Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Selling Short Fiction, Part One: The Basics

By José Pablo Iriarte, @LabyrinthRat

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: There are a few things you ought to know before diving into the short story market. José Pablo Iriarte answers questions writers often have with short fiction.

When my spouse and I give presentations to conferences and writing groups, I'm usually the grumpy one who wants to focus on craft more than business, because I believe no gimmick or pitch is going to make you a selling writer if your craft is not professional grade.

That said, I've seen enough red flags in magazine practices, in contest submission guidelines, and in assumptions expressed by new writers to make be feel that we definitely should talk about the business side of things, when you're a short story writer. You might have a sense, from reading Fiction University and from other sources, of how you approach novel publication. Some of those lessons overlap into short fiction, but in many ways the short fiction landscape is unique, so it's worth talking a little bit about how to seek publication.
In this post, I was going to write about the market in general—where to sell your work and what to expect—and also about red flags, but once I started writing, I saw that this was really too much for a single post. So I will split the topic. For today's post, I will focus on finding publishers, deciding whom to approach, and reaching out to them.

DISCLAIMER THE FIRST: This spring I was elected to be Director at Large for the Science fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and this month I began my term in office. I need to make it very clear that when I talk about the business side of things—particularly when I talk about market practices I object to—I am not speaking for SFWA. SFWA has a ton of great resources when it comes to entering the marketplace—in particular, I would point you to Writer Beware and its associated blog, an invaluable resource funded by SFWA for authors in all genres. But this post is just me.

DISCLAIMER THE SECOND: Speaking of science fiction and fantasy, these are my genres. These are the markets I am published in and the ones I know best. That doesn't mean I can't talk about publishing outside of these genres, but it's worth keeping my biases in mind. While we're at it, I am also traditionally published, and my only knowledge of self-publishing is second-hand. In this post, I am focusing on traditional short fiction publication, in magazines (including online) and in anthologies (including ebook).

Okay, how do I get my anthology published?

Let me lead with the bad news, and address probably the most frequent question I hear at writing conferences when I present on short fiction: A single-author collection of short stories from a previously unpublished author is all but impossible to sell.

Most of us who sell short fiction sell individual stories to magazines and anthologies. If we're very well known, either as short fiction writers or as novelists, we might be able to get somebody—usually a very small press—interested in putting out an anthology of nothing but our own work. But if your sights are set on putting out an anthology of your own short stories, you will pretty much need to self-publish that.

(Here’s more with How to Publish Your Own Short Story Collection)

So where do you sell individual stories, then?

My first answer to this is to look to the places where you go, as a reader of short stories, to find stories to read. Who publishes the stories you love? Your own work is likely to resemble the fiction you consume, so this is the best starting point.

Often when I say something like this, there is an awkward silence before somebody admits to me that they don't actually read short fiction currently being published. I think I could, and might, write a post just on why you should be reading contemporary work in the literary marketplace you seek to enter, but for now let me just suggest that being a writer who doesn't read might not be the best recipe for authorial success. (grin)

If you are reading broadly in your genre, however, it's not possible to read literally everything being published. So while the reading gives you a starting point and also immerses you in the zeitgeist of what is currently being published, you still will likely want to search for markets.

I personally use an online database of short fiction markets, The Submission Grinder. There are other similar websites, but this is the one I use and like. (This is a free service, but if you look at their list of supporters, you will see I am one of their top donors. I encourage you to support useful services, if you are financially able to. And if you are not able to support great resources financially, don't forget you can also support them by spreading the word. Or reading their published work. *ahem*)

You can create an account on The Grinder, or you can search for markets without creating an account. You indicate the wordcount of your story, the genre(s), and the minimum payment you are seeking, and it spits out a list of markets that match your criteria. You can sort this list by pay rate or by response time, and if you click on the markets in your list, you can see their acceptance rate, what percent of their rejections are personal versus form (or no reply), and you can also see crowdsourced data on how long people have been waiting to hear. If you create an account, you can track your submissions and your income, and share anonymized data on wait times with other writers.

The markets you find will include print magazines, web-based magazines, and anthologies. Depending on what checkboxes you select and which you leave off, you may find markets that are temporarily closed, or markets that charge reading fees, or markets that don't pay.

