received an email from her wherein she provided a one-paragraph description of a story she wanted, provided a deadline, and asked if I could write the story. I could and I did.

For the next few months I received one story assignment each month. Then one Friday evening I received an email from the editor telling me that another writer had missed her deadline and asking if I could write the story previously assigned to that writer. And could I have it in her hands first thing Monday morning?

Even though I had never written a 5,000-word story in two days I told her I could. Then I did. From then until the magazine ceased publication I wrote two or three stories to order each month, or roughly 25% of that magazine's entire content.

Lesson: Before you ever have the opportunity to write fiction to order you must establish yourself as a reliable contributor who understands an editor's needs and can deliver short stories consistently and on deadline.

Writing to Invitation

This is when an editor provides a theme, a word count range, and a deadline, and it nearly always results in a sale.

Many anthologies are filled by invitation only and there are multiple ways one can be included among the invitees. The first and most obvious is to be a best-selling author whose name on the cover will move books. For the rest of us, becoming a frequent anthology invitee involves a combination of professionalism, persistence, formal and informal networking, and luck.

Invited contributors who are not cover-worthy may have established themselves as writers who produce publishable fiction to deadline with a minimum of fuss. Often an invitation comes as a result of a previous working relationship or a pre-existing professional or social relationship, but invitations can sometimes seem to come out of the blue.

Several years ago I sold two short stories to the editor of a men's magazine based in California. When the editor left that position he moved to Germany, and one day I received an email from him inviting me to contribute to an anthology he was putting together for a German publisher. I have now written stories for three of his invitation-only anthologies and have been invited to contribute to two more.

Beginning in 2007 I sold a few stories to the editor of several open-call anthologies. When he grew tired of dealing with unprofessional writers and wading through slush piles filled with unpublishable material, he switched to invitation-only projects. I was one of the writers he invited, and between his open-call and invitation-only projects I've places stories in nine of his anthologies.

As an active member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, an organization whose members communicate primarily through a Yahoo group, I often enter discussions there about writing, editing, and publishing short mystery fiction. Through contacts I've made on that list I've been invited to contribute to at least three fiction anthologies and one non-fiction anthology.

I have also received unexpected invitations. I once received an invitation from a well-known editor of horror anthologies with whom I had never worked and learned later that a contributor to Fedora, the first anthology I edited, recommended me. I placed stories in two of that editor's invitation-only anthologies. Recently I was invited to contribute to an anthology by a writer whose work has appeared in several of the same anthologies as my stories.

"Getting Out of the Box," my Derringer Award-winning short story published in Crime Square, was written at the invitation of Robert J. Randisi, a writer/editor with whom I have crossed paths many times through the Private Eye Writers of America and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Lesson: Publishing is a small world. What you do today will impact your career for many years to come. Your professionalism, specifically when dealing with editors and more generally when dealing with writers, who might someday become editors, will be remembered and rewarded.

Writing to semi-invitation

This is when an editor provides a theme, a word count range, and a deadline well in advance of posting an open call, and this can often result in a sale.

For a variety of reasons, some editors continue to post open calls to their anthologies, but a few of these editors give their regular contributors an advance heads-up.

Writing to semi-invitation is similar to writing for a repeat market (see below), but with the knowledge that the editor is actively seeking a submission from you. However, for whatever reason, the editor doesn't want to commit to purchasing your work sight-unseen. It may be that you haven't quite nailed that editor's tastes or it may be that the editor is hoping to find short story gold in the slush pile and wants the freedom to bump a pretty good story from one of the semi-invited for a brilliant story discovered in the slush pile.

This is a transition stage for a short story writer. Receiving a semi-invitation is an indication that you have impressed an editor with previous submissions but you haven't quite nailed this editor's needs or tastes. Before writing a new story in response to a semi-invitation, review previous acceptances and rejections from this editor. Try to determine the strengths of the accepted stories and the weaknesses of the rejected stories before you begin.

I've placed at least 20 short stories with three different editors who do this, and nearly every story I wrote for those editors that didn't make the cut has been placed elsewhere.

Lesson: Receiving your first semi-invitation may be a sign that you are improving your skills as a market-first, write-second writer but haven't quite made the transition. Realize, though, that some editors prefer to edit open-call anthologies and the best relationship you will ever develop with them is to become one of the writers with whom they share anthology calls well in advance of opening up their slush pile.

