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Getting Published

(Or, The Play MUST Go On!)

By Kevin M Reese

So, you've got a play or musical that you've written and it drew much applause and acclaim when it was performed (don't even THINK of submitting a play for publication that has had no production!).  Now you want to find someone to publish the show for you so it can be performed by thousands of theatres and seen by millions of people.  You have two choices:  appear to be professional or appear to be amateur.  Publishers want to deal with professionals--whether they are seasoned playwrights or first-timers.

The following advice is free for the taking.  It is purely based on my experiences and though they are my true beliefs on the subject, I reserve the right to be completely wrong.  This is by no means meant to be a treatise on the business of playwrighting, but over the years I have been contacted by many playwrights wishing to have their play published, and most of them (in my opinion) were not ready. 

What will a Publisher Do for You?
Most publishers will have you sign an exclusive contract, print your play script and rehearsal materials at their expense, then pay you a percentage of the performance royalty (and oftentimes a percentage of sales from play scripts)  they collect from the theatres that produce your show.  Different publishers work different ways.  Some will have YOU pay for the printing of your materials.  Some will insist that you make changes to your script based on suggestions from their editors before they will handle your script.  Still others will buy the rights to your script outright, for a lump sum, and that'll be the end of your involvement with the show-- other than your name listed as playwright.  You will not get the same deal for your first publication that Neil Simon gets for his next blockbuster.  A Publisher's primary objective is to make money for his/her publishing company -- not to improve the world with quality plays.  But of course if a publisher has quality plays, they will make money.

Make Sure Your Play is Good.
This seems obvious, but it's the number one rule that's broken.  There are so many sub-quality scripts out there already.  If you've had ten knowledgeable theatre producers read your play and you are the only one who sees any merit in it, chances are it's not very good.  And please don't impose your script onto a play publisher if you haven't had at LEAST ten other people read your script and give you feedback.  It amazes me that playwrights wonder why publishers are so sticky about their rules and guidelines.  For every possibly good play we find, we have to plow through 10 or 20 that are in desperate need of two or three more drafts/revisions.  And for goodness sakes, don't neglect your basic proofreading (don't expect your word processor to catch the difference between "their," "they're," and "there!").  Apply the following three rules to your script.

Goethe's  Three Rules of Dramatic Criticism:
(I'm pretty sure it was Johann Wolfgang von GOETHE (1749-1832) who developed these rules, though I can't for the life of me find the reference anywhere.  I "learned" this in Grad School and apologize for not taking better notes.)

1. What Were You Trying to do?  - There area millions of plays out there already-- why are you adding one more?  What is the purpose and/or objective of your play?
2. How Well Did You do it? - Is the play a quality work?  This is terribly subjective, but there are many universally accepted guideposts for judging quality playwrighting.
3.  Was it Worth Doing?  -  Does your play fulfill the purpose/objective which you set out to do?  Is the world a better place now that your work is completed?

Scope out the theatre.
Littering the world with unsolicited copies of your script is not usually a good idea.  Instead of copying down every publisher listed in the NYC Yellow Pages and doing a "shotgun" mailing, do some research for a TARGETED mailing.  You'll save yourself a lot of postage and improve your odds of being accepted.  Before you send any scripts, find out which type of submissions the theatre accepts and abide by their rules.  Failure to do so will only result in your wasting your time (not to mention the publisher's), effort, and postage.  Find out if the theatre prefers a particular type of play--if they do, only send that type of script.  Don't let yourself think that the publisher's preferences and guidelines only pertain to the other playwrights-- if you break their rules, you WILL pay for it one way or another.

Find out the rules of engagement
and play them by the book.

In Life, we spend our early years leaning all the rules. Then we spend the rest of our lives learning which rules may NEVER be broken and which ones may be broken and under what conditions. In Playwrighting, very few rules may be broken when it comes to getting your script into the hands of theatres and producers. Make sure you include a cover page with all your important contact information in the correct style.  Likewise, make sure your script manuscript is in a commonly accepted format (write the theatre and ask for a Submission Style Sheet or get one from Samuel French, they are the biggest publisher in terms of number of titles).  Also, don't forget to include a SASE (Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope) if you ever want to hear from the theatre again.  I can't stress enough that you should play by their rules.  It just takes a hint of attitude or impatience and your submission ends up in the trash-- and there is nothing you can do about that.

Solicited/Unsolicited Submissions
If you look in any good Play Submissions Directory (Writer's Market, Dramatist Sourcebook, etc.) you will notice that some theatres will accept unsolicited submissions (YOU, the playwright, initiates contact-- "out of the blue") while others only accept solicited submissions (THEY initiate the contact either with you directly or with your agent).  If they only accept solicited submissions, they will often accept a letter of inquiry with a one-page synopsis of the script.  If they like that, they may ask to see your script.  If you try to shortcut their rules, you will lose.

Keep at it.
My advice for playwrights is pretty much the same as that which I give beginning actors (see Don't Call Us, We'll Call You in our Classroom section).  I try to come across a bit on the cynical side, spelling out the possible pitfalls, the dos and don'ts, insisting that the beginners learn the business and play by the established rules.  I figure that if anything I say can dissuade someone from getting into this line of work for a living-- I'm doing them a favor in the long run because they don't have the "fire" or the "chutzpah" to succeed in this business.  My words are like "kid gloves" compared to someone untalented or uninspired struggling years and years in this business before they finally give up in frustration.  I've seen too many nice people end up that way.   I'm doing such people a favor.  

Of course, there are always exceptions.  Nothing I say will dissuade someone who has the fire, who has the talent and the chutzpah to succeed in this business.  And there are always those for whom the "system" seems to have been made-- just so they can buck that system and really shine through.  Nothing I say will stop those artists and craftsmen as well.  And there are those that don't have that fire or chutzpah now, but if nurtured, will.  For all those, I say:  Keep at it.

But, again, I could be completely wrong. . . .

Read a Great Article about
"What a Playwight Needs to Know"
published by the AATE


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