They may be short and sweet but, as Simon Whaley explains, the letter and filler market can produce a useful income stream to your writing business
The rising cost of living is affecting everyone, including those of us running a writing business. Thank goodness most publishers accept email submissions these days. When I started my writing business, all of my submissions were by post, and I had to include a stamped addressed envelope for its return. I dread to think what my postage costs would be today if I still had to do that!
Even though my writing business has moved on to new markets since I started out, there is still one sector where I continue to dabble regularly. We’re extremely fortunate in the UK still to have a healthy market for letters and fillers. While not every letter or filler may receive financial compensation, some magazines still offering financial rewards for their top picks. These may be relatively small sums, but as a certain supermarket slogan would have us believe, ‘Every little helps’.
It really can. Several years ago, I had a star letter in the Sunday Express, for which they paid me £300. Not bad for a 105-word letter that took me half an hour to write and edit.
One of my writing students spotted a Rude Joke of the Week slot in a woman’s magazine, and so he sent one in. They published it a few weeks later and paid him fifteen pounds. Now, fifteen pounds might not sound like a significant contribution towards the mortgage and household bills, but over the following ten years, he sold over 270 jokes to that publication. That’s over four thousand pounds from that one filler slot. (Who’s laughing now?)
So, what exactly is a filler? It could be anything from a letter on a readers’ letter page, to a page of readers’ photos, or half a page of reader-suggested household tips. Some magazines offer cash, others award star prizes for the best submissions. Check out Writing Magazine’s Letters page near the front, where the star letter wins a copy of the latest Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook worth £27.50. Why buy a copy when you could win one?
Maggie Cobbett writes articles and short stories, along with occasional poems, and is a regular letter and filler writer. She’s had so much success with this market, she’s even written a book about it: Easy Money for Writers and Wannabes.
‘One of my earliest successes was a letter to a DIY magazine,’ she says. ‘It won a prize—an electric sander—that my husband received with considerable glee. The most profitable that I can remember was £100 for sending in a photograph and a few lines about a reunion with some childhood friends. It was chosen as the star letter in one of the cheap and cheerful weekly magazines that generally have pride of place at the newsagents.’
And just like my student with the funny bone, Maggie finds these small financial successes can mount up to a useful figure.
‘Depending on how much time I devote to them, letters and fillers pay all or a substantial part of my Swanwick Writers’ Summer School fees. That has been my main focus for many years.’
Some magazines use more reader-submitted material than others, so it’s always worth spending some time looking at their current requirements. Readers’ Digest, for example, pays £50 for the star letter and £30 for all other letters published, as well as £30 for some of their joke slots and end of article fillers. They also pay £50 for their My Great Escape section.
As Maggie explains, there are some sectors of the magazine market that are more lucrative than others.
‘The cheap and cheerful weekly magazines are certainly one of the best markets, as they have regular slots for letters, photos and tips about just about anything on the domestic front, and most of them pay for each one published. One of my favourites has a regular page for jokes, including the more risqué. With some exceptions, more expensive titles and those that come out monthly tend to offer prizes rather than cash, and then only for one reader’s contribution per issue.’
Don’t dismiss the markets that offer prizes instead of cash payments. The prizes can be extremely useful. I won a high-capacity memory card for my camera that would have cost me over £100. I now take all the photos I need to illustrate my articles on this one card.
And thanks to sites like eBay, Gumtree, and Preloved, it’s easy to turn unwanted prizes into cash. At first, I wasn’t impressed when a letter I sent to an outdoor magazine won me a top-of-the-range camping sleeping mat. It’s been years since I last went camping, and I much prefer my home comforts. But I soon changed my mind when it sold on eBay for over £60.
Reasonably priced Research
It’s vital to do some research first, so check out potential markets. Take a closer look for letter and filler slots in publications that you already regularly buy.
Don’t dismiss those bought by other family members that they might leave lying around. One friend was reading his wife’s copy of Good Housekeeping magazine, and found one particular article extremely interesting. He sent in a letter telling them so. Imagine his delight when he discovered his letter had won that issue’s Star Letter. Imagine his even greater delight when his prize was a bouquet of flowers that was delivered on his wedding anniversary, which he’d forgotten!
Maggie agrees with these suggestions and offers another great tip to cut costs.
‘Begin by exploiting opportunities in the magazines already familiar to you and then take out a month’s free trial on readly.com, which gives access to hundreds of publications.’
Study published letters and fillers and look for clues and themes that will help you improve your chances of success. If every letter on a letters page refers to an article in a previous issue, then your letter should do the same. If every household tip includes a photo, then you should send one too. If every letter is fewer than one hundred words, then stick to that maximum word count.
Get a feel for the style and tone of letters. Are they light and chatty, or formal and serious? What about the sentence length? Are they short and sweet, or longer to develop a point? Following the style and format will improve your chances of success.
Writing succinct, informative letters and fillers is a skill. Some may be as short as 25 words, others might stretch to more than 100. Never sit down and write a letter or filler and then send it off. Treat it like any other writing project. Put it aside after you’ve written the first draft, then come back to it later with fresh eyes. Edit it to perfection.
While it’s commonly stated that publications reserve the right to edit letters submitted for publication, you stand a greater chance of success if your letter fits the preferred length.
And just like you might with magazine articles, consider offering a complete words-and-picture package. ‘Not every magazine wants a photo, but those which do often pay more,’ explains Maggie. ‘A good example is a handy tip, which can earn £25 with a how-to photo but only £10 without.’
These days, we all have a camera close to hand. ‘I usually take photos with a smartphone,’ says Maggie.
If you look at most of the photos these markets use, you’ll see they’re often the sort of photo we’d snap on our phone and then upload to our favourite social media site.
Because they aimed these pages at the publication’s readers, guidance on how to submit material is usually easy to find on the relevant page. Always follow the guidelines, using the email address they specify. Editors won’t publish letters by Disgusted of Doncaster, Annoyed of Arizona, Miffed of Mumbai, or Sarcastic of Sydney. You must supply your full name and address. (If there’s a valid reason for not publishing your name and address, explain the reason to the editor.)
Some ask for your age and a contact telephone number. Don’t be surprised if they call to check your submission is genuine. Be pleased—it’s a sign of impending publication and payment!
Never send the same letter or filler to different magazines. They only want unpublished material, and is something they may double check when they call you.
You never know what impact a filler might have on your writing business. Back in March 1998, I had a 75-word filler published in Mad About Dogs magazine about how our dogs control so much of our lives. It earned me £25. The more I thought about it, the more I thought there was an article in the idea. Six months later, that idea became an 800-word article for PetDogs magazine, which generated another £120.
But I knew there was more to the idea, and eventually it became a book called One Hundred Ways For A Dog To Train Its Human. Hodder & Stoughton published it and it spent three weeks on the UK paperback bestseller lists. And that all began thanks to a filler.
So don’t dismiss the letter and filler market. The rewards may not seem great at an individual level, but as an income stream, it can provide a useful financial boost to your writing business. And who knows? Perhaps one of your submissions might just become one of your writing businesses’ most successful projects.
Business Directory – Maggie’s Top Tip:
‘The market changes all the time, but carefully targeting submissions after a careful study of the current requirements will get the best results.’
© Simon Whaley