Friday, 5 April 2013

Submitting to Magazines - Why and How to do it

During my self-publishing adventures I’ve come across a lot of people who are trying to get a slice of the ebook pie through publishing only novellas and short stories. While these can be just as difficult to write, the shorter form is often seen as being less of a time investment than full novels, simultaneously giving the author more visibility. They are also popular with people who don’t have the time to write regularly or for long periods, or who don’t enjoy spending two years on each novel.

A lot of people I’ve come across are publishing short stories and novellas on Amazon at a furious pace, but is it the only option? For every Wool (which was originally a novella) there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of short pieces selling a handful of copies a month or less.

Disillusioned? Maybe, but unlike novels, which are notoriously hard to sell, short fiction can be a lot easier to market, and although you might not become a superstar, there are still gains to be made.

Prior to self-publishing, I spent fourteen years submitting and occasionally selling stories to magazines. Just to prove it, here are a few of my publications –

Ms Ito’s Bird in Weird Tales 352
Ovid’s Legacy in Flagship (the pic on the front is from my story!)
Going Underground in Noctober 
Feeding the Gulls in Written Word (pretty salty about this one because I never got paid, but it was like $15, so whatever)

 My claim to fame!

Self-publishing a short story can occasionally be profitable, but more often than not it’ll sit there in cyberspace doing nothing. Also, you can never be quite sure whether it’ll take off or not. So much depends on the title and cover. For example, after my rights returned to me from Weird Tales (after a year, I think, although magazines will buy various rights from 6 months to 2 years), I published Ms Ito’s Bird on Amazon as an individual short story. In roughly ten months it’s sold … wait for it … ONE copy.

There it is about halfway down ... see it? And the third picture down
is from my story! :-)

When I sold it to Weird Tales I made roughly $160. At the time that was more than half of my entire revenue from eight years of trying to sell short stories. And that was just the money - nothing else I have ever achieved in writing EVER has given me the confidence in my work that that sale did. Conan the Barbarian was serialized in that magazine. Getting in Weird Tales is big time.

Getting back to the cold hard cash line, there’s money to be made from selling short stories if you’re good, but here’s a few common pitfalls to avoid.

Noob Mistake #1 – Posting your story publicly and then expecting to sell it later

I see a lot of authors posting works in progress on their blogs, Facebook pages, Goodreads, forums, etc. If you ever have plans of selling that story to a magazine, this is a really bad idea. You can get away with it on a private forum or in a crit circle that requires membership to access, but anywhere it’s available publicly through a search engine it counts as being published and therefore you’re relinquishing your first world publication rights, which is what magazines will buy. Pull it down before you submit it and make sure it's got no cyber footprint. If it can still be available online it is effectively worthless. You might be able to get $5 here or there as a reprint, but any chance of selling it to Fantasy & Science Fiction for $600 is gone right away.

And trust me, the big magazines will check. Google is a powerful thing. And they won’t just search by title (otherwise you could just change it) but by chunks of text.

Noob Mistake #2 – Ignoring the guidelines

“Send us clean sci-fi with no sex or violence towards animals.” So, you send them a horror involving a serial killer who likes to have sex with elephants, just in case they want to make an exception … nope. Here comes another rejection letter. Guidelines are there for a reason. Perhaps if you’re Stephen King you could get away with it, but otherwise forget it. Trust me on this, I’ve broken them all and regretted it. The exact same goes for deadlines. If a magazine gives you a date to submit by, or says on its guidelines page that its currently closed to submissions, then it means it. Don’t waste your time by submitting anyway.

Noob Mistake #3 – Submitting to more than one magazine at once

Check in the guidelines to see if a magazine is okay with “simultaneous submissions”. This means they’re happy for you to submit elsewhere at the same time. If they don’t like this (and the guidelines will say), then don’t do it anyway. Nothing could be more awkward than having two magazines accept your story and you having to tell one of them you’ve changed your mind because its been accepted elsewhere. This kind of thing doesn’t make you any friends. Particularly at the top magazines, a lot of the editors generally tend to know each other. Of course, if a magazine is okay with sim-subs, then go for it. Be courteous though and notify the other magazines if one accepts you.

Noob Mistake #4 – Responding to Rejections

Don’t do it. Ever. Whether it’s a form letter, an “I’d rather kill myself than read any more of your crap” type letter or a “wow this was awesome but not quite awesome enough” type, just don’t respond. The editor really doesn’t care what you think. Nine times out of ten you’ll get a form rejection, but if you get comments then read them, apply them if necessary, and move on. Don’t bother to thank the editor unless they write like a page of notes (unlikely). If they gave you comments then they probably gave them to twenty other writers, and if they have to open twenty “thanks for your comments, love, random unknown” emails every day they’ll quickly stop writing them and start sending form rejections instead.

If you get an acceptance, however, then of course you should respond.

Where to submit?

You could search in Google or Yahoo, but its far easier to just use a listing site. For the most part I write speculative fiction (fantasy/horror/sci-fi) so my primary resource is Ralan. Another good once, which includes mainstream magazines, is Duotrope Digest (although I notice you now how to pay a subscription - it was free back when I was using it). There might be others, but these are pretty much the only two I used.

