But No Cigar: Getting Short Stories Published
By Stan Dryer
I’ve been writing short stories for over 60 years. From 1959 to 1985 I published a number of my stories in national magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Fantasy and Science Fiction and Playboy. In that period there were a number, perhaps around a hundred, of national magazines that would print fiction and pay well for it. I had an agent who made enough in commissions to make it worthwhile for her to submit my stories to magazines for me. I did all of my writing on a typewriter with a carbon copy for myself. At that time, people could make a living just writing and selling short stories.
Now, after a gap of about thirty years, I’m writing short stories again and getting some of them published. The game is quite different now. I’m making little money, as the magazines that have accepted my work pay nothing or give only token payments. There are now thousands of publications looking for short stories but many thousands of people writing stories they want to get published. I’ve been playing in this zoo for a couple of years now. I’m writing this article to help writers get their short stories published and to help them pick the best places to be published.
This article deals only with ways to get a short story published, not how to write short stories. It also assumes that you have written a story for some personal reason and want to get it published. It does not deal with how to write a story with the major objective of getting it published, a different subject. While some of what I discuss may apply to getting a novel published, that is a totally different subject.
Finally, let me note that I have been using a service named Duotrope to assist me in locating publishers and keeping track of stories submitted to publishers. I describe this service in this article because of my familiarity with it. I don’t discuss other such services as I have no familiarity with them.
How Easy Is It to Get Published?
The answer to this question depends upon what you mean by “being published”. Do you want your story put up on some on-line site that displays a dozen stories a month and pays nothing for those stories? Getting published with such a publisher is easy if you have a well written story with a good plot and reasonably developed characters. Or, do you want publication to mean that you are going to be paid several hundred dollars for your story and have it printed in a prestigious literary review? That goal is much more difficult to reach.
Let me note that you don’t need an agent to get short stories published. You simply send a story directly to the magazine or review you think would like it. It is probably almost impossible to find an agent willing to flog short stories for you.
Who Are the Publishers?
There are literally thousands of magazines and journals that publish short fiction. These range from some little guy who decided it costs almost nothing to become an on-line publisher and invents a “magazine” that displays a few short stories each month on his web page, to what many consider the ultimate goal, The New Yorker. Let me try to characterize what magazines, reviews and journals are out there and try to bring a little organization to these thousands of publishers:
- High-end literary magazines. I’ve seen a lot of discussions of what literary writing means. A quick definition would be writing that is valued for its quality of form. Literary magazines are often called Reviews (e.g., New England Review) and are often associated with Universities and their creative writing programs. Most of the well-known of these reviews existed long before the internet and were, and still are, the place where those pursuing the art of writing try to publish.
- Genre holdovers. Most of the magazines that published short stories during the middle of the 20th century have either disappeared or morphed into totally different magazines (e.g., Cosmopolitan). However, in certain genres, magazines have survived. Thus, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are still with us. I suspect that these magazines have survived because they have fan bases that carried over from generation to generation, fans that still want to read the printed (or on-screen) word. Many of these magazines still pay well for stories they publish.
- Other genre magazines. There are also a variety of new magazines that have grown up that target specific genres such as mystery, horror, adventure, science fiction, fantasy etc. The magazines usually state their genre of interest clearly and up front.
- Targeted Specialized Magazines. These magazines are usually targeted to a special segment of the reading public and only publish material of specific interest to that group. These publications range from religious or sectarian magazines to those speaking to the issues of minorities or addressing such topics as women’s issues or gender identity concerns.
As the politics of such groups is often complex, you need to have an understanding of a minority group (or be a member of one) to expect such magazines to publish what you have written. Some magazines simply state that you should be a member of the group they represent in order to submit to them. (e.g., “We see ourselves as a voice for the LGBT community”.)
Many magazines emphasize that they encourage writing by or about individuals in minority groups while noting that anyone is free to submit material to them. It is often hard to tell whether such statements indicate that the magazine is simply open to all or whether heavy preference will be given to minorities. In that situation, it may be worthwhile to read an issue of the magazine to see what they actually publish.
- Regionally Restricted Magazines. Many magazines will have regional restrictions on who may submit manuscripts to them. Thus, a Canadian magazine might limit submitters to that country in order to encourage Canadian writers.
- Topically restricted magazines. These magazines only publish material related to one or more particular topics. Thus, you have magazines that want stories about urban streets, or cats or people making life changing decisions. I once ran into a magazine that said it only wants material that is so gross that all other magazines would reject it.
