Thursday, 22 September 2011

Commissioned stories only please - for discussion

There's a worrying trend in some of the magazines on the fringes of our markets (eg Candis, Woman and Home) whereby they include fiction but only commissioned stories from novelists with new books out. That's fab for the novelist, who'll no doubt sell a few copies of their novel to readers of the mag, but a bit rubbish for the short story specialists. They may sell dozens of stories to TAB, Woman's Weekly, My Weekly etc but these commission only mags are effectively closed to them.

I suspect there are three main reasons for magazines following this policy:

1. A story by a well-known novelist might attract more people to buy the magazine, or at least to read the story.
2. The editorial staff believe stories by published novelists will be better quality.
3. By commissioning stories, the editorial staff won't have to wade through an enormous slushpile to find decent stories to publish.

Let's look at these reasons in depth.

1. A story by a well-known novelist might attract more people to buy the magazine, or at least to read the story.
That's undoubtedly true if the novelist is a really big name - Fay Weldon, JK Rowling, Annie Proulx. But probably not true for mid-list or first-time novelists. Indeed, readers might be more familiar with certain short story writers, if they also read some of the other women's mags. Indeed, long before I began writing short stories, I was familiar with several names from reading the magazines, including Della Galton and Teresa Ashby. (And my mum considers many of the regular names to be old friends.)

2. The editorial staff believe stories by published novelists will be better quality.
I'm not making this one up. I think it was the editor at Candis who said this, as justification for switching to commissioned stories only. Hmm. I have no doubt that published novelists can write really well (and honestly, I have nothing against novelists, I am one!!) but it is the short story specialists who know the markets best and are aware of which plots are too overdone etc. There's a letter in the current Writers' Forum which expresses surprise at a story by a well-known novelist in Woman & Home magazine. I haven't seen the story, but the letter-writer says it relies on that hackneyed twist of using the main character's identical twin.
Similarly, when Best relaunched fiction in the summer, the lead story by a published novelist used the age-old MC-thinks-spouse-is-having-an-affair-but-it's-all-a-surprise-for-MC plot (going by my goldfish memory here).
Commissioned stories will certainly be well-written, but if the writers don't know the markets the stories could be so predictable they'll put readers off. It's the short story specialists who know how to put a new spin on an old tale, or how to come up with something completely original.

3. By commissioning stories, the editorial staff won't have to wade through an enormous slushpile to find decent stories to publish.
I can't argue directly with this one - it's obviously going to be less work to use commissioned stories only. I guess they'll have to pay more per story, but will probably make a cost saving overall, as the magazine may not need to employ a dedicated fiction editor. BUT - this goes back to point 2. A dedicated fiction editor wouldn't make the blunder of accepting a story which relies on a yawn-inducing twist - they'll have seen it done too many times before. And it's in that slushpile that the best stories by the best writers are found.

What do you all think? Are there other reasons for using commissioned only stories? Is it a trend that more and more magazines are likely to follow? Can we do anything to reverse the trend?

Feel free to comment anonymously if you want (remember, this blog is read by fiction editors as well as writers!) but please be polite and professional in all comments.

26 comments:

Patsy said...

When I see short stories by people who're also promoting their book, I've always assumed they give the story free in exchange for the publicity (especially when the story is an extract from the book) If I'm right then not having to pay for the story would be attractive to magazines which are struggling to make a profit.

Candis have said commissioned stories only, but I wasn't aware they were only commissioning novelists to write them.

Quillers said...

I suppose it's one of those things that are nice if you're lucky enough to be commissioned, but doesn't seem so fair if you're not. Similar to My Weekly's policy of only taking work by people who have been published by them previously. It's good for me because as luck would have it I had one story published by them just before they brought in the new rule. It's not so good for other writers who are looking for the same break as I was when I started out, but now find the door closed on them.

I imagine it is about cutting down on work involved in reading through submissions. Assuming that not all authors will give away work for free (especially if the request is done via their agent), it will probably cost the mags more as I can't imagine a well-known author's agent, if they're good at their job, agreeing to the sort of fees we have to settle for.

JO said...

I suspect no3 is closest to the truth. It is cheaper to commission stories than wade through the slush pile to find the gems. And - give the way the market is shrinking, there are more and more of us submitting to those slush piles.

And - given the need for every organisation to economise in these difficult times, I can see where they are coming from. But it certainly makes life very difficult for people who depend on selling short stories to womags.