Writing for a repeat market

This involves contributing new work to an editor or to a publication that's already published several of your stories and the editor has indicated she's open to more. This regularly results in a sale.

The editor never requests specific submissions from you, but implicitly (by continuing to publish your stories) or explicitly (by mentioning a desire to see additional work) encourages you to continue submitting. Your submissions probably bypass the slush pile because you have demonstrated an ability to produce market-appropriate stories on a regular basis. Unfortunately, you cannot assume that any specific submission will result in a sale either because you haven't truly mastered the market's needs or because it is a prestigious market that draws submissions from hundreds or even thousands of potential contributors, some of whom are better known, more talented, and harder working than you are. That you have cracked this market more than once is a testament to your ability and determination.

For each of the past 37 consecutive months I have placed one to four short stories with the editor of a pair of women's magazines who has never requested a submission from me. Her primary method of communication is emailing me contracts and, unfortunately, the occasional rejection.

Writing regularly for repeat markets can lead to write-to-order opportunities and to submission invitations, but repeat markets are equally likely to disappear. I've had many long-term repeat markets dry up after an editor was replaced or the magazine changed editorial direction, but I've also had sales increase when new editors looked to existing contributors to fill their needs. And, more than once I've sold stories to the new editor that the previous editor rejected.

Lesson: There is a well-known business belief that it is far easier to keep a current client than it is to gain a new client. The same thinking applies to writing for repeat markets because it is often easier to write and place a new story with a repeat market than it is to write and place a new story with a new market.

Writing to specifications

This involves writing a story specifically to fit the requirements of an open-call anthology or to fit the requirements of a specific magazine.

Writing to specifications is where you begin the transition from a write-first, market-second career to a market-first, write-second career. You may have grown tired of putting your stories on the slush pile merry-go-round and have realized that inspiration is fickle. One day you see an open call for submissions to an anthology that intrigues you or you wonder why you just can't place a story with a magazine to which you've submitted a substantial number of short stories.

You carefully examine the anthology's call for submissions or the magazine's guidelines. Then you find anthologies the editor has previously produced or you gather a substantial number of the magazine's back issues and you study them. You're looking for commonalities among the published stories that may or may not be mentioned in the official guidelines.

Commonalities may be obvious. For example, every story published in True Confessions is narrated in first person, and Woman's World has a strict word-count requirement. Some commonalities may not be obvious and will require a great deal of effort to determine. The commonalities may be in the writing (lush vs. lean) or it may be the gender of the protagonists (mostly male or mostly female) or it may be the overall tenor of the stories (upbeat vs. downbeat).

Once you complete your market study, you write a new story, incorporating as many of the commonalities you discovered as you possibly can.

Writers who don't work like this sometimes view this extensive prewriting market research as the equivalent of painting a picture by using a paint-by-the-numbers kit. It isn't. This market research is the equivalent of studying a project carefully so you know which tools to pull from your literary tool chest in order to successfully complete your writing project. And for some of us, a short story isn't successfully completed until it's published.

Lesson: This may be the best method for breaking into a new market or placing a story with a new editor. Do this often enough and soon you will be writing for repeat markets, and editors of open-call anthologies will give you advance notice of new projects. If you establish your ability to provide finished short story manuscripts on time and on theme, and your interaction with editors remains professional at all times, you may have the opportunity to contribute to an invitation-only anthology or even have the opportunity to write short fiction to order.

Additional thoughts

Becoming a market-first, write-second writer isn't appropriate for every short story writer. The advantages are sometimes counterbalanced by disadvantages.

Nearly every short story I write gets published, but the majority of my work appears in publications out of the mainstream. For example, over the years my crime fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Espionage, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and a handful of anthologies from top publishers, but far more of my crime fiction has appeared in men's magazines. These days much of my crime fiction appears in anthologies--such as the recently published High Octane Heroes (Cleis Press)--which did not mention mystery or crime fiction anywhere in the call for submissions.

Frequent publication in multiple genres has not translated into reader recognition. Several editors who recognize and appreciate my work keep me busy at the keyboard, and a handful of prolific short story writers recognize my name because we often write for the same publications. At the same time, the likelihood of being recognized at a science fiction or mystery convention is slim, and it can be frustrating to have published more short fiction than the combined output of all the other writers on a panel and yet be the least recognized person on the stage.