- Special topical issues or anthologies: Some magazines choose a specific topic for each issue of their magazine. You also see requests for topical anthologies that also might be genre specific. As an example, I submitted a story about two vegan women in 2060 New York to an anthology looking for science fiction stories about food. I figured there wouldn’t be many people with stories in that category, but my rejection e-mail said that I shouldn’t assume my story was bad as they had had 200 plus entries for ten slots in the anthology.
If you have subscribed to Duotrope’s weekly listing of markets, at the bottom is a list titled Upcoming Themed Deadlines. This is a list of publications requesting submissions limited by various topics or other criteria. The deadlines for these submissions are given so if you are a procrastinator, you may want to stay away from this section.
- Contests. Some magazines hold annual (or more frequent) competitions for short stories, hopefully with one or more cash prizes. Often these contests will be restricted to a particular topic. You also see contests which are really writing exercises. Typically, you might be given a topic, or the first and last sentences of a story and asked to write a story under those restrictions in a limited time period, e.g., one day.
- Magazines with relatively loose restrictions on the topic, genre or style of submitted material. Basically, I’m talking about magazines not covered in numbers 1 to 7 above.
As you can see from the list above, although there are thousands of magazines and other places to publish short stories, most of these would not be appropriate for any particular story. We need also to consider a number of other restrictions that magazines generally impose on people submitting stories.
Most magazines also impose a variety of other restrictions on submitted material. Here is a list of the most common such caveats that might prevent or discourage you from submitting your material to a particular magazine.
- Length of story. Typically, magazines will list one or more defined category for short stories they will accept. A typical such list might be: Flash Fiction: Less than 1000 words. Short Story: 1000 to 5000 words. Sometimes you may see an additional category such as: Novella: Up to 20,000 words. Let me add here that I never worry about trying to keep a story below a specified number of words when I write it. I feel a particular story has its own length, the time it takes to tell the story properly. That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes adjust the length of a story to fit a particular category. Thus, if I have a 3200 word story and want to submit it to a magazine that has a 3000 word maximum limit, I might cut the story down by 200 or more words. Often, in the process, the story gets better by being a bit more compact.
- Method of submission: Almost every magazine accepts electronic submissions and many now refuse or seriously discourage paper submissions. There are pluses and minuses to electronic submission. It is obviously easier, faster and less expensive than paper submissions. These factors unfortunately make it possible for any individual to flood the marketplace with multiple copies of his or her story.
- Previous publication: Most magazines only want material that has not been previously published, and most of them consider putting a story up on your (or another) blog or web page as previous publication.
- No simultaneous submissions: Most magazines permit you to simultaneously submit material to other publications but request you withdraw your submission to them if you are accepted for publication elsewhere. But there are some publications that will not permit simultaneous submissions. Hopefully, this restriction is accompanied with a quick turn around time so you will quickly learn whether you were accepted or rejected. However, there are some magazines that think they are so prestigious they don’t permit simultaneous submissions while having a 6 month turn-around time.
- When magazines are open for submissions. Many magazines specify times during which you are allowed to submit stories. I think I have seen more such limitations since the coming of the COVID-9 virus. Many of the reviews that often are associated with universities currently are only accepting submissions starting in September.</li>
Less-Critical Restrictions and Features
We have talked above about restrictions on submissions that publications create that make it simply impossible for you to submit a particular story to them. There are also features of magazines that, while not preventing you from submitting a manuscript to them, may make you decided to go elsewhere. Here is a list of significant features that you may wish to check before deciding where to send a short story.
- Does Your Story Match a Publication’s Mission or Purpose? Almost every magazine will state what type of material they are interested in publishing and, often, what material they do not want to see. Such descriptions usually appear when you look at their web page concerned with submissions. Duotrope also provides this information for each of the publications it describes. The usefulness of this information varies. Some descriptions are pretty specific (e.g., We do not want gratuitous violence.) Others are less useful (e.g., We want stories that make us stand up and shout, “This is the one we want to publish.”) Read these descriptions carefully and, as they often suggest, read one or two of the stories they have published if they are easily accessible. After reading the story, be sure to read whatever biographical material is provided about the author. This information will give you an idea what your competition is for submission to this magazine.
- What is a publisher’s business? Every publisher has a motive for publishing short stories sometimes stated, sometimes hidden. Some reviews are published by the Creative Writing departments of universities as a way to help students learn about writing by seeing a broad spectrum of stories. Other publishers are interested in teaching would be writers how to write fiction. When you submit a story to them, you get put on their list to be offered on-line workshops or courses. There are many publishers who are simply trying to either start up a magazine or increase its circulation in the hopes of making it a profitable operation.
