Editors across the country should be very afraid. We’re coming to the close of the fiction unit in my class, and I’d built an empty overflow day into the syllabus. However, when the day came upon us, I found that I didn’t have anything to say. However, since I knew that some people in the class were interested in pursuing writing further, I decided to give a little capsule overview of how to submit their fiction. As part of this overview, I prepared a handout. However, the handout kept growing and growing and growing until it became the eight page monstrosity that you see below.
How To Submit Your Fiction for Publication (and other random advice)
There are four basic places to sell your short fiction:
- The New Yorker – You will never, ever be published here from a blind submission, but each submission is still a ticket to some wonderful daydreaming about being plucked out of obscurity and instantly becoming one of America’s hottest young writers.
- The Literary Journal– These journals are usually run by universities or nonprofit organizations.
- Examples: Public Space, Tin House, Glimmer Train, anything with “Review” in the title.
- The Science Fiction / Fantasy / Horror Magazine– There are three major profit-making print magazines, the rest are online and mostly have small profits. Some run on donations
- Examples: Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld
- The Mystery / Crime Magazine – Not many of these left, but they dostill exist
- Examples: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The Big Click
What kind of money can I expect?
Most of the top magazines will pay between five and twenty cents a word (although it’ll usually be closer to five than twenty). There are hundreds of magazines that pay smaller rates, though. Many magazines pay nothing at all.
How many readers will I get?
The New Yorker has a few hundred thousand readers. Every other magazine has fewer than 40,000 (usually much, much fewer). Generally, if you’re getting paid at least 5 cents a word then the circulation of the magazine is between 1,000 and 20,000. Generally, the less a magazine pays, the fewer readers it has. There are zillions of online magazines that have only a few dozen readers (if that).
What are my odds of being published?
Most of the top magazines (the ones that pay between five and twenty cents per word) will accept one story (or less!) for every 100 submissions. Even stories with token payment rates often have low acceptance rates. However, there are many magazines (dozens!) that have acceptance rates as high as 20%. It is not hard to get published somewhere. And, at least when you start, I recommend that you keep submitting your story–even to very minor markets–until it finally does get published. That way you at least have a starting point.
How should I choose where to submit?
I start at the top (the market that pays the most and has the highest reputation) and work my way down. Since it’s so much better (in terms of both payment and readership) to be published at a top market, it’s definitely worth giving them a shot. Once you’ve exhausted the top markets (which doesn’t take too long, actually), it’s worth going lower down the list: select markets that have nice websites and look like they have some readers and pay a little something something.
Okay, yeah, but I know nothing about magazines! How do I find the specific market to submit to?
Use duotrope.com. This is a wonderful market database. You can use their Search page to find individual listings that meet your criteria: https://duotrope.com/search.aspx. The settings that I normally use are:
- Genre (select whichever type of story you’re planning on submitting, literary writers should select ‘General’)
- Min. Payment (Pro is above 5 cents per word, Semi-Pro is above 1 cent per word, and Token is just any amount of money)
- Length (If you’re submitting a work that’s less than 1,000 words then select ‘Flash’, since some magazines don’t accept stories of that length and other magazines only accept stories of that length)
- Submission Type (If you’re willing to physically mail out the submission then don’t worry about this; if you don’t want to mess around with stamps and envelopes then select ‘Electronic’)
Once you’ve conducted your search, you can look at each market’s duotrope page. Then follow that page to their website and look at their submission guidelines. These have information on how to submit your work to them (what email addresses and formatting to use, etc)
Can I submit the same story to multiple magazines at the same time?
This depends on the magazine. The majority of literary magazines do allow this. Thus, people who submit to literary magazines will usually send out their submissions in batches. One weekend, they’ll submit a story to ten of their top magazines. Then, a few months later (after some rejections have come in), they’ll submit it to ten slightly lower-tier magazines. And so on.
Most sci-fi and fantasy and mystery and horror magazines do not allow this. You’ll need to submit a story to only one place at a time. However, average response times for these magazines (duotrope is a good place to figure out this as well) tend to be much shorter.
How should I format my story?
Some magazines have their own idiosyncratic submission guidelines, which you should look out for and adhere to. However, most magazines won’t yell at you if you give them the following:
- File type – *.doc (not *.docx, since for some reason many editors won’t take this)
- Upper Left Corner – Your Name, email address, phone number, and mailing address
- Upper Right Corner – Word count of submission (rounded to the nearest hundred)
- Then, the title of the story. On the next line, your byline, e.g. “By Rahul Kanakia”
- Body text: Times New Roman, twelve point font, indented paragraphs, double-spacing
- Section breaks: The space between sections is often marked off with a centered # symbol
- Headers: None on the first page, then, on each subsequent page, a top header with your name, the story title, and the current page number. For god’s sake, do not add manual headers. Learn how to make headers and automatic page numbers in Word. It is very, very easy.
