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When is a sale not a sale?
By Scott Nicholson

When is a sale not a sale? Hopefully you are lucky enough to hear this question in the demented, tilted voice of Frank Gorshin, who played The Riddler on the old Batman TV show. If you are a writer, the answer might be much worse than the question. Believe it or not, amidst the vast torrent of rejection slips, an occasional fish leaps from the stream and lands gasping at your feet: a real live honest-to-goodness acceptance.

But just as the fish out of water often gasps its last, your "acceptance" may be as good as the paper it was printed on but nothing more. Here are things that have happened to me this early in my so-called career:

A) my story was bought at professional rates and appeared over a year later in a national, glossy magazine, I never got paid and spent a lot of energy continually making the publisher aware of the fact before eventually agreeing to take a banner trade on their web site in exchange for the money that would never be mine. The website subsequently vanished.

B) my story was bought at reasonable rates for a respected small-press magazine, to be the cover story as illustrated by a well-known artist. Said magazine folds. Story subsequently is accepted for limited-edition hardback anthology. Said anthology folds. Story goes on to continue gathering rejection slips to this very day.

In an odd note, I met the artist who was booked to do the cover of the magazine that folded. He actually did the illustration before the collapse. He’s going to print me a copy, so I’ll have most of that "magazine that never was."

C) my story was accepted over two years after being sent off, but after a year of waiting I'd already sent it off to another market which accepted it and has been trying to get the issue published for over a year.

D) a well-paying and popular webzine accepted my story to be published in their next issue. Four months later, the editor sent a form reject on the same story, apparently forgetting he'd liked it enough to "buy" it the first time.

E) a Canadian publisher took a story for an anthology. The book came out only a half-year behind schedule, but a merger-bankruptcy fiasco by one of the major Canadian book chains nearly wrecks most of the smaller publishers, including this one. No money forthcoming.

F) a respected publisher announced a major anthology, submissions flooded in. A few rejections dribbled back out over the ensuing months, but nearly two years later, no word on whether the book is real or whether anyone has actually "sold" a story to this market.

For novels, it’s not unusual to wait nine months or so to hear word from an editor (and almost every time the answer is "no.") If you have an agent, not only do you get read faster and more seriously, you get to the right editors first. But when you’re sending off stories to the markets, it’s almost trial-and-error, you are floating with hundreds of other submissions. Editors are pretty much mad little gods in their own tiny universes, while writers are seven cents a dozen.

Still, an editor should not need nine months to say "no" to a 3,000 word story. Most editors can tell by the middle of the second paragraph whether the story is even worth finishing.

I’ve had time-sensitive material that editors have asked to buy, then eventually rejected long after the material was too dated to send elsewhere. I’ve had "acceptances" that took over a year before the contracts arrived. I’ve had "sales" that ending up costing me money.

Judging from the horror stories I've heard from other writers, I've actually been pretty lucky. Most of my contracts have been honored, and no editor has buried my career yet. But the truth is that sometimes having a story accepted is not the end, it's only the beginning. Sometimes a sale is worse than a rejection, because it ties up the story and keeps it from other markets that might treat it more kindly. That's why sane writers have skin of titanium Teflon, and know that the marketing and publishing are far less important than the actual writing..

When is a sale not a sale? Too often.

When does it really matter? Never, as long as you have another story on the screen, rushing toward its final sentence.

-- copyright 2000 by Scott Nicholson

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