Yeah, if you’re writing literary short stories, you really do need to put up with submission fees

Baby__disgust1People often forget that the ethical standards in their field are just consensus guidelines. What matters, oftentimes, is not the specific standard, but whether or not a given actor is willing to abide by those standards. An unwillingness to abide by them in one field often signals a certain shadiness and lack of regard in other aspects of their relations with other actors in the field.

In the SF/F field, the standard is that you don’t pay to submit your work, and magazines that charge reading fees are, rightly, laughed at.

That’s not the standard in the field of literary fiction, though. There, a number of magazines charge $2-3 reading fees. And almost every journal runs some contest or another with a $20 entrance fee.

Coming, as I do, from the SF/F field this has always seemed unconscionable to me. Editors of literary journals justify their reading fees by saying that it takes time and money to read the constant influx of submissions that’s coming in. The reading fee both cuts the number of submissions and pays for reading them. But, to me, that is the essence of their jobs. You read submissions so that you can get the good stuff. If you’re throttling back on the influx of submissions, then you’re reducing the amount of good stuff you get. To me, reading fees betray an essential lack of concern for the quality of the product you’re putting out: their prioritize the editor’s convenience over the quality of the output.

However, that’s not how the field thinks. In the field, this is a normal practice. Being published in a journal that requires a reading fee (like The Missouri Review or Narrative) is seen as an honor. Winning contests that require $20 fees (like Glimmer Train or Zoetrope‘s contests) is seen as an honor.

There are still a number of magazines that don’t charge reading fees. Usually the most highly-regarded journals don’t charge, and the journals that are very low on the pecking order don’t charge. It’s the ones on the second tier (oftentimes university-sponsored publications) that tend to charge. And a writer could, conceivably, make a career by just submitting to these.

But, as far as I can tell, most people don’t. Most people pay the fees.

It’s absurd, since you have money flowing from the pockets of graduate students and adjuncts and into the pockets of large universities (The Harvard Review, for instance, charges a reading fee). But there’s a good reason for this. It’s the same reason why academic journals have such onerous requirements (when you place a paper in an academic journal, you actually assign them the copyright to it. From that point onwards, they own it).

It’s because there’s–in comparison to publishing in an SF/F magazine–there’s much more at stake in publishing in a literary journal. If you have sufficient literary journal publications, then you can get a short story collection published. You can get an academic job. You can get tenure. You can earn $60-100k a year until the day you die, without any chance of being fired. If we were to value an academic job as a capital asset, it would be worth between one and two million dollars.

Commercial publishing has nothing that even approaches that kind of reward. How many million-dollar advances go out to unknown authors each year? Maybe one? And publishing in an SF/F magazine doesn’t really help you land that advance. At most, it might get you a few tens of thousands of dollars more than you’d otherwise have gotten.

But every year around 50 poets and fiction writers will get tenure-track positions.

And that gives leverage to the journals: they’re basically giving out lottery tickets.

So yeah, I pay to submit. And if you want to be a literary writer, then you should probably do it as well.

Trunked twenty stories today

59962_9189I’ve submitted to science fiction and fantasy magazines year ten years now, but I only recently started submitting to literary journals as well. Anyway, the main difference between literary journals and SF magazines is that the former accept simultaneous submissions: you can send one piece to as many journals as you want. This meant that my submissions volume immediately went way up: for awhile, in February, I had more than 100 submissions out.

However, most of those submissions were of just five or so stories: the ones that I went the best about. The rest were mostly science fiction stories that had mostly gone through the best markets. I liked them, and I still felt good about them (or I wouldn’t have been submitting them), but I was no longer particularly excited by them. A good number of them were written during the last year before I started my MFA program (before I really started writing novels, when I was a very productive writer).

Anyway, for the past few months, my submissions fervor has fallen. And I feel as though part of the problem was just those old stories. I’d look at them and they weren’t doing anything for me. They got in the way of me sending out submissions, and they made me depressed about the prospect of revising and sending out new work. I’ve gone a long time without an exciting short story sale, which has, to a certain extent, killed my interest in writing and submitting short stories.

But no more! I finally went through my spreadsheet and culled all the stories I’m less happy with. Now I’m down to ten stories that I’m still actively submitting and another ten that still need revising. And that all feels much more manageable to me.

