The Word for Writers
Seek the Assignment, Not the Sale
by Doug Schmidt
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Seek the Assignment, Not the Sale
Imagine that you are an invisible observer at a planning meeting for a national publication. The editors, associates, and assistants are sitting around an oak conference table in comfortable chairs.
The room is brightly lit and someone brought donuts. Everybody is in a good mood. (Sorry, since you’re invisible, you can’t have the éclair — the floating pastry would freak everybody out.)
After a few minutes of small talk, the managing editor calls everyone’s attention to the meeting’s agenda.
"OK, let’s talk about the upcoming issue. We need something about how small businesses will be effected by the recent drop in interest rates."
"Sharon, could you take care of that?"
"Any other ideas?"
After a couple of hours of brainstorming and some friendly bantering, the group came up with the following ideas for the next issue-in-process (which is due on the shelf in only three months):
o an historical article about popular home-businesses in the 1950s
o a current-events essay about foreign-trade negotiations and the possible effects on small businesses
o a true rags-to-riches story about someone who started his or her business for less than $500.00.
o a fictional story where the main character struggles with a conflict of interest issue that could jeopardize her career.
As the people gather their notes the managing editor comments . . .
"OK, keep your eyes on the mail and tell me when something close to these articles comes in."
Of course it does. These editors are not going to sit at their desks and hope these manuscripts land in their laps. They have less than four weeks to put a publication together, and they cannot afford to wait.
Instead, they are going to get on the phone, call some qualified writers, and MAKE THE ASSIGNMENTS.
In a recent interview, the vice-president of a large book publisher said in my presence, "Our purpose is to provide resources that fulfill needs, not to just publish something because our editor thinks it’s a great book."
Successful publishers are driven by a vision, not unrequested manuscripts. The editors who work for those publishers are desperately looking for service-oriented writers who will help achieve the mission of their companies.
Making detailed assignments to qualified, knowledgeable writers gives editors the best chance of getting exactly what they want. They just don’t have the time to search through the mail for ideas and manuscripts that might come close to what they need.
What editors really need is average-but-knowledgeable authors to write about the proposed subject. Once they get the manuscript they’ve assigned, they’ll edit the piece so that it meets the publication’s needs.
The sad truth about unsolicited manuscripts is that most of them get rejected—many never even get read. Good unsolicited ideas are often assigned to other writers.
The best way to get established as a writer, and to keep the work rolling in, is to go after assignments that shine the spotlight on your expertise—not to attempt to sell an idea or something you’ve already written.
Ask Yourself . . .
If you were given $20 million dollars to start a publishing company, what would want that company to accomplish?
What policies would you create and enforce to make sure that your vision was implemented?
Consider using this roleplay to help yourself think like an editor who needs to make assignments.
Take 15 minutes and create your own imaginary publication. Pick a subject that interests you, and develop a magazine around it.
Come up with themes for five articles, and then make the assignments. For these imaginary articles, pick five people that you know to write them.
o Why would you pick these people?
o What makes them qualified to write about your topics?
o Would they do what you asked, and get it to you on time?
o If you had to choose between two equally-qualified writers, what would sway your decision?
Editors have the best chance of getting what they want by making assignments, NOT by answering idea letters or buying manuscripts.
Most editors are looking for average writers who know a particular subject well, have a service-oriented attitude, will follow directions, and get their assignments in on time.
The Futility of Selling the Unsolicited
Some writers will spend months, even years, working on manuscripts they hope some publisher will accept. Others will spend a long time writing the "perfect" query letter.
After the piece is "flawless", they send it to just the right publisher and wait for the acceptance letter and check. But instead of the byline and money they expected, a stiff rejection letter comes back six-to-eight weeks later.
The editor expresses his or her regrets, but unfortunately the article/novel/manuscript/idea does not meet the publisher’s
"Well, then," thinks the writer, "perhaps I should send this manuscript (or idea) to several publishers—it has to meet someone’s needs."
So the writer sends the manuscript (or query) to twenty or thirty publishers, (at least those who accept simultaneous submissions), only to receive similar rejection letters expressing the same polite regrets six-to-eight weeks later.
What’s wrong with this picture?
In the real world of publishing, few unsolicited manuscripts are read carefully. Most editors are too busy planning the direction of their publications to pay attention to ideas and manuscripts they didn’t request.
Some editors receive manuscript queries by the thousands. Most of these come from writers who think they have great ideas that deserve to be published.
The successful writer realizes that the only ideas that deserve to get published (in the minds of the decision-making editors) are those that belong to the editor and his boss, the publisher. They are the best judges of what their readers want and need, and consequently, what will sell.
Some publishers will send out theme lists so that the onslaught of unsolicited mail comes a little closer to their editors’ needs. The odds for the writer improve a little, but there’s still no guarantee that his or her work is going to pay off.
So instead, seek the assignment, not the sale.
An assignment is a specific request from a publisher to an author to write on a particular subject within certain guidelines.
When a writer gets an assignment, that person has a conditional promise to be paid, even before he or she presses a single key on the keyboard. Granted, this writer has to follow through—but once it’s accepted or published, it’s money in the bank.
Most publishers are looking for writers who will put flesh on the bones of their editors’ ideas. So instead of sending an article/ book/manuscript query, send an assignment-seeking proposal.
Author of . . . The Prayer of Revenge: Forgiveness in the Face of Injustice - "Superb" - Lewis Smedes - "Captivating" - Gary Collins - "Freeing" - Tim Clinton - "Overwhelming" - Wanda G. Anderson
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I found this extremely interesting and a completely sensible way of looking at the whole matter of being published. Really a case of not putting the cart before the horse! With love, Deb
Okay, I have to laugh now! As I read through this article I started thinking, now that sounds very familiar. The more I read I knew I had read this before. I was about to comment that I beleived this post should be removed because I think it is plagiarized. I wanted to be sure so I went back to my files and found an eBook I purchased titled: How To Land High-Paying Assignments. I opened it up and sure enough, there were the same words. I scrolled back up to site the author and lo and behold, it was you! That was interesting! :) -Patrick
Thank you for sharing. This article was exactly what I needed to read tonight.
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