Planning, writing and improving a story is a labour of love. Getting it published is anything but. It takes time, and a story can expect to get a lot of rejections before someone takes it on. It’s an exercise in shoving files around, best treated as entirely mechanical process. The next couple of posts will be about how to keep stories hunting for a home with the minimal investment of time and emotion. If you’ve stayed with me this far, you’ll have realised that my experience is with the science fiction, fantasy and associated markets so that’s what my approach is geared toward. I have no experience with the literary journals, but no reason to think they are much different.
Pick a strategy
There is what may be called a pyramid of quality among the short fiction markets, with a few well-regarded markets at the top, a fair number at the mid-level and dozens, possibly hundreds, of non-paying markets at the base. A beginner needs to decide whether to start at the top and work down, or get a couple of publications in the middle before trying to tackle the upper echelons. Each approach has its pros and cons:
Start at the top: The best possible outcome is a sale to a ‘professional market’, as defined by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Apart from paying the largest pittances, there’s a level of kudos that goes with being published by them. If you really impress someone, you have a better shot at an award if you’re starting from a semi-professional market, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The downside is that you’ll be competing with authors who are well-established in the field. It’s not an impossible standard. Every one of those authors had to start somewhere. Just be prepared for a lot of rejection as you work your way through them. All pro markets I know of have a policy against ‘simultaneous submissions’, which means a story can only be under consideration by one market at a time. It’s a bad idea to ignore that rule, because if you do get caught having to choose between two acceptances, the one you turn down is likely to blacklist you. There aren’t enough professional markets that you can afford to make enemies.
Start at the middle: There are many more ‘semipro’ markets than professional markets, some of which hold a very high standard and some are less so. They pay by the word or pay a reasonable lump sum, at least by the low standards of short fiction publishing. While many well-known authors publish in semipro magazines, they are more dependent on finding new authors so the bar for acceptance is lower than at the pro level. Many of them do not object to simultaneous submissions, so a manuscript can go out to several at once. Starting with the semipros is likely to get a story accepted much quicker than working through the pros, which can boost your confidence if you’re just starting. The downside is that if the story gets snapped up immediately, you’ll kick yourself for not aiming a bit higher.
Finding your markets
The first stop for market research is the Submissions Grinder, a searchable database of short fiction markets that also gathers information on their actual response times and acceptance rates. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Ralan, which is more genre focused but generally better at keeping current with the status of the markets.
When I have a new story ready to go, I use both to list markets in order of preference. The first thing I look at is whether it fits the publication guidelines in terms of length and content. If it does, I’ll rank by the pay rate for want of any other criteria, but I’ll bump a market up the list if a story looks like a particularly good fit. I’ve never had a story accepted by the first market I send it to, which is why I need a list.
I try to glance at Ralan and the Submissions Grinder once a week, just to keep abreast of what’s going on in the publishing world. Sometimes there are calls for anthologies, contests or themed issues that can be added to the list for a given story.
Many guidelines say the best way to get an idea of what a market wants is to read it. We should certainly be reading in the field we want to publish in but given the many publications around, it’s impossible to get a sense of every one we may submit to. Sometimes the guidelines give a good idea of what they’re looking for and sometimes they don’t. Among markets that don’t have the SFWA stamp of approval, it’s worth considering a few things before deciding to submit. Has a magazine sustained a publishing schedule for a while? If it’s an anthology, is it associated with a publisher and/or an editor with a track record to delivering projects? For anthologies and contests, it’s worth looking at the reading schedule. They may be open for months but only start reading after the deadline, in which case you may as well circulate it around other markets and only submit just before the deadline.
Submitting to a new market is a gamble. On the one hand, it’s often easier to get into than an established market, and your story will be a worthwhile credit if it becomes established. On the other hand, many semipro markets sink without trace after an issue or two. It’s something I only try when I’m running out of options, but it has worked in my favour in the past.
I would advocate staying well away from is any market or contest that charges for submissions. The writer’s job is to provide content and the publisher’s job is to sell it. If they expect the writer to pay for it, it tells you all you need to know about how good they think their product is.
Because many semipro markets accept simultaneous submissions, a shotgun approach can be the quickest way to get a sale. Just make sure that if you use it, you’re equally happy for any of them to accept it. You don’t want to get an offer from one publication and then agonise about whether to accept it because the one you really want to be in hasn’t responded yet.
So much for strategising. The next step is to look at the nuts and bolts.
Decide whether you want to start with the pro or the semipro markets. Look at the appropriate page on Ralan, and also look under the anthology and contest section to see what fits. If the summary on Ralan looks hopeful, look at the market guidelines. List all the likely candidates in order of preference.
Now go to the Submissions Grinder’s search engine. Fill in the boxes for genre, word count and minimum pay scale (pro or semipro). There are other options, but setting the limits too tight risks filtering out markets that may be a good fit. Run the search and look at the guidelines of whatever comes up. Add anything interesting to your list.
Make a habit of looking at Ralan and the ‘recently added markets’ tab on the Submissions Grinder’s front page on a regular basis, preferably weekly. If anything new comes up, add it to the list.