“How to Study a Printed Magazine Article”

If you want to appear on a magazine’s pages, you can either wing it or you can see what the editor of those pages buys and try to come as close, in style and form of content, as you can. The latter choice increases your chances of being on those pages about 500%!

How do you know what you are looking for in your quest to decipher what that editor buys? Voilá, a 12-step pull-the-verbal-flesh-from-the-bones analytical analysis that I have been foisting on students for about 100 years. Only those who wanted to be in print (and make some money) paid much attention to it.

Go to the library or maybe your computer and find the last couple of issues of the target publication. You can do this before you query if you have scant notion of what it contains. But you must do it before you send your article in response to a “go-ahead” from your query. (Earlier sections of this 16-step blogzão will explain the go-ahead process.)

Scan the magazine to find a couple of articles similar to what you want to submit, in subject or tone or theme. Then take out a pad of paper (you can use your computer too) and go through all 12 items. Yes, all 12.

What you will learn is what that editor buys—and what her or his readers want to read. How much humor they can tolerate (or understand), how many quotes, if they like boxes or charts, how detailed they want their truths (hotels are reasonable or expect to pay $88.75 for a senior room at the Elbow Hotel), and so on.

If you’re saying to yourself, I want to be creative, I don’t want to write like other people, and so on, I have no problem at all with that. But you can be just so creative or somebody else will get the money and copy space. If the readers/editor won’t tolerate swearing and your idea of creativity is four letters long, and often, you are writing for the wrong editor. Figure out the box within which you words must fit, then be the most creative critter ever to make those pages. This guide helps you define the box.

You don’t care. You won’t do it. There are thousands of others that feel just that way. I love them because I make their money. Here’s how I do it, 12 steps long.


(This is section #13 of 16 in “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing.” The section that follows next week is about topic-spoking. Stay tuned!)


“How to Study a Printed Magazine Article”

1. Read the article closely, then ask yourself what basic or working question it answers. Write the question out. It may also answer secondary questions, so write those out too.

2. Now read the entry for that publication in Writer’s Market for the year of (or preceding) the article’s appearance. Given the working question in (1) and the indications in Writer’s Market of what that magazine was seeking, try to put yourself in the writer’s shoes. How did the writer slant the subject to appeal to the magazine’s readers? Why did the editor buy it? Study its length, illustrations, position in the magazine.

3. To see how the writer carries the main theme through the article, underline each word that relates directly to that theme, then outline the entire piece. Study the writer’s use of facts, quotes, and anecdotes. What is the ratio between them? How is humor used? Is it spread and balanced to the same degree throughout? Do other articles in this issue use facts, quotes, anecdotes, and humor in roughly the sathe way and in the same proportion?

4. List every source used, including direct references and quotations. Where would the writer find the facts, opinions, and quotes that are not clearly identified by source in the article? If you are uncertain, indicate where you would find the material—or where you would go to find out.

5. Focus on the quotations. Why is each used? How does it carry the theme forward? Note how the source of the quotation is introduced, and how much the reader must know about the source to place the person and what is said in perspective.

6. Is the article written in first person (I), second (you), or third (he, she, or it)? How does that strengthen the article? Does the person change? Why or why not? Are most other articles in the same issue written in the same person?

7. Set the title aside and concentrate on the lead. How long is it, in words or sentences? How does it grab your interest? Does it make you want to read more? Why? How does it compare with other leads in that issue?

8. Most articles begin with a short lead followed by a longer second paragraph that ties the lead to the body of the article. Called the transitional paragraph, it tells where you are going and how you will get there. It bridges the attention-grabbing elements of the lead to the expository elements of the body by setting direction, tone, and pace. Find the transitional paragraph and study it. Organizationally, after the lead it is the most important item in the article.

9. Now underline the first sentence in each paragraph. They should form a chain that will pull you through the piece. Note how the writer draws the paragraphs together with transitional words and phrases. Circle the words that perform this linking function. Often the same words or ideas will be repeated in the last sentence of one paragraph and the first sentence of the next.

10. Earlier you outlined the article. Now look at the transitional words and the underlined first sentences and see how the structure ties the theme together. Is the article structured chronologically, developmentally, by alternating examples, point by point? Or if the article was written to answer the working question you isolated in (1), did the answers to the secondary questions stemming from that working question provide the article’s organizational structure?

11. How does the article end? Does it tie back to the lead? Does it repeat an opening phrase or idea? The conclusion should reinforce and strengthen the direction the article has taken. Does it? How?

12. Finally, look at the title. It may have been changed or rewritten by the editor. Nonetheless, does it correctly describe the article that follows? Does it tease, quote, pique one’s curiosity; state facts? What technique does it use to make the reader want to read the article?

[This was first copyrighted in 1982, and has been reissued in modified form many times since. See the Travel Writer’s Guide.]
Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. If you disliked these 12 steps you will hate my free newsletter. But you’re invited anyway!

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When should you pick digital or offset printing for your book?

Let me share a few key items I just heard at the Book Business webinar a couple of hours ago, with three key, veteran leaders in the printing industry.

(For a much fuller accounting, see my free newsletter on April 5.)

The question I get asked most often at my publishing seminars is when should a person use digital or offset printing for their book?

David Davis, Director of INTERQUEST, says that the three times when digital printing often happens is (1) to create a starting micro stock or inventory of a new book, (2) to fill made-to-order orders (a customer orders the book, it is printed, and that order is sent—or merged with that customer’s other orders and sent), and to complete (3) configured orders, where the buyer adds or deletes part of the book, so a new item is created and sent.

Ken Brooks, the SVP of Cengage Learning, focussed on print-on-demand, noting the three times that is most often used are (1) for digital galleys (“rough cuts”), (2) mid-life in a book’s development (between editions or printing), and (3) at the end of a title’s life.

Print-on-demand is where you send your completed book, digitally, to a POD printer who actually prints the book when an order arrives. There is no inventory or warehousing. The book is sent to you (we get 25-50 at a time, often) or to the buyer you indicate (we just sent 75 copies of a book that a buyer needed for back-of-the-room sales, directly from the POD printer to the site where he was flying in to speak).

Ken also said that about 750 copies of the book is the break-even point, fewer than that, think digital, more, think long-run offset printing.

Publishers are limited digitally now to books that meet their press formats, about 6″ x 9″ in layout–and no paperbacks!

