I engage in a fairly regular debate with several of my writing friends about how to choose markets for your short stories.
Their side of the debate: Go for the credits. Quantity is the way to go. The more you can see your name in print, the better.
My side of the debate: Be selective. Aim high. Only submit to markets that you’d be proud to list on a writing resume.
I don’t think there’s technically a right or wrong side to this debate, mind you (though I’m sticking staunchly to my point of view when it comes to my own submissions). What I think is that different approaches work for different people.
Years ago, I belonged to a writing group that would only submit to professionally-paying markets. They believed anything less than that was a waste of time. They felt that small press credits cheapened one’s writing resume.
For quite awhile, I adopted that philosophy and only submitted to professional-level publications. The one major problem with that was that I ended up with a pile of stories which, having been rejected by the one or two appropriate professionally-paying markets to which I’d submitted them, ended up in an early retirement from the submission rounds because there was nowhere else to send them. After all, not every story is suitable for every publication. There’s the matter of genre, word count, subject matter, style.
So I opened my eyes a little bit to the other markets, both semi-pro and small press. But that’s not to say that I tossed away the group philosophy, because I believed (and still do) that there was something to what they were saying. I just needed to modify it for my own needs.
Because the truth is that there are wonderful semi-pro and small press markets out there that make admirable credits. You just need to choose wisely.
So how do you do that?
Know your markets
I don’t mean just their submission guidelines, although that’s important. What I mean is to know what publications have good reputations in your genre of choice.
Read short fiction reviews at places such as Tangent Online and Locus to see what reviewers are saying about various publications. It’s a great way to find out what kind of reputations publications have.
Head to the bookstore (or library) and pick up copies of the Year’s Best anthologies in your genre, which always list the publications in which the stories originally appeared.
And don’t forget to flip to the back. In addition to the stories chosen for the anthology there are almost always pages of honorable mentions, which indicate what publications originally published the stories as well. Y
ou’ll be surprised to see how many of these stories come from small press publications. Get published in one of those small press publications and your work might get in front of somebody who’s somebody in this industry.
Read the publications themselves to check out the quality of stories. My rule of thumb is that if I can’t find the merit in the published stories then I don’t want my own work appearing alongside them.
Check out publication statistics
One of the reasons I like Duotrope is that they offer publication statistics such as the acceptance rate (expressed as a percentage). And while these statistics are definitely going to be biased--those who use Duotrope, those who actually report to Duotrope, those who reliably report all submission responses to Duotrope, etcetera--they’re a decent guideline.
What I mean by that is if Duotrope reports that a market has received 100 submissions and 92% of those submissions are acceptances, it would send up a red flag for me. I certainly don’t want to place a story in a market that accepts almost everything submitted to them. Conversely, I can feel pretty good about a sale to a market that Duotrope reports as accepting less than 1% of the submissions they receive.
Paying or nonpaying markets
A paying market is always a plus. To get money for something you’ve written is, after all, one of the best affirmations that you’re on the right track. But that doesn’t mean you should discount nonpaying markets. Particularly in the area of literary fiction, there are a number of college-run, nonpaying literary magazines that have great reputations and that would make a great credit. There are also anthologies that donate proceeds to charity rather than paying authors, which is a worthwhile credit to make.
Ultimately, I think paying or nonpaying isn’t nearly as important as the magazine’s reputation.
Watch response times
This doesn’t go so much to the quality of the publication as for your own personal preference. Some magazines may take over a year to respond, tying your story up for a good long while. Other publications only respond to accepted stories. Most magazines report their approximate response times in their submission guidelines. Some have blogs where editors keep submitters updated on progress with their slush piles and submissions in general. Other sites, like Duotrope and The Black Hole offer response times reported by other submitteers.
Always keep your ultimate goal in mind
For me, choosing what markets to submit to is ultimately a matter of what credits I would like to add to a query letter that goes in front of an agent or editor. And bear in mind that sometimes this will vary from genre to genre. I have small press credits that I’m thrilled to add to a query letter going in front of an agent who represents science fiction or horror but would never add to a query letter going to someone who represents mainstream fiction because they’ve probably never even heard of it. And conversely, I might think twice about adding my Family Circle fiction contest credit to a query for my horror novel.
So back to that debate I have with my friends.
Here’s what I think. For someone who just wants to see their name in print, then by all means, submit anywhere and everywhere with abandon. But for someone who has a bigger goal in mind, such as publishing a novel, I think he or she would do well to be at least a little bit selective.
Personally, I like to see each credit as a stepping stone to something bigger. I had an agent tell me, recently, that I had a nice writing resume. It made me feel like I was on the right track after all.
So I think having too many credits at too many tiny, non-paying publications can be potentially troublesome. I think it can dilute the weight of other publication credits that might cause an agent or editor to look twice. Because let’s face it. In the age of the internet, anyone can set up a publication and solicit submissions. New 4theLuv markets are popping up in numbers every single day and disappearing just as quickly.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with aiming high. Don’t be afraid to shoot for the top, and whatever you do, don’t shortchange yourself. Make sure your target markets are the right ones.