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One year ago this month, I tentatively made my first four short story submissions to literary magazines. I’d done a little research and spent a little time, but the effort was teetering and nervous. I didn’t send out any more submissions until May.
I’m still waiting for that first “Accepted!” I started at the top, submitting to high-prestige literary journals, a bit unsure of precisely what was what; when the first more mid-range publication sent me a rejection the other day, I did feel a little crushed. I had to do some soul-searching. It is hard, this business.
But I vowed to make it a productive moment. I spent time yesterday returning to the research, now that I’m more familiar with the process, with 39 submissions under my belt and 20 red rejections, considering whether my strategy might be due a change. It feels like the right time, this new year, after all.
I’ll share with you this morning what I’ve learned, the resources I found most interesting, and the strategies I’m pondering.
Where to Submit
With a little Googling, the sheer number of literary magazines and websites publishing short fiction reveals itself to be quite large. This is the blessing, with no shortage of opportunities, and the of course concomitant curse (for where, goodness gracious, does one start?).
Making sense of the myriad
Very helpful for me have been a few ranked lists that pull together large numbers of literary magazines. I started with Clifford Garstang’s list, which is based on publications that have won Pushcart Prizes. Garstang updates the list each year and separates out for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. More recently, however, I’ve been appreciating Erika Krouse’s ranking, which explicitly divides the magazines into tiers whose significance she explains.
Each potential market (I don’t love this word, but it seems to be industry-standard. Of course economics is a part of this. I understand.) has a number of important pieces of data that can help us make decisions about their suitability for our work. Back in January of 2019, I began collecting these data in a spreadsheet, and I have continued this practice. Keeping track of submission method, openness to simultaneous submissions (a simultaneous submission means that the story has been submitted to more than one market at the same time), submission fee, and expected response time has helped me narrow down my list of where to submit at any given time.
Once we have wrapped our minds around the plethora of potential homes to send our work, how do we make decisions about where to actually submit?
Depending on our personal and professional goals, we might choose from a number of options:
- We might focus on a particular tier of publications (highly prestigious, middle, lower). The higher-ranked and more established a publication, the less likely we’ll probably be to be accepted (although it could certainly happen!), but the lower-ranked a publication is might mean less strong credentials, or, unfortunately, a short life for the piece; many publications are live online for only a couple of years, and it’s not uncommon to click a link to a smaller magazine and find a URL waiting to be bought.
- We might also choose to submit to quick-responding publications. Doing this might help us get results sooner. Submitting simultaneously to several markets can also help this, but make sure to check first whether the publication allows simultaneous submissions (some don’t, or highly discourage it).
- A more ad-hoc but personalized approach is to read various publications (or read about them) and submit a particular piece that seems to fit that particular publication’s style. As many of us writers are on limited budgets and have limited time, reading copies of these magazines can be a challenge (at least to read very many). This is the strategy that seems to be espoused the most on magazines’ websites, and undoubtedly sending a piece you think is a good fit (as opposed to chosen at random) is thoughtful, kind, and respectful of the editors, who wade through thousands of submissions at a time.
Which is best? I found particularly interesting Jon Wesick’s use of statistical strategies to maximize publications. Wesick’s article gives a significant amount of data and draws compelling conclusions about some of the above methods. Granted (and I think this does detract from the practicality of Wesick’s work), his models do not account for simultaneous submissions; however, he identified that choosing markets for submission based on a numerical strategy like response time (#2 above) or acceptance rate yielded more publications than the more traditional-style-matching strategy (#3).
Whatever decision we each make about our goals and methods, we should aim to be informed about the whys and hows. I’ll be taking a step back to reconsider my own strategies in the coming weeks. I’m not yet entirely sure how I will proceed.
Once we begin submitting, good record-keeping is essential. Accurate records can help us see patterns over time, hone our submissions strategies, and avoid accidentally submitting a piece already under exclusive review or, should a piece be accepted, failing to withdraw it from all of the other places to which it has been submitted.
