Thursday, October 9, 2008

Submitting Short Fiction to Literary Journals

Since my epilogue/short story has now been roundly rejected by 10 magazines and journals, yesterday seemed like a good time to start the next round of submissions.

I submitted to 9 additional literary journals --- 7 by standard mail and 2 by electronic submission. The process took me four hours from start to finish including: adding a few polishes to the draft, printing 7 copies, looking up 7 mailing addresses, editing and printing 7 copies of my cover letter, labeling 7 mailing envelopes plus 7 self-addressed stamped return envelopes, determining postage then buying and printing stamps, double-checking, packing, and sealing.

When you add this to the time it took me to mail to the ten previous journals (another 4 hours) plus the time to generate the cover letter and the list of journals where I'd be sending the piece (maybe another 4 hours?), the time I'm spending submitting the work is about half the time it took me to write it in the first place. Oiy.

Thankfully, the process is getting easier and I've grown far more systematic about it. My fellow writers out there have probably established their own method for submitting short works --- and in fact may be submitting multiple works at a time, which I'm not doing, thank God. For what it's worth, I thought I might share my personal method here, on the off chance someone finds it useful or at least encouraging.

I wanted to submit to journals with the best reputation first, because the better the journal, the greater the bragging rights when I start submitting my full novel, right? But what determines which journals have the best reputation? Good question.

Circulation might be a good indicator. The major commercial magazines, for example, like Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker, have a high circulation (about 200,000, 400,000, and 1.1 million respectively). Also their stories are regularly featured in anthologies (see below), so the prestige is high if you get accepted for publication in one of these magazines. But as you can imagine, this is quite difficult. The acceptance rate for many top-tier journals is less than 1 percent (example), so just imagine how low it is for the commercial magazines where everybody wants to get published.

Outside of the commercial magazines, literary journals, even the highly respected ones, have a low circulation (50,000 down to 5,000 or less), and are obscure to the general public. Google "best literary journals" and you'll find lots of lists out there, with many of the same journal titles repeated, so that's a reassuring indicator, but in most cases I found no particular rationale behind the list --- they are simply one knowing person's opinion.

*Bear in mind I'm speaking here of literary fiction journals, not those that primarily publish genre fiction (mystery, sci-fi, etc). I'm less familiar with those.

To generate the list of periodicals where I would send my piece, I looked to see which journals were publishing stories included in well-known serial anthologies, namely, the O. Henry awards and Best American Short Stories. The list I created (link below) includes every journal that has had 2 or more selections in O. Henry and/or BASS in the last ten years, roughly 35 journals:

I then went to each journal's website to view their submission guidelines, which are usually accessible and clear, and took down all the relevant information.

I separated my list into those who accept simultaneous submissions versus those who don't, because why submit to 1 and wait when you can submit to 10 at a time? In each sub-list, the ones that appear more often in O.Henry or BASS tend to be near the top (I didn't record the actual number of appearances however... sorry!). Hence, these were among the first batch I submitted to.

There's also a few I couldn't submit to because of thematic limitations (e.g. looking for African-American themes), length limits, limits on accepting novel excerpts, etc.

It's also important to pay attention to reading periods, which can be anywhere from 3 months to 8 months, or year-round, and if you submit work outside of these reading periods the manuscript gets returned unread. You'll see from my list that now was the perfect time for me to send to multiple journals because their reading periods overlapped.

I've recorded the response time for most journals on the list as well, so if I see that more than that amount of time has passed and I've not heard from them, I can send a quick follow-up. I've had to do this only twice, but in the end, I have heard back from every journal I've submitted to, eventually.

I should note that there are web services, like Writer's Market, that compile all this information, but I found that I often ended up visiting each journal's website anyway, because some of the information was outdated. I'd rather get my info directly from the journal's website (call it paranoia). Also, Writer's Market doesn't give much clue as to the reputation of each journal, so if my search returns a list of fifty journals, how do I decide where to start? At least with my method I have some logic to the order.

There you have it, a keen plan for submitting short fiction from somebody who's never been published in his life. But just you wait! Please let me know if any of this ends up being helpful. Here again is my submission list, plus my cover letter, for your reference:

Is this the most boring post I've ever written? Yeah? Well who asked you jerkface?


Amanda said...

So if you're doing all this research why limit yourself to America? One of the glories of the internet is that it reaches beyond your borders and your bum doesn't have to leave your seat.

Anonymous said...

Good tips. Thanks! If you haven't done so, you might want to check out, which has a submissions tracker as well as a data base of publishers you can search by genre, length, etc., with links to the publishers web page. Duotrope keeps stats on response times for each publisher. I have nine unpublished stories to submit. (Three were recently published.) I've broken them down into 3 groups of three and send out one group each month. By the time the 3rd group is sent, Group 1 is ready for follow-up inquiries. All my submissions are entered on the duotrope query tracker, which is a free service with requests for donations. I do donate periodically in appreciation for how the site has helped me streamline my marketing. Duotrope will even flag a submission that has been waiting past a publisher's typical response time so that you can decide whether to follow up.

Jim Cooney said...

This is great advice. I wish I knew who you were anonymous!

I myself am only sending submitting one piece (I have no others to submit) and even find THAT hard to manage!

Peter said...

I just found discovered this post while searching for reputations of literary journals. The Excel spreadsheet you created is a godsend. I've been struggling to figure out some sort of logic for determining to which literary journals I would submit my short story manuscripts and this has been tremendously helpful toward that end.

I have only two questions:

1. Have you considered Glimmer Train at ? I noticed they were missing from your spreadsheet, but a local writer suggested I check them out.

2. Have you updated your spreadsheet since your original post last October?

Again, thank you so very much for posting this article. At the least, now I know I'm not the only person who was initially overwhelmed by the task of selecting literary journals for story submissions.

Peter said...

Please disregard the second question in my previous comment. I should have checked the front page of your site and read your update before posting a comment.

GMerriment said...

Thanks so much for this. I'm getting ready to submit my first short story and I really had no idea where to start. This will help me immensely.

Jim Cooney said...

Thanks so much for your comment --- really makes me feel like keeping that blog is worthwhile. I'm hoping I can start contributing to it more regularly again, soon.

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing this wealth of information!