Getting Published

March 01, 1991 6 min read

Many ordinary people aspire to write short stories, novels, and definitive tomes on abstract subjects like classical architecture. But most of these bela bored manuscripts never get published, often because writers fail to follow common publishing-industry guidelines.

The general wisdom presented by publishers--and concisely outlined in dozens of “how to’’ books and articles in writers’ magazines--is simple: Be willing to write for small publications, attend lots of writing conferences, learn to write clearly, write about things you know, and, of course, don’t take the imminent rejection letters personally. Many novices who follow this advice but still have their works returned without a single wrinkle or red mark end up assuming that one has to be an Alice Walker or a Robert Fulghum before a publisher will even open the envelope containing an unsolicited manuscript.

But this is not true. Dahlstrom discovered that her 15 years of expertise as an English teacher was appreciated by publishers in one growing field: the small-press market that specializes in producing supplementary materials for classroom use. Hundreds of small presses publish educational books. Many of them do not concentrate on classroom-oriented materials, but those small publishers that do rarely release a product not written by a real teacher.

Obviously, the educational market can’t deliver literary or pop-culture stardom. Dahlstrom’s book may have done well among English and history teachers, but she probably won’t see a stranger reading it on the subway. Nonetheless, the market is tailormade for teachers who want to share original success in the classroom with other teachers. “You’re never going to be a Stephen King in our market,’' says David Loertscher, head of the editorial department at Teacher Ideas Press. “But there is satisfaction in seeing your ideas in classrooms all over the country.’'

Teachers interested in educational publishing have some unique advantages open to them. For one thing, authors don’t have to hold a master’s in creative writing or produce a portfolio of published articles to be taken seriously. “I don’t look at their vita first,’' Loertscher says. “I look at the substance of people’s ideas.’'

And while mass-market fiction and poetry publishers demand topnotch writing, classroom-oriented publishers look more for good ideas that are fresh and educationally sound. “The writing is not as important as the idea,’' states Joey Tanner, publisher of Zephyr Press, a company known for its self-directed learning packets. “We’re looking for a unit that is unusual and amazing or material that gets virtually every kid excited about a subject area that may not seem too interesting to most.’' Professional editors can always spruce up the writing.

Also, unlike large publishing companies, the small companies that publish books for teachers don’t seem to mind a telephone query. Says Loertscher: “You can pick up the phone and call an acquisitions editor. I often take calls and can tell in a matter of seconds if I’m interested.’' This refreshing informality can save a busy teacher both time and money.

Unfortunately, breaking into print, even in the small-press market, is not easy. Dahlstrom’s publisher, Judy Galbraith, says her company, Free Spirit Publishing, gets about 1,000 unsolicited submissions a year; of those, about 5 percent are selected for consideration and only half a dozen actually see the laser-light of a typesetter.

What consigns a manuscript to the return-to-sender pile? The biggest mistake would-be authors make is not taking the time to match their manuscript with a suitable publisher, Galbraith says. Small presses specialize. For instance, Free Spirit Publishing focuses on self-discovery, nonfiction books for children, yet Galbraith receives everything, including poetry and fiction. “We get things from teachers that are well-done,’' she says. “I can tell they’ve put a lot of effort, time, and money into their manuscripts, but they’re incompatible with what we publish.’'

So, once teachers know they’ve got a winning idea, they need to find out who publishes similar work. Dahlstrom turned to her own professional library to do that. She searched through her favorite “teacher books,’' the ones with covers worn from frequent use, and found that the books most similar in style and scope to her own idea were published by Free Spirit.

After finding the right match, what can teachers do to increase their chances of getting published? “Do your homework,’' Dahlstrom says. Before preparing her manuscript, Dahlstrom read numerous how-to books on publishing. From those, she learned that publishers don’t like to receive completed manuscripts; they prefer being involved in the developmental stages of a book. She also learned how to submit a professional query. “I didn’t go in cold,’' Dahlstrom says. “I researched what kind of cover letter to write and sent in just a sample of my material.’'

After months of patient waiting, Dahlstrom received the phone call she’ll never forget. “I was in the teachers’ lounge when Judy called and said she was very interested in the book,’' she recalls. “I was ecstatic.’'

It’s rare for an inexperienced writer to land a book contract on the first submission. The reason for Dahlstrom’s good fortune, the new author insists, is that she found the right publisher for her manuscript and followed protocol when submitting her idea. But she did something else right, as well: Before she even began the project, she found out if other teachers liked her idea. Asking colleagues not just to look at lesson plans but also to try them out is a crucial prerequisite, Tanner of Zephyr Press emphasizes. “Request negative feedback,’' she says. “See if it’s written in a way someone else can understand.’'

For teachers who have worked hard to create outstanding units or curricular guides for their districts, the idea of simply transforming that material into a hold-it-in-your-hands, pricetagged book sounds terrific. But, as Galbraith and Dahlstrom are quick to note, there could be a catch: These teachers may not have the legal right to market the works. A team of teachers, for example, that has been asked by a principal to write a booklet on the history of inventions for a districtwide fair may not be able to sell the manuscript if the district has already published it and owns the copyright.

Dahlstrom didn’t have to worry about copyrights since she wrote her material for her own use. But she did get a surprise once her manuscript was accepted. “I didn’t anticipate the hours of research that I would have to put into finishing it,’' says Dahlstrom, who devoted an entire summer to adding material and checking facts.

Still, it was worth the effort. When her published book arrived in the mail, Dahlstrom remembers wishing that everyone could experience the same feeling of accomplishment.

Publishers in this field would like more expert teachers like Dahlstrom to share their knowledge. Tanner guesses that some of the most brilliant and innovative teaching ideas never find their way to a publisher. “Those teachers are so focused on doing a good job in the classroom that they never think of publishing that information,’' Tanner laments. “It would be nice if they could think of publishing as a way of letting kids all over the country take advantage of their special qualities.’'-----Mary Koepke

The following books provide helpful information on how to market manuscripts:

Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, edited by Connie Wright Eidenier, is a directory of publishers who specialize in children’s materials. Price: $16.95. Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books, 1507 Dana Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45207; (800) 289-0963.

Writing for the Educational Market, by Barbara Gregorich, gives practical advice on finding and working with publishers of teacher and parent materials. Price: $13.95. Publisher: J. Weston Walch, Box 658, 321 Valley St., Portland, ME 04104; (800) 341-6094.

Writer’s Market, edited by Glenda Tennant Neff, is a directory of more than 4,000 markets; the book also includes “how to’’ advice. Price: $24.95. Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books, 1507 Dana Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45207; (800) 289-0963.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Getting Published