What should I put in my cover letter?
For email submissions, you usually attach your story. The cover letter is the stuff in the body of the email. Submissions sent in using online submission systems also usually have a space for a cover letter. What you put here doesn’t matter. Generally, people put a short list of their other publication credits. If you have none, it’s perfectly fine to just write:
Your Email Address
Your Phone Number
Your Mailing Address
Please consider the attached short story for publication in your magazine.
In fact, this is what I recommend.
How long will it take me to get a response?
Anywhere from 1 day to 3 years. Usually if a magazine that is known for slow responses takes longer than six to twelve months to get back to me, I’ll write off the submission as a non-response and submit it somewhere else. If a magazine that is known for quick responses takes more than 100 days to get back to me, then I usually send an email to them (either to their query address or to their submissions address) and ask them whether they’re still considering the story. Sometimes it’s gotten lost in the shuffle (in which case I often re-send it), and sometimes they’re holding it for further consideration (in which case I whoop and holler in joy).
What should I do if I get rejected?
Don’t worry about it. All writers get rejections. As of Oct. 7th, I’ve received 886 short story rejections. I’d recommend that you just send the story out again to somewhere else. And that you write some new stories. Do not count on any particular story getting published. You’re more likely to get published (and become a better writer), if you are always writing, finishing, and submitting new stuff.
How should I keep track of my submissions?
Many people use the submissions tracker that’s embedded in duotrope. I don’t use it, but I’m fairly sure you can figure it out (you have to register to use it, but registering is free). Personally, I use an excel spreadsheet in which I record the name of each story, the date I submitted it, the place to which I submitted it, and all the places that have rejected it. The reason to keep track of your submissions is so you can assess what stories you have out and so you can avoid resubmitting a story to a place that has already rejected it.
Some magazines want me to pay a reading fee! Some contests want me to pay an entry fee! Should I shell out in order to submit?
It’s up to you. Just realize that 99 times out of 100, your story is not going to get accepted or win the contest. Magazine reading fees are usually a dollar or two, so that’s not too terrible (about what it costs to send a paper submission). But contest fees are usually like twenty dollars! I think there’s a limit to the amount of times that you want to lose twenty dollars. I have, on occasion, paid reading fees and entered contests, but it has never worked out for me. I’ve always lost my money. Nowadays, I try to avoid them, but sometimes I succumb.
How do I know if a story is ready to submit?
You don’t! It is very rare that someone will tell you “This story is done and should be submitted.” People will always find something that needs to be fixed. And they’re usually right. All stories have flaws. But, mostly, you’re not good enough to fix the flaws. A story doesn’t sell because it has no flaws, it sells because it is saying and doing something interesting.
If you have a complete draft and you’re not actively working on making it better (either by revising it or submitting it to a workshop), then you should really consider submitting it. It’s too easy to set things aside and think, “Oh, I’ll work on this someday” and then let it rot for years. There’s something good about getting stuff out there and clearing yourself up to work on something new.
What’s the point of writing short stories? Shouldn’t I work on novels?
From the beginning writer’s standpoint, stories are a bit easier because you can finish them and submit them in a month (or less). Writing, revising, and submitting a novel is going to take you about a year (or more). To some extent, the skills you get from writing short stories will also transfer over to novel writing. However, if you don’t read short stories or like short stories, then there is a good chance that your short stories won’t be that good. If you do read and like novels, then maybe that is what you should be working on. Although it’s difficult to finish a novel, it’s absolutely doable.
Furthermore, the rewards of publishing a novel are much greater than the rewards of publishing a short story. Even a new and unknown novel gets much more notice and (probably) has more readers than a short story in a top magazine. If you want to make a living as a writer, then you’ll probably need to start writing novels sooner or later.
I’d say that the main pitfall with a novel is becoming obsessed with your first one and revising it and revising it and revising it and refusing to let it go and submit it. Don’t do this! There’s a really good chance that your first novel is utterly terrible (even though you can’t see it) and that no amount of revising is going to make it good. You should polish it up as best you can and just submit it. Then go to work on the next one!
On a sidenote, though, if you want to continue to take creative writing classes and be involved with the whole workshop scene, then you’re probably going to need to continue to write at least a few short stories. For various reasons, it’s a bit difficult to submit a novel to most workshops.
I keep getting rejections! Didn’t you just say that I have, like, zero chance of getting published?
