I had a letter published in the Daily Mail yesterday. (Yes, I admit it, I'm a Daily Mail reader - I know, I know!!). It wasn't anything earth-shattering: it was just in response to an article in there last week about the re-publication of the 'I-Spy books' so popular with those of us who were children in the 1950s and 60s. The article only told half the story; the original books were issued in conjunction with the old News Chronicle, and were part of the culture of the 'I-Spy Tribe' - the kids who joined were called Redskins and earned feathers for their headbands by completing the books. Simple pleasures, eh! I found an old black & white photo I took of my friends from primary school when we were all members of a Redskin patrol - holding a pow-wow in my back garden - and sent it to the editor with a brief letter about it all. I didn't really expect it to be published, especially as it finally appeared (with the photo) almost a week after the original article, with my reference to it edited out so it seemed a bit 'appropos of nothing'!
I don't write to newspapers very often, but strangely enough, only the day after I'd sent that letter, I was being urged by other writers, on Facebook and internet forums, to write (again to the Daily Mail) in response to a reader whose letter appeared in the 'Debate' section of the letters page. He'd written in defence of self-publishing, which was fair enough - I've nothing against it, and who knows, might well end up doing it myself one day! - but he took the opportunity to have a sour-grapes-type dig at mainstream publishers, declaring that a lot of books published by them are rubbish and used an expression along the lines of 'formula type books like chick-lit'.
My books are often referred to as chick-lit; my editor doesn't agree; I don't know, I don't really care what anyone calls them as long as they enjoy them! And - well, what a stupid comment. If there's a 'formula' for writing them, I wish someone would tell me what it is! We all know that getting a book accepted by a mainstream publisher these days is incredibly difficult, no matter what genre. I decided NOT to retaliate to that reader's letter; it was ill-informed and best ignored ... if we'd all rushed to defend ourselves I think we'd have looked hysterical and 'protesting too much'.
But you know what? I actually started off my writing career at the age of nine-and-a-half, with a letter to the editor of 'Essex Countryside' magazine. It was in response to another reader's letter about a bird he'd seen in the fields, which he couldn't identify. My Dad (who taught me all I knew, back then, but have sadly mostly forgotten since, about nature in general and birds in particular), suggested I looked through his bird book and tried to identify it from this guy's description. Whether my diagnosis was right or not, I decided I'd write up and give him the benefit of my nine-and-a-half-year-old's wisdom. I was overjoyed that the letter was published, and decided there and then that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. In fact I did nothing of the sort, but that's another story!
Since then, I've only occasionally felt moved to send a 'reader's letter'. A previous one published in the Mail (several years ago) was in response to someone who'd written that 'mature people' shouldn't wear trainers, have holiday romances or eat microwave meals (amongst other things!). Isn't it amazing how some people think they can decide what other people should do! And a letter to one of our local papers about my hospital's no-smoking policy was given almost a full page and a huge headline ... they obviously didn't have much news that week!).
I know writers who have really got their career off the ground by writing letters to newspapers and magazines. It's a good way to get writing, and publishing, experience - and some magazines pay for readers' letters so it can pay off, in more ways than one. I certainly look for names I recognise in the letters pages of writing magazines, for instance - so it does get your name 'out there', too. But if you get embroiled in serious issues, I think you need to be prepared for retaliation. And with some people, like the writer of the 'mainstream publishing is crap' letter, it's just not worth the aggravation!