If you want to become a published author, the first step is to send your work out to paying markets. For novelists, that means writing query letters and proposals and a bunch of other stuff we’re not talking about today. Short story writers have it a bit easier. Finish your story, choose where you want to submit, format the story according to the magazine’s guidelines, perhaps include a brief cover letter, and drop it in the mailbox (or more often, just hit “send”).
But as you might imagine, there’s more to it than that. There are lots of different short story markets. They pay different rates, have different response times, and (most importantly) want slightly different kinds of stories. So, where should you send your story?
For my part, I keep a speculative fiction markets cheat sheet with basic information on my favorite magazines. If I’m happy with a story, I submit it to a few markets on that list where I think it might fit, in an order determined by what the markets pay, whether they’re SFWA-qualifying (more on that below), and what the response time is like. There’s not one right way to go about submitting, though, so I asked some of my fellow Alpha bloggers about their submission processes.
Now that I’ve been submitting stories for almost five years, my process is pretty fluid and relies on a vague combination of which markets I think would be a good fit for a given story, average response time as given by Duotrope.com, how much the market pays, and my perception of the market’s prestige. However, before I’d been around long enough to get a really good handle on what markets were out there, what types of stories each one preferred, and how each market was regarded by the speculative fiction community, my process went a little something like this:
Look at the list of SFWA-qualifying markets (pro-paying markets that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have deemed appropriate venues for accruing the three pro sales necessary to get SFWA membership). Eliminate any that don’t accept work in my story’s genre. Look up response times on Duotrope.com. Submit to each appropriate SFWA-qualifying market beginning with the one with the shortest response time and ending with the one with the longest. When all SFWA-qualifying markets have been exhausted, do a search on Duotrope.com for markets paying semi-pro rates within my genre. Again, submit by response time. (If Sarah Brand’s cheat sheet had been around back then, I would have used that instead of the Duotrope search–it’s much simpler than wading through Duotrope search results, and you can be reasonably sure that the market has been vetted by trustworthy writers.) Do this until the story has been submitted to every appropriate paying market, at which point, alas, the story is trunked.
I’ve learned two methods for how to decide when to submit what where — work down from the most prestigious markets, collecting great rejection letters as you go, or work up from small markets where you’re more likely to get published. I can understand both sides — just getting published at all would be amazing, to me, but if I’m not going to be I’d like the best rejection letters possible. And if I wrote a story that could have gotten accepted somewhere great and got accepted for less money and prestige, that would be sad, I guess. So that makes the prestigious markets sound best. But if your story is exactly good enough to get published in a fun but less famous publication, you don’t want to miss out. Since you just can’t know that, I like starting at markets where I’d be thrilled to be accepted but where I feel there’s at least a faint theoretical possibility, and then places that aren’t as dazzling but sound like they might take the particular story I’m offering, and then I aim for prestigious places because why not?, and then I aim less prestigious/lower paying/etc.
I haven’t sent out anything new in a while. I mostly get a sense of where I think the story should go as I write it, and since what little short fiction I read these days (and it is a very little) is entirely online, those are the markets I know best and can best recognize a story for. A lot of it is mood/tone, being able to tell a Strange Horizons story from a Beneath Ceaseless Skies story–SH is more litty, BCS a little more adventurey, things like that. Then I just go through the list according to fit more than anything.
One thing about having a story that is going to sell, dammit, is that I do look at market listings more, and that spurs me to send out more. If I don’t continuously check things and remind myself that yes, submitting is something I do, I slow and stop. It’s been that kind of while.
I’m really unlikely to send anything to a paper-needing market right now, if only because I am out of printer paper. Data point.
I write so slowly that I’m sort of a spoiled brat about markets, and thus tend to prioritize by the haphazard calculus of pay rate and response time weighed against prestige and suitability. Generally, pay rate wins over everything else, because, being a starving student, I feel like the impossible is even more awesome if it makes you rich.
As a tiny baby writer, selling stories is such an infrequent thing for me that it still feels sort of like free money for something I’d do anyway, and as such it’s often hard to justify prioritizing on that count. On the other hand, I’d like to put in a word for rank commercialism: even if you regard writing as an untoward hobby, if it’s the untoward hobby that finances your book habit, that’s probably not entirely a bad thing.
Familiarize yourself with the markets before you send anything out. Read their submissions guidelines carefully. Know what they’re looking for. Don’t be afraid to send your work out to great magazines that lots of people read, as well as to smaller ‘zines that carry prestige. (If your work can’t get accepted by a well-regarded market, do you want the public seeing it?)
Best of luck!