Everything I Know About Getting Short Stories Published

Who I am

My name is Nino, and I’ve been submitting short stories and essays for the past five years. I’ve been published, at best guest, in about 15 different venues. I’m currently the assistant fiction editor at Beecher’s, a literary magazine, and I’ve previously worked as a slush reader for Crossed Genres Magazine and Strange Horizons.  I’m not a “pro” writer or editor, but I’ve learned some stuff and am happy to share.

What this is

Originally, this was a handout for other students in my fiction workshop, some of whom hadn’t been published, or didn’t have much experience with submitting stories to short fiction markets. This is meant for people who are just starting to submit their short fiction, and might want tips on how to navigate the process: finding markets, choosing where to submit, how to deal with rejections, what to do when you get an acceptance, and a bunch of random advice from someone who’s waded through slush piles for a while. A lot of it slants towards writing for science fiction/fantasy/horror markets, since that’s what I know, but there’s plenty of advice that might apply for writers in other genres.

This is all 100% based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as law, obviously. Other writers and editors will have their own advice, and some of it is probably better than mine. The info below is under a Creative Commons license: you can share freely, as long as it’s credited, but cannot use it for commercial purposes, and it cannot be remixed or transformed.

Finding markets — Databases

  • Duotrope
    • User-generated info on response times, easy interface, paywall ($50 per year/$5 per month)
  • Submission Grinder
    • Same information and setup as Duotrope, less intuitive interface (IMO), free
  • Poets and Writers
    • Exhaustive list of literary magazines, not specific about response time or payment
  • Writer’s Market (from Writer’s Digest)
    • Book series that is updated yearly, costs between $30-$50. Different editions for different genres of writing – children’s, playwriting, songwriting. The general one is helpful if you want to branch into freelancing. Often available at public libraries.
  • SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) has a list of “qualifying markets” that pay a minimum of $.06 a word. Being published in these markets can qualify one for SFWA membership. (This list is somewhat misleading — not all of those magazines are still publishing, and not all accept unsolicited stories.)
  • Codex is a forum that has threads about specific markets. I’ve never used it but know that it’s helped others. Your mileage may vary. Membership requires a publication or workshop attendance.
  • UPDATE 3/8/17: Entropy puts together a bimonthly list of venues and contests that are taking submissions. This is especially helpful for folks writing literary/realist fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction.

Finding Markets – Anthologies and contests

  • Anthologies: Writingcareer.com (also has general calls for submissions), various Facebook groups: I follow Binders full of Women and Nonbinary Poets; Calls for Submission (Poetry, Fiction, Art); Open Call: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Pulp Markets
  • Contests/Fellowships/Residencies: Poets and Writers, Aerogramme, Writer’s Chronicle (print magazine — online version requires a membership)

Finding markets – Stalking your faves

What authors do you like? Follow their publications, both previous and current. Short story collections and anthologies always list where stories were originally published. Find out what editors they’ve liked and worked with, what markets have published them, what markets they might be involved in.

Deciding where to submit

My priorities: response turnaround, payment, prestige/profile, content.

  • Response turnaround: How long is this market going to hold onto your story? How often do they send personalized rejections? How often do they not respond at all? Do they allow for simultaneous submissions, or do they want to have an exclusive look at your story?
  • Prestige/Profile: How big is this magazine’s readership? How often are their stories nominated for prizes/awards?
  • Content: Do I like the work that this market publishes? Do I like the people on the masthead? Do I like the authors represented?
  • Payment: Because who doesn’t like getting paid for their labor? Professional rates are about $.06 per word, semi-pro is around $.01-.03, token payments are usually a flat fee of $10-50. For literary fiction, unless you’re published by top-tier magazines, the writer often gets no money. If it’s in print, you should at the very least get a contributor’s copy.

There aren’t many magazines that rate high on all four of those axes, but if they do, SUBMIT THERE FIRST. Generally speaking, simultaneous submissions seem to be the norm for realist/lit magazines, but not for SF/F/H.

Other considerations:

Pay to play: A new trend in which writers must pay to submit stories for publication. It’s considered extremely bad form in the SF/F/H world, but is fairly common now in lit-fic. Some publishers offer tiers – you can still submit for free, but paying this much guarantees a quicker response, feedback from an editor, etc. Personally, I won’t pay for a submission unless it’s a contest.