Frank Romano, a 50-year veteran, was surprised at the appearance of what I call the ancillary publishers, where the author can control almost all aspects of the book’s fate. See for more details about that.

Some very interesting information shared. 5% of the books are digital now; that will be 15% in 2015. Others predict a much higher ratio.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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Get paid for your articles!

This is the fun part of writing and publishing. Not only can readers see what a genius and literary giant you are by what you wrote—you get paid to do that writing!

The not-so-fun part is that it’s usually not very much, and sometimes it also takes its time reaching you. Even worse, sometimes you don’t get paid at all.

(This is segment #12 of 16 of “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing.” #13 will follow at this blog. There is also more about writing and publishing at our free, monthly newsletter, plus three free reports!)

First, how do editors pay? By check. I can’t remember being paid any other way, though once in a while I wrote for fame (they said, no payment; usually association newsletters) or copies (of the publication where my article appeared. Academia).

And when do they pay? At acceptance or upon publication (if they don’t fold first, or forget, or remember and fade).

Most professionals (you are one when you say so, frankly) only write for editors who pay on acceptance, because they are the only editors they or you will query. When you send the ready-to-go manuscript and the editor informs you that the piece is accepted, either the check is in the same envelope or it is en route. Some pay when the publisher’s checks are churned, within 30 days of the acceptance. (I’ve only been stiffed three times by “on acceptance” editors in many decades. I contacted the Better Business Bureau and two eventually paid. The third publication closed and disappeared.)

Newspapers pay on publication, as do most reprint buyers. They are honorable too, but pokey. The checks arrive, but you have to provide more wind for a few of them. Keep your eye on the publications paying by publication so you can see when your words appear in print. Then 45 days later, if no payment has appeared, write the editor and say how proud you are to be on his/her pages, but the check must have gone astray. Give your address, a bit more praise—and wait. In the very rare times the money still hasn’t arrived a month later, write again, but start talking about the payment and end with tepid praise. Then send a note a week to the owner of the publication. You will get paid.

How much do they pay? Check the write-up in the current Writer’s Market or their guideline for writers information, usually at their website. Magazines usually pay from $200-850 or more, plus photos, and newspapers, $75-350, but most pay $100-150, plus photos.

How do you get paid more for subsequent articles? Wait until you’ve sold to them twice, then query without mention of payment for the third article. If accepted, that’s the time to drop the editor a note asking if they might pick up some of the expenses or increase the pay rate. A bit of humor helps too. “Winter’s coming and the kids need shoes” well woven into the request.

The hardest expenses to get editors to pay? Almost any expense at the outset, but travel is always the biggest rub. The editors usually think that if you’re going “there” anyway, why should they chip in? The best cure I’ve found is to bunch a lot of articles at distant sites and divide up the airfare and hotel and ask your steady buyers to pick up a portion, in addition to their payment for the article (and photos). That usually works. New editors get a free ride the first time or two. And I only go to destinations I want to visit anyway, so if I hit a knot of tightwads it was so enjoyable I don’t care all that much. (But I don’t tell them!)

Do you have to pay taxes on your writing income? For some reason, that is one of most asked questions when I speak about freelancing. Duh. Yes. True, we don’t have debtors’ prison anymore, even for the IRS, and sometimes you might get only $10 for a short item, but keep a list of all the queries or manuscripts you send out, the replies, the sales, and when the payments come in. Tally the income at the end of the year and report it on Schedule C of your 1040. Offset it, of course, with a tally of the related expenses. But pay on all you earned. Who wants an audit just to slip in $100 off the books? Rest assured that the publishers accounted for every dime they sent you!

Payment? Those checks are a big second kiss. You can write for love in the beginning, but you quickly get addicted to cashing in the payments! And, of course, the kids do need shoes.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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Reprints and rewrites can be big freelance money for a lot less work!

Once your article has been in print, why not sell it again and again? Or use the same research and rewrite it for other publications? It’s commonly done, perfectly legal, and can increase your income remarkably.

(This is section #11, of 16, about “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing.” Welcome aboard. There is more at our free newsletter too, plus three free reports!)

If your article appeared in a magazine, say, you can use the same material in newspapers or a book. And if the original publication circulates only in North America, why should the rest of the world be deprived of your rapier wit and literary charm?

Professional writers seldom have to be convinced of the wisdom of these practices. They want to know how each can be done—so none of those extra sales slip away!


Reprints are second-rights sales. (The terms “reprint rights” and “second rights” are identical.) They almost always mean that a publication bought your article on a first-rights basis, it was printed, and you subsequently sold it to another publication.

You can sell those rights again and again the moment your first-rights sale hits the stands. You needn’t ask the editor who bought the first rights for permission or a release. He used what he bought. First rights means “one-time (first) use,” with those rights automatically reverting to you when used.

Even better, there is no exclusivity to second or reprint rights. They are simply a reprinting by anyone at any time, with your approval and their payment, of an item that’s already been in print. (There are no third or fourth rights.) You needn’t change a word in the original and you can offer it simultaneously to any publication you think will buy it.

When you offer second or reprint rights you must tell the potential buyer (1) where the piece first appeared in print, (2) the date of that appearance, and (3) that you are offering second or reprint rights.

One way to hawk seconds is to cut and paste the published version of the article and make clear copies of it. Send a copy to each possible buyer with a cover letter or note. You can even offer the same piece to competing publications—but if both buy and use it, though they should have known that there was no exclusivity, they’ll both be mad at you, which could close both markets to future sales.

To sell reprints you use a full cover letter—you’ll see an example in a moment. Start with a couple of lively paragraphs telling what the manuscript attached is all about. The letter is a tease to get the editor to read the actual piece, so do it up right—how many will read the paste-up unless the letter makes it sound irresistible?

The third paragraph tells what you are selling: second or reprint rights to an article that first appeared in X Magazine (or Newspaper) on Y date. If you have additional material that would enhance the sale, such as photos or sidebars, mention it that in the fourth paragraph. Finally, in the fifth paragraph, offer to send the original manuscript as an e-mail attachment so they can use it without further typing.

Most of the reprint buyers pay on publication, so offering to send the piece electronically alerts you to their interest and reminds you check now and then to see if it was used and you were paid. If you send it by snail mail rather than e-mail, don’t forget to include an SASE.

