The Writer: the how to of selling facts and fiction
Boston — The Writer magazine recently turned 95, and at that venerable age it readily qualifies as one of the oldest American magazines in continuous existence.
Situated for the past 50 years in offices shared by The Atlantic Monthly overlooking Boston's Public Garden, it also qualifies as one of the city's most tenacious tenants. When The Atlantic was purchased by Mortimer Zuckerman in 1980, The Writer stayed put, while other residents, the Boston office of The New Yorker and Worldpaper, moved.
Many observers attribute these endurance feats to the feisty wit and shrewd management of its editor, Sylvia Burack. Mrs. Burack has probably worked as hard as any woman now living for the interests of literacy in Massachusetts, allegedly still drives like a New York cabbie, and sums herself up with the remark, ''I loathe neutrality. Not because it's so boring, but because it's so nothing.''
''She's terrific. She's a great lady,'' says her landlord, Mortimer Zuckerman. ''She possesses a remarkable combination of tact and force, and she does a good job.''
Sylvia Burack (most of the time with her late husband, Abraham) has owned and published The Writer for nearly 45 years. She has also served as a trustee of Boston State College and the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. In addition, she has edited 11 books of children's plays for The Writer's adjunct organization, Plays Inc. Mrs. Burack is less interested in laurels than in her work, however, and quips in a worldly, gravelly voice, ''My life, as they say, is an open book - quite literally.''
Until the advent of Writer's Digest, and much more recently the spate of newsletters that circulate trade talk and aid aspiring authors to new markets, The Writer occupied a unique place in the world of letters. For its circulation of 55,000 the magazine has devoted itself to common sense strategies on everything from tips by established authors on marketing suspense novels to advice from poets.
The magazine performs a crucial function, according to Kay Cassill, author of 'The Complete Handbook for Freelance Writers.''
''Writers are by description isolated human beings,'' she says. ''And in this very large country, more so, especially with huge, centralized publishing conglomerates. Increasingly, the star system of publishing is isolating new writers, and they don't really know how to go about doing the things that they have to in order to get published. They need some kind of human contact, and The Writer fills that void. Writers have a sense that by reading it, they're getting the inside scoop.''
By and large, The Writer's articles are written by well-established authors. Though they are not all household names, they represent the body of craftsmen who have achieved success in their chosen genre, and whose advice is intended to steer new writers in the same direction.
As early as 1921, the magazine was warning writers away from ''Common Weaknesses in Manuscripts.'' Among these was ''Thinness. By this is meant lack of substance, i.e., the main idea of the story has little foundation, or the author tries to go swimming in a sea of literature like a bubble instead of a bladder, like Shakespeare's 'wanton boys.' ''
More recent issues have reports on selling screenplays, the children's book market, and a piece on the ''requirements'' of poetry, and one reprinted an article on censorship. ''One very important role that The Writer performs,'' says Sally Wendkos Olds, past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, ''is its insistence on standards of integrity. I started reading it when I began writing, and it's been consistently good. It has never taken advertising from vanity presses, or agents who charge for reading manuscripts, and this is very good for new writers to see.''
Sylvia Burack sees herself as something of an earnest hustler after quality, an inveterate letter writer, a seeker after new talent, and perhaps most important, as a champion of writers' rights. She works from 9 to 5 in her offices, reads manuscripts until well past midnight, and by 3 a. m. can be found finishing off the New York Times.
In many ways, she has the habits and convictions of editors of an earlier era , a fact that has its critics as well as its supporters. Having worked continuously for nearly half a century in the field of popular and serious writing, she has an increasingly rare perspective on the care and nurturing of writers. She has steered the magazine through the changes wrought by radio and television (which she notes ruined careers for a fair number of writers), and learned from that experience that ''you can't ignore the realities of the marketplace.''
''I consider The Writer a service magazine for writers,'' Mrs. Burack said recently. ''Most of our manuscripts are solicited, and what we're doing is asking our authors to take time away from their main source of income and for a very small fee write something for us."
Critics, however, like New York-based writer Dodi Schultz, question this policy. ''The Writer asks professionals to submit work on speculation, and I find that abhorrent,'' she said.
But Mrs. Burack believes that no one is above the editor's pen, and claims that she often spends days editing a four-page manuscript.
''Sylvia Burack is every writer's dream in terms of her standards of professional practice,'' says Ms. Olds. ''Whenever she had suggestions to make on an article I wrote for them, she was always very careful and practical. I don't know how she has the time to do it. She and her late husband have also sent me letters, for no reason, just out of the blue, realizing that writers need recognition once in a while. Although I have never met her personally, I feel that I do know her, she's so warm.''
''Writers have very fragile egos. They need a lot of nurturing,'' says Mrs. Burack. ''And I think it's not surprising, because they work alone a lot. They can go on and on and on and will never know whether anyone cares.
''She takes pride in the magazine's personal touch, and points out that her staff of six answers each of the almost 400 letters that come into the office every week.
While many an electronic-age publisher would be aghast at so much personalized attention, Mrs. Burack is adamant on the subject. ''I question those categorical statements by time-management people that say it cost me $83 every time I cut a review out of the paper and send it to someone in England,'' she said. ''I've now proved that it works. I think it's ludicrous to try to quantify those kinds of things. And I'm not interested in those statistics, because they don't mean anything.''
What writers really need, she claims, ''is for someone to think that the next generation of authors is really important, and I think if I were a young new writer I'd be very discouraged. I'm very down on publishers who will not read the material of new writers - and very few of them will. I think that is a travesty. It is also very shortsighted, because somewhere along the line some of these luminaries are going to die out.
''Quite honestly, a lot of the trouble publishers are in is of their own doing. They all got so carried away that they kept giving all their money to a few people.''
She reflected for a moment. ''Another problem is what publishers think of as marketable. There is great controversy now as to whether or not the marketing people have superseded the literary people, so that the judgment is made in advance as to what is salable, and if it's good or bad doesn't interest them. It is a very cynical vulgarization of the literary world.''
Mrs. Burack says that an obvious solution would be for publishers to borrow an idea from the corporate world, where every large company has a research-and-development budget. Publishers should be no exception, she believes.
As for those waiting to be discovered, Mrs. Burack mused, ''There's a very small percentage of writers who earn their whole living from it. We've always warned people not to give their jobs up. There's something about that routine that's very very bracing. And many writers experience great anxiety in knowing they've got to totally earn their living from their writing. It can actually almost immobilize you. You've got to have a lot of confidence in yourself, and you've got to know the market's not going to drop out under you.''
And yet, despite her disillusionment with the publishing industry and her sense of caution for writers, Mrs. Burack possesses an almost infectious sense of optimism when it comes to the opportunities available to writers.
''I don't care what it is you do - if you run, knit, skate, sail, make your own houses, do anything - you name it and there are markets. There are not one, but 15, motorcycle magazines! If you love Texas, there are 20 magazines on Texas , or any other state. The regionals are booming, the city magazines, and I really think from the point of view of learning to write, a writer should get some success with this type of publication. I've always felt that people writing novels would do well to write small pieces while they are doing it. You can't cut yourself off from the realities of the market. You just can't.''
This is the message The Writer has been sending its readers for nearly a century. In its editorial willingness to rove the entire terrain of literary endeavor, it reflects the very personal convictions of an inveterate reader who is committed to writing in all its infinite forms.
''I don't know any business in the world that's as challenging, because it calls on you to make the most of associations of ideas. This is true of a writer as well as of an editor. If you get stuck in the middle of a writing project, the very best thing to do is read and read and read. You read around a subject and you suddenly have a revelation, an epiphany, and I don't know of anything more exciting in the whole world.''