Submitting to literary journals (OR I got 41 rejections in the month of January)

litjournals-1I’ve always submitted to literary journals on occasion, but for the past six months, I’ve been doing it pretty intensively. And let me tell you: it is very weird to start at the bottom all over again. I have never gotten an acceptance from a literary journal and have certainly gotten fewer than 10 personalized rejections. Submitting to literary journals is a bit of an odd activity, because there’s no online community that discusses the stories that come out in them. Many literary have readers. Some of the best ones even have tens of thousands of readers. But I don’t get all the tweets that are like, “So and so had a great story in Ploughshares last week!”

But I’ve gradually created a list of literary journals that I submit to. And now I submit to them. You would think it’d be disheartening, but it’s really not. There’s a sense of possibility in it. I’ve always enjoyed submitting things: it feels more like doing something than most writing does. And, since I’m not submitting to places where I or my friends have sold stories, there’s much less of a sense of expectation.

Lately, I’ve been feeling very oppressed by life. It feels like I need to spend all my effort on keeping what I have–my weight, my place in school, my social circle, etc–and that nothing I’m doing really has a possibility of leading to anything more. I don’t enjoy feeling like I’m just running out the clock on life.

My novel is a finalist for Tu Books’ New Visions Award

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If it wins, it will (probably) be published by Tu Books: a small press that specializes in publishing YA speculative fiction by people of color (they also put out the anthology, Diverse Energies, in which I had a story). I am obviously pretty happy about this. Including me, there are five finalists. Those odds aren’t bad.

After the shortlist was announced, I immediately googled all the other finalists, and you know what? They are people just like me. It’s insane. I kind of hope their novels are terrible. I’ve never been in a situation where I would directly benefit from other person’s failure. I mean, I guess when I was waitlisted for Syracuse’s MFA program back in 2009, it would’ve been kind of nice if one of the other admits had suddenly died or something. But, actually, even in that case I was mostly hoping they’d get into Michener or something so they’d turn down Syracuse. In general, the writing world doesn’t really work in this head-to-head competition sort of way.

Although I think my novel is pretty decent and that I deserve to be a novelist, I also bet that if we were to stack up the personal struggles of all of us finalists and measure each person’s deservingness, I wouldn’t be at the top. Thank God it’s not based on personal struggle (man, I’d never win any contest based on personal struggle–luckily for me, most contests are [informally] based on the opposite of personal struggle…the person who’s struggled the least is the person who tends to win).

Of course, from what I know about writing contests, they’re not necessarily head to head competitions either. If people see two entries that they want to publish, then usually the second one gets published somehow. But still, this whole “five enter, only one leaves” thing is an interesting thing to meditate on.

Actually, it’s not impossible that it could be “five enter, and no one leaves,” since Tu Books also reserves the right to not publish the winner of the contest. Since that would obviously be the worst possible result (I’d rather publish no book than publish your book), it’s also the one that I’ve spent the most time worrying about.

In general, I’ve found that success as a writer tends to come much slower than I think it should. I really did think that the first short story I ever wrote deserved to sell to a huge market and win tons of awards. And I’ve continued to think that with every additional short story. Oftentimes, I sell a story to a place that’s, like, objectively difficult to sell to and am like, “So what? This is pretty much where I should be selling.”

However, I’ve learned to anticipate this tendency. Now I assume that I’m not going to get the things that I think I should get (I think I wrote about this earlier this year), and I’ve thus managed, through this backdoor, to appreciate the things that I do get.

So, yay! I am really happy to be a finalist. Someone read the first three chapters of my novel and was like, “Yes, even though I am quite busy, I’d definitely like to commit to reading the rest of this novel.” I feel good about that.

And who knows, in two months, I could be announcing the sale of my novel. That’s pretty cool. But if it doesn’t go down, I will understand.

In some ways, the extremely slow pace at which novels are revised and submitted and sold is a good thing. I’ve already written two novels since writing one (this is the one that I wrote in eight days, by the way), so it’s no longer the torchbearer for all my hopes and dreams. If it doesn’t sell here, then maybe it’ll sell to the next place. And if it doesn’t sell anywhere, then hopefully coming this close on my second novel means that my fourth one will be able to go the distance.

Submitting to literary journals

I sent out sixteen submissions yesterday. I know, right? That’s a lot! Did I find an old suitcase full of stories or something?

Well, in a way. I finally decided to get serious about submitting to literary journals. As my you might know, I have, in my career, received an absurdly high number of rejections (currently 894 short story rejections and roughly 55 novel query rejections*). But only 60 or so of these rejections have come from what I’d call “literary” markets.