Here’s an early cover letter, somewhat updated, that I sold repeatedly as a reprint, so you can see what an actual reprint cover letter looks like. (It was one page long.)

Sample Reprint Cover Letter
P.O. Box 845
Novato, CA 94947
(415) 884-2941

Month xx, Year
Mr. Sempre Compra
Editor, Reprint Magazine
3456 Pulaski Ave.
Chicago, IL 60611

Dear Mr. Compra:

Until recently nobody in their right mind, including Reprint Magazine readers, went to visit Paraguay with enjoyment, peace, or comfort in mind. Its dictators kept the fiefdom decidedly unfriendly (and newcomers under constant vigilance), not much unlike the days when they simply killed the locals who tried to escape.

No more. The last of the tyrants fled ___ years back, the gates are open, and the California-sized home of the Guaraní Indians in South America is now ready to share its seldom-seen riches.

I just returned and published the article enclosed, to show your readers what they can expect during their future visit. It first appeared in Surprise Magazine last month, and is now available to you as a reprint. I can also provide copies of the photos shown, plus 40 more captioned JPGs at my website ready to download and use on a one-time rights basis, if interested. (See

Why would your readers want to go to Paraguay? To visit the second oldest city in the Americas (Asunción), trek through the desolate but intriguing Jesuit missions (subject of the recent movie The Mission), swim at the hemisphere’s largest hydroelectric dam, tramp through the forested interior providing most of the Americas’ exported wood, and gape at the magnificent Iguassu Falls where Paraguay joins Argentina and Brazil.

I’ll gladly send the original manuscript as an attachment, if you wish.

Me as the author? In addition to writing The Travel Writer’s Guide (published by Prima) and eight books, I’ve had 1,500 articles in print, mostly in travel. Alas, the enclosed article tells all. Just let me know if we’re in business!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett


Rewrites are properly titled: they are the original article rewritten. They have their own identity. They are new, different articles that can be sold like any other article, with all rights, first rights, as simultaneous submissions, and so on.

A rewrite will likely use some or all of the research material used for the original. But it will do so in such a way that the resulting article will have an identity of its own.

The original article might talk about the Chicago Cubs since 1876, when the National League began and that team won the first pennant. About the team history the past 135+ years—mostly, of late, without a pennant!

But a rewrite might talk about 1876 only, or that team only, and that pennant only. A different rewrite might focus on Anson, Spaulding, and the luminaries of that year; another might discuss the greatest Cubs from 1876 to the present.

When are rewrites most commonly done? When you have sold all rights to an article and you want to spin off more sales from the piece and its research. Since an editor buying all rights only has bought that copy (those words), not the idea, you can reuse the idea in different ways, as well as any additional information about it, for as long as that topic generates sales.

The question of how much one article must differ from another to have its own legal identity is hard to answer. Surely if you change the title, lead, conclusion, and quotes, that ought to be difference enough. Another approach is easier—changing the angle or slant. Come at the topic from a different tack. That will require a new title. The old lead won’t work, and since the conclusion is intimately linked to the lead, it too must change. You could even use some of the old quotes, since they refer to a different base.


Unlike the standard “reuse-it-as-it-is” reprint, you may wish to rewrite the reprints to squeeze some additional yardage out of them.

Let’s continue our baseball example, slightly altered. Say it’s early 2001 and you write an article about “The National League Since 1876,” taking advantage of the 125th anniversary to write a funny, fact-filled article about the heroics and foibles of that organization. You sell it as a simultaneous submission to sports magazines and newspaper weekly supplements. So far no problems. If everybody buys the same reprint manuscript, bingo!

Alas, nothing is perfect. A Cincinnati regional publication, let’s say, lauds the article but says it needs a stronger local orientation. Read: modified reprint. More material about the Reds of now and yesteryear must be woven into the basic article that others bought. You have 80% of the research completed and copy written, with 20% to add, mostly from sources you’ve already used. Is it worth the extra time and effort to custom-wrap a general piece for a particular editor?

That’s your decision, but if the pay is worth the additional hassle, modified reprints can be a lucrative, efficient path to salvaging otherwise lost sales.

You might even offer modifications when you pursue resales. If you write an article that you suspect is close to an editor’s interests but not quite usable as is, suggest in your cover letter with the paste-up of the original printed article that you would gladly provide the material “as is or with modifications you suggest.” The ideal is to sell reprints as they are, to try to get as much mileage out of a sold manuscript as possible. But better than no sales is selling reprints altered to fit a different readership’s needs.

A modified reprint, if sufficiently altered to create a distinct piece, has all the virtues of a rewrite. There’s no reason it can’t be sold to the publication on a first-rights or lesser basis, then resold later as a reprint once it has appeared in print. It’s a reprint of a rewrite, really. Remember, a rewrite is a new manuscript with its own rights. Even it can have reprints!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. Stay tuned. #12 talks about a writer’s favorite topic: getting paid!

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Writing the Simultaneous Submission Cover Letter

In “Selling 75% of Your Freelance Writing” a simultaneous submission cover letter plays a less crucial role than the query letter. That’s because it accompanies an actual manuscript, which is what the editor will use to make their buying decision.

Remember, in the first nine sections (of 16) about freelance selling we discussed using the query letter for most magazine articles (where the money is). For newspaper articles, mostly, you will send the actual manuscript and a cover letter.

Unless you are trying to sell to a “national” newspaper like the New York Times, U.S.A. Today, Wall Street Journal, or Christian Science Monitor, you can send the manuscript and cover letter simultaneously to newspapers 100 miles from each other. (For example, one at a time to the larger Chicago dailies but St. Louis and Cincinnati can be approached at the same time.)

The function of this cover letter is to induce the editor to read the manuscript by displaying a sample of its contents and flavor, discussing available illustrations, perhaps talking about the rights offered, and suggesting other elements you could write to enhance the article.

Simultaneous submission cover letters are sent in six selling situations. They are sent with multiple submissions of the same text to editors of newspaper travel sections, newspaper weekly supplements, religious magazines, regional publications, in-flight magazines, and reprints. Cover letters also come in two sizes: short and full page.

Let’s discuss when and why each might be sent, and what it would contain.

