Here’s how to sell your writing (and stay sane in the process)

Here’s an interesting post, recently featured on Freshly Pressed, about the importance of luck to a writer’s success:

I don’t mean to sound defeatist or to say it’s all about chance. This isn’t sour grapes (I don’t have a bestseller because I never got lucky, etc.). No, talent and marketing and skill and savvy all help put the writer in a position where the odds are better. But it really does seem to me that, at least in some cases, luck is as much a factor as talent.

And in some cases, more.

No one seems to talk about it, though. Maybe because it’s something that can’t be taught–or sold–on a website.

I’ve been writing for a living — my sole income — since my second year of university. I was an undergrad studying English literature at the University of Toronto and all I wanted to do was become a journalist. I decided not to study journalism because I knew I needed a broader education and wanted that instead. (I’ve never formally studied journalism or writing.)

Victoria University at University of Toronto
Victoria University at University of Toronto (Photo credit: MKImagery (Toronto))

Here are some of the ways, since 1978, that I have found editors and agents to whom I’ve sold my work, and/or gotten staff writing jobs:

— While at college I worked at the weekly college newspaper. I wrote long, complex features so I would have clips (samples) to show to paying editors of what I could produce. Moral: What’s your goal? Start accumulating the skills you need and the visible proof you have them.

— I cold-called editors at every major magazine and asked for meetings. I got them. Moral: Be bold! No one is going to hand you your success.

— When I had the meeting, I went in with a multi-page list of story ideas and would not leave the office until I had sold one of them and had a firm, paid assignment. Moral: Be prepared. Be way over-prepared.

— After I had amassed a larger pile of clips, I began aiming higher, for more prestigious or better-paying markets. Moral: Never stop moving. What’s your next step and what will get you there?

— I talked myself into a meeting with the editor of a local weekly section of our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I got a column to write about shopping, for anything, that paid me, then, $125 a week, $600 a month. (My annual tuition was $660. No, that’s not missing a zero.) Moral: Try for a regular gig.

Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France,...
Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, 1900 (Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum)

— I won a journalism fellowship, at 25, for eight months in Europe, based in Paris, traveling on four 10-day reporting trips alone. It changed me, and my work, forever. Moral: Aim high. Start applying for rocket-boosting opportunities once you have the skills and resume to compete for them.

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...
English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait for news of the D-Day invasion. Toronto, Canada. It looked a little different by the time I worked there! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I got my job at the Globe and Mail six months after returning from the fellowship. Moral: strike while the iron is hot and you have a significant point of difference from your many competitors.

— I got my job there after hearing that the sports editor was soon to become the managing editor; i.e. he was the one to impress, now. I knew nothing about sports! He sent me to cover several huge, high-profile sports stories, knowing that. I rocked it. Moral: Follow your targets closely to know when an opportunity exists. Then impress the hell out of the person with the budget and authority to hire you.

— I got my job at the Montreal Gazette when a Globe colleague who once worked there tipped them off I might be looking for a new opportunity. Moral: Find and make allies.

— I fell in love with an American who was moving to (!) a small, remote town in New Hampshire for the next four years. Because I had been stringing for Time for a few years already, while working in full-time jobs, I asked my Time editor if he knew of any jobs there. I got a well-paid contract job there — which is insanely improbable — through one of his former New York magazine colleagues. Moral: If you don’t ask for help, you never know what might happen.

— I found every agent I’ve had through personal contacts. The first came to me through one of my NYU journalism students, who knew someone at William Morris who knew three new agents hungry for clients. Moral: Put the word out and take the chance.

— I started writing for The New York Times in 1990 after I called someone from my Paris fellowship (eight years earlier), living in New Orleans. I called an editor at the Times Book Review who began giving me 300-word reviews to produce on topics that were really difficult and often boring. I did them, gratefully. It gave me a Times byline. Moral: Start wherever you have to. But be strategic.

The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times Book Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I won a National Magazine Award in Canada, for humor, for an essay about surviving my divorce. It’s a topic many would avoid writing about: painful, private, cliched. Instead, I turned it into something (darkly) funny. I tried to sell it to an American women’s magazine who quickly rejected it. I sold it to a Canadian women’s magazine, who submitted it for the award. Moral: Rejection is normal. Get over it! Move on. Find another market. Or ten.

— Once you find an editor who likes your work, hang on tight! Repeat business will save you a ton of wasted time and energy. Moral: Remember the 80/20 rule of business; 80 percent of your business likely comes from 20 percent of your clients.

— But, think like Caesar and keep on conquering. Never rest on your laurels, as editors can lose a job with scary speed and you can very quickly lose a nice little sinecure. Moral: ABC, Always Be Closing (i.e. making sales.)

— Last week I got an email from someone I have never met, a man who lives in Beirut, who is married to an NPR correspondent. He and I were both bloggers for True/Slant, in 2009. He asked me for a valuable editorial contact — while offering me one of his. Win-win! Moral: If you’re going to ask for help, offer something of value upfront in return. No one likes a taker.

— Remember that publishing remains a team sport. If you’re selling to print publications, think about the art or photos to go with your story. If you’re working on books, be polite and kind to everyone as no one is likely getting rich and most of them love this work as much as you do. Moral: If you plan to stay in this game, keep your nose clean.

Selling your writing is hard!

It’s tiring.

It can take a much longer time to “succeed” than you thought possible.

You may have to re-define what “success” looks like: Tons of money? Huge readership? A TV show or movie based on your work? Or…some appreciative readers and some people who will pay for your skills?

Sell, Sell, Sell
Sell, Sell, Sell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)