Booklife: Seven Points to Consider When Submitting Short Fiction

The blogosphere saw a lot of discussion during late 2009 about short fiction submissions practices. My main concern with the discussion as it existed was a lack of strategic planning when it came to submitting short fiction. Which is to say, for many writers a top-down approach of submitting to the highest paying and most visible markets may make sense. But that there are good reasons to develop more nuanced approaches. Here, then, are seven points to consider when thinking about the submission of short fiction. (In altered form, the following post originally appeared in the comments thread on my blog, on a guest post by Jason Sanford.)

Also, no advice about short fiction markets is of any use to you if you don’t write a damn good story first. This may seem obvious, but I see far too many writers neglecting their craft by churning out stories at a ferocious rate. In this social media age, your mantra should be: SLOW DOWN. Take the time to edit. Put that story away for a couple of weeks after you do the draft. If you find that your second draft is pretty much the same as your first, you might not’ve seen the story’s full potential.

(1) Standard approaches are still the norm. Being a writer and not having to live off of your writing income is a kind of privilege. In this context, a writer can take a more varied approach to submitting short fiction—using it for strategic purposes rather than the purely tactical purpose of making money. At the same time, most writers may be better off submitting to the highest paying markets first and working their way down. Even if this seems pointless at times if your work is really strange or non-commercial, it has benefits that include the editor who rejects your work having to engage it on some level; it may stick with that person even if they don’t taee it (which benefits you in other ways over the long haul) and expose those editors to modes of work that they may not normally see, which can have an affect over time. More importantly, this approach means that you will have no regrets when a story finally finds its level.

(2) There are complexities to the term “highest paying market”. Being a full-time writer is a kind of privilege, although I know not everyone agrees; I say it’s a privilege because so many writers do have to have a day job, even ones who you’d think should be able to write full-time. In the context of being a full-time writer, though, one thing is usually not a privilege: making money. In lean times, for example, $250 versus $100 payment for a story can be a lifesaver, and in those lean times a full-time writer should and must go for the highest paying markets possible. However, even this becomes a complicated issue, as if you are submitting for the money (note, I do not say *writing* for the money), then you must balance the pay rate against issues like the probable response time to a submission and the lag time between acceptance and payment. $500 that’s coming in next month may quite simply be more important than $1500 coming in four months down the road…In times of plenty—say, after a book advance has just come in—you can afford to deploy your short fiction in more various ways. (Also keep in mind the rights taken by a particular market, since in some cases a slightly lower-paying market may allow you to retain certain valuable rights.)

(3) Repurposing the public perception of your fiction may be important. Last year, I sold two stories to literary mags—Conjunctions and Black Clock—for about $100 each. I did that during a time of plenty (which included two other short fiction sales of $1,500 and $4,500 respectively), and to achieve specific strategic objectives. Those objectives included making more inroads into the non-genre world, since I am primarily known as a fantasy writer, and to use the publication credits as a kind of calling card or generic “invite” to other opportunities. And it worked—it worked marvelously well. I would say that those two sales, small in terms of cash involved, contributed to getting another $4,000 in other opportunities that had nothing to do with short fiction. They also made it easier to find PR opportunities for my books outside of genre.

(4) Pro rates do not necessarily mean an overall level of pro quality stories. “Quality by association” is an important point—that’s why in genre circles Lady Churchill’s is a better publication credit than some mags that pay pro rates. The overall story quality, the writing, is better. Again, as in the example above, a credit like Lady Churchill’s conveys a sense that a writer has got something to their writing that might make them of interest to me as a reader or editor. Depending, too, on the type of story you’re writing, it’ll get more attention than in another venue. (For a long time the editors also edited a year’s best anthology, which meant at the very least they would’ve read your story). Weird Tales on the other hand is the place you want to publish if you’re a 20-something writer who writes awesome dark fantasy–the stuff LCRW won’t find whimsical enough…At the same time, if you want to be considered for the pretty traditional Nebula or Hugo, two of the top SF/F awards, then Asimov’s SF Magazine and F&SF should be your markets of choice. But there’s a whole other world out there that some have mentioned of high-profile lit mags like Conjunctions with circulations similar to, say, F&SF.

(5) Breaking your standard submission cycle may teach you something new. How you think about your own submission processes is up to you and will be different for every writer, but break the cycle every once in awhile and don’t submit to the same usual suspects. You might be surprised, too, at the comments you get back and what you learn about your writing as a result. How you approach these markets will largely be shaped by how much room you have to *not* start with the highest paying markets (and other considerations, like how far up the food chain you are, and thus how many closed anthos you get invited to).

(6) To a new writer, encouragement can be a kind of payment. I came up through indie/alt press, and although I sold to professional magazines in my early twenties, I had been submitting since I was fourteen, amassing a lot of credits through indie mags. I was learning on the job and wanting to submit even before I was probably ready. Fact is, the encouragement from non-paying mags and low-paying mags is probably why I continued.

(7) Not every writer’s career path is the same because not every writer’s fiction is the same. There was another reason why those indie mags were so important: they were willing to look at the more surreal work that the commercial mags were not. Trust me, my novelette “The Transformation of Martin Lake” went to every commercial mag out there. It wound up in a small press antho. It also wound up winning the World Fantasy Award and being translated into 15 languages, and being included in my award-winning City of Saints and Madmen. It and much else I was writing at the time subsequently proved itself as being really good fiction, but if not for indie press, I wouldn’t have gotten enough validation to keep writing. My point is this: if you are writing commercial fiction, easily identifiable fiction, or even just slightly quirky fiction and you can’t get published by the pro mags, maybe the story isn’t good enough. But if you’re writing really different stuff, or stuff that combines a lot of genres, or is very surreal…your work may be really good and you may still be getting rejected. This is a compelling reason not to be contemptuous of alternative routes to publication. Every writer’s career is different.