The short letter is about half the length of a full 8.5 x 11 first page of a manuscript. It is trimmed that length and is stapled in the upper left corner in front of the one-sided pages of the entire article. Its purpose is to convince the editor that the article attached should be bought for his/her pages.

If the actual article copy on the first page begins below the half-point spot, the editor can then let his/her eyes jump from the cover note to the text itself. If it keeps the editor’s attention, and she continues to read the second, then third page, the chances of ultimate purchase are great! (What goes at the top of that first article copy page and is covered by the cover note? The word count, top right; the title of the article [centered in the middle of the page above the text; not all in CAPS], and your by-line centered several lines below the title.)

For example, let’s say you are sending a cover note to the travel editor. It has six functions, all to be done in about 5½ ” of space.

One, to tell who you are, so you type your name at the top of the note and sign it below. It’s typed in case the signature can’t be read.

Two, to tell where you live so your check will arrive!

Three, how you can be reached by phone, e-mail, or fax.

The fourth point is the most important: What is the copy about? The editor is busy. He might read your full manuscript anyway. But here you summarize the contents in the same tone in which the article is written, to save him time and to pique his curiosity. My hope is that he won’t worry about points five or six now but rather will let his eyes drop from the note to the first paragraphs at the bottom half of page one of the article. If that happens, the chance of his buying is excellent. Which is precisely why I send him the shorter version of the cover letter, to let his eyes roam unimpeded. Note that the short letter obscures no text.

The fifth point is also important. If you have photos or other illustrations, here is where you make their avaiIability known, the quantity that you can provide, and how you can send them. (See section #15 in this series, Photos, at the blog several weeks hence.) A preview here for the cover note: I usually send the editor to a quick linked file where samples of the available photos are posted, so those desired can be grabbed and used.

Rarely are my photos so extraordinary that one or several will, in themselves, sell the story; but if in fact I did have that homerun photo this cover letter paragraph would be larger and the first paragraph would be smaller. Or I’d swap the order: highlighting that photo in the first paragraph, then explaining the supporting copy in the second.

Item six concerns the return of the manuscript. If you are using snail mail, either include an even smaller envelope inside the standard #10 business envelope, write your address, and adhere the needed postage to get it back (S.A.S.E.). Or you can include a postcard with boxes to check, like

[ ] Am holding for use on ____________
[ ] Am holding for possible use when I can.
[ ] Sorry, this article isn’t for us now.
[ ] Photo suggestions: __________________.
[ ] Comments:

Can you include anything else? Sure, it’s your letter. The purpose is to sell the manuscript attached, so what goes in the cover note and in what order is up to you. But here is a slightly up-dated example of the format that has worked best for us:

Gordon Burgett
P.O. Box 845
Novato, CA 94948
(800) 563-1454 / / (415) 883-5707

Dear Travel Editor:

Visiting Paraguay is the thing to do since the dictator Stroessner left, Air Paraguay began bargain fares, and low hotel and food prices make it the jumping off spot en route to Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires.

I’m just back from this landlocked haven. What’s worth doing—Asunción, four key missions, the military museum, the last wood-burning trains, and the massive Catarátas de Iguassú—is spectacular; the rest is better traded for more days in Brazil. The article tells all!

See for the best 15 captioned .JPG examples (of the 65 available). If interested in one or many, just let me know.

About me? Some 1,500 articles in print; author of The Travel Writer’s Guide, a Writer’s Digest Book Club selection. An S.A.S.E. is included for your verdict, or please just e-mail.


Gordon Burgett

The full-page cover letter

If you simply can’t convey the message in a short note, or you are submitting simultaneously to magazine editors (whose pace is a bit less hectic), the full page letter probably works better.

In the first two or three paragraphs sell the subject and copy. The rest looks much like the shorter note—but longer. The advantage? More space to laud the virtues of the piece or the photos. And you can use a full letterhead, if you wish.

I will explain the other time you use the long cover letter, to sell reprints, in my next blog.

Again, the whole idea of the cover letter is to sell the article attached. The writing in the cover letter must be as sharp, enticing, and appealing as that of the article it is selling. Sending an inferior cover letter is like, shirtless and shoeless, trying to sell a Mercedes-Benz.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. We also have a fun, free newsletter you might enjoy. It comes with three free reports too.

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Moving parts in your daily newspaper?

Last night (3/15/2011) I heard Charlie Rose discussing the new iPad 2, newspapers, and digital wonders with David Carr, of The New York Times, who was at the SXSW Convention in Austin, Texas.

Particularly worth sharing with fellow writers/publishers is Carr’s prediction that much sooner than later newspapers (the paper, dog-chewed kind) will be so secondary a daily item in the hand that they will be status symbols and be fancied up to play the roll.

The iPad 2, or something similar, will be the prime news carrier, and there will be lots of competition because the new creators/publishers won’t need the legacy set-up tools of printing presses, delivery trucks, subscriptions, and so on to get aboard.

The screens will broadcast in color, have animation, link to videos and photos (just click to see the frothing fifth-grade teacher devour a mouthy student), include resources, perhaps read themselves (in many languages), and tie back to related articles or topics.

He also felt that Steve Jobs and crew will lead the parade. Carr also liked Kindle but felt that, colorless and text-based now, it was well behind.

Carr added that we can expect much of the same in books, particularly for children. (I’ve spoken of this for textbooks at my newsletter.) Which may mean that self-publishers will have to get multi-dimensional to stay in the game. And it will surely affect what newspaper editors expect from freelance writers. (For starters, keep a full and exact list of resources used for each manuscript or article, plus, perhaps, an extended list of related links.)

I’ll share more about this as it becomes available—and credible.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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Nothing sells more articles than great query letters!

(This is #9 of a 16-section series about “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing“.)

The query letter is the difference between the amateur and the professional in the freelance writing world.

Your biggest profits will come from knowing what a query letter is, how it is written, and what it must—and must not—contain. Once you’ve learned that, the only thing determining your selling success is your own desire and hustle.

Article Queries

You’ll notice that after-the-query writing skill is not mentioned as crucial to that success. It is important, of course, but the timing is backward. Writing skill is what makes the query work. If you can’t write well enough to compose a query letter as good as the article you are proposing, there won’t be any “after the query.”

Positive responses and subsequent sales come from query letters that sparkle, persuade, convince, reveal, expose, provoke curiosity, ignite laughter—whatever it is that the articles are to do later.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that query letters must sell an idea and you as the person to write about it, in one page of copy that makes a promise and answers key questions, in writing so clear and appealing that any editor would feel like a fool if he didn’t ask to see more.