There are a few websites out there that help writers track submissions. From my research, it seems that the largest and most industry-standard one is Duotrope, a paid site that I have not yet investigated with much detail. A free alternative that many other bloggers have recommended is The Grinder, which I am just beginning to explore. I tried for a while last year using WritersDB, but I’ve ultimately stopped updating it.
Although online submission trackers probably work very well, at least for now I have chosen to use my own Excel spreadsheet, which I like because of its customizability and my slightly ludditish fear of storing things to do with my writing in the Cloud (hello, WordPress!).
I’ve divided my spreadsheet into three tabs, which do to some extent talk to one another. My “Markets” tab is screenshotted in the previous section of this post. Probably the most important tab in my spreadsheet is this, the “Submissions by Date” list:
Here I list detailed information about each submission I make, and I’ve entered a formula in the “Time under consideration” column to track how many days a piece goes before receiving a response. I also mark exclusive submissions in the “Notes” column to make sure I don’t accidentally send these out again before receiving an answer.
When I just had ten or twelve submissions, using the above sheet to plan what I wanted to send out next worked fine. But as I’ve submitted more, I decided I needed a new tab with submissions sorted by story title. This I have been using just for the last week or so, but I think it is a valuable addition, which helps me clearly see which stories are still under consideration, and which are no longer active:
Nuts and Bolts
Before sending stories out, it’s important to take time to dot each i and cross each t. A story can be rejected straightaway and never have the chance of being read at all if particular nuts and bolts aren’t heeded.
Each publication lists specific submissions requirements to do with formatting, cover letter, etc. that need to be followed precisely. A few helpful resources for me have been these clear descriptions of standard manuscript format and cover-letter-writing (unlike querying agents with a novel, the standard cover letter for a short story is quite bare-bones).
One particular sticking point for me in this process has been the monetary cost associated with submitting short stories. I can be a little bit pathologically frugal. I really don’t like spending money. And for the first few months of my short story submissions saga, I blanched at the idea of paying anything at all.
Gradually, with some encouragement from my husband, I’ve loosened up a bit. I’ve now paid a number of three-to-four-dollar submissions fees, although I haven’t yet summoned up the gumption to pay a contest entry fee, which is typically significantly higher. I’m also buying issues of some magazines to read them. Ultimately, these are investments.
My feeling at the moment is that setting aside a specific, reasonable budget is the thing to do; once one has identified how much one is willing and able to spend, then making decisions about how to allocate that money can be smoother. Of course, for some writers paying submissions fees can be unaffordable. There are a number of no-fee publications one can submit to, and for lit-mags which themselves are often run on very small or volunteer budgets, those of us who can afford to pay, well, I will do so.
The ideas in this post have been informed by a variety of general strategy resources beyond those specifically cited above. I highly recommend reading these if you would like to go deeper:
- Andi C. Buchanan’s “A Short Fiction Submissions Strategy” gives a clear and thoughtful look at the full submission process, writing from a sci-fi-fantasy vantage point but ultimately applicable I think to all genres.
- Susan DeFreitas gives good suggestions in her guest post on Freewrite: “10 Writing Submission Strategies to Get You Published.”
- Kim Winternheimer’s article “Submission Strategies: Advice from a Literary Magazine Editor” gives good suggestions from inside the publishing world.
- Nathaniel Tower’s “How to Get a Short Story Published” has a variety of helpful links as well as general advice.
- Melanie Harding-Shaw writes in “Making Your Submission Strategy Work for You” some really heartfelt suggestions for dealing with the negative feelings around rejection and how to come back stronger and more determined. Thank you, Melanie!
- Finally, Becky Tuch’s “8 Reasons Your Submissions Strategy Sucks (And What You Can Do About It)” definitely clued me in to a few of the things I haven’t yet gotten quite right.
When will that acceptance come? At some point, I’m sure. In the meantime, we keep writing and revising and submitting and our heads up. The process is daunting. Skin must be thickened. There is time, and there are readers out there.
What have your experiences been in seeking publication? What strategies do you use, and how have they worked for you? What resources have you found helpful? How have you maintained your motivation?
Best wishes for the week ahead, and happy writing,