Maybe you’re an avid short-story writer. Or you write novels but are trying your hand at something briefer. Or a chapter from your novel-in-progress works as a self-contained story. Or you’re in a writing group or workshop that’s focusing on short fiction.
However you did it, you did it—you wrote and revised (and further revised) a short story. Now’s the time to send it off into the real world.
When pursuing publication of short fiction, you have several options. Here are the most popular routes today, and the ins and outs of each.
—by Michael Kardos
We’re living in a time of significant change in short-story publishing. Fewer high-circulation magazines publish fiction today than they did just a few decades ago, yet smaller literary journals present writers with an increasingly diverse array of opportunities to publish their stories. While a tough economic climate has driven a few venerable print journals out of business, new journals are starting up all the time—some by university writing programs, others by individuals who love literature and are willing to put their money into publishing and promoting it.
So many journals are being published, in fact, that it can be difficult to sort through them all and decide where to submit your work. Here are some suggestions:
If there’s a story collection you enjoyed reading recently, check out the book’s Acknowledgments page. Authors typically credit the journals where their stories first appeared.
Visit your local bookstore or library to see what journals are in stock. Give them a read. If a journal looks promising, subscribe to it. If cash is tight, order individual back issues, which are usually discounted. After all, what better way to learn about a journal than to read it? By subscribing, you’ll also be supporting the publishing world whose ranks you’re hoping to join.
Directories of literary journals are available online (a few free sites to try: newpages.com, duotrope.com, pw.org) and in print (such as the annual Writer’s Market, available at bookstores, libraries or via an online subscription at WritersMarket.com). The data varies among directories but at a minimum will include each journal’s history, editorial preferences and URL.
A number of “best of” anthologies routinely reprint stories first published in journals. Among the most recognizable titles are The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mysteries, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories From the South, Best of the Midwest and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. Each anthology’s table of contents will include the journals where the stories first appeared—journals that are publishing quality work and are surely worth considering.
If a journal seems right for your writing, then find the link for “submission guidelines” on its website and follow those guidelines precisely (see sidebar on Page 32).
If your story is accepted, you might be asked to make minor editorial changes. As the issue comes closer to publication, you’ll typically be sent page proofs—your last chance to review the work before it appears in print.
Most journals operate on tight budgets. While a few pay their contributors upward of $40 per printed page, most pay far less and/or provide complimentary copies of the completed issue in lieu of payment. The real satisfaction will come from seeing your work in print, making it available to others, and garnering that important publishing credit. Plus, a number of agents read literary journals to find fresh talent—never a bad thing. And there’s always the chance that your story will end up in one of the “best of” anthologies.
Online journals cost less to produce and make available to readers than print journals. Not surprisingly, their numbers have grown even faster than their print counterparts. There’s a big difference, however, between well-edited, highly regarded online journals like Blackbird and The Adirondack Review and some random guy’s blog that hardly anyone reads. The bottom line: You need to evaluate an online journal with at least as much thoroughness as you would a print journal. Read about its history, note who’s being published and, most important, read a sample issue or two and ask yourself whether or not you would be glad for your work to appear there.
As you probably guessed, payment is often less for online publication. And you could find it more difficult down the road to find a publisher for your collection if all the stories are already available on the Internet for free. Still, there’s good reason to publish work in online journals: Your story might reach more readers than it would in print, and you can conveniently share the link to your work with others. Even noteworthy print journals, including The Missouri Review, AGNI and The Kenyon Review, now publish Web-only content in addition to their print issues. And the annual Best of the Web anthology suggests a growing acceptance of online publications as equal to their print counterparts.
Many of the directories that list literary magazines also include calls for submissions for themed anthologies: stories about motherhood, fishing, gambling, you name it. If a story of yours happens to fit the theme, you might have a better chance of landing it in an anthology than in a literary journal. Or maybe you can do both: Anthology editors sometimes consider reprinting stories that have previously appeared elsewhere.
Larger publishers typically seek out established authors to compile their anthologies. But e-books and print-on-demand technology have made it more affordable for smaller, independent publishers to produce anthologies and market their books to niche audiences. These are the presses most likely to post open calls for submissions. And unlike a single issue of a literary journal, an anthology doesn’t become dated after three or six months.