The Editor

Let’s turn the tables for a moment and put you at the editor’s desk to see just how the query works.

The editor, incidentally, looks just like you, except a little older and wiser in the ways of magazine needs and his boss’s wants. That’s right, you’re the editor, but you also have a boss: the publisher, who often has bosses too. There are also other editors or their equivalents, and your scope of activity—nonfiction articles—is directly affected by their needs. One handles finances (how much to pay per article), one directs art (will you use the freelancer’s photos or buy from professional stock?), another is concerned with circulation (“we need more stories about Ohio!”), still another buys fiction (which takes up your space), another sells ads, and so on…

So you don’t make decisions alone. In fact, every article you buy must be arm-wrestled through a meeting of all editors, then defended until the moment the piece hits the stands.

As editor you must believe in the ideas that you select. You must know enough about those ideas and the writers who will prepare them to fight for both. And you need reasonable assurance (and no little faith) that the writers’ final manuscripts will shine in print. Why? Because your job—promotion, retention, or dismissal—is in their hands.

Therefore, as editor you need reliable, knowledgeable, professional freelancers who can present exciting ideas that your readers want to know more about.

Say that you need six such writers a month. So you’ll give eight a positive reply to their queries, knowing that one won’t follow through and another will run into photo problems or give you inferior work. To complicate matters, you need the material in final form three months before it is read by the public, and seven months in advance for the Christmas issue.

You’re at your desk on a balmy May day thinking October, fall, leaves, football, and an empty articles calendar. How are you going to fill those forlorn pages? You hardly have time to write up petty cash slips, much less investigate and pull together articles. Your assistant is even busier doing her job and the extra tasks you pass her way. That’s your entire staff.

So where do you get October copy?

It comes through the mail. Some of it is completely written, much of it on the fringe of literacy and clearly sent to the wrong address. Those are the direct-submission manuscripts, the unsoliciteds, composed, presumably, by novices for any publication that will buy them. Surely not for your readers and almost as surely not related to the fall or October. So they go into a huge, already bulging box to be returned to the misguided hopefuls when the assistant gets time or a secretary can be borrowed.

You used to feel compassion for those souls sending the over-the-transom pieces, with their photos and postcards and thinly veiled pleas of desperation, but after a while you wondered why they didn’t even bother to read the “query first” advisory in your publication’s write-up in Writers Market. And when you became editor and saw the quality of the material you needed, the quality the beginners sent, and the time it would take to find the few gems a year that might arrive by that wrong path, you gave up and turned to the high-percentage pile sent by professionals: the query letters.

So you put the unsoliciteds in the box, dump it (again) on your assistant’s desk, and start through the pile of queries. Twelve today, 300 average per month—for six article slots!

Some of the writers you know, most you don’t. You want to print new names each month so your pool of writers will continue to expand. You try to read with an open mind.

What are you looking for? Quick, sharp letters, preferably a page but two maximum and those well worth the extra reading, that tell you (1) what the writer wants to write about, (2) how that will be done or what the article will contain, (3) whether the piece will be straight or humorous, (4) why your readers would be interested, if it’s not obvious, (5) the writer’s qualifications or expertise, if necessary, (6) whether the person has been in print before and where/when, and (7) whether photos are available, if needed.

The writing in the letter will be almost as important as the content: Does it show attention to accuracy and detail, is it both interesting and to the point, can the person write to the level of your magazine?

If you can’t tell that from the query, you will want a copy or tear sheet of a recent article that the person has had in print, to settle your doubt.

How many provide you with enough of those elements to be able to judge their ideas and writing skill? From 300 queries, maybe 50. Add 10 more to that total from whom you’ve bought before and needn’t convince you anew that they can write. That gives you 60 potential articles from which you must ferret out the best 8 for positive replies. (The assistant gets to reject the other 240, though you write a personal note on some of the best, encouraging them to query again.)

By what process do you eliminate 52 potentially salable articles? The appropriateness of the idea for October. (After all, a professional should know that you program some two to four months in advance.) How recently you used that or a similar idea on your pages. (Again, easily checked.) The reliability of the letter writer to produce solid, top-quality copy. (Those who have sold to you before have the edge here; the others must be judged by the query or copies of recent items in other publications they cite or send with the letter.)

You cut from 52 to 15. Now come the toughest decisions. Much of the selection is intuitive: you like an idea and the way it is presented. The writer has a feel for the subject and can use words. The query gives you something to work with and defend in committee. The whole thing has a professional tone to it, and although the writer isn’t known to you and hasn’t much of a selling record so far, you’re willing to take a gamble.

Others come from veterans who gave you excellent work earlier, or from experienced writers who show a firm grasp of their topics and the ability to bring that alive on your pages. Two others, unknown to you, are on the edge of the pack, but their queries are well written and the topics could leap off the page if well handled. You phone one to ask about a point made in the letter, and to listen to how clearly the person thinks. You like the responses and add her to the go-ahead list. On committee day you add the other one too, but with deeper reservations.

And thus your sojourn as editor comes to an end. (The other editors, in a surprising show of confidence, accepted all of your article picks. The results? Two superb pieces—including one from that last candidate about whom you had the deepest reservations,—four solid articles, one sent nothing, and a veteran offered a once-over-lightly disappointment that had to be returned.)

The Queries the Editor Selects

Writing the query letter that gets you the go-ahead takes hard work, editing and reediting, plucking and adding, until you have touched every needed point and have shown that you can write clearly and well. No magic. Nothing the average literate person with a good idea can’t do. Even luck isn’t much of a factor. Having a good idea and presenting it thoroughly are.

The query is written in business letter form: no indentations to start the paragraphs, single-spaced except between paragraphs, and a colon after the salutation. It is a business letter. A sales letter. You are selling your services to prepare an article about an idea you think the recipient editor’s readers will buy. So the letter is businesslike in both form and tone.

That doesn’t mean stiff and humorless. It means that the letter is written for a purpose, to sell an idea and you as the person to write about it. So the tone of the letter must be chosen to best help you realize your purpose. If the article is to discuss training techniques for guard geese and it is to be humorous, a humorous letter will best show the editor that you can write what you propose.

