A journal following the history, design, construction and operation of Bernard Kempinski's O Scale model railroad depicting the U. S. Military Railroad (USMRR) Aquia-Falmouth line in 1863, and other model railroad projects.
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March 30, 2015

Thoughts about Writing for Model Railroad Press

The following is the text of a speech I gave at the NMRA 2015 Potomac Division 2015 Annual Minicon Meeting. Several people asked that I post the text for their reference. Hope you find it useful. This might seem like a lot of text, but it was just a 15 minute speech.

When the Potomac Division asked me to speak at lunch, I said I could do it, but what would they like me to speak about? They said it was up to me. Since I already had a talk planned for that day, I wondered what else I could possibly talk about. Around that time I had been discussing model railroad publishing with a friend. From that evolved the idea of this talk of describing my experience in getting articles and books published. Perhaps it may help you avoid some of the mistakes I made.

First thing to remember is that to us this is a hobby; to the publishers it is their job. Most publishers will deal professionally with you and you must do the same.

Writing for model railroad magazines is a great way to learn a lot about how publishing works, what it’s like to have your writing edited (check ego at door), and how to improve your writing. Regardless of how many articles I do, I still get a thrill out of seeing my writing published. I think for many of us, seeing your layout on the cover of a magazine is a personal objective.

It also can pay pretty well. Most of the big magazines pay about $100 per published page. Others may pay less per page, but they tend to run more pages, so it can end up about the same. Some magazines have a notorious history of not paying their authors, but they tend to go out of business. I know several authors that have been not been paid for their published writing. But so far I have been lucky and have never been cheated.

Since I have been writing, the model railroad magazine market has and continues to change. Rail Model Journal, Mainline Modeler and Model Railroading ceased publishing. But there are several others still in business such as Model Railroader, Rail Model Craftsman (under new owners), Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette, S Gaugian, Sn3 Modeler, O Gauge Railroading, O Scale Trains, Classic Toy Trains, and ZTrak. N scale modelers currently have two active magazines devoted exclusively to N scale, N Scale and N Scale Railroading. Most of these pay for submissions.

There are a lot of other magazines, historical societies, and specialized newsletters that seek material. Most do not pay but they will usually send courtesy copies of the magazine. I have had articles published in the Virginia Train Collectors, and WWI Illustrated that fall into this category.

On-line magazines are a relatively new venue. Model Railroad Hobbyist is the leader, but there are several others including O Scale Resources, Trackside Model Railroading, and e-Train. Some pay for submissions, others do not. Most paper magazines also maintain a digital presence. How digital publishing will handle payments to authors, rights to material, and other issues are still being sorted out by the industry.

Finally, I should mention there more than a dozen non-US model train magazines. I subscribe to some, but have never written for them.

Then there are the model railroad books. As you may know the odds of getting a novel published are vanishingly small. Something like one in a thousand novels that get submitted to agents actually gets published. In the early 1990s my brother and I co-wrote an action thriller novel, Balance of Terror. It got good feedback from readers and the few agents that looked at it, but it generated no interest from publishers. In the end we published it ourselves on Amazon’s Createspace and have sold a few copies. It is still available there if you are curious. It was fun writing it, but it was a LOT of work for almost no monetary reward.

Model railroad books are easier to get published compared to novels. But, the sad news is they pay less than the comparable amount of material in magazine articles. They are also a lot more work than similar articles.

More work, less pay. Why bother? Why do I write books now instead of magazines articles? It is an odd quirk of my current job as a member of congressional staff. It may shock you to learn that our congress has strict ethics rules, much stricter than the executive branch of the government. Without going into the details, the rules allow me to write books and accept royalties, but I cannot accept payment for articles, even if they do not relate directly to my work. So lately, I have been writing books instead of articles. I am currently working on my fifth book for Kalmbach Publishing. The first three are in print, and the fourth is in production and due in October. The fifth one is due in May 2016. (See this link for a list of my books currently in print)

Although the pay is not as good, there are other rewards. When I do a book I get a sense of accomplishment that is not easily found elsewhere. I do find it fun and interesting to knit together the various elements into a cohesive narrative. I also enjoy doing the research. I learned a lot of about diverse subjects. It also keeps things fresh as it allows me to work on new material.

