How I Accidentally Sold the Same Article Twice
I’ve been working as a writer in some kind of professional capacity for more than ten years. I’ve had novel contracts with four different publishers and my stories and articles have appeared in quite a number of print and online media. Like the majority of writers, I don’t earn enough to support myself exclusively through writing, but it’s always nice to get a check in the mail for a recently placed piece. I’ve found that the best tactic for prolonged success is to generate lasting professional relationships with as many magazine editors and publishers as possible. Bearing that in mind, you can imagine my horror when a series of miscommunications led to a situation where two magazines were set to publish the same article at the same time.
And believe me when I say, it wasn't my fault. At least, not ALL my fault.
When perusing lists of literary markets there is a common disclaimer that you will see listed again and again: “no simultaneous submissions.” Publications prefer the chance to read and evaluate a work prior to the author exorcising his/her right to submit that work to a different market. Fledgling writers can break this rule without consequence (though they shouldn’t) since it’s unlikely their work is going to be accepted for publication in any case. However, professionals, especially professionals who have longstanding relationships with certain editors, should offer those editors the courtesy of time to make a formal rejection before submitting elsewhere.
This is a rule that I know and which I obey without fail.
So how did I end up with a simultaneous acceptance?
In June of 2015 I received an email from an editor I’ve worked with for several years. Let’s say the name of the journal is “Literary Masterworks.” The email was a call for submissions so I sent two articles, let’s say their titles were: “The Burden of Genius,” and “9 Ways to Squander Your Residuals.” After a couple weeks, the editor of “Literary Masterworks” said he liked “The Burden of Genius” and he’d like a pitch for another article. He said nothing of “9 Ways to Squander Your Residuals” which struck me as odd since I thought it was the better article. I pitched him an idea titled “How to Write So Well You Can Buy a Vineyard in Argentina” which he liked. Shortly thereafter, I received a contract for “The Burden of Genius” and “Argentina,” with no mention of “9 Ways.”
This is where the problem started, and in fairness, this is where I made a mistake. Contract in hand, I should have written the following email:
“Dear Editor of ‘Literary Masterworks,’
Thank you for accepting my two brilliant articles and providing me with a contract detailing the generous compensation. Am I correct to assume that because '9 Ways to Squander Your Residuals' was not included in the contract, you make no claim on this article and I am free to submit it elsewhere?
Yours most cordially,
I didn’t write this email. You see, the whole writing/submitting process is a delicate one. Editors have all the power and writers have none. The last thing you ever want to do is pester editors because they’re highly likely to cut your story from the publication and never even tell you. I’ve learned this through years of writing and submitting. So, rather than send the email, I just made the assumption that since “9 Ways” was not included in the written contract, it had been rejected.
Can we agree that this, although perhaps an error, was still not an altogether unreasonable assumption to make?
Furthermore, to be safe, I waited a period of 5 months before submitting the article to “Modern Writers Better than Kipling and Poe Put Together.” Within a month of submission, I received a response from the editor of “Modern Writers.” It wasn’t an acceptance exactly, it was a question: “Is this article still available?”
Thus began a short period where I felt very happy. I’d placed all three articles, the total checks would come to around a thousand dollars (including compensation for included photos). Life was good.
Then I received an email from the editor of “Masterworks.”
“All three of your articles are set to print in the January edition.”
I quickly replied that there were no issues with the two articles that had been agreed upon by contract, but that we didn’t have a deal in place for “9 Ways” and that “Modern Writers” had expressed interest.
Now it’s fair to emphasize that “Modern Writers” had never accepted the story, they just had sent me a kind of all lowercase lazy query. But it seems about half the time I send in a story, I don’t even know it’s published until I happen across the magazine at the doctor’s office a decade later.
I could tell by the email silence that “Masterworks” wasn’t happy.
“I’ll send ‘Modern Writers’ an email and tell them not to run ‘9 Ways,’” I added.
“Good,” was the reply.
But when I wrote “Modern Writers,” there was no response (remember what I said about not bothering editors?).
So, I replied back to “Masterworks” submitting a different story and told them it might be safer to swap out “9 Ways” for the new one.
But “Masterworks” replied that the layout had already been done, so they were going to press. As a last ditch effort of good faith, I offered to defer payment on “9 Ways” because of the confusion, but didn’t get a response.
In the course of a day I went from being excited about having 3 great articles scheduled to appear in 2 local magazines, to being uncertain whether any of my words would ever be featured in either publication ever again.
The initial sadness I felt was quickly replaced by frustration. You see, somewhere lost in the shuffle was the fact that “Literary Masterworks” elected to print 3 of my articles all in the same issue. Somehow my writing was good enough to be the predominantly featured work in the magazine, comprising more than half of the total content, yet the editor still treated me like a writer who should feel happy just to have a piece accepted. The fact that the article drew interest elsewhere should be a testament to the need for getting a deal established and sewn up promptly.
This whole episode once again underscores the essential unfairness a writer faces when working freelance markets. Even the concept of “no simultaneous submission” is rather ridiculous, especially when many publications make no effort to evaluate submissions on a reasonable timetable. Why should a writer be expected to wait longer than 4 or 5 months before attempting to sell his/her property to a new market? After all, many markets don’t even acknowledge they received the submission. Maybe the submission didn’t get there? Maybe it was instantly tossed in the trash? But too many publications consider a submission as “their property” until they say otherwise.
All that being said, I felt terrible at the thought that there was a chance my article might be mistakenly published by two places at once. When I saw the error I instantly wrote both editors and provided them with alternative articles to prevent the mistake. Furthermore, “Modern Writers” never formally accepted the story anyway. Yet somehow, most interpretations of this scenario will paint me as the party at fault.
I’ve been the chief editor of several publications throughout the years, and it is a very difficult job. Usually, as a writer, your chances of publication go up greatly once you understand the burdens of an editor and you do everything you can to make the lives of editors easier. In the future, I will extend my waiting period before resubmitting, and I will probably subject my submissions to more extensive rewrites so they cannot be labeled as “simultaneous submissions.” However, maybe I should focus on the silver lining which is that it’s getting increasingly easier to get my work accepted. Who knows? Maybe in a few more years the power will shift enough where I can orchestrate some bidding wars? In the meantime, good luck to anyone working as an editor or a freelance writer.