Yet it must also meet all the other criteria that are necessary to receive a positive reply to your query.

What are those other criteria?

1. What do you want to write about? What is the purpose of the article? What is the topic? What working question does it answer? Nothing is more important than a tight, clear focus. The lack of focus, in perception or explanation, may account for more query rejections than all the other criteria combined.

In other words, after reading your query and giving you a go-ahead, does the editor know precisely what you will prepare and submit? If not, the editor will reject the query. At best, very rarely, the editor may ask for a clarification.

So zero in, “an article about … ,” with details and slant and clarity. Don’t offer an editor five choices; pick the best idea, develop it, and query. Don’t offer generalities, expecting the editor to find the particulars. Focus, finish the feasibility study, and sell.

2. What will the article contain? How will you develop your idea? How will you expand the focus?

Will the core of the piece be an in-depth interview, or perhaps a series of short interviews, each approaching the theme from a different angle? Will it be an exposition of all known facts? Or an expose of new facts or others too little known? Will the piece move from the general to the specific? The reverse?
To be sold, editors must know more than the mere topic. By knowing how a subject will be presented, the editor can judge the depth of preparation required, the worth of the work, and whether you have the skill and background to deliver the goods.

3. Will the article be humorless or humorous? Light or tongue-in-cheek? This will depend on the topic and the publication. Some topics aren’t essentially humorous: death, loneliness, starvation. Others defy serious treatment. But the most important determinant will be the ratio and degree of humor used by the publication itself, which you can check during the feasibility study.

If the treatment will not include humor, then write your query letter in that manner. If humorous, write the query with the same degree of humor you would use in the final article. Also mention that the piece will be written humorously so the editor will realize that the humor was intentional, not simply the product of a good mood or favorable moon.

4. Why would the readers be interested in your article? The answer is often obvious and needs no elaboration in the query. If you are telling how to irrigate rutabaga and the magazine is for gardeners (with strange taste), the subject sells itself.

Yet there are times when you are more familiar with the tie-in than the editor. Without a short explanation or bridge between your idea and the editor’s readers, your query would automatically be put in the reject pile.

You may have inside information or know of new uses or demands for products, or be aware of a coming trend. If there’s a chance the editor may not know, a sentence or two can create sales where rejections are otherwise certain. For example, rutabaga irrigation won’t sell to health magazines, but if you stressed (if it were true) that rutabagas are a cure for rheumatism, with a reslanting, they may indeed want this piece.

5. What are your qualifications for writing this article? That you are bright, literate, eager to gather information, and able to impart it with vigor and accuracy is plenty for most pieces not requiring special skills or training. In those cases, you needn’t dwell on your qualifications, just show your research and writing abilities in the query.

But if the article would have better acceptance by the editor and readers if it carried the authority of having special skills or knowledge, you must either have and display them or be able to borrow them.

If you’re writing an article about brain surgery, for example, and you are in fact a brain surgeon, mention it in the query. But if you are a tree surgeon, mum’s the word. Rather, indicate that the article will be based on an interview with a brain surgeon or two or five, enough to infuse the piece with the facts and insight gained from their learning and experience.

There are very few articles you can’t write for print by borrowing others’ knowledge. Just make sure the editor knows where the needed expertise in the piece is coming from.

6. Where and when have you been in print before? The stopper. If you haven’t published before, who will give you your first chance? The Catch-22, the insurmountable hurdle of needing experience to gain experience, a circle without a starter’s toehold.

In fact, it’s far less dire than all that. You can either gather experience and inch upward or you can write a query letter so well researched at the feasibility stage and so well composed that the editor, seeing your ability to use the skills vital to writing salable articles, gives you an opportunity.

If you opt to gather experience before querying, start with simultaneous submissions. They generate many sales quickly and fill your sails with confidence in the shortest amount of time. Then branch off from the same topics, find angles of particular interest to specific magazines, and learn the querying process.

At the same time write letters to the editor, articles for the local weekly or nearby college newspaper—anything to get in print with good copy.

Alas, none of this lower-level preparation will be mentioned in your query unless it is impressive. So why do it? To give you the courage to query the top publications, and the self-assurance that, if given a go-ahead by a top payer, you can provide what you promise.

The danger of working up is that it can take forever, if you let it, and that your courage will develop far more slowly than your competence.

What do you mention in the query about previous publication? Enough to impress, nothing more. If your only article was in the Church Bazaar Gazette and you are querying Esquire, you’d best leave it out. But if you are querying Travel and Leisure and you have had travel pieces in four large-city newspaper travel sections, mention it.

Another way is to use numbers: “I’ve been in print 200 times, including x, y, and z.” That is particularly effective when your earliest experience has been at the newspaper level, where every item you wrote counts, no matter how short. Also, if you sell simultaneous submissions, are syndicated, or have an extensive reprint tally, numbers add up quickly. The stipulated publications, then, would be either the best known or most prestigious in the particular field you are querying.

A final suggestion might be to put the spotlight on the last item you wrote for publication. “My most recent article is in the current issue of ______.” If it’s well done (and why would you mention it if it wasn’t?), include a copy of the printed piece with your query. This is particularly effective if your credits aren’t overwhelming. You are saying “This is what I’m producing now. I want you to read it to see that I can write for your pages.” Let the article do the selling.

7. Do you have photographs to help sell the article? If so, mention them. Don’t include them with the query letter. Force the editor to ask to see them. Why? Because you are querying to sell an idea in a follow-up article. If the photos you send with the query aren’t acceptable, the editor may assume that your writing will be of the same caliber. Sell your best product, which is writing. If you can provide photos later, more gravy.

The more the magazine pays, the less likely it is to buy your photos or to expect you to be equally adept at both skills. The category most apt to want to see what you have is travel, where available prints of little-known or remote sites may be hard to obtain.

Check the publication’s photo credits to see whether the author or some other person or agency provided them, and draft your query accordingly. If you don’t have photos or ready access to some of professional quality, say nothing at all.

Once written, does your query pass these four tests?

1. Is it the kind of letter a professional would write? The key word is professional. Or did you dash it off during commercials? Does it explain your idea so the editor knows precisely what you will deliver? Is it interesting? Do you sound knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic? Does it need more editing?

2. Is it brief, complete, clear, and positive?

Brief: Usually no longer than a page to sell an article, two pages (with attachments) to sell a nonfiction book. The exceptions had better be just that.