If you want to write a book, you can increase your odds of getting it published by first writing articles. That demonstrates to publishers that you can write, meet a dead line and produce suitable material. Once you have a few articles written, you become a known entity. At that point doing a book can become more feasible. In fact, that is how I got into model railroad book writing. Kalmbach asked me to do the first book. I did not submit a proposal. But they knew of my work from the articles I had written.

I enjoy working with Kalmbach Publishing because they are a professional operation with high quality standards. Their books and magazines have great production values. They are professionally edited, and worked over by professional artists and designers. The photos are clear and well printed. The graphics are top notch. They are also nice people.

They also take care of the marketing. If you want to make money in publishing, don’t underestimate the importance of marketing. It is big, expensive business. Having self-published a book, I can tell you that the marketing is the most important phase of book selling. You may have the next “War and Peace” manuscript, but if no one knows about it, it will gather dust on your shelf on your hard disk.

I am not going to discuss the marketing of the book in detail. If you plan to self-publish a book, prepare to market it. Marketing is tough. Ads are expensive. The Internet can help, but you will end up working hard to get the word out. That is time you can’t spend building models, and writing about them.

So I let Kalmbach do it. The trade off is the royalty is a fraction of the book sales, usually around 10 percent of the wholesale price. The lure of self-publishing is that the royalty per book is much higher. However, your sales generally will be less. Most times, your net income is less.

The other drawback to self-published books, at least the ones I have seen so far, is that they have lower production values. That means the photos are dull looking, the page layouts are crude, and graphics are rudimentary. Very few of us are all world class modelers, expert photographers, talented writers, capable editors, professional graphic artists, and whizzes at page layout.

But self-published books can be very useful for niche topics. For example, a book just about modeling the railroads of the civil war will probably never be published by a major house. I know because I floated that idea and it was rejected by the publishers. But I may still do it as a self-published book.

Another good topic for a self-published book would be your model railroad. The late Dan Zugeleter did just that. He wrote a book about his own HO scale C&O layout. He tried to tie in as much prototype information as possible, but in the end it as a paean to his layout. He hired several photographers, including Paul Dolkos and I, out of his own pocket to take the photos. Through pure dint of will he got a publisher to print and sell it, an amazing achievement. Afterwards, the publisher told me he would not do another book like that because it did not sell well.

However, a book like that is ideal for self-publishing. Some less generous people call it vanity press. In any case there are no unhappy publishers to deal with. It would be a great record of your work and who knows, it could take off. Just don’t bother with vanity publishers that require large upfront fees. Use Createspace, Lulu or some other on-demand service that only charges per actual printed book.

Next I will focus on magazine articles. If you go to the Internet you can find a lot of advice on writing for magazines. But writing of model railroad magazines is a little different than the non-hobby press. Nonetheless there is a lot of overlap in the actual mechanics.

The bulk of general magazine writing is done on assignment - this is where the magazine tasks you to do the article. But that is not the case in the model railroad press. While the model RR press does do assignments, and I have been on some of them, most of their articles come from outside contributors.

So you want to do an article? The first question to ask is: who is my audience? What publication will use this article? In many ways, writing for the model railroad press is much simpler than sending an article to a general audience magazine, as the subject matter, and the number of magazines is limited.

What to write about? We all know the type of articles they are looking for- stories about your layout, how-to describing something you built, layout design ideas, product reviews, and reporting on events that occurred. It helps if your topic is a new or innovative approach that actually works.

Next you need photos of that subject, a track plan if it is a layout, and text. In this business, the story is important but good photos are the key. Good photos will sell the story, especially for a layout feature. How to take good model railroad photos is the subject for another long talk and I won’t cover that here. See this link for more info about model railroad photos.

If the magazine likes your story, but the photos are inadequate, they will send a photographer to shoot new images. But if they do that, the photographer gets the bulk of the payment and you will get a token amount. I know several layout owners that were disappointed by how little they got paid for an article about their layout where the magazine sent a photographer. If you go that route it is best to discuss with them up front so no one is surprised and or disappointed.

With regard to subject material, whatever it is, it has to be well executed. Doesn’t matter if it is a beginner oriented piece or a description of your world class scratch built model. Models should be carefully assembled without obvious flaws like glue globs, fingerprints, wheels off rails, covered in dust, or cat hair. Generally speaking you should weather your models realistically, and paint your track. I had an editor ask me to reshoot a layout because the rail in the track in a few scenes was not painted. Nowadays, I could do that in Photoshop, but this was in the 35mm film era. I did the reshoot and the article was published.