A large industry has grown up around fiction writing. Many people and organizations are ready to help you write fiction, find agents, get your novel published etc. usually for a price. Such organizations may offer to publish stories as a way of gaining customers. And their business model may influence what they publish. For example, if you are in the business of helping new writers to write publishable stories, you may tend to publish stories by new writers including those you have helped learn the trade.
- Payment to Submit: Some publications require you to pay a fee when you submit a manuscript. Often these fees are in the range of three to five dollars. In other cases, you must purchase issues of the magazine in question or start a subscription. Such small fees probably reduce the number of submissions the publication receives while helping to fund the costs of reading and judging submissions. For myself, I can afford to pay these minimal fees, but I still think twice before a submission to make sure that my story is a good match for the type of story the magazine publishes. However, I occasionally see contests offering significant cash prizes but requiring fees up as high at $25. Such a combination has the feel of a moneymaking scheme, but it could simply be a way for a non-profit to fund its operation.
- Payment for an accepted story: Magazine will state whether they will pay for an accepted story. In many cases, the magazine is operating on a shoestring with little revenue from subscriptions and their payments are basically token ones. Many publications say they will pay on a sliding scale; for example: We pay on a sliding scale: 1 cent a word or a semi-pro payment of up to 4.9 cents a word. They don’t say how they define semi-pro or pro. In any case, it is obvious that very few writers of short stories are going to do more than cover the cost of their ink cartridges. Another point to check is whether payment is on acceptance of a story or on its publication. Payment on acceptance indicates definite commitment to publish it. Payment on publication does not, unless the magazine specifies exactly when a story will be published.
- Rights you grant the publisher. A publisher should clearly state what publication rights you are granting them when they accept a story for publication. Hopefully a statement of such is given in the Submission section of their web site. It is usually given to you for your agreement when they offer to publish your story. Your copyrights should also be covered in such statements. I am not going to go into the details of publication rights here. However, there are a number of excellent articles available on the internet that cover that topic. I found a number of useful articles by Googling “publisher’s rights magazine articles.”
- Time to respond: Most magazines will tell you a rough response time which is the time between when you submit the manuscript electronically and when you can expect to get your rejection or acceptance e-mail. These times vary between a few days to close to a year. Unfortunately, some of the more prestigious magazine have the longest response times. I’ll talk a little later about how you might try to minimize response time in doing multiple submissions.
- Method of submission and format of submission. Unhappily, there is no across the board standard for either of these items. Many publishers use an application called Submittable which handles the submitting process including the entering of your name and other personal information and the collection of fees etc. More on Submittable later. However, many publishers either use alternative manuscript submission apps, or simply have you send them your manuscript as an attachment to an e-mail or sometimes in the e-mail message itself! Submittable also give you a standard way of communicating with a publisher.In the days before the internet, when material was typed on 8.5 x 11 paper, there was a universal standard for submissions requiring double spacing, wide margins etc. This requirement provided an easy read for an editor with space to put in written comments and corrections. If the story was published, it would be typeset from these same pages. Obviously, things have changed, and each publication now has its own standard format for submission. Many still use the old paper and typewriter standard, but others want a variety of different formats. In addition, publishers also specify which type of file you should send them. Most are happy with Microsoft Word .docx files, but some want PDF format files. I have just submitted a story to a high-end mystery magazine that wanted only .doc Word files. I generally write my final draft as a double-spaced document in the old standard format and save it as a .docx file. I would estimate that half the time I have to modify either the format of the document or the type of file (or both) before it is an acceptable submission to a particular publication. As publication of your story will be accomplished simply by printing your text directly from the file you have sent, there are now a few more requirements for how a manuscript is formatted. For example, in the old days, a typesetter didn’t care how many spaces should follow the period at the end of a sentence. Now you should have only one space.
- Blind or Biographical Submissions. Most publishers want you to accompany your submission with your publication history and other biographical information. Some obviously want to know how serious and successful a writer you are. Others will note that they don’t pay any attention to such material when judging your story, but will use it if they publish your story. There are also some publishers who say them want “blind” submission in which neither your name or other personal information appears on the manuscript you submit. They are saying they are going to judge your story solely on the story itself. Note that blind submissions also protects a publisher from being accused of bias against any particular group of writers.
- Preference for Unpublished Writers. Many magazines make it clear they are anxious to see unpublished writers. A few only want to see such writers.
- Print or Electronic Publication. Most magazine publishers these days offer their magazines, if they print them, in both paper and electronic editions. In some cases, the electronic edition is available free, typically on the publisher’s web page. Of course, there are a wealth of electronic-only publishers as such publishing is inexpensive. The big advantage to electronic publishing for free is that it makes it easy for your friends, relatives and fans to read your published story without having to buy a subscription to a magazine.