(Here’s more with How Saleable Are Short Stories? The Benefits of Writing Shorter)

On professional pay and "exposure."

Should you submit stories to markets that don't pay? What about markets that pay token rates or per-word rates that are very small? I have Opinions, but I think that's ultimately a decision you need to make for yourself. I am privileged to write in a genre where the short fiction scene is relatively thriving.

There are many markets for short fiction, and many that pay what SFWA considers to be a professional rate. In other genres, your prospects may be grimmer, and so it's not reasonable for me to imagine my mental calculus will apply to everybody else.

In speculative fiction (a catch-all term for science fiction, fantasy, and horror), the minimum professional rate is currently considered to be 8¢ per word. Markets that pay a per-word rate that is lower than this are often described as paying "semipro" rates. (If you encounter the term "semiprozine" in award discussions, however, that means something entirely different.)

Markets that pay a small lump sum, like say $5 per story, are described as token-paying markets, and markets that don't pay at all may be termed "for-the-luv" markets or simply nonpaying markets.

I came of age during a time when the big names in science fiction and fantasy were vociferous in advocating against submitting to markets that paid less than a professional rate, so I took this as gospel and followed their approach. As a result, it took me a very long time to break through and start selling work.

I also went through long periods of despairing of ever rising to the bar, of ever selling anything at all. I have friends who approached selling short stories differently, and sold to some markets that had higher acceptance rates, and got a confidence boost from this, and this helped them keep on striving and keep on writing.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I would change anything about my own path: Once I did start selling at pro rates, I was able to crack a lot of prestigious markets, and virtually all my sales are at pro rates. Maybe all those years of rejection leveled me up in a way that a few easier wins might not have. Or maybe not. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Whatever choice you make, I would warn you against the argument that non-paying markets sometimes make, that they provide "exposure." For the most part, markets that don't pay also don't have readers. If they had readers, they'd be able to monetize that fanbase, and then they'd be able to pay authors.

(Here’s more with People Get Arrested for Exposure (A look at "For The Luv" Anthologies))

Should you submit to magazines or to anthologies?

I have stories in both. I find that stories published in magazines—particularly online magazines—have a little more staying power, as they continue to find new readers even years after being published.

On the other hand, anthologies—particularly print anthologies—give me something to put on a brag shelf, something to hold in my hand, and something that I can, if I'm lucky, find in my local library. Anthologies from reputable pro publishers also tend to continue to sell, even if only a little bit, and so every few months I get a surprise royalty check in the mail that can buy me lunch.

One challenge with anthologies is it might be harder for somebody who is new to the market to judge who is reputable. Just because a call for submissions promises ten cents a word doesn't mean the editor will be able to put together a professional product that will come out on a timely basis and attract readers.

Try to look for the editor and the publisher behind the anthology: do they have a record of other anthologies published? Were those anthologies well-received, critically or in terms of award nominations? Is the publisher's website riddled with off-topic or tangential rants that are filled with typos and grammar errors?

Does it make a difference if a magazine is online or in print?

It's the pervasiveness of the internet that is responsible for the currently flourishing genre short fiction scene. Some magazines are able to enter the marketplace without having to lay out a fortune in printing costs and distribution and warehousing expenses.

Many high quality, professional paying markets are free to read—So there's no excuse for not keeping up with your chosen genre!—because they fund through advertising or fund drives or subscriptions. (There's no contradiction here. I subscribe to a number of magazines that can be read for free, because I love the work they publish.) I find my stories that are free to read and online garner me the most readers and build my name recognition the most.

On the other hand, again, printed magazines give me something to hold on to. They don't generally generate royalties beyond the original payment, though, and only the biggest, most popular magazines end up in a library's physical collection, so these aren't considerations here.

I will confess that stories published online but behind a paywall tend to do the least for building my career—they often come and go without making much of a splash.

So how do I get started?

You've got your list of markets to submit to—now what? Make sure that you go to the market's own guidelines, usually posted on their website, and see if they have any specific requests with regard to typeface, spacing, etc. Typically, markets like something like William Shunn's manuscript format, but some editors will have specific less-common requests, such as single-spacing, or anonymized submissions, or pasting text into a submission box on their website.