Back when John Cheever and J.D. Salinger were publishing their stories, a number of high-circulation glossy magazines (Redbook, McCall’s, GQ, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, etc.) published fiction. This is rarely true today. Even those that still do, such as Esquire and TheAtlantic, publish far less fiction than they once did. In short, it’s extremely difficult for any writer to break into a consumer magazine with a fiction submission, and especially a newer writer. Am I advising against sending your short story to The New Yorker, or another mainstream publication that you notice publishes fiction? Not necessarily; we writers must remain ever hopeful. Just don’t put all your eggs in that basket.
What if your real dream is to see your stories collected in book form—what are your chances of publication then? Some editors and agents will tell you that your collection has a better chance of getting published if the stories are linked—by characters, setting, etc.—so that it can be marketed as a “novel-in-stories.” At the end of the day, though, you have to believe in the book you’ve written, not the book the market supposedly demands. My advice would be, simply, to be sure that the stories—whether linked or not—are as strong as they can be. If there’s a weak story, cut it. Write a new one. Take your time. Sequence the stories the way you would songs on a playlist—in other words, by feel—though it won’t hurt to lead off with what you feel is your best story, since you’ll want to give an agent or editor a strong first impression.
Before you go about submitting your collection, though, you’d be wise to try publishing some of the individual stories first. Here’s why:
Agents and editors will take a more serious look at your collection if some of your stories have already appeared in reputable journals and anthologies. You’ll have more credibility, and your collection query letter (which should include mention of any prior short-story publications) will be much stronger.
By publishing your stories in journals and anthologies, you’ll be building a readership base for your future book.
Editorial feedback from journal and anthology editors who accept individual stories for publication can help make those stories—and, therefore, your collection—stronger.
Most journals accept only previously unpublished work. So once it appears in your collection, you can no longer submit it to a journal, whereas the opposite is not true.
When you decide that it’s time to try publishing your collection, you essentially have two routes (other than self-publishing, of course): Seek out an agent, or submit directly to publishers.
Attracting an agent to represent a short-story collection can be difficult. The conventional wisdom in publishing is that reader demand for short stories is smaller than for novels—with fewer publishers acquiring collections, some agents are wary of taking them on. Consult each individual agent’s submission guidelines in searching for those who might be a fit for your work. And don’t forget to check the Acknowledgments page of any recent story collection you love to see if the author thanks her agent.
On the other hand, the good news is you may not need an agent unless you have your heart set on distribution by a large New York City publisher (which again, is rarer with short-story collections than it is for novels). Many small presses accept book manuscripts directly from authors. And though small presses lack many of the resources of larger presses, what they don’t lack is enthusiasm for producing and promoting books. Moreover, they typically give authors a higher royalty rate and more control over the book’s layout, cover design and marketing strategy.
Evaluate small presses as you would literary journals. Take the initiative to look up some of their titles on online retailers to check their sales rankings and whether they’ve garnered praise (or at least attention) by reputable reviewers like Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal. Finally, order a few sample books and see what you think. When you submit to a press, follow its writers’ guidelines carefully: Some might want the entire manuscript, others a sample story or two, still others just a query letter. Some permit electronic submissions, while others accept only hard copy.
A Note on the Submission Process
When you begin to submit your work, I recommend keeping a simple spreadsheet on which you log the story title, journal name (or anthology or book publisher), date submitted, date heard back and result. Doing this, you’ll always know the status of every submission. (Some market databases, such as the one on WritersMarket.com, even provide submission-tracking tools to all subscribers.) Expect to wait two months or more for a response. Most publishers specify response times in their submission guidelines; once that time has passed, it’s reasonable to send a polite follow-up.
Bear in mind that the venues you’ll be submitting to reject the majority of the work they receive. They have to. A journal might easily receive a hundred stories for every one it accepts, which means that editors reject perfectly publishable work all the time. A rejection means only that a given editor on a given day didn’t fall completely in love with your story. Try not to take it personally—getting rejected is the one thing that all writers have in common.
And when you get an acceptance? Don’t be short on your celebration. You deserve it!