- How long has the publisher been in business? The turnover in magazines publishing fiction is great. Every week Duotrope lists dozens of new publications as well as listing more that have gone out of business. I generally stay away from publications that are less than 3 or 4 years old. However, if you just want to see your story in print, new publications may give you a better opportunity than old established ones that cater to well-known authors and get lots of submissions.
- Success rate for submissions. This topic is the percentage of acceptances over submissions for a particular publisher. It is roughly a measure of what your chances are of getting a story published. This number is available on Duotrope but it obviously only counts submissions from authors who subscribe to Duotrope. However, it can be a clear indication of how tough a market a particular publication is. For example, if Duotrope says that 250 writers have tried to publish in a particular review, and zero of those submissions have been accepted, that will be a tough market to crack.
- Feedback. When you submit a story to a magazine and it is rejected, you usually will receive an e-mail notification. In most cases, this will be a form rejection letter. Such letters I have received are generally encouraging and want me to continue to submit other material to the magazine in question. I suspect that what I am seeing is the same letter sent to all authors being rejected. I’ve often wondered if there is another letter that is sent to writers whose work is hopeless that says politely, “Don’t bother to ever send us another story.” Some magazine will, however, send you details on why they are rejecting your work. In some cases, you can get this analysis by paying the magazine a slight fee that may also get your submission looked at more quickly. Sometimes the comments are useful, other times not so much. One personal comment I got on a rejection was, “Sorry, we couldn’t use your story but that was really a nice twist at the end.” Useful? Duotrope lists for each magazine the percentages of rejection letters that are personal and those that are form letters. If the percentage of personal rejections is small and you get a personal letter, it indicates that you probably came close (but no cigar). How to interpret comments on your writing and how (e.g., if you are in a writing group) to comment on writing of others is a complex issue which I hope to comment on elsewhere. Here, I’ll just leave you with a question: In a rejection e-mail are you better off is someone tells you what is wrong with what you have written or if they tell you what they like about it?
- Rewrites or Held Stories: Sometimes you might get a request for a rewrite, but I have never had that happen to me. In other cases, a publisher may tell you that they are holding your story in case they may use it in a future issue of their magazine. I would not assume such publication would ever happen and go ahead with submitting to other publications.
Once you have published one or more stories, they become candidates to be picked for anthologies or collections of short stories. There are a variety of these publications. Pushcart Press’s yearly anthology is one well-known venue where magazines submit what they think are their best stories. There are also genre-oriented prize anthologies such as Best American Mystery Stories. In addition, there are publishers looking to publish collections of short stories all by the same author.
Duotrope is an on-line service designed to help writers find both publishers and agents. It allows you to search for publishers using a variety of parameters and, for any publisher, gives you a summary of the significant facts about that publisher. Most of the factors that I have described in the lists above appear on those summaries.
I have talked in this article only about finding publications for short stories. While Duotrope lists agents, most agents are not interested in trying to assist anyone in publishing short stories, mainly because the possible income for them is so small. However, an agent might be interested in trying to help an author publish a collection of their short stories, but in most cases it would be a well know author with previously published books.
There are two versions of Duotrope available. For no charge, you can subscribe to a service that sends you an e-mail once a week that lists new markets looking for stories as well as markets that have just closed. You can also click on any of these publishers and get a page with a partial description of that publisher and what they are looking for. On this page there is also a link to the publisher’s web site.
If you have subscribed to the Duotrope service ($50 a year), you get more detailed descriptions of publishers including such information as the numbers of submissions made through Duotrope and number of acceptances etc. You also get a nice listing showing all your submissions and the status of same. You can also search Duotrope’s database of publishers and agents (7000+) using a variety of parameters.
Submittable is an on-line service many publishers use to help writers submit manuscripts. Once you start using it, you will be given an account which allows you to look at all submissions you have made through that service. You also can use it to communicate with publishers who are considering your stories. There is no charge to you for using Submittable. Once you have created your account and added your personal information, Submittable will automatically fill in much of the information a publisher requires on their submission form. Of course, many publishers use other means of submitting stories as discussed previously.
You can use Submittable to help find publishers, but you will only be looking at those that use Submittable for document submission.
Almost Ready to Submit a Story for Publication
As I hope you have gathered from the above discussion, it is not difficult to get a story published somewhere if it is actually a story and has few grammatical and no spelling errors. However, before doing that, I think you should consider why you want to get something published. I suggest that you think both short and long term and include everything you expect to write in the future in that thinking.