Cally said...

I can't say for sure but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they don't pay the published novelists for their stories (the 'payment' being the tiny font, one line mention that you have a book out).

I DO know that the Sunday Express magazine, that has the same policy of only publishing stories by published authors, don't pay a penny....

Geraldine Ryan said...

It has to be said that novelists are not necessarily short story writers. I have read many a story that seems to be just a slice of life - a ramble through life's passage - very nice but a bit of a let down at the end, like the writer has run out of steam. Magazine editors would probably never assume that short story writers can write novels - so why assume the reverse applies?

Geraldine Ryan said...

meant to have added "by a novelist" after "many a story"

marthawilliams.org said...

The market's going through a bit of a squeeze, isn't it; reductions in short story outlets, short story cuts at Radio 4...? I can understand why editors can't wade through slush mountains but it's a shame for new writers. I wonder if there might be a place for community pre-filtered slush piles for them to review, in a similar fashion to Authonomy but for short stories? I've seen ezine editors pick pieces from the Fictionaut 'available flash' pile although with online flash that's often for publication without payment (because the ezines so often offer up their work for free). The trouble with that is, by posting work for a chance of selection, it could be considered 'published online' so may preclude many further private submissions... swings and roundabouts?

Anonymous said...

Hi All. I think I agree that short stories written by novelists can sometimes be a bit predictable even boringly flat. Although I really enjoy the books those same authors may write. I recently contacted Candis again about their new policy and they reiterated that the mag is only commissioning stories from published authors although others are welcome to post their stories within the guideline framework on the new book club website for free! Needless to say my sister has cancelled her Candis subscription because of their new policy. And despite the great efforts of their marketing staff in the foyer of our local supermarket I held my ground and refused to subscribe. It's a shame because Candis is a good magazine and I enjoyed their stories but I refuse to subscribe or support magazines that are in my view operating a sort of elitist policy when it comes to their fiction commissions. Good wishes Kath

beverley said...

very disappointing trend for new writers wishing to carve their craft in the short story market... I read a series of short stories in the Daily Mirror over the summer in its Friday supplement by established authors only...they were good short stories, and yes, there was the expected link/plug to a forthcoming novel by each author, but it does seem as though without the support of the women's magazine market, there's very little room for the discovery of new talent :(

Lydia said...

All I can say is thank heavens for PF and WW! They seem to be the only markets still open to short story writers trying to perfect their craft.
I, for one, will always be grateful for the feedback given to me in my early days by DC Thomson mags (MW had an open policy in those days too).
However, magazines are not there for the benefit of writers and especially in the current market they are all feeling the squeeze.
I'm sure they do feel that a novelist will generate more interest with readers than an unknown (or even a known) short story writer and not having to wade through unsolicited submissions must save so much time.
Although some of these stories are good, I can only echo the comments of others often disappointed by the plots (although not the writing) of these commissioned pieces.
A while back I had a story published by Australian Womens' Weekly, which is actually a very glossy monthly mag. When I said to the editor that similar UK mags only accepted stories by established novelists she said they did that too but they were just interested in "great writing".
After I managed to squeeze my head through the door, I just felt so grateful for the magazine's open mind.
Nothing we can do chaps really: just get our heads down and come up with the goods! x

Geraldine Ryan said...

Lydia, I was lucky enough to have had 3 stories published in AWW. Alas, the last time I subbed, some time round about 18 months ago, I received an email telling me they were no longer accepting fiction.

WW had a Book Club for a while and only published sections from published novels. But they stopped it and went back to their current and much-loved policy!

Old Kitty said...

I always feel a little deflated when I see a story in WW and MW written by an author plugging their book because I wonder what other story by an unknown author was passed over. But I didn't know these authors don't get paid for their stories. Which makes me feel bad for them!

I guess such mags will always go for the most cost-effective route and if they don't have to employ a fiction editor or pay authors then that's what they'll do. Probably really cynical of me but I'm jaded enough to know that publishing is a cold-hearted business - its raison d'etre is not to enrich humankind culturally but to make money and profit! Oh that's cold! LOL!!

Take care
x

Anonymous said...

I suspect it's all part of the recession affecting more and more parts of the publishing industry, like any other. If a well-known author's story will give a magazine some sort of kudos that attracts a reader to buy it again, well, business is business - bigger profit margins is king.

It is sad for new writers, though, how are they supposed to establish themselves with smaller markets, and greater competition from already experienced short story writers?

