Prospecting for Markets By Larry Tritten

Freelance writers are very much like prospectors, those itinerant gold seekers represented in popular fiction as solitary individuals searching the desert for gold and motivated by an irresistible dream of success. The good news is that the gold is really out there. There are nuggets of various sizes and rich veins of ore waiting to be discovered.

There is silver, too, whose value is not to be taken lightly. I carry a silver dollar with me as a reminder of my boyhood when my parents owned a backwoods bar in North Idaho. Many of their customers were silver miners, most of whom disdained paper currency in favor of silver dollars. There were also some small gold mines in the area. I grew up around miners and, as far back as I can remember, my dream was to be a writer, so the analogy that sustains this piece is especially apt.

If freelance writing is like prospecting for gold, then writing for magazines and newspapers as opposed to writing books and movie scripts is like panning for gold dust and nuggets. You probably won’t stake a major claim this way, but if you are deft at wielding the pan you might still prosper substantially. I’ll cite a few examples from my won experience.

In the past few years I’ve sold several genre (and some mainstream) short stories and humor pieces to magazines most writers tend not to think of as fiction or humor markets for fees ranging between $900 and $1500 (which is a quantum leap from the kind of rates paid by genre magazines and literary periodicals). And I’ve resold pieces for far more than I was paid by the magazines that published them originally.

Finding the markets is the trick, but it’s one that is easily learned. All you have to do is approach the marketplace with an inclination to look past the most obvious and familiar markets, just as you might poke into the more remote shelves in an antique shop. Any number of writers I know who glumly accept rates of a few cents a word for their fiction have had no idea that certain in-flight magazines accept fiction and pay up to $1 a word. As a prospector I discovered it years ago. There are also cruise ship magazines, which don’t pay as well as the in-flights but still pay much better than the standard fiction markets. And lately I’ve become aware of the in-room magazines published by some major hotel chains which pay as well as the in-flights. Moreover, some of these magazines will settle for one-time or second rights.

A few weeks ago, prospecting through Writer’s Yearbook 1999 and looking through a section (Games and Puzzles) where I had virtually no expectation of making an auspicious discovery, I noticed that Games Magazine has a listing for fiction. Not a very promising one, however. The listing says: buys 1-2 mss/year. On the plus side, though, the rates of payment are given as $1,000-1,750. My first thought was that there was nothing I could possibly send Games Magazine, but then I remembered a five-page story that had been rejected by all the better paying (6-10 cents/word) genre magazines before selling to a small circulation, semi-professional magazine for $50.

A whimsical intellectual puzzle is the basis of the story, so I sent it to Games Magazine. Soon after, the editor called and offered me $1500 for the story. Games Magazine will take second serial (reprint) rights. In any case, some magazines that customarily buy first rights will settle for seconds if the piece was previously published in a small-circulation, obscure, or specialty magazine and if you argue your case for the sale with the editor convincingly.

Recently, while looking through one of the most dour sections (Finance) in Writer’s Market 1999, a glint caught my eye. Trader’s Magazine has a fiction listing: Buys 1mss/year. Pays 50 cents-$2/word. It accepts, among other things, humor, mystery, and science fiction. I have a humorous fantasy story whose idea revolves around a game of Monopoly. I’m hoping it will be the one story the editor is looking for this year.

In order to find these markets, you have to look in the most unlikely places. You already know what is to be found in the familiar places. Look through the Trade, Technical & Professional Journals section of Writer’s Market. This part of the book is one of the best places to look for the tell-tale glitter of gold or silver, among the most improbable magazines, those with names like Nebraska Cliffs, The Catholic Grocer, Wisconsin Cheese, and Left-Handed Gardener. Well, perhaps I exaggerate, but the point is well taken. Incidentally, two of my recent sales were to magazines called Minnesota Parent and Weatherwise (a magazine for meterologists).

Discovering markets depends, of course, on having access to as many market listings as possible, which is why you shouldn’t rely exclusively on the annual Writer’s Market. While it is the single best source of information, there are always certain listings it doesn’t contain for one reason or another, and since it is an annual publication it can’t keep track of those publications that come and go in less than a year’s time.

It is important for you to subscribe to all market guides and newsletters. Case in point: a few years back I saw a listing in Travelwriter Marketletter (which also lists many markets that are not specifically travel-oriented) for a series of six magazines collectively called Confetti that were being distributed to a number of select beauty salons. They were paying competitive slick magazine rates. I sent them a piece which I thought might be appropriate and which had been published in a promotional automobile magazine, Nissan Discovery. It promptly sold and I was paid $1500, although before the piece could be published the magazines were discontinued. Nonetheless, I was $1500 richer-but I wouldn’t have been if not for the Marketletter listing, which was the only reference to Confetti that I ever saw in all the market information I regularly consult.

Some excellent markets are very transitory, and regularly published market guides and newsletters are the best way to find out about them. The two most helpful ones I know about are the aforementioned Travelwriter Marketletter and Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets Another good one, if you specialize in genre fiction, is Speculations.

Discovering obscure but lucrative markets is always satisfying, but in one case it literally changed my life. Back in 1979 or so I saw a listing in Writer’s Digest to the effect that the editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar (the paper’s entertainment and arts magazine) was looking for material and there was room for humor in the format. I sent him a piece and he bought it; then I sold him another, and another. My editor believed that I was a uniquely talented humor writer. I then sold a piece to The New Yorker, which confirmed his belief, and he quickly and proudly secured reprint rights and published the piece, considering it a coup for the Calendar. Before long I went to Los Angeles and met the editor.

At this point please visualize a gelatinous wavering (accompanied by a glissando of harp music) of the kind used in movies to indicate a period of transition and fade in on me living in a little apartment in Beverly Hills a few blocks from Rodeo Drive and writing regularly for the Calendar. My editor was solicitous and paternal. He gave me Jay Leno’s phone number and had Jay give me advice on the L.A. scene. I found myself going to movies free at the Writer’s and Director’s Guild theatres and being introduced to influential show business and literary people. I had carte blanche to hang around at the Times and at one point was taken by my editor to lunch at the Picasso Room, which is the dining room in the building where upper level Times executives and staffers eat, so called because the walls are lined with real Picassos owned by the paper’s owner, Otis Chandler. I published about 60 pieces in the Calendar before (gelatinous wavering) a format change ousted humor from the format-but not before I’d had my Hollywood adventure. And all of it happened because I discovered one unlikely market listing.

There are golden markets out there waiting to be discovered. Bon chance!

Larry Tritten can be reached via email at: