THE ART OF THE LETTERHACK
I’ve had over 300 letters printed in the back pages of comics from Marvel and DC to Image and Nicotat and Valiant. So people sometimes ask me how I do it.
The truth is I don’t do it all that often anymore. I can vent everything I wanted to talk about on the Internet and through this column. This way is much more personal, much more honest, and more fun, quite honestly. (For one thing, I get actual feedback from this column.) Sure, there’s nothing like seeing your name in print on actual paper. But in order to get there, you have to make so many sacrifices that I’ve all but given up on it. More on that another time.
HOW DO I GET PRINTED?
Slipping in a crisp $20 bill won’t help. Sleeping with the editor won’t help. Sucking up won’t help. (Well, it doesn’t guarantee it.)
The job is simple. As a letter writer, you have to picture yourself as another freelance writer under the charge of the editor. Your number one job is to make the editor’s life easier. Here, let me rephrase that in italics for you:
Your #1 job in letterhacking is to make the editor’s job easy.
That’s the one thing that everything else I will discuss in this column has in common.
Let’s start with some of the fundamental basics of writing, in general: Write well. Write concisely. Spell correctly. Use proper grammar.
All of these things will help make the editor’s job easier. If he has to rewrite your letter to make it suitable for the letters column, he might as well just pick another letter. If what you write makes no sense because you can’t put two sentences together, it’s going into the bit bucket never to be seen again.
Writing a long rambling thesis on the current state of the comic you’re writing to won’t help, either. If the editor has to edit your letter for space, your chances of getting in are slimmed down. If the letter is larger than the space allotted for that month’s letters column, you’re in trouble.
E-MAIL OR SNAIL MAIL?
E-mail. Always. If you’re reading this, then you have e-mail capabilities. Use it. Things used to be different. When I first started letterhacking in 1992 or so, everything was done in snail mail. When writing to DC or Marvel, I used to write three or four letters, stuff them in one envelope and mail them out. That’s right – not only did I type those letters out, but I also printed them out, stuffed them in an envelope, addressed the envelope, licked a stamp (they didn’t have self-adhesive stamps yet, either), and ran it out to the mailbox. My life was hard! You young whipper-snappers have it easy today. 😉 If the editor then decided to publish your letter, she or her assistant then had to retype your letter into a word processor.
This is why when e-mail came into popular and conventional use a couple of years ago, sending snail mail became silly. Sending letters on dead trees made the editor’s job harder.
It also meant, by the by, that the competition was that much tougher. I think the shrinking reading pool of comics has been offset by on-line fandom when it comes to letterhacking. If you thought the diminishing fanbase for comics would heighten your opportunities for getting letters printed, you’re wrong. More people e-mail, even with nonsense. Of course, there’s your chance, too. With more and more trash being written from the Internet, your well-thought-out missive will look that much better. Yes, I’ve seen the postings on message boards across the Internet – I truly do believe there’s a lot of letters being sent to editors that are unpublishable trash.
WHAT DO I
There’s no hard and fast rule about this. The best piece of advice I can give you is to read the current letters column first. This is a practice that any freelance writer does before submitting a piece to a magazine, for one example. See what the general trend is for the printed letters in there. Do they write about the creators, or the characters? Do they run positive letters only, or do they allow thoughtful negative letters? Do most letters tend to cover only a single topic in-depth, or do they run scattershot, offering little bits of wisdom on a large number of topics?
Follow the lead of the letters column. Write to fit the style of the letters column you’re writing to if you want to increase your chances of seeing print.
HOW OFTEN DO I WRITE?
As often as you wish to. If you’re serious about this, write every month. You might wear the editor down. The editor might be running late with a column one month and just run your letter based on name and writing style recognition. One word of caution: Be careful if you write every month. You’ll end up repeating yourself. If the editor doesn’t catch it, you’ll wind up with two letters in print one after the other that repeat themselves. Then you just look stupid. Keep your previous letters on file, whether it is in a special e-mail folder or directory on your hard drive, or the old fashioned manila envelopes. This lets you to check yourself for repetition, as well as checking for any changes to your letter as it’s seen in print.
(And in some rare instances, your incessant fanboy prattle might become a complete turnoff to the editor. You’ll never get published again, after the first couple of times, in an effort to let others have their chance in the sun. I know this from personal experience. =)
WHEN DO I WRITE?
You should write within a week of the book being published, but no later than the publication date of the next issue. It helps the editor to have enough letters on hand to write the column in advance of the deadline, but you usually have a month. Letters columns discuss books that are, at least, two months old. Issue #32 discusses #30’s story. Given publication deadlines, you shouldn’t write later than #31’s publication.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
One oddball thing about letterhacking that helped me, I think, is my name. “Augie De Blieck Jr.” sticks out a lot better than, for example, “Mike Green.” Also, your address can add a certain weight to your letter. Writing from another country other than America will make your letter stand out. (This, of course, might no longer hold true since e-mails don’t have cancellations across stamps to indicate point of origin. Nor does the return e-mail address necessarily indicate the country of origin, in this day and age of free web mail services.)
Or you could combine the two and come up with Olav Beemer, writing from the Netherlands. This isn’t to say Olav only had letters printed because of his name and address. He followed the rest of these rules pretty well, however subconsciously. Name recognition was much easier for him, though.
WHAT LETTER COLUMNS ARE ANY GOOD?
There are some interesting and entertaining letters columns left out there today. Erik Larsen runs the longest letters-columns in mainstream comics these days in THE SAVAGE DRAGON, starting at 6 pages and often expanding to 8 or more. Dave Sim’s CEREBUS is often long and interesting, containing the kind of material you thought only run in fan-run magazines or web sites. Brian Bendis’ SAM & TWITCH letters column, along with Larry Young’s ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE columns are interesting, entertaining, and worth reading. This is because their unique personalities show up there. Watching Frank Miller vent at the industry and larger corporations within it makes for fun SIN CITY letters columns.
Have you noticed a trend yet? Yup, the letters columns left that are worth reading these days are those that are creator-centered, run in a personalized ways, and by creators with a sense of humor.
For the most part, DC and Marvel letters column – when they exist – are interchangeable. There’s nothing terribly remarkable about any one over the other.
WHO DO I NOT WRITE TO?
Vertigo. They don’t have a letters column. Ditto any short-run mini-series. They most often don’t have letters columns. If they do, you can bet that letter that you write to the last issue won’t see print anywhere! An exception to this is a mini-series spun out of a main title that does have a regular letters column. But why take the chance, if all you’re doing this for is to get printed? Along the same lines, writing letters to annuals is a gamble.
WHAT ABOUT THE DUMB LUCK FACTOR?
There’s a lot of luck involved in letterhacking. Aside from everything mentioned above, an editor may be looking for a really short letter one month when there’s not that much space to fill. If you’re the lucky one who wrote the two-sentence letter that month, you’ll get in. If you’re the only negative letter that month, the editor may include your letter just to show people that it’s not just positive letters that people write. And vice versa. If everyone but you writes negative letters, and the editor’s job is on the line, your positive letter has a much better chance of seeing print.
These are things for which you cannot prepare. You can’t anticipate them. It’s just dumb luck. But if you write fairly often, you’ll stumble into one or two of these situations in your time.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW?
All of this is generalized. There are exceptions to every rule and letterhacking is no exception. Following any or all of the advice I’m dispensing above won’t guarantee that your letter will see print. It will, however, tilt the odds in your favor.
People will start to complain that all your printed letters are positive. This is, of course, true. Think about it – do you buy books you don’t like? You’re predisposed to writing to books you enjoy. Editors, as such, get more positive mail and thus run more positive mail. So the old line about letters columns never containing any negative letters is true, but with good reason, in many cases. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from scouring through Internet fandom, it’s that there’s an audience for everything. There are people who enjoyed the Spider-Man clone fiasco!
Finally, be patient. There is no immediate return on your letterhacking investment. If you were to start today writing to every comic you buy, you most likely wouldn’t see a letter in print until March. And if you stop writing because nobody’s printing you, you’re going to have to restart, and you’ll have another two or three-month gap between printed letters. Persistence is OK. Write well; write frequently. Don’t give up if it seems like none of your letters are getting printed.
Remember – just because they don’t get printed doesn’t mean nobody’s reading them. If you think someone is doing a great job in a comic and want to let that person or his editor know, go ahead and write! Be a good samaritan. Put in a good word for a good artist who may not otherwise get much feedback. There’s nothing wrong with writing just to let the editor know how much you’re enjoying – or not enjoying – a book.
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