Are they publishing new writers? (AKA, don’t bother submitting to the New Yorker.) Warning, personal opinion ahead: if a magazine is only publishing established voices with several books already out, it’s probably a waste of time sending them your stories when you’re first starting out. For one, they might only take solicited or agented writers. Secondly, you’re competing for space with contemporary writers that have big followings. When you’re starting out, aim for magazines that publish a mix of new and established writers. (However, if you also write essays, consider pitching them to start building up rapport with the publication.)

Are they a scam? There are plenty of terrible publishers that scam authors, don’t pay, give you terrible contracts, go under and never communicate with you again. Writers Beware and similar sites are good places to check.

When you have chosen a market

  1. Read their submission guidelines. It’s obvious when people don’t. Some publishers specifically outline what they do and don’t want (“No vampires or selkies” or “We are always looking for more stories with female protagonists.”). Others will have something more open-ended. Almost all of them will have a minimum and maximum wordcount – make sure that your story falls in it. Follow the instructions exactly: editors will often reject stuff out of hand if it’s obvious the author didn’t look at the guidelines.
  2. Send your story in a readable format. Standard manuscript format dictates double-space, serif font (Courier New or Times New Roman), 1 inch margins, with your title, name, contact information, and wordcount at the top. If your story relies on fancy formatting and layout, it will be a harder sell. Check that you’re sending it in the right file format, if it’s specified.
  3. Write a cover letter.  This is not a bio, or a place to summarize or pitch your story. Editors are interested in your professional expertise; advanced degrees (depending on your market); workshops you’ve attended; fellowships, contests, and awards you’ve won; other qualifications that might add to your credibility as an author, like if you’re a veteran writing about war. List any novels you’ve published (including self-pub), and venues that have published you (not an exhaustive list, just the standouts). Mention the title of your story and the wordcount. THAT’S IT, unless the submission guidelines specifically ask for something else.
  4. Take a deep breath, and send your beautiful creation into the uncaring void.
  5. Keep track of which stories are out and where, especially for stories that are out on simultaneous submission. Spreadsheets are helpful. Duotrope and Submission Grinder keep track for you if you, like me, hate Excel. Submittable also keeps track, and facilitates an easy withdrawal if your story does get accepted elsewhere.

Random advice

Editors and slushers read stacks of stories of dubious quality, often for no pay. Multiple people will be looking at your story, weighing its merits. Don’t give any of the several people reading your work an easy reason to reject it.

A lot of stories, in my experience,  suffer from certain lacks: a deficit of detail or emotion or relationships; too much scenery, not enough movement; too much action and no space to breathe. There’s not a magic formula, obviously, but those are the ones I usually pick up.

The first five pages are the most important. By the fifth page, I can tell usually tell how I’m gonna vote on a story, and if the story truly sucks, I might not read past that point. Some magazines require slushers to read until the end, but first impressions matter; a magazine’s potential readers are not under the same compunction. Those first five pages should be impeccable.

Beginnings that I see too often in the slushpile:

  • Someone waking up
  • Exposition – talking ABOUT what is happening in the story or with the characters rather than the actual story
  • A character worrying about or anticipating something (kinda fits with the above)
  • A dead body in a room. Our narrator, looking at it.  Thinking.  Not just about the body. But also the world. While smoking.

Many publishers, unless they ask for flash or novelettes, prefer stories that are between 2000-4000 words. It’s the sweet spot in terms of attention, money (if that’s a concern), spacing, and print cost (if it’s in print). Beecher’s, to give you an idea, publishes about 12,000 words of fiction per issue, and we come out with one issue a year. If you submit a story that’s 6,000 words, it better be a damn good story.

Consider submitting your work to be part of your job as a writer. Budget time for researching markets and submitting. Organize your submissions the way you would your finances, or calendar, etc. (You are organizing your finances, right?) Make submitting a normal part of your schedule, and it will help (eventually) to cut down on the anxiety-inducing part of it.