In closing, a few notes about magazines that largely apply to online publications as well)…

(1) Glossy magazines or magazines with evidence of high production values that pay nothing or next to nothing are not to be trusted, especially for start-ups, and especially for genre publications. A lot of lit mags are published through getting university money or grant money, and so they can be forgiven for offering poor pay, especially if there’s a prestige factor you can point to. But for a commercial mag, it’s really poor form, and a bad idea, to offer next to nothing if they’re obviously pouring money into the look-and-feel. It’s a bad idea because they probably won’t be able to attract quality fiction (below a certain point, many writers won’t submit their best work). But it’s also kind of sleazy.

(2) Magazines that don’t pay or don’t pay much aren’t automatically crappy or automatically being terrible to writers. Within the genre field, for example, there’s a history of commercialism and commercialization that can at times make us blind to other traditions that are equally valid, and sometimes more valid. For example, the DIY/alternative press tradition of mags and presses that entered into publishing out of a sense of social activism and progressive politics. This is a valid tradition, and in this context the issue of money is often moot. The other major tradition, as I’ve mentioned, is that of the mainstream literary magazines. Although many of them do indeed have low print runs and have limited distribution, go into any Borders or Barnes & Noble and you will see a healthy representation of lit mags that do have good circulation and that are available to general reading public.

(3) Running a magazine, online or off, is a difficult, time-consuming, and potentially money-draining enterprise. Writers need to know that a magazine is an uncertain venture that requires a great deal of time, attention, organization, and, usually, money behind it, often for little reward. It’s easy to be critical, but the fact is, it’s not a good time for mags, even online mags. (I’ll wager almost all of your favorite online mags don’t really do more than break even, at best.) It hasn’t been for several decades. So be kind to them whenever you can…The alternative is not a landscape with fewer mags that pay more. It’s a landscape with just fewer magazines period. Writers shouldn’t put up with abuse in the form of low wages where higher wages should be given, but just as morale plays a large role in a young writer’s development, so too it plays a role in whether some of these operations can continue.

14 thoughts on “Booklife: Seven Points to Consider When Submitting Short Fiction

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  2. Nice summation. The debate was interesting, but I think a presentation like this is more useful in the end for new folks trying to figure out what to do who stumble across it on the internet. Less vitriol and false dichotomy, more explanation of the utility of different approaches.

  3. Good post, Jeff. Thank you for sharing those ideas. In the past two years, I've had to teach myself that it's okay to trunk stories. You never know when you can dust them off when new venues eventually emerge (and they will). Or an anthology for which a story might be better suited.

  4. Thank you for this article. It hit a perfect time in my writing life—the week I decided to make myself write for submission to professional, paying markets. I've been writing novels for a while, but I never took my short fiction seriously, and I have decided to grit my teeth, learn the form, the craft, and the business of short stories and learn how to get them written well and published well.

    I think this post should be required reading for anyone wanting to get into short stories. It's no-nonsense advice that can be quickly applied, starting with "Slow down!"

  5. …I think a presentation like this is more useful in the end for new folks trying to figure out what to do who stumble across it on the internet.

    With all due respect, I think you're incorrect. I came across this via Laird Barron's blog. I've been writing fiction for seven years now, published for five, and most of those sales have been to pro markets or for pro-level rates. And after about 15 sales and five years, guess what? I'd say maybe three professional writers in my genre (horror & dark fantasy), of which Laird is one, know who I am and actively read and support my work. Not really an incredible success story, is it? Well, maybe for some, but not for me.

    So, I would say that this advice would be something I would do well to consider. Obviously, submitting to the same markets year after year isn't doing me any good – I have no readers, I have no reviews, and I have yet to gain any inroads into the professional area of writing: i.e., no invitations to anthologies, still not allowed to speak on convention panels, and in general not invited to join in the ongoing discourse by pro and neo-pro writers. When I open my mouth, no one listens. When I sell my stories, no one reads them. And I am not uninformed, and I am not without talent. So, yes, I think I do need to take a different approach to where I send my fiction. Getting five cents a word is nice, but it's not helping me create a career, and it's a career I want for the long run. A career will help me earn the respect and the opportunities that come from being considered a pro writer and valuable contributor to the publishing community. Five cents a word only gets me… five cents a word. It certainly hasn't made me a pro! And after so many years, the money is no longer enough.

  6. Sounds like you need to start submitting to more open anthologies, since they get reviewed much more than magazines, and possibly posting some of your published fiction online (if you retain those rights). You might consider checking out the public booklife section of Booklife, where it talks about strategic planning.

    Beyond that, though, I often find in my own writing life that what reinvigorates me the most is identifying areas in my writing that I think are my weaknesses and working 24-7 to make them into strengths. You may not have hit just a career plateau but also a writing plateau.

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  10. But what if a writer has an unhealthy cover addiction? I am a cover slut. Can't help myself. I see pretty pictures on a print or zine, and I get all excited, payment or not. It is my biggest weakness…. Is there a pill or tonic for this condition?

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  12. Livia, I think my point may have been a little less clear than I meant it to be. The advice here is clearly applicable for both newbies and long-term professionals, and I would extend that advice to the entirety of Booklife. Plenty of well-known, currently practicing f/sf/h pros would do well to read it. The contrast I was trying to draw is between this (lucid, balanced) post and the vitriolic, one-sided, sometimes factually inaccurate blog posts and comments that were part of the larger discussion.

    As to your career, I wish you look with getting greater recognition and the success you want. I checked your site out and will be especially interested to read your Tacoma novellas when they make it into the wider world. Tacoma's an under-used setting overall. The only use of it I can remember reading is in one or two of Earl W. Emerson's Thomas Black p.i. novels.

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