Wake up, Polly Parrot.


Counting Chickens
by Brian Plante

People sometimes ask me ask me how many stories I've sold. The honest answer is I don't really know. Not because I've sold so much that I've lost track (I haven't been doing this that long), but because it's not as easy a question as most people think. There's no one simple, correct answer.

What is a sale? There are several ways to count them, depending on how optimistic you are. Do you count your chickens before they hatch, or when they're walking and squawking, or when they're finally in your frying pan?

Is it a sale when you receive a letter of acceptance? Some markets, especially the small ones, go out of business, fold up their tents and disappear overnight. Since they usually don't pay until publication, you would be hard pressed to call this a sale, although you might have considered it one before learning of the market's demise.

What if you received a signed contract? Sometimes you don't, and a letter saying they want to buy your story is not a contract. Well, even when you do get a contract, often it's still not a sale, by some way of thinking. A contract can be worthless. Many contracts are all in the publisher's favor and offer the writer no protection whatsoever. In contracts like this, the writer assigns First Serial Rights to the publisher, who agrees to pay some amount when the story is published.

But what if they don't publish it? The writer has nothing, and is contractually prohibited from marketing the work elsewhere. Think of it -- a magazine could send out hundreds of these contracts to every promising writer, and then pick and choose over the years which ones they will actually print. I don't know that any markets intentionally do this, but they could. It costs the publisher nothing and could hold up your story forever. To protect myself against losing a story to literary limbo, I have always added a two-year reversion clause to every magazine contract that didn't specify one, and I have never received any objections. You should do this too.

Ah, surely it's a sale when you actually see it in print, isn't it? Not if they don't pay you, it isn't. Then it's a theft. I've seen some markets put in their contracts that they'll pay 90 days after publication, so you may not even know your pocket has been picked for quite a while. It's happened to me. How much time and postage will you waste sending threatening letters? They know full well you're not going to sue them over a measly $30.00. About the only recourse you have is to complain to market newsletters, warning others to stay away.

Some markets don't pay at all, except in copies. Is this a sale or a gift? It depends on your definition of the word "sale" I guess. I only send stuff to a very few non-paying markets. To their credit, they usually reject my stuff just as often as the paying markets. Yeah, I count appearances in these markets as sales, though.

If a market pays on acceptance, but then doesn't use the piece, is it still a sale? How about a kill fee? These are unusual situations, as anyone who pays you is almost certainly going to try to print the story, and is usually solvent enough to follow through. But magazines fold, editorships change hands and bad stuff happens. You've got your money but First Serial Rights have not been exercised. Is it a sale? Dunno. Good thing you specified that two-year reversion clause so you can eventually sell the story elsewhere.

When someone asks me how many sales I've made, I don't tell them all these things. They just want a number. I usually tell them twenty, although I don't actually count them. The real score card so far is 26 acceptance letters, 22 contracts received, 16 stories in print, 13 contributor's copies received, and 11 checks cashed. So, how many stories have I really sold? Dunno. Um, I mean, twenty.

Copyright © 1996 Brian Plante, first appeared in The New Jersey Graveline, September 1996.


Return to Plain Banter menu
Return to Brain Planet home page