I suppose there are a number of reasons I’ve been less than excited about submitting to literary magazines. First, I don’t know many people who’ve sold to literary magazines through blind submissions (whereas for every single major SF magazine, I know at least one no-name beginner who’s sold to it through the slushpile**). I don’t know if this is because it’s harder to sell to lit-magazines via the slush or because I just don’t know very many aspiring literary writers. I suspect it’s a mixture of both. Secondly, lit mags are, at least in my mind, not quite as alive. I don’t read pay attention to The Best American Short Stories or the O. Henry Awards in the same way that I pay attention to The Year’s Best Science Fiction and the Nebulas. So my (perhaps totally untrue) perception is that literary magazines are basically pits into which stories go to be forgotten. And finally, I felt like my fiction was a huge long shot for a literary magazine. Since I’m from outside the field and since I write fiction that’s a bit different from ordinary literary fiction, I felt like I started with several strikes against me

But now that I’m in an MFA program and am paying a bit more attention to contemporary short stories and am around all kinds of literary authors, all of the above reasons are getting quite a bit weaker. And, most of all, now that I’ve put three of my SF(ish) stories through the workshop, I feel a bit more confident that there’s a place for them in the world of literary fiction. I mean, it’s not like they’re adventure stories about brave knights and laserfights in space. Many of my stories have no elements that would, per se, disqualify them from appearing in any place where the short stories of Kelly Link or Jonathan Lethem or George Saunder or Aimee Bender have appeared.

And finally, I have so many stories under submission now, and there are really only like eight to ten science fiction magazines that I can really get excited about appearing in. And given the fairly quick response times for SF magazines, it only takes about a year to get rejected by all of those markets, so I have a few stories (including the best story I’ve ever written) that are just languishing and waiting for an anthology to put out a call for submissions or something***.

So the thought of shotgunning those stories to a few dozen literary magazines was not unattractive.

Yes, shotgunning! Submitting to litmags is so strange. They all take simultaneous submissions, so you can literally submit the same story to ten or fifteen magazines. And they all take months to respond, so you only really submit to each magazine twice or three times a year. Oh, and most of them only read submissions from September to May (they take the summer off). All in all, it’s a system that’s very attuned to the pace of the MFA program. In a program, you produce six stories a year (three for each semester’s workshop), and then you spend ages revising them. I always wondered why literary writers had a lower output than speculative fiction writers, and now it kind of makes sense. There are all these institutional factors that limit your output. If you wrote fifteen literary stories in a year, you’d still just submit the best one to the top twenty best markets, and the other fourteen would languish. It’s virrrrrry interesting.

Conversely, the fast response times and lack of simultaneous submissions encourages the genre writer to write a lot of stories. You can just throw thirty or forty stories at a market until they buy one****.

Anyways, so, yes, I took the best story I’ve ever written and submitted it to eleven markets that I’d either: a) heard of; or B) paid significant amounts of money.

What I’ve learned from this is that a lot of literary magazines have a fair amount of money. You can tell just by looking at their websites. So many science fiction magazines–even really top ones–have websites that look kind of home-made. I mean, homemade by people who really know their stuff, sure, but still…there’s something fundamentally homegrown about them. I think it has something to do with the graphics. Whereas all lit-mags have websites that look basically a lot like Granta’s (no, seriously, look at A Public Space and The Boston Review’s websites…I wonder if they’re all made by the same company?) It may not be the prettiest or funnest or most original website in the world, but there’s something clean and professional about it.

Oh, many lit-mags pay quite a lot too. For instance, the New Haven Review pays $500 per story. And many periodicals pay $30-$40 per page, which, at 300 words per page (if we’re talking about manuscript pages of a work written in double-spaced Times New Roman), works out to well over 10 cents per word. And a classmate here at Hopkins informed me that many professional journals (the Paris Review, Tin House, etc.) will pay $100 per page. That’s really good. Of course, it’s only the top journals that pay this much, but still…there’s only one SF journal that pays more than 10 cents per word (Tor.com)

What’s even weirder than the high pay rates, though, is how incredibly coy most markets are about it. For instance, it’s not at all clear what they mean by “per page”. It might be “per manuscript page” or it might be “per printed and typeset page of the magazine” (the latter would probably end up being about half as much money as the former). I think that the majority of submissions guidelines, even for places that I know pay very well, don’t have any mention of pay rates. I think that if you write literary short stories then maybe you’re not supposed to care how much you get paid? That’s weird to me. What’s the point of paying so much if you don’t advertise that fact, and use it to get the best submissions?