One other word about subject matter- most of the magazines are very scientific about the mix of articles they publish. They try to cover the various scales and topics in proportion to their readers’ interests. The majority of modelers do HO, so that gets the most coverage. Most multi scale magazines end up with an oversupply of HO scale material. But they have a dearth of N and other scales. An article depicting a well done N Scale topic is more likely to be published, then an comparable HO article. On several occasions editors have called me looking for N Scale material. If you really want to get a start in model railroad writing, do something well in N scale and write about it. And if the general magazines reject it, there are two N scale magazines that need good material.

If you do a layout piece, you will probably need to do a track plan. It must be clearly drawn to scale with minimum radii and turnout size indicated. It can be a rough draft. It is not necessary for you to hire an artist to draw a track plan. The magazines have art staff that will re-execute the drawings to their standards. But if you can draw a plan that is “camera ready,” that helps your odds of getting published.

I won’t discuss much the actual writing as frankly, it is not as important in model railroad articles compared to the photos. Their editors will rewrite and polish the text. Nonetheless, make the writing as good as you can make it. The easier you can make the editor’s job, the more likely they will publish it. While grammar and spelling are important, properly organizing your text so that the material flows logically is far more important. Regardless of what your article is about, it should tell a story. That is where the craft of writing comes in.

Don’t send in too much material. It is your job as the writer to cull through the reams of information you collected to make an interesting and compelling story. These are not technical journals, nor Pulitzer prize investigative reporting. These articles are a form of entertainment. Be as concise as possible. Make the editor’s job easier and you’ll both benefit. Do not be unwilling to accept editing. There are times when you will be asked to cut your carefully composed text. If they ask you to do it, do it. Otherwise they will, or worse, they won’t publish it.

If you have the opportunity, you might want to allow a friend or a fellow writer to read your article and give you feedback. I have a niece with a degree in technical writing and I pay her to review my book manuscripts. It is not necessary, but it makes my submission look better, and she gets to list it on her resume.

One you decided what to write about, you now get into the mechanical process of submitting the article. First, check with the magazine to learn of their writer’s guidelines. Almost every magazine has guidelines for their authors. Many are available on line. The guidelines cover text and photos. Guidelines for books may be different than articles.

After reading through the guidelines, you should comply with them. Does the publication accept query letters or prefer full manuscripts? What's a query letter? A query is a single-page letter which sells your story idea. You don't write the entire article--only the first paragraph which captures the reader's interest. Then you describe the article and timeline. If you get interest from a query letter, if behooves you to follow through and do the article, at least if you want to establish a good reputation as a writer.

I personally have never written a formal query letter for a model railroad article. The first couple articles I did, I just sent the article in with photos, etc. Later, the editors would email or call me with suggestions and ideas. But I have heard of some folks going the query letter route. I have done book proposals and even a project layout proposal.

One caution, you should not send the same finished article to several publications at the same time. It might be OK to query different publications at the same time, but never send finished articles on similar material to multiple magazines. You have to submit to one magazine and wait to hear one way or the other. Most will usually let you know right away if they are going to use it or not. Some will pay for the article in advance. Others pay upon publication. In either case, you are locked in, even if they don’t publish for several years. Sometimes they change their minds and will never publish the piece. In that case you have an option of buying back the article and trying to get another magazine to publish. If a magazine is holding on to an article and you want to do another piece with similar material, you should discuss your plans with them. I suspect they would be happy to work something out with you.

If you get rejected, don’t feel bad. As it is in dating, rejection is common for writers. You’ll have to be ready to accept it. There are many different reasons for rejection some of which are out of your control as a writer. Sometimes your article was rejected due to bad timing because they already purchased or plan an article on that or a similar topic. In the rejection letter they may tell you why. Sometimes they will reject the article but give suggestions for a new or related idea.

The final step is to submit your material to a publication. The publisher’s guidelines will explain what you need to do. Most accept digital files along with a paper copy. Also realize that there is usually a long lag from when you submit to when it gets published. You have to be patient. Finally, be courteous and use common sense.


1 comment:

  1. Wow! That's a lot of useful information, Bernard. I did write articles for a historical society (quite a few of them) knowing that it was a labor of love & there was no pay involved, but after 2 solid years of writing articles I simply got burnt out. I'm hoping the muse hits me again to write, but as of today with work & family, I just don't see that happening...yet.