So, sit down with a piece of paper or your computer and write down the why, how and when of what you want to publish both short term (e.g., can I get my best story published somewhere) and long term (e.g., have at least one significant contest prize five years from now).
It’s Time to Submit a Story
Here you sit with that story that is just screaming to get itself into print or at least on a reasonably popular web page. It is time to find the perfect match with a publisher. So, you start looking. Where do you look? You can use Google to look for lists of possible publications. A number of such lists will pop up, but in my opinion, the information they give is on the sketchy side although you can always go to the web sites of the publications for more information. There is also Duotrope.
As for whether or not you use Duotrope to assist in submitting, I would suggest you at least use their free version to get started. If you do decide to use their pay-for system, you should understand that it is not a labor saving system to which you simply input a description of a story plus your requirements for a publisher, and which then immediately comes up with the three publications most likely to publish your story. You have to do a lot of searching of publishers before you find good matches with what you have written. Now much of this information is available on the web pages of the publications themselves, but Duotrope gives you a nicely summarized display of the pertinent information, information that might require some searching to find on actual publishers’ sites.
I spend a lot of time looking at publications and rejecting most of them. I have built up a list of publications that seem to like what I write or provide some feedback as to why they don’t like what I write. I am also building up a list of “high-end” publications that are difficult targets but worth trying for what I think is my best writing.
As I like to try out different styles and genres, I do a lot of poking around looking for appropriate magazines. The whole business gets a bit easier if you have a number of stories you feel are ready for publication and as you look at possible publications you can fit one or another story to a particular publication. You should be ready to spend a lot of time looking at publications and getting a feel for the market.
If you write science fiction, mystery and crime, fantasy, horror or a few other genres, finding appropriate magazines for a story is relatively simply as there are magazines specific for these genres.
Now we come to the nasty problem of response time. You will discover that most of the more well-known and respected magazine or reviews have long waiting times. Thus, you should seriously consider simultaneous submissions. However, you should stagger your submissions in time so, for example, the maximum time of response for your first-choice magazine occurs before the minimum time of response of your second choice. While you may get a quick acceptance from some magazines, you should view getting your stories published as a long-term project where it is often six months or more between when you first submit a story and you actually see it in print.
Blog or No Blog
My blog is here for several purposes. I’d like to build a following of people interested in reading my short stories. I hope that having the blog will help me find a publisher for my novel. I want to have an easy way for me to notify my fans of new publications. The blog is also a place where I plan to “publish” material, such as this article, on the art and mechanics of writing and publishing short stories.
Unfortunately, a blog is also a filter that shows who is seriously interested in what you are writing (people who subscribe to the blog) and those who tell you how wonderful it is that you are getting short stories published but don’t read you stories. (those that don’t subscribe to the blog).
Free Advice (Worth Every Penny)
Now for a few suggestions to keep in mind:
Be careful about writing stories targeted to narrow markets or in response to contests that limit what you are writing about. This type of writing is fun and educational, but it may take you away from the mainstream of your writing.
Remember that whatever you are writing, you are educating yourself. If you feel that you have mastered fiction writing and have nothing more to learn, pack it in, unless you are writing the tenth book in a detective novel series.
Look on short stories as a way to try out various styles and viewpoints that you may later want to use in a novel. The best way to learn to write is to write.
When you get a story published, realize that you have proved that what you have written is “better” than those thousands of stories others have written that will never be published. But remember that “better” is a subjective term. What one editor thinks is worthless, may bring delight to the heart of another.
You will develop a certain style which some publications may like and others will always reject. But don’t make the mistake of always sending what you write to the one or two publications that have published your material before. Play the field. Try some high-end reviews to see how the best of what you write will fly. If a bunch of them reject a story, then send it to the publication that likes what you write.
By publishing a short story, you are entering a strange new world. I sometimes feel that it is a closed world where everyone is taking in each other’s laundry. Do only other writers and would-be authors read published stories? What are all the graduates with MFA degrees in Creative Writing going to do? Write more novels and short stories so we don’t run short? Or are they going to teach more students how to write short stories?
On the other hand, what you are doing is probably one of the few things that will not soon be replaced by the output of intelligent machines. You are helping to preserve and enhance an art form that goes back to the first storyteller. Are we a half-forgotten guild, preserving a now disregarded art for some future generation? Are you the monk in the dark-ages monastery copying ancient texts?
Somewhere in Joseph Conrad’s writings I remember him to say that when the end of the world comes, a novelist will be there trying to extract the truth from the last moments of life.
Finally, please give me feedback. What have I not told you that you need to know? What have I got dead wrong? What important facts need to be included to help the neophyte writer? Write your comments below.