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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

How I Got Published in South Africa

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

"If you make this many changes in your memoirs, it will either cost you a fortune, lose you the [book] contract, or make you a lifelong enemy in the publisher."

I often browse the Internet for information on marketing my work and that is how I came upon the December 1997 issue of WritingNow.com. The section "Writers Around the World" by Linda Davis Kyle contained an interview with Dr. Joseph Sherman, a professor of English at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, a writer and translator, editor, public speaker, and television personality. Dr. Sherman sounded like an interesting man.

Because I'm an inveterate letter-writer and knew no one in South Africa, I decided to send Dr. Sherman an email, introducing myself as a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a lawyer, writer, and public speaker. I mentioned that I had recently completed my memoirs, excerpts from which had appeared in various publications.

To my surprise, I got a quick -- and totally unexpected -- response. Dr. Sherman invited me to submit a piece for publication in a literary/cultural quarterly he edited called Jewish Affairs. I was, of course, delighted. What writer wouldn't be? I emailed Dr. Sherman that my memoirs contained two types of pieces: (1) humorous family pieces, with a Jewish flavor; and (2) articles about the women's-rights movement. Again, his response took me by surprise. He said he'd be interested in a piece about women's rights.

Actually, I had written only three pieces about women's rights. "Representing Women" was then about to be published in Frontiers, the women's studies journal of Washington State University [18.3 (Dec. 1997)]; the second piece concerned the Sewall-Belmont House, the headquarters of the National Woman's Party (NWP), on whose Board I serve; and the third was about my encounters with three legendary Feminists: Alice Paul [a founder of NWP and the drafter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)], the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (an author, lawyer, civil rights activist, college professor, and the first African-American woman Episcopal priest in the United States), and Catherine East (a government staffer who had held significant positions relating to women's rights). Because Jewish Affairs didn't run previously-published articles, and the Sewall-Belmont House would not be of interest to South African readers, only the "three feminists" piece was a possibility. But there was a problem. I had arranged with NWP to sell the Alice Paul segment of the "three fems" piece in its museum shop. When I informed Joseph of this (by this time, we were on a first-name basis) he responded, to my dismay, as follows:

"Given the fact that your piece on Alice Paul is going to be published elsewhere, it would be good to have a section of your memoirs that has not been published yet."

I was in a dilemma. I did have other pieces, but it was more important for me to get my "three fems" piece published because of its historical significance. I didn't, however, want to antagonize Joseph by pushing its publication, and I didn't think it likely that he would change his mind. Nonetheless, I thought it was worth a try, and I wrote him again suggesting he publish "three fems."

To my surprise, Joseph backed down. He wrote: "Leave things . . . as they are -- I'll pass round the piece . . . and get some other views." I asked him to send me a copy of Jewish Affairs, and he did. Writers are always advised to review the publications to which they want to make submissions. I'd never done that -- I simply don't have the time -- and I wasn't doing it now since I'd already submitted the piece. But I was interested in seeing what the publication looked like.

When I received it, I was dismayed. I had expected Jewish Affairs to be a small, commonplace magazine. Instead, it was a scholarly journal, beautiful in appearance and impressive in content. The writing was of very high quality. Joseph had told me that all submissions had to secure the approval of his editorial board. I could not imagine why the board would approve my piece, which seemed more pedestrian in tone than others in the copy he sent me. Furthermore, my article had little to do with Jewish affairs. But I was not about to withdraw it from consideration.

The board approved my article. Then, we had three crises involving endnotes, Dr. Margherita Rendel, and my endless revisions. I had sent the first draft to Joseph by regular mail, but all our subsequent correspondence was conducted by email. Joseph wanted me to submit what he optimistically thought would be the final draft by email. The piece, however, had numerous endnotes. In the past, whenever I attempted to email a piece with endnotes, either as an attachment or a cut-and-paste, the notes were either erased or came out as gibberish.

A computer expert whose advice I sought told me about rich text format [RTF]. I tried that, and the result was an email from Joseph headed "All is retrieved!"

Then Joseph pointed out that one of my endnotes, which cited two articles by Margherita Rendel, a London friend, was incomplete. Since Margherita does not have email, I faxed her asking her to fax the proper citation to Joseph. Several days passed, time was running short, and Joseph had not yet heard from her. I suggested we omit the incomplete citation. After Joseph had done that, Margherita faxed me the correct citation. Joseph agreed to revise the article yet again to include it.

The revision problem was serious. Every time I read the article, I saw ways to improve it and sent changes to Joseph. It would then take him hours to integrate the new material mechanically because his typesetters worked from carefully formatted diskettes. He was becoming increasingly concerned by my continuing revisions. "It is always fatal to allow contributors to make changes after acceptance," he wrote at one point, and at another: "You will see no more of it till it's published, else you'll be writing and rewriting forever."

But I kept revising. I realized he was as much a perfectionist as I and that his concern for excellence would prevail. It did. He incorporated every change I submitted.

At the end, when I wrote that I thought the piece was good, he responded: "After about four rewrites and three copy edits, it should be. If you make this many changes in your memoirs, it will either cost you a fortune, lose you the [book] contract, or make you a lifelong enemy in the publisher."

I responded: "Who cares about any of that if it improves the memoirs?"

In fairness, though, Joseph did point out that the revisions he permitted me to make were exceptions, and that normally he expected authors to submit pieces for consideration in final form. Due to the then-socio-political sensitivity to women's rights in South Africa, his interest in the piece resulted in his giving me extra leeway. 

In April 1998, "Three United States Feminists: A Personal Tribute" was published in Jewish Affairs.

-- SPF

© 1998 Sonia Pressman Fuentes. This article was originally published in September 1998 as "Getting an Article Published in South Africa" in writingnow.com and then under the present title in the mid-April 2001 issue of Writer Online at novalearn.com/wol.