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).