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Gotta Have a Gimmick?
By Natasha Gapinski

Attention. Every writer who submits work wants it, and wants it badly. How far would you go to make your work stand out in the piles of unsolicited slush? How much money are you willing to spend on top of the ever-draining postage to give your manuscript that "something extra"? Is it ever worthwhile to enclose gifts or use creative packaging, or might it cause the editor or script reader to brand you a "Scary Person"?

Writers have heard of times where a gimmick has sealed the deal, even if editors say that only the quality of the story that counts. Here are some that are true.

One author wrote a spoof of romance novels called "Love's Reckless Rash" under the pen name of Rosemary Cartwheel, and decided to pose for photos in a nineteenth century gown and hat to include with the submission package. The photos were eye-catching because the beautifully attired author was a man with a mustache named John Blumenthal. Not only did he get the book deal, the publisher also used the pictures on some book-counter sales displays. He got lots of press coverage, and the book sold very well. But John says, "I don't think I'd try that again. I'm too old for that." Fortunately, he also says that established writers don’t really need gimmicks, and backs that up with the fact that his latest book "What's Wrong with Dorfman?" is now in stores without any cross-dressed-author pics.

Blumenthal also relates a playful ploy used by two other writers, Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman. "They were pitching a TV sitcom called 'Johnny Bago' about a guy who goes from town to town in a Winnebago and helps people. They rented a Winnebago and invited TV execs on board for lunch and the pitch." It worked -- the show aired on CBS in 1993 to critical acclaim.

Michael Sedge, author of "Marketing Strategies for Authors" and founder of "Dolce Vita Writer's Holiday" workshop in Italy (www.dolcevitaholiday.com) has an impressive set of submission tricks. He sends "The Sedge Group" calendars to editors, with every conceivable holiday or special event on them, and then sends queries highlighting these dates and offering articles. He visits editors while traveling and gives them small gifts such as Capodimonte ceramics or inlaid wood pen holders, which he buys locally near his home in Italy at low cost. And he's constantly sending out offers for reprints in clever newsletter or coupon form, which allows many editors to see what he has to offer and gives them incentive to purchase more than one article.

When asked if a promotional trick had ever backfired on him, Sedge said, "Yes. I once included a 'Summer Sale' coupon in an editorial package, offering ten reprint articles at 25% of freelance rates. One of the editors replied that 'we prefer to pay full rates for top writing.'" Still, he says that if an editor takes this tone, he'd prefer not to work with them. "There are too many nice people who do understand and appreciate the 'extra' effort to worry about those that do not."

Don't count on this happening to you, but Sedge even had an editor in Germany say, "Mike, the story is fair, but your packaging is so professional that I've decided to buy it."

Authors don't like to talk about efforts that missed the mark in a big way, but the more outrageous stories tend to get around. In his book "Reel Power: The Struggle for Influence and Success in the New Hollywood," Mark Litwak tells of a writer who tried to get publicity for his screenplay by parachuting into the Paramount lot. Unfortunately, the wind carried him across the street to a porn film lot.

What do editors think of authors who try to draw extra attention to their manuscripts through something other than good writing? They certainly have opinions; reading unsolicited submissions is a big chunk of the job for many editorial staffers. Since you don't know the person who will open your envelope or what kind of mood they will be in, you have no way to gauge what will grab their interest and what will turn them off.

Gordon Van Gelder, Editor and Publisher of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, receives piles of story submissions every month. Before he took on the additional duties of publisher, he used to read every single one. Those who sought to sell him on their concept through fancy cover letters were out of luck: "After a while, I stopped even looking at the cover letters until afterward." If the story wasn't of interest for his magazine, the letters went unread.

Sometimes loyal readers of a magazine will try to learn an editor's personal hobbies and send trinkets that reflect this "inside information." "When I first started at F&SF," Van Gelder says, "someone found out that I keep a pet hamster and sent gnaw sticks, but that kind of thing gets tired fast." A Colorado writer used a paper clip in the form of a dragon's face, and Van Gelder "wrote back and mentioned that I loved the paperclip. It brightened up the submission pile that day. Well, it turned out she was in a writing workshop and she told them the way to get my attention was to send a wacky paperclip, so for months I was receiving bizarre clips of all sorts from Colorado. They didn't make me judge the stories differently."

While such little touches might be amusing to an editor, some others are more poorly conceived. In an interview for the Writers Guild of America web site, Coast to Coast Talent Agency's senior literary agent Anne McDermott said, "One writer sent me a plastic finger with theatrical blood in a baggie and wrote, 'Read my script or the whole body will come next.' I opened it as I was pitching a script and screamed. Then I put the sender's name on my wall and wrote 'Never accept anything from this writer again.'"

When Van Gelder worked at St. Martin's Press, he received a novel manuscript that came in with a photo of corpses in a morgue. "The book was a gritty police thriller and the author really wanted it to stand out. That kind of stuff doesn't have the right effect."

You don't have to include snapshots of the dead to give an editor a bad first impression. Joan Schweighardt, publisher at GreyCore Press, got a package that was "covered with graffiti, little drawings and slogans everywhere -- not only on the package itself but also on the cover letter, all around the typed letter itself… I knew right away that I didn't want to read the novel enclosed. I repackaged it and sent it right back to the writer."

On the subject of gifts and other attention-grabbers with manuscripts, Schweighardt's feeling is, "I suppose the idea of gimmicks is to make a publisher feel even more guilty than most of us already do. And no one likes to know that they are being manipulated into feeling guilty."

Schweighardt did have one gimmick experience that made the right impression: "A seventeen-year-old girl who will one day be an excellent writer sent me about twenty pages of her first novel. Instead of sending me full chapters like I had asked, her last page was in the middle of a chapter, leaving me hanging because she'd set up a situation and hadn't resolved it! I called her immediately and asked to see the rest."

So there you have it. Those personal touches can make submitting your writing more fun for you, but they can also create a drain on your time and money and make a poor impression. Want to know the best way to catch the eye of the editor, publisher, or script reader?

"The thing that stands out best in the submissions pile is a well-prepared manuscript," says Van Gelder. "I say it all the time, and it's true."

Natasha Gapinski is a Central-Florida based freelance writer who lives for your constructive criticism.  Send e-mail to natga@ivillage.com




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