On rejections

Don’t take rejections personally, even if you thought it was a sure thing. You learn to build up a thick skin (or pretend to), but really, get used to rejection as soon as possible. I had a friend who told me that she had gotten rejected from a single publication 80 times–she was later published by the magazine. That’s an extreme example, but: write a lot, submit a lot, get a lot of rejections, keep writing. Rinse and repeat.

Rejectomancy: Science fiction and fantasy writers have what we call rejectomancy, though I’m sure writers of all genres do it. It’s like the bargaining part of the grieving process where you’re checking your email or your spreadsheet and doing weird math like, well, it says they usually reject within 14 days, and accept by 21, and I’ve gotten over that 14 day hump so maybe, just maybe!!! I’m not going to tell you not to do it, but once you send a piece out on submission, get back to writing. Finish a piece, send it out, work on the next thing; don’t hover by your email.

Never argue with a rejection. Don’t publicly talk shit about an editor because they sent you a form rejection. Don’t complain to someone higher-up on the masthead. This isn’t a Target, and you don’t get to talk to a manager when someone gives you an answer you don’t like. Editors talk to each other. People in the writing and publishing world are the most gossipy, and they’re all on Twitter, and everyone will stop what they’re doing to watch and cluck their tongues over another writer crashing and burning in a public way.

What if the editor’s response was racist/ableist/sexist/homophobic/bigoted? Editors need to behave according to professional standards, same as writers. If you think you’re being discriminated against, talk to other writers that you trust about your experiences, if they’ve had similar ones, and what to do now.

YAY! Your story was accepted! Now what?

Now you should get a contract. Yes, even if it’s a small publisher; yes, even if you’re all friends. Contracts serve to clarify what can and can’t be done with your intellectual property, both now and in the future.

This should go without saying, but read your contract. Remember that this is a negotiable document: the publisher is asking for specific rights in exchange, hopefully, for some kind of payment. You can ask for parts of the contract to be revised before signing it – at the very least, you should ask for clarity on anything you don’t understand.

Most contracts ask for one of the following: First North American Rights, First World Rights in English, or First Publication Rights. The “First” bit is important, here: it specifies that your story has not appeared anywhere else before, in print or online, and yes, that includes your personal blog and (usually) your Patreon. Reprints are different beasts, and I’ll save them for a different blog post.

Publishers will ask for some period of exclusivity, when you can’t republish the story elsewhere. (In SF/F/H, there should be an exception made for “Year’s Best” anthologies.) This exclusive period should not be too long, and in my experience, is generally 4-6 months. Online publishers will also ask to nonexclusively archive the story, and they might retain the onetime ability to republish it in a collection — some publishers do this so that around awards time, they can send it to juries and voters. They might also do their own year’s end collection as a reward to subscribers, Kickstarter backers, or contributors.

If your publisher also runs a podcast, they’ll ask for audio rights as well, and include that in the fee. All other rights that aren’t explicitly included in the contract should be retained by the author (and that line should also be in there). Publishers should not ask for the rights to other media versions of your story, nor for translation rights. Those are up to the writer to sell.

Your contract should specify:

  • how much you are getting paid (both the rate and the lump sum)
  • when you are getting paid (after signing your contract or when your story is published)
  • how you’re getting paid, whether a check in the mail or money sent through Paypal
  • if you are getting royalties, there should be a schedule for how often you get them (once a quarter, once a year, once you make a certain amount).

Something I’ve learned from personal experience: always request a reversion of rights clause. This specifies how long a publisher can hold onto your work without publishing it; it should also specify that in case they never publish your story, you’ll retain payment.

What to do if your contract is violated

If you don’t get paid (or are getting screwed in some other way), you have options. The Freelancer’s Union has guides on what you can do in case of nonpayment. If you are a member of SFWA, you can also reach out to their grievance committee.

Contract signed and sent! Now what?

Bask in the glow of being a Published Writer. Take yourself out for ice cream. Get a massage. Send rude postcards to all the people who scoffed at your dream. Check and see how many thousands of new followers you have on Twitter. Await your call from the Pulitzer committee; sure, nobody’s ever been awarded just for a single short story, but somebody has to be first, right?

JUST KIDDING. Get back to writing, get back to submitting. That’s really all there is. (Although I do support support celebratory ice cream and back massages.)

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