Shifting sands

Publishing is changing rapidly and everything I know about it may be obsolete before the year ends. I have self-published some short fiction (primarily reprints) for Kindle and other e-readers, but my writing career is still heavily dependent on conventional publication. Despite all the changes in publishing, the market-first, write-second approach to conventional publication allows me to continue a multi-decade string of short-fiction success.

I know there are many more paths to publication than there were when I began but no matter which path you follow, success begins with good storytelling, good writing, market knowledge, professionalism, and persistence.

Trust me. If it took actual talent to become a successful short story writer, I'd still be chasing publication.


  1. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Michael, and thanks for bringing a topic that is of interest to everyone.
    I've only done a few pieces in response to invitation, but it's a great feeling.

    One of your "lessons" impressed me greatly, and I'll be sharing it with several young writers.
    "Publishing is a small world. What you do today will impact your career for many years to come. Your professionalism, specifically when dealing with editors and more generally when dealing with writers, who might someday become editors, will be remembered and rewarded."

  2. Excellent marketing information.
    Glad to see you in Sleuthsayers

  3. Michael, did you really mean that last comment, or were you just giving us a good punch line? To me, it sounds more like the actual talent is a given (aka necessary condition) and all the other stuff is what makes the difference between published and not published (sufficient condition). BTW, an equivalent path for novelists is writing cozies for certain markets that either accept a first series or commission a work for hire, and after the first three-book contract, depending on sales, either contract for another three or offer the author another series, usually the author's own idea and copyright. I don't know enough about romance to be sure, but my guess is it works the same way. Not all of us write to order. For me, a great deal of the pleasure of writing is saying exactly what I want to say rather than seeking to tailor to an editor's precise needs (except the need for good writing and good storytelling). But for those who have that gift and enjoy the process, it's a great opportunity.

  4. Thank you, Fran and Janice.

    Elizabeth: Yes, I was aiming for a good punch line, but I believe there's a strong element of truth to it. Inherent talent is difficult to quantify but hard work can be measured. The most successful people I know--regardless of their field of endeavor--aren't necessarily more talented than their peers, but they almost always work harder.

    When I started writing with the goal of becoming a professional writer, I was not inherently more talented than my 8th grade peers. I just knew I would rather spend my time creating stories than throwing footballs or swinging baseball bats. So I worked hard, and continue to work hard, at writing. The result: I'm published frequently but am just about the last person you'll ever pick for your team in any kind of sporting event.

  5. Hard work; talent; and let's not forget stamina. My husband and I have noticed over the years - decades - that while a whole lot of people are bursting with creativity and energy, etc., in their 20's, each decade sees a significant amount of people who just quit: because they all they get is rejections, or because they're so busy earning a living, or because they're burnt out, or because of health issues or... It takes a lot to keep on keeping on.

  6. Michael, this is fascinating stuff. I've tried both ways--simply writing stories without markets in mind, and also writing to a particular market. It makes more sense, after reading this, to do more writing to markets. Thanks for the thorough, precise blueprint. John, if you're reading the comments, thanks for inviting Michael here, and please tell us, do you write more to markets or just wing it most of the time? I'm off to write!

  7. Thanks for this very thorough post, Michael. You have inspired me. I've been in submission, promotion, and editing modes (for myself and clients) for nearly two months now. I need to get back on the writing horse.

  8. Michael, welcome to SleuthSayers and thanks for the info in your blog article.To my knowledge, we haven't crossed paths yet at some of the Bouchercons or Left Coast Crime conferences, but if you make it to Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, look me up. I've long been aware of your name and accomplishments from Short Mystery fiction Society.

  9. Michael, thanks for the hard-earned wisdom. A lot to chew on here.

  10. Eve, I've too much invested in writing to quit, so I guess I'm in it for the long haul. But, yes, stamina is a key ingredient of long-term success.

    Jan, I, too, would like to know John's approach. Perhaps he'll share with us once he returns from his booksigning. Several of the other prolific short story writers with whom I've discussed this write to market at least part of the time.

    R.T., I've only made it to one Bouchercon and one Left Coast Crime so far (time, distance, and cost often conspire against me). For many of the last several years I've participated in ApolloCon (Houston, TX) and ArmadilloCon (Austin, TX), and occasionally appear at writers conferences around the country. If we're ever in the same place at the same time, I'll be sure to look you up.