Now, it’s just a matter of opinion, but for anyone planning a career in writing I personally think it’s a waste of time to submit to magazines offering only exposure/token or minimal pay, basically anything less than 3c/word. I spent years submitting to and being published by tiny little magazines, and I used to get really excited, even though only six people were every going to read it, the editor, me, and the four other writers included in the same issue. I had this grand idea that I would sell novels if I only got enough exposure in small press magazines.

There are a number of flaws in this plan:

1.      No one reads small press magazines except the editor, the included writers and (if you’re lucky) your family and friends.
2.      They’re not very prestigious.
3.      Most of them are run by other unknown writers so their judgment on what is good is negligible at best.
4.      They tend to fold/disappear without warning, sometimes shutting down the website completely, so that there’s no record of you ever having been published there.
5.      They don’t always pay you or send contributors copies, regardless of what they might promise. In short, they're incredibly unreliable.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Some small press magazines are well run, always respond personally and actually pay you. They're very much in the minority though, in my experience.

However getting into a pro/semi-pro magazine is a different. For starters, the money is actually decent if you’re prolific and sell frequently. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction pays 6 – 9c/word. On a 5000 word story that’s $450, which would pay my rent for a month, and they accept stories up to 25,000 words. At 5c/word that's $1250, also known as decent pay. Plus, people actually read big magazines and they have prestige. The year I was in Weird Tales it won a Hugo Award for best semi-pro magazine. In the genre fiction world that’s a big deal. I wasn’t even on the cover of the magazine I was published in but Ann Vandermeer, the editor at the time, sent me a photo of the trophy and a note of thanks for being in the magazine. That was almost as awesome as being published in it.

Getting in a small press magazine might count as a “publishing credit”, and for years I collected them with pride, but getting in a major magazine can make you famous.

How likely is it that you’ll be accepted?

That depends on how good you are and how well your fiction fits with what the editor wants. You need to write well. If you suck, you probably won’t sell anything, which is why I’d suggest only submitting your best stuff and keeping the rest for self-published anthologies, but to be honest, if you suck you won't sell anything if you self-publish either and would be better off spending your time practicing (see my previous post about how to sell ebooks). Also, with the big magazines they’re trying to make money. If you’re a bestselling writer they’re far more likely to accept you than if you’re an unknown. However, they all frequently publish new writers because part of what they’re about is finding new talent, but your work needs to be outstanding. For that reason it also helps to keep it shorter. If you’re an unknown its way easier to sell something of 2000 words than something of 10,000, because they can slot you neatly into the back third of the magazine while saving the bulk for big name writers. In general I keep my stories in the 2000 to 6000 range. In general, though, even if you’re good, expect a lot of rejection. My average overall was about 10 rejections per acceptance, but that was for small presses. For major magazines it was more like 150-1. Those odds might not be for everyone, you have to make the decision based on how good you think your stories are.

Also, it’s worth remembering that everything the magazine selects is the editor’s personal choice. You might have written an outstanding story but it wasn’t quite what the editor wanted, so you get a form rejection. Don’t give up. Have confidence in your work and submit it somewhere else.

Is submitting to magazines a good idea for you?

That depends on what kind of person you are. For starters, you need to patient. While some magazines will get back to you within a couple of days, others will take months. Even now I get the odd rejection letter/email show up and it’s been more than a year since I submitted anything. And even if it is accepted, it might be a year before it's published. That's just the way the industry works; its very different to being published by a traditional publisher. In general, the bigger the magazine the longer you'll wait for publication. However, the bigger the magazine, the less likely they'll fold suddenly. I had no less than three pro sales never show up because the magazine - usually some ambitious small press - folded before the first issue ever reached print. THAT is frustrating ...

Also, be aware of the costs. While most magazines now allow email submissions, a few of the big ones still require paper copies. This can get expensive if you submit a lot, so make sure you think you’ve got a real chance before doing it.

It helps if you have a lot of stories. Waiting on one story can be frustrating. At one point I had over 40 stories out for submission at the same time so they were all coming and going. Keep all the info in a spreadsheet. Unless a magazine says otherwise, give them about six months. If they don’t get back to you, check they received your submission and also check they haven’t folded. This was something I found frustrating with the small presses – I’d wait several months for a response, go to the website and find the magazine had shut down. Sometimes they don’t even say why, they just go inactive. This is why Ralan is such a good site – it regularly checks for inactivity and a site that isn’t responding is moved to the Dead Markets page.

So, to summarize (because I’ve prattled on for almost 2000 words on this …!), if you’re consistently producing high quality short stories you could consider it as an option. Be aware of what it takes, though. You’ll go through a lot of frustration, but there is money to be made and prestige to be gained if you’re successful. And if you do sell something, you'll get your rights back within a year or so anyway so you can still self-publish it in the future.

As always, comments/questions are welcome.

Chris Ward
April 5th 2013

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