Here it is: "start with the best, work your way down to the rest." --C.S. Carlson
Many years ago I had a job in the manufacturing department of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, the famed literary (then) independent press. I wasn't terribly good at scheduling print and bind orders, I only stayed on the job for a year, but my interest in design and calligraphy were noticed. One day my boss, the commanding Doris Janowitz, dropped by my desk and said in her quietly booming voice, "we need a map, I know you are taking a calligraphy class, we'll pay you something to do it overnight if you are interested."
It was a map of Iroquois settlements in New York State. I made the map following blurry photocopied examples of other maps. My calligraphy nibs were worn down, oaths had been hurled when ink splattered, but by the light of dawn it looked...OK. It was duly printed and I was able to consider my work published by the legendary FS&G. Naturally, this led to a spot of capitalistic thinking. Salaries in legendary publishing houses were not equal to keeping my cat, let alone me, in kibble comfortably. I needed to do freelance work and here was a chance to do something...challenging yet kinda fun.
Here is where I developed that simple advice for getting published. Instead of contacting some so-so publishers--where true modesty should have compelled me to apply--I decided that I would start with the places I most wanted to able to say, my work was in their books. I went to the best. And astonishingly, I got work from Knopf. The art director, the smart and talented Virginia Tan, took a chance on me and I did my best to not shame her.
Once I was doing maps for Knopf, it was easy to get work from other publishers. Soon I had a small but thriving sideline in handmade maps for books. I was able to turn handmade skills to the future by working fill-in shifts for The New York Times where I learned how to make maps and charts on a computer.
I went through the same thing becoming a book designer.
When I started writing poetry, and got the lamentable urge to have it published, my success wasn't quite so instant. I started with the best, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry, and was quickly turned down with terse form letter slips (as in one sheet of paper cut into ribbons of bad news). I then began working my way down. The pretty darn prestigious said "no," the fairly well known said "no thanks" on half sheets of paper, sometimes with a hand written note "keep trying, there's something there," and finally a virtually unheard of literary magazine took a poem. I kept writing, rewriting, and challenging myself to improve. I kept sending out. I got more published. Still waiting for Poetry or The New Yorker to say yes, apparently the world needs more of my graphic designs than my poems...
When my coeditor, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, and I were thinking of who to ask for blurbs on The Poets' Grimm, our anthology of fairy tale poems, I immediately suggested the best and most pertinent names I could think of. Were we were aiming too high and wasting our time? Possibly. But I stuck to my mantra. We had a great anthology, there was no shame in asking great writers and scholars for their response. And most of them said yes and wrote us terrific blurbs.
Of course there is one caveat to the start with the best... it also helps to sell the best that I can make. I improve my chances when I understand my market, double check everything, push myself, and revise the thing before I send it out, and learn from my mistakes for the next time.
When I start something new, the years of telling myself it is possible, make me more confident. I am sure I will have to learn how to design eBooks (Kindle-like paperback-sized electronic devices) and also have the same book content be able to simultaneously appear in a simpler smaller layout on an iPhone or its equivalent. When I start looking for that kind of work, you know what my mantra will be.