Just a Numbers Game

Jim Ross

I was recently in the audience of three successful authors from my alma mater. The first went to grad school in architecture, ended up becoming editor in chief responsible for selling the brand for of a major national publication, and recently became Chancellor at a University. The second dabbled in short stories, planned to author his first novel, but then won a fellowship in screenplay writing, so instead he wrote his first screenplay. He turned that into a successful film, and he now teaches screenplay writing at a major university and is in demand in Hollywood. The third was a failed stockbroker who was never able to figure out Wall Street’s formula. So, he decided instead to analyze his favorite thriller novels to figure out the formula underpinning them, began writing his own thriller novels, and has published ten, including a few best sellers.

When it was time for the Q&A, I ran to the microphone to be the first of several to ask, “How do I get published?” I explained I’d had a successful career based on the ability to get research projects funded and professional articles published, but I needed an alternative plan to submitting articles scattershot to many of the hundreds of literary journals across the country run largely by MFA students. Isn’t there a better way?

The Chancellor said to convene focus groups of my target audience.

The short story writer who morphed into a screenplay writer said he thought I should stick with my plan. “That’s what I did, and so did my idol, George Stephens. You need to pay your dues. But you also should go to conferences and join a writer’s group so you can meet people who are trying to do things like what you’re trying to do so you can get ideas from each other.”

Looking bored, the thriller writer said, “Talk to my agent.”

At the reception afterwards, I cornered the Chancellor, and told him his answer made no sense for my situation.  I’m sure focus groups helped him better understand his audience as editor of a major magazine; for me to accomplish the same result, I’d have to conduct focus groups of journal reviewers.

He agreed and said, “What I should have said was, you learned in your career that you rarely got anything funded when the client didn’t already want to fund you before you wrote your proposal. That’s where you want to end up with your writing. Focus on making connections. Network. Get to know people so they want you and you don’t have to run after them.”

The publisher of a major university press was listening to our conversation. “I can tell you want you need to do. Everything you did your entire career. This is no different. You’re wasting your time with the hundreds of little lit magazines. It’s okay to send things to them, and to publish in them, but that can’t be your main focus. If you really want to get published in major journals, you need to show up in places where you can see and be seen and get to know how to get access.” Then he handed me his business card.

Nearly everyone else in the audience asked pretty much the same question, but they were all in the third decade of life, and I’m in my seventh. They got answers like, “Go home, move back in with your parents, and write screenplays in your bedroom.”

My takeaway was, I need to get out from behind the computer and go to more events, across town or across the country. I need to find a writer’s group focused on creative non-fiction. At the right moments, I need to be bold and walk up to the editor of a major magazine and say, “Can you read this?” as I did a couple years back, with a positive outcome. I need to create moments of connection and access.

In the meantime, I will continue following a systematic approach in submitting articles to the hundreds of literary journals out there just waiting to reject my stuff. Until people know me and are asking me to write a piece for them, trying to get published is just going to be a numbers game.


Writer Jim RossJim Ross is on quest to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. He spent his career of successfully overusing his left brain to publish in professional research and practitioner journals related to health. His hope is that, by doing things he loved in his 20s, like writing creatively, his right brain will start functioning again. As a result, he’s gotten several articles published in a variety of journals in the past three years.