    Barb and Robert: Thanks for your comments.

  11. Thanks, Michael. Very good post. Your talent and your work ethic are both impressive. Lots of luck with all your future endeavors.

  12. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Michael. And what a timely article for me. I'm going to talk to a writing class on the 30th about writing short stories. My friend and fellow mystery writer, Susan Rogers Cooper is teaching the class and asked me to talk about short stories as she knew I have published around 40 short stories. I'm now incorporating some of your ideas in my talk. All of my stories have been to open call anthologies or to invitation and themed anthologies. And I really enjoyed writing those stories. When you find an editor who likes your work it's like magic. Thanks for your fantastic article.

  13. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Michael. And what a timely article for me. I'm going to talk to a writing class on the 30th about writing short stories. My friend and fellow mystery writer, Susan Rogers Cooper is teaching the class and asked me to talk about short stories as she knew I have published around 40 short stories. I'm now incorporating some of your ideas in my talk. All of my stories have been to open call anthologies or to invitation and themed anthologies. And I really enjoyed writing those stories. When you find an editor who likes your work it's like magic. Thanks for your fantastic article.

  14. I'm glad my post could be of help, Jan. We all have such varied experiences that it's great when we can learn from each other.

    Thanks for your kind words, Gail.

  15. Just got home--sorry I'm late to the party. Michael, thanks again for the guest post. That's extremely helpful information.

    Jan, in answer to your question, I did exactly the same thing: I started out writing stories first and only then trying to find homes for them--and I still think that can be good advice--but after a while I morphed into the mode of writing for specific markets. Now, almost every story I produce is written with a certain publication already in mind. (Not that that always works; for some reason, I often get rejections from the very markets that I so carefully targeted. I'm shocked, I tell you--shocked.)

    By the way, I thought I was prolific until I met Michael.

  16. Michael,

    I've bookmarked your helpful and informative article. And I have read your stories and know what good work you do. We shared one anthology together and that I gave me a sense of your professionalism.

  17. Only one anthology, Jacqueline? We cross paths often enough that I thought we had been together in more than just Passionate Hearts.

    Thanks for inviting me, John. I suspect most of us started with the write-first, market-second approach. After all, we start with a strong desire to tell stories and we need to learn how to write them. It isn't until we have a few rejections in our hand and wonder why our stories aren't accepted--or, worse, we have an acceptance and wonder why we can't repeat it--that we start to think about what editors are actually seeking.

  18. There's nothing better than straight and frank talk from a successful pro. And damn generous and gracious of you. Many thanks.

  19. I'm coming to the party *really* late, but I guess I have to say I'm apparently the only one who had a problem with this way of working. It's because I was a very successful illustrator for many years, and in a major and very competitive city. I did it to support my family. And after about 20 years of it, the "art" inside me died. I got to where I couldn't even pick up a paint brush or a pencil without feeling a horrendous dragging reluctance. All the joy I had once felt for creating art has completely vanished. I quit illustration and commercial art as a result. That was 20 years ago and my pleasure in creating art is *just now* starting to return. I paid a terrible price to make a living using that gift -- one I had to pay, given the times and the lack of other income. But it certainly cost me. I think, in all honesty, that doing illustration is exactly like writing for "market first". It works. But... do be careful. There is a dangerous side to this, and it hits you in the soul. Yes, I know you have to be practical. But too far one side of things can be as bad as too far the other.

  20. You make a good point, anonymous, so let me add this:

    Even working the way I describe, you still control what you do and do not write. You can decline write-to-order opportunities and anthology invitations if you don't feel comfortable with the assignments. (I recently declined an anthology invitation, explained why, and was invited to the editor's subsequent anthology.)

    Additionally, you bring something to every piece of writing that no other writer brings. If John Floyd and I accepted the same exact assignment, chances are the resulting stories would be significantly different.

    The goal is to meet an editor's needs while still writing your story. To put it in artistic terms: if your client hires you to create an oil painting, you don't turn in a pencil sketch.

    Blogsolomon: Thanks for your comments.

  21. Michael, just discovered this post through SMFS and it's great -- I've been making that transition to writing to market but hadn't thought about it in such specific terms, this was really helpful!


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