Your chances of getting published in a top magazine are low, initially, but it’s been my observation that people in the science fiction and fantasy writing world who work intensively on their writing for about 3-5 years are more likely than not to make at least one good sale. Age is not a factor here. College students get published all the time, as long as they do the work. However, there are also no guarantees. Some people write and submit for twenty years without getting any traction.
Wha…? Intensively? How hard do I need to work?! When is all of this gonna pay off?
For some perspective, my first “good” sale came during the summer after I graduated from college, when I sold a story to Nature. This was after about 286 rejections. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that any of you might do as well or better than that. During my first five years of writing and submitting (my senior year in high school + my college career), I only had about 250 or so days on which I did any writing. And on those days I did maybe 1-2 hours of writing.
Writing doesn’t seem to be like ballet or the violin. It’s been my observation that beginning writers don’t seem to put in as many hours of work, on average, as other kinds of artists. I’d say that if you wrote for half hour a day, every single day, you’d be working much harder than the vast majority of beginning writers (and harder than I, personally, worked at it during college). If you worked at it for one and a half hours a day (which is what I do now), then you’d way ahead of the curve. When you write, I’d recommend turning off the internet, however. Writing time isn’t real writing time if half of it is actually Facebook time. For myself, I use a software program called Freedom (macfreedom.com) to block the internet during my writing time.
Hah! I ignored your advice and I wrote myself a damn good novel! Now how do I sell this and reap my millions?!
Okay, I have less advice on this, since I haven’t sold a novel yet. But I will say that the general path, as far as I can tell, is to:
- Write a query letter and 2 page synopsis. There are online resources that will help you do this. Ones that I found to be helpful were the following web posts:
- Research literary agents using a service like agentquery.com
- Look up the guidelines of a bunch of agents who rep the kind of work that you’re writing
- Send the query to twenty of them or so. You can query as many agents at the same time as you want. Sometimes I’m tempted to just stay up all night and query every single literary agent and then be done with it.
- Agents will either ignore you (about half the time), reject you, or ask for a partial or full copy of your manuscript. If none of the twenty ask for part of your manuscript, then you might need to revise your query letter.
- If an agent reads your full manuscript and wants to represent you, then I have nothing more to teach you. At that point, it’s the agent’s job to sell the manuscript to a publisher.
- At the same time as you’re searching for an agent, you should keep a look out for publishers that are willing to look at unagented manuscripts (sometimes there are open calls or contests or submission windows), and submit your novel to these as well.
- Finally, if all else fails, you can self-publish on Amazon Kindle Direct and Smashwords (which’ll put your book into most of the non-Amazon ebook stores). I don’t have much experience with this, but some people have achieved tremendous success with it.
What about getting an MFA or a creative writing professorship or a Stegner fellowship or…?
Another way in which writing is unlike violin or ballet is its disregard for credentials. You really do not need any fellowships or degrees in order to publish. That having been said, the whole graduate writing thing isn’t a bad way to avoid real life and improve your writing. If that’s something you think you might want to do, then you should probably keep taking creative writing classes. Your undergrad creative writing classes are pretty similar to what a grad creative writing class would be. The only things to remember about creative writing grad school are: i) although you can get into a grad program without having published anything, you cannot get a professorship unless you publish a book with a fairly respectable publisher; and ii) you probably shouldn’t go to a creative writing program unless they waive your tuition and give you a teaching assistantship (the reason I am teaching you guys right now) that includes a stipend. Getting paid to go to grad school is extremely pleasant; spending $100,000 to go to grad school is much less pleasant.
Okay, fine…I read this all the way to the end. But you still haven’t told me where to submit my stories!
- Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Markets (ranked according to my perception of their reputation)
- Top Tier – The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the only major one that requires paper submissions), Asimov’s, Analog, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Tor.com (though they literally take years respond), Writers of the Future (this is just for beginning writers), Strange Horizons (I read submissions for this magazine),
- Not Quite The Top Tier – Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Intergalactic Medicine Show, Cosmos, Nature (yes, the scientific journal — they publish 1000 word stories and are very friendly to new writers), Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, The Universe Annex (kind of an odd submissions process; it’s an online workshop / submissions queue)
- A Third Tier – AE, Weird Tales (usually closed to submissions), Interzone (although this one is in the UK, and requires paper submissions), On Spec, Abyss and Apex, Ideomancer
- Literary Markets (tiered according to my perception of their reputation and quality)
- Top Tier – Agni, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Pedestal, the Vestal Review, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Zoetrope, Electric Literature, A Public Space, Boston Review, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, Adbusters, Conjunctions
- A Tier That Is Lower Than The Top Tier – One Story, Camera Obscura, 42opus, Ploughshares, Birkensnake, West Branch, Boulevard, Crazyhorse, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review, New Ohio review, Ninth Letter