When you look at those guidelines, pay close attention to the markets' policies on multiple submissions or simultaneous submissions. When you submit novels to agents, it's common for agents to accept simultaneous submissions—when you send the work to multiple agents at once. In short fiction, this is less common. The exception to this is in literary fiction, where simultaneous submissions are somewhat more common.

Assuming simultaneous submissions are not permitted by most of your markets, how do you decide where to send the story first? With the caveats that pay rate isn't everything, and that you should take a long look at each market you send to in order to make sure your work is a possible fit, you could do a lot worse than to go top-down in order of pay rate. I suppose you could, after ruling out markets that don't reach your minimum pay rate, choose to sort by acceptance rate instead.

When I was starting out, I only subbed to pro markets, but then I actually sorted by response time rather than by pay rate: I expected to get a lot of rejections (and I did!) so it was more important to me to get my response quickly so I could maximize my odds by sending the story to the next possible home. (Never get angry at a market for sending you a rejection too quickly! If the answer's going to be "No," either way, you might as well appreciate the people who tell you No quickly!)

These days I have a loose preference for "prestige." Of course, prestige cannot be quantified, but I look for markets that I encounter a lot in my own reading, markets that are often nominated for genre awards, and so forth. I also try to place stories in markets where I have not previously had work, when I can, in the hopes of reaching a new set of readers.

As for a cover letter, a short fiction cover letter is very different from a query letter you would use for a novel. Unlike a query letter, a cover letter should be short and sweet. The work is short enough that it really just has to stand for itself. Your platform doesn't matter, your history doesn't matter.

A perfectly serviceable cover letter is: Dear editor, please consider my story, "Story Title," for publication in Magazine Name. Thank you for your time. Honestly, that's all you need. If you have prior fiction publications, you might mention up to three of your most impressive credits.

You don't need to provide any biographical background (unless it's very relevant, like you're a molecular biologist writing a story about molecular biology) and you generally don't summarize or pitch the story. (Some specific markets may say otherwise, in which case you should ignore what I say and follow their guidelines.)

Then you send it, make a record of it somewhere, and wait. 🙂

Next time I'll get into red flags, and how you should expect to be treated, and what kinds of practices are, in my opinion, not very professional. Until then, if you have questions on these basics, let me know in the comments and I'll try to help!

Also, this Thursday night, July 15th, at 9 PM EDT, I will be the featured author on Gini Koch's online book club, Read This! 

The meetings are on Discord every month and are open to anybody who is interested in attending. This month, we will be discussion my new story in Uncanny Magazine, "Proof by Induction." I expect we will also be talking about the craft and business of writing and selling short fiction as well, since there are a lot of writers, both published and aspiring, in Gini's audience! You might also win a copy of August's Read This! book, Derelict, an anthology of short spec fic stories published by Zombies Need Brains, a publisher I've worked with twice now.

Here is a link to the Discord server where the conversation will take place. I hope to see you there!

José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer and teacher who lives in Central Florida. José’s fiction can be found in magazines such as LightspeedStrange HorizonsFireside Fiction, and others, and has been featured in best-of lists compiled by Tangent Online, Featured Futures, iO9, and Quick Sip Reviews, and on the SFWA Nebula Award Recommended Reading List. Jose’s novelette, The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births, was a Nebula Award Finalist and was long-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award.

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  1. Thank you for this very thorough article. I have dabbled in writing short stories, so I'm interested to read part 2 as well. My focus, so far, has been on writing my novels but I've had several short stories published in non-paying publications; magazines (which also have print versions for the brag shelf), and anthologies (charity and writing competition). I think they've helped to establish my writing profile but I'm interested in how to progress. Thank you for this informative and interesting article.

  2. A good article. I enjoyed it but I have one bugbear. Authors unwilling to share work. Authors assuming that having written something worth reading post it or self-publish it and periodicals and magazines (who pay little) are not worth while. As the former editor of a number of Sci-fi, fantasy and steampunk mags published both online and in print to specialist stores I can assure your followers that this is not true. Sure we took advantage of our contributors (trying to turn a profit whilst launching their careers)as our contributors took advantage of us. Nine now have sold in the millions, thirty seven in the hundred thousands. This is not the nineteen seventies. No longer is it a case of find a publisher and wait for the royalties.