They call it a market. I call it a racket. You don’t just sell your short stories. You gotta hustle.
I say that with affection. There’s never been a better time to start hustling. The short story racket is larger, more active, and more accessible than ever before. It’s a great time to be a reader, a writer, and a publisher. Decades ago, you had maybe a handful of short story publishers per genre. And these titans are still around today. You can still find new issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov’s on the periodical rack at Barnes and Noble. But that’s not where the real action is.
Since the maturation of the internet, the number of online short story publishers has grown exponentially. Never before have so many writers been published in so many magazines for so many readers to read. The problem before was famine: very few magazines publishing very few stories. But readers knew they were getting quality. Now, it’s a feast! We have so many publishers releasing so many stories, the only problem is separating the chaff from the wheat.
So where should you begin? A quick internet search will deliver you dozens of listicles with titles like “Where to Submit Short Stories: 25 Magazines and Online Publications” and “44 Publishers Looking for Short Story Collections.” But that’s just scraping the tip of the iceberg. What to see the whole picture? Here’s a couple of resources:
Submittable.comoffers a free database of publishers searchable by genre, pay rates, deadlines, and submission fees. Submittable is also, and predominantly, a submission manager. A wide range of publishers requires you to have a (free) account in order to submit to them.
Writer’s Market, much like Asimov’s and F&SF, is an old dog in the fight, but a tried and true dog. Us veterans in the racket probably have a copy of their phone-book like encyclopedia of publishers and agents growing mold in our basements. (I have a couple.) Well, Writer’s Market is still alive and well on the internet. A year’s subscription goes for $39.99 (about $3.33 a month) as of March 2019.
If Writer’s Market is the old dog, Duotropeis the quicker, faster, younger pup nipping at their heels, and my drug of choice. Duotrope is also a pay-to-play service at $5.00 a month. A little steeper that Writer’s Market, but you pay on a month-by-month basis. So if you don’t have any stories to hustle that month, you can bow out and save your five bucks. But the functionality of Duotrope is top notch. Filter by genre, style, topic, length, subgenre, audience, word count… Sort by pay rates, average response times, acceptance rates… Plus their submission tracker makes keeping straight where all your stories have gone to is second to none.
So let’s go on a little journey. And let’s start mid-res. Frodo and Sam have left the Shire and felt the joy of wanderlust, and YOU have a written a story. But now the Black Riders are closing in and it’s time to get to business. Here’s your Ten Easy Step to Short Story Mordor:
- You got your story; time to click a random link on SFWA’s list of publishers, throw your word doc in an email and hit SEND, right? Wrong! Before you think about submitting it, make sure your story is ready. Workshop it. Get some feedback. Rewrite it. Make it shine! Local writing groups like Brainerd Writer’s Alliance are great. There’s also online workshops like Litreactor (which I’ve used a lot) and Scribophile. Workshopping itself is a hugely educational process and a much better way to cut your teeth than throwing manuscripts blindly at publishers.
- Once you have a story that’s seen the light of day and you’ve received some feedback on, edit it. Your story should be as close to error-free as possible. You don’t need to hire an editor, but do your best job at self-editing. There’s plenty of tricks out there like changing the font, reading it out loud, reading backwards, etc. If your grammar or editing skills aren’t the strongest, you can also find a cheap editor on Fiverrfor as little as, well, five bucks.
- Now that you have a solid manuscript, it’s time to find a publisher using one of those databases I mentioned above. As you browse, make sure the publisher you’re submitting to publishes the kind of short story you wrote. The Number 1 reason stories are rejected isn’t because they’re bad. It’s because the story isn’t the genre/subgenre/style/audience/feel the publisher is looking for. The most common suggestion is to read the magazine before you submit to it. That’s good advice! If you’re going to write short stories, you need to read a lot short stories. But with all the publishers out there, there’s no way to read them all. Find your favorites. The magazines you like to read will probably be the closest to what you like to write. Before you submit, do yourself a favor and go through what’s free on their site and make sure they’re at least in the same genre.
- Which leads me to Submission Guidelines. Here’s your second easiest way to get rejected: Don’t read the submission guidelines. Reading the submission guidelines is a quick way to get a grasp of what that kind of story the publisher is looking for, how you should format that story, and how you should submit it. Very few publishers accept multiple or simultaneous submissions. That means they want exclusive access to your story while they consider where or not to publish you. What that means for you is that you’re working with a sniper rifle, not a shotgun. Weld your submission as such. One, well-aimed shot at a time. For the vast majority of publishers, they’ll request you submit your story in William Shunn’s format. It is the industry standard. But some publishers will request your story be in Arial, or Helvetica, or Comic Sans, or use two and a half inch indents. Just be sure to format your story as described in the guidelines.