Anyways, so…yes…I submitted to a lot of lit-mags. Normally, these brief bursts of activity have been followed by years of quiescence on the literary front. But I think that this time I’ll stick with it.

Oh, and finally, many literary magazines charge a $3 reading fee for online submissions. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it’s roughly similar to what you’d pay in envelopes and postage for a snail mail submission (although that’s actually closer to $2), and these markets are usually careful to specify that submitting by snail mail is still free. But, on the other hand, I don’t really feel like paying a market to reject me. Requiring submitters to pay you for the privilege of reading them strikes me as a bit contemptuous. I think I might just send out paper submissions to these magazines. Paying the post office feels more honest than paying some magazine.

 

*Although at least half of these query rejections are straight-up nonresponses, because that’s how that particular game is played…

**Personally, at least for Clarkesworld and Nature, I was that no-name beginner, and even now I think that my credits don’t really give my submissions much additional merit or notice when it comes to the slush pile.

***Of course, when I’m really at the bottom of the barrel in terms of markets, that’s when I submit the story to Tor.com and get prepared to forget about it for the next two years.

****I submitted twenty-one stories to Apex before they bought my first one, and I think the number was similar for IGMS. Currently, I have accumulated about 75 rejections from John Joseph Adams (wearing his various editorial hats for various magazines and anthologies).

I’ve just freed myself from the tyranny of duotrope

I’m sure that every aspiring writer in my audience is well familiar with Duotrope. It’s a great search engine and tracker for short story submissions. You just enter your requirements (mine are usually: accepts science fiction / pays above 5 cents per word) and you get a neat little list of every publication that meets those requirements and is currently open to submissions. It’s invaluable.

But until recently, this invaluable service was intermixed with a truly horrifying one. When it takes you to the market page, Duotrope also lists the average time it takes that market to accept or reject a story (they usually take longer to accept than to reject). And you can click on a little button that will list all the responses that Duotropers have gotten from that market in the last 30 days. Ostensibly, I guess this is to see if a market is still actively responding to submissions (few recent responses = really nonresponsive market). But actually, the purpose of all this data is to propagate horrible euphoria and anxiety amongst aspiring writers. Basically, when you have a submission out, you spend hours just staring at these statistics and trying to scry some meaning from them.

You think, “Oh, look, here are a bunch of responses to stories that were submitted 15ish days ago AND a bunch to stories that were submitted 45ish days ago. The latter must be the stories that got past the slush readers. Thus, since my story was submitted 25 days ago, I must’ve been passed up to the next level of editorial scrutiny, woohooooo!”

And, yeah, sure, that’s fine and it’s exhilarating. But it’s also just a huge waste of time. If a publication wants to buy your story, they’ll definitely let you know. Anything less than that really doesn’t matter very much (I mean, a positive rejection is nice, but rarely has much of a positive effect on my mood nowadays). Furthermore, the constant agonizing over submission status is just exhausting. It’s way more emotional variance than I want or need in my life. I just want to send out my stories and then forget about them.

But my efforts were doomed. It required a constant act of will to avoid the teeming mass of data that lurked on duotrope, just waiting to be picked apart and used to fuel my hope-machine. And I succumbed quite often, too often, to that pointless game.

And then duotrope saved me! Recently, they put all of their response-time data behind a registration wall. You can access all the publication info (i.e. the useful stuff) with no hassles, but you need to log in to see the response-time data! As I was walking around the lake the other day, I realized that my problems were solved! I could just log into duotrope and change my password to random and unmemorized letters. I mean, I’m sure the password is recoverable, but I’ve found that putting even a slight barrier between me and a negative activity is often enough to stop it. And now there is more than a slight barrier between me and this horribly annoying response-time browsing.

Yet another victory for good mental health. I think that someday I will regard today as one of the greatest days of my life.

 

The Submissions Flush

Right now I have twenty-five stories out, in slush piles, somewhere. While this is not the greatest number of stories I’ve ever had out at one time (I’ve gone above 30), this is the first time in several years that I’ve had every submissions-ready story out.

Of course, I accomplished this by deleting five stories, which had been languishing unsubmitted for six months to a year, from the “submissions-ready” worksheet in my larger submissions spreadsheet. In other words, I trunked them (but isn’t trunking kind of a horribly obsolescent word for supposedly cutting edge SF writers to use?). Those stories will never again increase the unread email count of an editor’s inbox.

It felt good, real good. And then I submitted twelve stories, and now here we are…fully submitted…this isn’t going to last, I’m sure I will wake up to at least one rejection, so I thought I’d commemorate the occasion.