Deciphering Guidelines: Terms You Need to Know
Writing is all about words, but sometimes it seems that just becoming a writer involves learning a whole new language: kill fees, simultaneous submissions, FOB…
Writer’s guidelines can be intimidating (what they say and what they mean can be two different things) so let’s go through some terms you need to know and I’ll include a little editorial commentary when the definitions don’t quite tell the whole story.
** Pays on acceptance: This is what you want. This means that when the editor accepts your finished manuscript (not your query) the paperwork will start on your payment. This can still take weeks in some cases, but at least it’s in motion.
** Pays on publication: The paperwork starts after your article appears in print. What’s so bad about that? Well, your piece can be pushed back, held (if it’s not timely), become dated, and even killed if there’s an editorial change (common) or the editor changes her mind. By that time, there’s a good chance no one else will want your piece, and you’ll get a kill fee (see below). Don’t accept “pays on publication” unless you mean it. I wrote a commissioned piece for a weekly publication that was held for over six months with no end in sight, and I thought this was so unfair that I started demanding payment, in increasingly histrionic emails. Not only did the piece not see print, but the editor decided I was a pain in the butt and a heretofore good relationship ended.
** Kill Fee: When the powers-that-be decide not to publish your assigned piece, you’re given a pre-set “kill fee” — typically 10 – 50%. Twenty-five percent should be the rock bottom minimum, if you ask me, especially if the piece is 86’ed due to factors beyond your control (editorial changes, bi-polar editor.)
** On Spec: The editor likes your query, but not enough to actually assign it to you. Sometimes that’s because you’re not a proven commodity. Still, it implies a promise from the editor that when you submit the piece, it will receive her full attention, as opposed to languishing on the slush pile.
** Pitch: Basically the same as a query letter, although it’s commonly used when verbally trying to sell your idea to an editor. A verbal pitch is short (think “elevator speech”), succinct, and enthusiastic.
** FOB: Front of the book. Many writer’s guidelines will tell you that these short “fillers” — sometimes little more than re-written press releases, but sometimes original blurbs of 100-500 words — are a good way to break into a publication. I’ve only written one FOB in my life, and that’s only because the editor whittled and chopped my much-longer piece until that’s all that was left. They’re not bad to do — they’re quick, get you an easy byline, and may even get you “in” with the publication, but most writers I know didn’t start by doing these, so I wouldn’t do them solely as a means to an end.
** Buys all rights: If tomorrow life is discovered on Venus, you can’t publish your piece there — but they can. It’s the writing equivalent of selling your child into slavery. Publications always want to get as many rights as they can, and you want to give up as few as you can. See the conflict? You want to assign “First North American rights” or “First Print Rights” (the rights anywhere in the world to your piece in the particular medium that it appears) or “First Electronic Rights” (the right to publish a piece online). How much you bargain or acquiesce should depend on how much you want to be in that particular publication, how much they’re paying, and whether you have any other prospects.
** Lead Time: The time a publication “works ahead.” A lead time of four months means that in September, the publication is working on their December issue. For publications like these, in September you should be thinking “Christmas,” not “back-to-school.”
** Above the Fold: Lori mentioned this last week (If It Bleeds, It Leads…). These are the stories that editors think will get readers to plunk down their coin to buy a publication. Specifically the term refers to stories in newspapers that appear in the top half of a page — the part you see in a newspaper box or at a newsstand. It can also refer to cover stories in magazines featured near the title — the part that’s not covered on a magazine rack by the publication underneath it.
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