- Most publishers will ask for a cover letter with your submission. Writing it isn’t too difficult. The job of a cover letter is simple: Don’t get yourself rejected. No story ever has been accepted purely on the basis of the cover letter. It should be short, to the point, devoid of gimmicks and cutesy tricks. Mine goes something like:
Dear (Editor’s name),
My (word count) word short story, “(Title of the story)” is attached here. I’ve been previously published in Magazine A, Magazine B, and Podcast C. (Or, I am a new, previously unpublished writer.) Thank you for considering this story for (name of the publisher you’re submitting to.)
Always address the cover letter to the editor by name. It’s a simple thing that shows them you care at least enough to dig around on their website long enough to find out who you’re submitting to. Never address it to “Dear Editor,” or “To Whom it May Concern.” Again, the point of the cover letter is to not get rejected.
- Some publishers will ask for an Author Bio. Some up front with your submission. Some only after you’ve been accepted. Some not at all. Your author bio will go into the publication to be read by readers. So here you can have some fun and add some flavor. Keep it around two hundred words long. Read a few other writer’s bios to get the feel of it. It must be in third person, and it’s a good idea to give people a way to find the rest of your stuff such as a website, a Facebook account, a Twitter handle, whatever.
- So, you’ve done your research and found a publisher that is looking for stories like the one you’ve written. You’ve read their submission guideline and made sure they’re open for submissions. You’ve even formatted it according to those guidelines. You have a cover letter, an author bio, and a polished story. Time to hit send on that email, right? Well, sure, if they want submissions in an email. Again, the submission guidelines are your friend. Some publishers use services like Submittable or in-house submission managers to receive submissions. Again, don’t self-reject. Give them your story the way they want it. If they want it via Submittable, don’t stick your story in an envelope and snail mail it to their address.
- Here’s some good news: Just by following the submission guidelines, you’ve already distinguished yourself above about half of all submissions. Top 50% of the crowd, and all you’d had to do is follow some simple instructions. Now you’ll be judged the way you want to be judged: On the merits of your story. Usually, the first human to see your manuscript will be a slush reader. This is a (usually unpaid) reader who understands the magazine well-enough to be trusted with cutting out another half or of the stories that made it to their desk or more. Get past the slush reader, and you’re in the top 10 to 25%. The slush reader will then pass your story on to an assistant editor or editor. If those people like it, you’ll receive that rare but oh-so-rewarding acceptance letter. Depending on your publisher, they may want to work with you on edits, may request a specific re-write, or may just take your story as is and do their own editing. If you get here, congratulations! You’ve dropped the Ring in Mount Doom! Enjoy your eagle ride back to the Shire! Your work isn’t done, (neither was Frodo and Sam’s) but you’ve achieved your goal. You’re a published writer! Take time to celebrate!
- But I got bad news for ya. Before you ever get to that acceptance letter, you’re going to get rejected. A lot. Like a whole LOT. Get used to it. Grow a thick skin. Be a pro. There’s only two ways to fail at being a short story writer:
1. Quit. If you can quit, do it. This racket is nonsense and it will eat you alive if you let it.
2. Be unprofessional.
When you get that rejection letter, read it, digest any feedback you may have received, and then hit the delete button. DO NOT hit the REPLY button! The short story racket is a small world. Editors talk to other editors. Publishers know each other. Hitting reply and firing off an angry all-caps rant about how you really feel is a quick way to get blacklisted not just from one publisher, but from everyone that publisher knows. Be a pro. Take your licks. Dust yourself off, and go back to Step 1. Getting published take patience and determination. There’s no easy way about it. It’s a long god damn way from the Shire to Mount Doom. Or, as the legendary bard Bon Scott once said, “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.”
- But let’s say you stuck with it, worked your butt off, got knocked down but got right back up, and finally, you got published. Now what? You gotta hustle, baby! Promote! Promote! Promote! We can talk about writer’s platforms, how to use social media, how to promote your story… but that’s another topic for another day. Just know, like Frodo and Sam had more business to take care of when they back it back to the Shire, so do you. You gotta hustle!
A few final words of warning for those of you I haven’t already scared off:
Writers Beware!Not all publishers are created equal. The vast majority of people involved in the writing world have good intentions and love fiction as much as you do. Some are absolute professionals. (CC Finley and his crew at F&SF are the best in the biz!) Some are new and doing their best, but will make mistakes, lose your submission, and go under just before you’re due to publish. There are also the rare few opportunists who are down right predatory. It pays to do your research before you submit. Remember, you’re welding a bolt-action sniper rifle. Don’t “spray and pray.”
The short story racket is a booming industry. It’s the Wild West. There’s gold in them thar hills! There’s a few bandits out there too. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll submit to vanity publishers running pyramid schemes. Your submissions will get lost. You’ll get rejected. A LOT. You’ll go back to the drawing board, and eventually, with a lot of work and a little luck, you’ll get accepted in a legit magazine and people across the world you’ll never met will get to read what you wrote. And THAT’s pretty awesome!
Enjoy your walk to Mordor. Good luck and keep writing!
If you would like to learn more about the short story market, join us at our April 2019 Brainerd Writers Alliance Meeting this coming Saturday. Joe will be discussing everything above, as well as answering questions you may have about entering this competitive writing market.