All we can do is write and write and improve and not give up.

Sam

Anonymous said...

or rather, ARE king...

Anonymous said...

... and to the submissions pile. Are we talking about a room stacked from floor to ceiling with submissions? I don't think so. How many arrive in a week? I know there can be many but how long does it take for an editor or editorial assistant to read the first paragraph and see that the story is not for them, and reject it? They could even reject the 'possibles' and simply focus on the one story that has grabbed their interest and held it.
They could even say ' sorry we do not reply to the unsuccessful - if you haven't heard from us in 4 months it's a no, and we do not return work.'
I personally, would be ok with those guidelines, if it opened up the market.
Closing the market to everyone but established writers, or taking only novelists is very short sighted. They could be telling the next JKR that they might not submit!
By the way, I have in the past asked if I might submit to a mag that took only commissioned stories and was told 'yes'. The story didn't make it, but it's worth a go.

Lydia said...

Oh Geri - that's really sad news about AWW. I got such a buzz from the lovely piece they did about me and all my Aussie rellies thought I was famous! (Must have been my Andy Warhol five minutes!) x

marianh said...

Have you nothing better to do, anon, than pick up a fellow writer's slips?

Kath said...

There's an interesting letter on this subject in this month's WF entitled "One rule for us".

When I see a story in a magazine described as being by a well-known novelist, I can't help thinking it's probably something they've put together in a bit of a hurry because (a) writing short stories isn't their real job, it's not where their heart is and (b)the magazine, having commissioned somebody so well-known because they think their name will attract readers, is hardly going to turn a story down even if it's not as well-crafted as one by a writer who's dedicated years to the genre. I don't mind it now and again, and I have read some short stories by novelists that were excellent, but it would be awful if that was all mags published. It would be like casting plays only with singers or TV presenters who fancied having a go at acting rather than with actors who've done their training and put in the years building up their craft. It might lead to the occasional good performance but something would be lost.

What I feel when I read a very good women's magazine story is that somebody is trying to put something real into words for me. There's definitely a sense of connection that you might not get from a famous author who's dashed off a little something for the magazine because they were asked to.

womagwriter said...

Agreed, Kath - the very best short stories tap into readers' souls. There can be an intensity about them you can't sustain (as writer or reader!) in a novel. I think that's hard to achieve unless you're a writer who has immersed themselves in short stories (both reading them and writing them) for years.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Kath, that letter puts into words exactly what I was trying to say - but far more eloquently.

Anonymous said...

Hi All – I’m not expecting a yes to this question but thought I’d post anyway. Has anyone out there got a spare entry form for the Best short story competition? I have one but my niece who has collected all the tokens also has forgotten to pick up the Issue 36 with the form in. I’ve tried all the shops without any luck and I’m now currently stalking the local doctor and dentist’s surgeries in the hope that I can find one for her! Anyone have any ideas? I have emailed Best but have not yet received a reply. I'll try ringing them agaim tomorrow as advised by Womagwriter. Thanks. Kath

Simon Whaley said...

Some time ago, I met up with a published novelist who'd been 'commissioned' to write a short story for a woman's magazine. She hated it. The editor asked her to rewrite it several times and now she says, if she gets asked to do it again, she'll say no.

So, some novelists would clearly prefer it for short story writers to fill the slot!

Alice said...

Hi Kath,
Sorry I don't have a spare entry form. If you don't get a reply from Best or can't get through on the phone, I'd photocopy your entry form and stick your neice's tokens on the spaces. It's the tokens that are important after all and I'd hope that they'd accept a submission that way. Fingers crossed and good luck.
Alice

SarahE said...

I read the fiction specials from cover to cover and I have to say, hand on heart, that womag writer stories are nearly always much, much better. Some novelist stories I've read have infuriated me because if it wasn't for their name they would never have had it printed - no names mentioned of course - but talk about hackneyed plots and too many characters and tell not show!! Grrr.....I guess eds have to do whatever they can to sell the magazines but even so - good writing will surely have the readers coming back for more....

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alice. It's certainly worth a try. I've offered my form to my niece now so I'll photocopy it first and use the copy for my submission. Thanks for taking the time to get back. Good wishes. Kath

Rae Argent said...

That is a great shame. To close the door un yet to be published authours. In my experience, most novelist's are just that, novelist's. Short stories demands are different dicipline and deserves are right to be heard/read. What will happen if new talent is constantly sidelined?