Know your markets. It’s one of the cardinal rules for anyone seeking short story publication, right? Open up the guidelines for just about any magazine and they'll say the same thing: please be familiar with our magazine and the kinds of work we publish, before submitting.
And on the surface, that seems simple enough. Buy the magazine, read through it, see if it’s a match in style and content to the kinds of work that you do…all of which would be simple enough for one magazine and one short story.
But how about for a prolific short story writer? Personally, I tend to like to have at least 15 to 20 short stories submitted at any given time. That’s a lot of magazines to buy and read. And, let’s face it, that’s a lot of money that I don’t exactly have. Are you with me? I’ll bet if you’re a short story writer, you are indeed.
So what’s a short story writer to do? Take out a second mortgage…or just go with submitting blind, the big no-no of short fiction submissions?
As someone who’s encountered this particular obstacle in my years as a short story writer, I do have a few ideas about that…
It's an Internet World
First off, remember that with the internet, it’s a different world now. Many online markets, including wonderful professional and semi-pro markets such as Strange Horizons and Abyss and Apex are free to read online. Even subscription-based online magazines such as Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show often offer a few sample stories or a teaser of the current issue’s stories in order to entice subscribers. The teasers, while not complete stories, are often enough to give you a fairly good idea of the magazine’s flavor and to help you judge whether or not your own fiction would be a potential match for the publication.
Many print magazines, too, now have websites for promotional purposes. Check out those websites, and many (such as Weird Tales) have stories posted right on their websites for anyone to read. Every now and again you’ll even find that true for a serial anthology.
But what if there isn’t anything available online?
Not to fret.
There's always the bookstores
Visit your local bookstore. The large bookstores have excellent magazine sections, and as a former department manager in a Barnes & Noble, I can assure you that they don’t object to your spending an afternoon there. One of the reasons customers are encouraged to spend large chunks of time perusing books and magazines--and yes, even reading those without buying them--is that the stores make good money from their in-house cafés. And let's face it, the longer you stay, the more likely you are to buy that cappuccino and that slice of oh-so-yummy lemon pound cake. So don’t be afraid to pick up a stack of literary magazines and find a comfy chair so that you can spend the afternoon reading. Just be respectful of the magazines and don’t ruin them for someone who might actually want to buy them.
And while you’re in the bookstore, hit the anthology section. There are usually a few shelves in each fiction section (general literature, sci-fi/fantasy, etc.) devoted to anthologies. So if you're interested in submitting to a serial anthology such as Writers of the Future or Polyphony, you can often find earlier editions to read through right there at the bookstore.
Before you leave the anthology section, be sure to pick up a few of the Year’s Best anthologies to read through. Those short stories came from somewhere and are not only a good example of a story from the particular magazine that originally published it, but also a good example of a truly notable story.
So if you do have a little bit of money to spend, why not spend it on one of these Year’s Best anthologies because you’ll be able to research the types of stories published by multiple magazines for the price of a single book. And chances are good that the book will be an excellent read, besides.
And then there's the library
Don’t forget your local library. Libraries are excellent resources. Not only can you check out those Year’s Best anthologies but many magazines put out Best of anthologies every few years.
In addition, these days many libraries are linked together as chains, and if any library in the chain has a book, you can have it transferred to your own local library to pick up there. Ask if your library has an online system where you can search for and request books right there online and receive a phone call when they’re ready for you to come pick up.
Most libraries also carry an assortment of magazines for you to read in-house. And if the magazine you want is something they don’t carry, ask. Though most libraries have limited budgets, they’ll often be happy to order something different upon request. And the upside to this is not only are you able to read the publication for free but you’ll be helping out the publication--particularly if it’s a small press--if the library takes out a subscription to them.
Share, share, share.
Another way to cut down on the expense of knowing your markets is to share with other writers. If you have a writing group that consists of folks who write in similar genres, perhaps each of you could buy a different magazine and then swap amongst yourselves.
Some magazines even offer discounts for writers interested in submitting, so be sure to check out their websites before you purchase.
Other ways to research
If all else fails, do your research other ways. Many editors have blogs that you can follow, where they offer little tips and insights into their likes and dislikes. Sometimes, even better, you can find the blogs of slush readers, who often share very helpful statistics and are willing to interact with followers of their blog to answer questions about likes and dislikes, etc. The websites of most magazines have links right to these blogs if you take the time to look.
Sites like Ralan’s Webstravaganza (a great market listing site) and Duotrope also showcase interviews with magazine editors, which contain invaluable information.
And last but not least, many themed anthologies are one-time-only affairs, so while you might be able to research what that particular editor has an affinity for, you won’t actually be able to read a sample of the publication because there just isn’t one.
Remember, it's an investment
Ultimately, there are ways to know your markets without spending a lot of money. It still involves work, of course, and reading takes up quite a bit of time, but it’s worth it for several reasons. For one, by knowing your markets you will increase your chance of submission success many times over. It will also be appreciated by editors who waste an awful lot of time on stories that are blatantly wrong for their publication, submitted by authors who have never read a single story in the magazine. Knowing your market is definitely an investment in your own writing success.