John M Donovan
Tales of the Underpublished: The Sad $5
Back in 1995 I quit my first ad-agency job in a misguided and financially irresponsible attempt to make a living writing freelance advertising copy. I say misguided because I’m fairly horrible at self-promotion and because Decatur, Illinois was in no pressing need of my freelance services. The local newspaper once ran an ad in which you could see where a pencil line had been erased, and since the copy was no great shakes either I contacted the mom-and-pop company and offered my services. They were pretty happy with their current marketing team of somebody’s nephew and his dog.
During this time I figured I’d supplement my income by publishing some of my essays and short stories. I had no history of ever publishing any essays and short stories but I had a long history of submitting them and an even longer history of being rejected. Don’t even try to do the math on that one.
Among the humorous essays I was sending out at the time was a piece called “Candy Girl Tells All.” It purported to be a review of a book called I’m Not Your Candy Girl: The Rise and Fall of the Archies by Betty Cooper. Fans will remember that Betty was the fresh-faced blonde in the Archie comic books, and in my imaginary tell-all memoir she revealed that things weren’t all sock hops and chocolate malts around Riverdale.
One of my freelance clients at the time was a one-woman marketing agency based in Champaign. I’m not sure how the subject came up but we got to talking about writing and I took a copy of the Candy Girl essay to our next meeting. She thought it was hilarious and wanted to show it to the editor of Champaign’s alternative newspaper, The Octopus, whose office happened to be in her building. I said by all means.
A few weeks later I got a package in the mail. Inside was a check for $5 and a copy of The Octopus with the Candy Girl essay printed inside. That’s nice, I thought, but I had never intended to submit it to that particular publication. What’s more, I could no longer sell “first rights” to that essay. And even though I was pretty sure this didn’t give me the slightest of legal legs to stand on, I returned the check and explained the situation. The editor apologized for the mix-up and said “We thought it was funny so we jumped on it.” (Way to go, Dono—make someone apologize for publishing your work.)
Shortly after this I got a call from one of the other markets to which I’d submitted Candy Girl. They wanted to publish it. That market was National Lampoon.
National Freakin’ Lampoon wanted to publish my essay. They were in a transition period at the time and couldn’t pay anything. Zero dollars is less than five, but I didn’t care—I was going to have an essay in National Lampoon.
Except that when I signed the release I had to note that the essay had been published before. Returning the $5 check hadn’t mattered—first rights were gone, and so was my chance to be published in National Lampoon.
I could have bought a sandwich with that five bucks.