Complete: A full page, not a sentence or a paragraph. Too short and the editor will suspect that (1) you can’t write and are showing just the minimum to hide that fact, or (2) you don’t know much about the topic and are sending around some 10-minute, low-risk feelers. The query letter is your chance to parade a page of top-flight thinking and writing; it’s your setup session before the big-bucks sale. Why would you skimp on copy when it’s hard enough to succeed using all the space at your disposal?

Clear: If “clear” isn’t, your problems are too large for this blog!

Positive: You’re selling an idea and yourself. Inject negatives and you increase the slope and height of the acceptance mountain. The writing world is already tough enough climbing. Why make it harder?

3. Does it show attention to accuracy and detail? Editors love both. Accuracy is the root word of continued sales. And detail, well ordered, is the difference between an empty hall and a lovely room. Both should show in a query. Accuracy extends to spelling and grammar. If you’re too lazy to consult a dictionary or read your letter with a sharp eye, what will the final manuscript be like?

4. Is it convincing that the article should be written? It is a sales letter—soft sell, of course, but sell nonetheless. The editor must want to know more from the same good source. You must be convinced that the article is worth doing, and that conviction must show in the query.

That’s the genesis of a query letter than gets your words in magazine print a lot more than 75% of the time.


One of our best-selling (and the least expensive) report we sell is called “25 Professional Query and Cover Letters“–for $5! If interested, here are the details. (It’s immediately downloaded.)


The next segment of this series will discuss cover letters.

You’re invited to join my free, monthly newsletter.

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How to lower your book prices at the ancillary publishers—and why you would

I decided to lower some older bound and e-book prices at the ancillary publishers–Lightning Source (LSI), CreateSpace, Kindle, Lulu, Scribd, and Smashwords, plus Pubit!–as part of a small revamping strategy for 2011. (You’ll see the new prices on my own order form too.)

Yet price changing turned out to be vastly confusing to the uninitiated, or I’ve grown vastly dumber. So in most cases I had to ask the publishers how to do it—itself a huge task to find anybody to contact. Here’s what I found out. Plus some significant benefits to charging less!

(A quick interruption: if you are looking for #9 in the 16-segment “How to Sell More Than 75% of Your Freelance Writing,” it will appear in a few days. I’m on a speaking tour this week, and I have been asked about the price-changing newsletter piece in February 2011, so I’m sharing it here as a blog. Back to it…)

LSI has contactfolk lovingly listed everywhere on their website (although their software is a bear to use). So to change the price on four bound books I emailed Natalie Mozingo, who said to: (1) login, (2) go to “My Library,” (3) select “Title Information and Links,” (4) click on “Start search,”(5) once titles appear, click on the title, (6) pick the Request Price Change icon, and (7) make the changes when the requested screen appears. Sounds easy but (4) and (5) aren’t. For eight e-books, Brad Cantrell had me send a spreadsheet with the title, ISBN, and new price for each and he would make the change.

CreateSpace (Amazon) handles bound books, so Erin sent these instructions: (1) login, (2) click on the title you want to change, (3) go to “Sales Channels,” (4) update the sale price, and (5) save the change. Duh. But how do you find the path when you are lost in the woods? Their e-book match, Kindle, requires you to find the website first. Google sent me to, which seemed to recognize me and wanted my Amazon account number. Bingo: up popped the bookshelf, with a list of my books and about six columns. Go to the last, “Actions,” hit “edit book details,” and you will see the prices to change on the second page.

Lulu was easy. Find “My Lulu” along the top row, find the book to change, hit “view/buy,” open “edit your project,” and you’ll find both the bound and e-book prices to alter. Scribd, on other hand, has become a nightmare for sales. Thirty minutes later I sent them an email (I think). No reply days later. But they don’t sell anything anyway, so I won’t fret.

The last was Smashwords. Very quick reply: go to Dashboard: Settings. That was it.

I posted the new prices at Pubit! since it just joined the ancillary publishers.

I was changing some bound book prices down to $15, and their e-book components to $10. But if I went a penny lower (less than $10), I made a lot more in royalty. At Kindle, for example, my income jumped from 35% to 70%. The bump in royalties reaffirms what we are learning, that price is critical to ancillary publishing buyers, particularly for digital downloads.

(Read the blog in my January newsletter by Joe Konrath on how he sells 1,000+ books at day at $2.99 [and earns about $2 a book], plus a CreateSpace author bio in this (2/2011) newsletter. That prompted me to try my novel at $2.99! And that made me think about the prices of my other aging books, so….) Still, it hurts to discount your own printed wisdom! Vanity a penny deep.

Incidentally, link if you want to know How to Get Your Book Published Free in Minutes and Marketed Worldwide in Days.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. Welcome aboard the free, monthly newsletter. Three free writing-related reports too just for joining.

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Converting your bound book into an e-book bonanza!

You may well know about Peter Bowerman’s excellent website, newsletter, and editing skills, but his article in the February issue of the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Independent, “Tap the E-book Goldmine to Turbocharge Nonfiction Profitability” is a step-by-step textbook in how you build an e-book empire from tested core copy, plus the related trim-off gems that are left in files or on the floor.

I shared much of this blog at my free, monthly newsletter on March 2, where I sent you to his article for the full details. Peter’s selling quest began with a nonfiction, how-to book, The Well-Fed Writer, first published in 2000, that he updated and released again in 2009. In 45 days, he had recouped a $12,500 investment solely through sales to his 7,000-subscriber newsletter. (Less than 300 of those sold were the $20 physical book.) Most of the profit came from companion e-books, with zero costs for production, storage, or shipping.

Here are the components of Bowerman’s 10-year e-book strategy:

1. If you have a physical book, just create the digital version. Duh. His are in PDF, and he has received almost no requests for alternate-device-compatible e-books. (Same with us.)

2. Incentivize folks to buy directly from you—more profit, you get their buyer info, and they may join your newsletter or blog. He does that through e-book bonuses and free Media Mail shipping. Says Peter, “For purchase bonuses. think useful, high-value content peripheral to the main book, but in more user-friendly format.” Also offer the bonuses as stand-alone products through Amazon and bookstores.

