Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Deal With Problem Editors

Finally! You get accepted by that magazine you've been targeting for years. In a rush of adrenaline, you jump at the editor's terms, turn in your story and then wait. And wait. And nothing happens. Your story doesn't appear in the next issue. Or the next. Or the one after that.

Eventually, you start suspecting the editor has either killed your story or lost it. Or you think that the editor realized his or her mistake in accepting the story in the first place. Or maybe the editor has been replaced. And maybe you're even getting pretty upset about the lack of contact.

What can a writer do to get some answers without burning a bridge and getting put on some kind of editorial black list?


Okay, I'll always consider myself a writer first, but I've been an editor for more than a decade now, which is long enough to have been a problem editor myself from time to time. A key thing to remember is that most editors are human (though that may be changing in the future).

With that in mind, I'd advise all writers to start off by just contacting the editor with an e-mail like this:

Dear Editor,

A year ago, my story was accepted for publication by your magazine. I turned in the story and returned all the other paperwork requested, but now I realize that I have no idea when the story is supposed to run (so that I can go out and buy a dozen copies). Could you let me know?




If that letter seems pretty simple, it's because this letter is. As an accepted writer, you don't need to start pulling out threats and voicing your frustration in your first contact. That kind of conduct can really burn you in both the short- and long-term. Even if you're annoyed, try to keep it hidden in your first correspondence.

Give the editor a week to respond. I know that in this day and age that a week sounds like forever, but it's not. If you don't receive a response in a week, then follow up with another e-mail. Again, try to hide your annoyance as best as you can, though you can definitely bring up the fact that you sent an e-mail a week previous (just to jog the editor's memory).

Give the editor another week. Then, start calling. Try to get the editor first. If you have to leave a message, just let the editor know that you've sent e-mail messages, and that you just want some kind of response.

If that fails, it's time to try finding someone higher on the editorial food chain. Keep in mind: Once you resort to this tactic, you may have completely severed your relationship with this editor.


As you progress as a freelancer, you'll develop a list of things that you always want clarified up front.

Questions freelancers should ask upon acceptance might include:
  • What rights are you purchasing?
  • What are the deadlines?
  • What is expected at each deadline?
  • When will my writing be published?
  • How much will I be paid?
  • When will I be paid? (And how?)
  • Do I receive any comp copies of book and/or magazine?
Don't be afraid to ask questions. The more you get squared away at the beginning the less chance you have of potential problems arising in the future. But it's always good to remember that most editors are human, and most of us are also writers. In most cases, we just need a polite nudge to get us back on track.


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Anonymous said...

Excellent advice, in this editor's opinion. It's rare that something like this happens, but when it does, it's a good idea to remember that we editors are people too--sometimes we have family emergencies that pull us away for a week or two, sometimes emails get caught in our spam folders, etcetera. Every other editor I've met cares very much about her/his writers, and we appreciate it when our contributors bring any of our flubs to our attention in a gracious way.

J. R. McLemore said...

Great post, Robert. I experienced this situation with my first professional short story sale. The editor short-listed my story and nearly a year passed without further communication. My emotions were all over the map as I waited for some response. Eventually, I ended up emailing the editor and asked very kindly if he had a chance to read my story and told him when I submitted it. He responded in kind with a very nice acceptance letter and it appeared in the magazine shortly after. Until that point, however, I was nervous about inquiring about the story because I didn't want the editor to feel like I was being a pest. Yes, editors are people too and writers wanting to see their material in print should remain considerate and professional in their correspondence.

Jennifer Ruth Jackson said...

OK... this is going to be a hypothetical situation... ahem.

Say you went through the channels and got your piece published after politely asking. With the publication, there was also supposed to be payment but that hasn't come. How long do you wait before you again speak with the editor? If it's only a few dollars, do you still feel it is worth going after?

Robert Lee Brewer said...

That's right, Kelly! We're all human.

Thanks for including your story, J.R.

And Jennifer, if payment was supposed to be included and the piece has already been published, then it is definitely all right to clarify when you (or whoever) should expect payment. Just follow the same rules, and the editor should get everything squared away.

Ruth Floresca said...

Thank you for posting those questions that need to be asked. I've learned from past experiences that one really has to be upfront with the questions especially when it comes to professional fees. It's always wise to ensure first that you'll be properly compensated for the work being asked of you.

Before, I'd gladly accept assignments from editors of popular magazines here in my country without asking how much I'd be paid for them. When it was time to collect the checks (two or more months AFTER publication!), I'll be devastated to receive so little for something I've worked so hard for. Over the years, I've learned to turn assignments down if I feel I'm being taken advantage of.

Jennifer Ruth Jackson said...

Thank you for the answer. Now I can gain courage, hypothetically, I will contact him.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Yes, Ruth, writers have their most leverage between when an assignment is accepted and when it's completed; editors have their most leverage before acceptance and before publication.

Michelle Mach said...

Great advice! I've been on both sides of this as an editor and writer. It does make you feel like a pest as a writer to keep following up about publication/payment, but sometimes that's the only way to get paid. And as an editor, I've had things happen like the accounting department lose the writer's invoice that I submitted, so I appreciated it when the writer followed up.

Anonymous said...

(that may changing in the future)..??

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Michelle, it may make the writer feel like a pest, but if they're actually due the publication/payment, then it also triggers guilt in the editor--especially if the writer is nice about it.

Darren, that phrase above links to an interesting article about editors having to choose whether to be robots or cyborgs in the future of publishing and media.