3. Create e-book companion products. Here’s the profit key: what digital information would the buyer pay $5 to $30 more to enhance your core book’s contents? Out popped his Biz-in-a-Box, Tool Box, and Time Line, largely composed of add-on info and templates that didn’t fit in the core book, came later, or added greater depth or chronology—see the choices, bundles, formats, and price levels here. His biggest seller (and shocker) early on? The $54.90 combo of a print book, its digital version, and two companion e-books.

4. Offer the digital-only package, the digital version of the book plus one or more companion bundled e-books, selling from $19.95 to $39.90. Bowerman’s response? “Here’s an eye-opening stat: Over the past six months or so, approximately 75 percent of my orders have been for digital-only products or bundles.”

The lessons Peter learned, in his words?

* “Creating a wide variety of different bundles taught me some important lessons. When you make something available, someone will buy it, but they can’t buy it if it’s not there.”

* “Take the time to create superior products people just have to have. Package crap, fluff, or filler, and you might sell a few, but bad word-of-mouth won’t sustain it. Do it right, and positive word-of-mouth—through online writing networks, blogs, chats, as well as on Amazon—will ensure ongoing sales.”


I’m on the road speaking this week so I’m taking a break from the 16-section “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing.” Next week, let’s discuss #9 query letters and #10 cover letters.

See you then!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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How to Prepare and Market Articles That Sell

Segment 7 of this 16-part “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing” explains a critical element of profitable, dependable article selling. It is called the “feasibility study.”

To explain the “75%” process a 15-step check-off list helps you see if your article idea is in fact feasible to write and sell. The list in turn explains “How to Prepare and Market Articles That Sell.”

Before writing a query letter to an editor to see if he or she would seriously consider buying your article before you fully research and write it, you must ask two questions:

1. Is this article feasible to write?
2. Is this article feasible to sell?

Concerning the writing feasibility, you do enough preliminary research to make sure that if the editor says yes, you can in fact give what you promise. As for selling feasibility, you create a prioritized market list based on the kinds of readers who would be interested in reading about the topic and what they read (or which magazines they would seek to find it). Prioritization (which editor you would query in what order, one at a time) is based on whether they pay on acceptance or publication, how much, how often they publish, and what percent of freelance material they use in each issue. (All of that information is in the Writer’s Market.)

The answers to these questions help you determine if your topic is indeed feasible to write and sell. If it isn’t doubly feasible, seek another topic and began again!

Here is that list, with an occasional note added for this blog in [brackets].

1. In one sentence, what is the subject of the article you want to write and sell?

2. Who would benefit from reading your article? Who would be most interested? What kinds of readers would select your specific subject from a variety of choices? Rank all those potential readers in order, placing those who would derive the most benefits first.

3. Which publications do these readers buy and read? Prepare a market list of those publications that are the most likely to buy your manuscript.

4. In addition to the publications checked in (3), it is necessary to review the broader publishing field for articles similar or identical to yours. Therefore, you must check both the computer and/or the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, plus specific subject indexes, for at least the previous three years, then

a. list the articles that are closest to your subject, in order with the most similar first: subject, author, title, publication, page reference, length, and when they appeared. Where the subjects appear to be very similar, how does yours differ?

b. cross-check newspaper indexes for the past three years and provide the same information.

5. Have the publications listed in (3) and (4) printed artides within the past three years that are similar to the one you propose?

6. After each publication, note the name of the person you should contact (editor, managing editor, etc.), with title and address. Then provide the following information about each publication:

a. Does it pay on acceptance or publication?

b. How much does it pay for articles as long as yours?

c. Does it prefer a query or a direct submission?

d. How often is it published?

e. What percentage of it is written by freelancers?

f. What is its preferred manuscript length?

g. Is any other information provided that will affect its placement on your list?

7. Now rank your market list in priority order, based on when the buyers pay (on acceptance or on publication), how much, the frequency of publication, and the percentage of freelance material used per issue.

8. Read the latest issues of your target publication, front to back. Select the articles that are the most similar, in form if not topic, to the piece you will prepare. Outline each article. Write out the lead and conclusion of each, by hand. [Follow the 12 steps in Figure 5, “How to Study a Printed Magazine Article.” That is currently in print in the Travel Writer’s Guide, often available at your library or online.] Attempt to identify the publication’s readers by age, sex, occupation, income range, education, residence, and other pertinent factors.

9. To verify the availability of resource information

a. read as many of the articles in (5) as necessary or possible, then list the sources of information found in each,

b. consult the card catalog and list books you will refer to for factual information: title, author, call number, date of publication, and library, and

c. list the people you should consult for additional information and quotes, working with the reference librarian for information that you do not already have: their name, position, and current affiliation (if related to the topic), academic title and degrees (if relevant), and reasons for their being consulted.

10. From the information you’ve gathered on the specific target publication and the research you’ve done on your topic, select the material needed to write a professional query letter. Verify its accuracy.

11. Write a selling query letter to an editor of your target publication. If you do not receive a positive reply, write a query letter to the editor of the next publication on your list, and so on, one editor at a time, until an editor does respond positively. Repeat as much of (9) as necessary for each new publication queried.

[This is where the feasibility study ends. Steps 12-15 assume a positive reply from the editor, and they explain the final submission steps of a queried article.]

12. When you receive that positive response to your query, plan your article to determine what is still needed to finish it.

13. Complete the needed research.

14. Write the manuscript in final draft form. Include, on separate paper, at least five additional, different leads.

15. Select the best lead, edit the draft, type a final manuscript (keeping a copy), and mall [or email] it, with illustrations (if needed and available), to the editor who gave you the go-ahead.

Variations for simultaneous submissions:

[This shows how the queried submission process above deviates for direct—often simultaneous—submissions, like those usually sent to newspapers.]

When you prepare your market list, review it to avoid circulation overlap. [Regional newspapers, for example, will usually not buy copy sent to or used by other newspapers within a hundred-mile radius.] Then, rather than following the querying process, prepare a basic manuscript, avoiding specific references (usually geographic or temporal) that would prevent universal or long-term use of your material. Make copies of the basic manuscript. Where it would enhance the manuscript’s salability, add a personalized cover note or letter. Mail the submissions to the respective editors.


The next topic in this series is query letters. See you then…

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. You may be interested in related writing and selling topics I’ve discussed at my free, monthly newsletter or in earlier blogs. Here is the combined subject index.

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