Thursday, October 07, 2021

Placing Short Fiction, Part Two: Contests and Red Flags

By José Pablo Iriarte, @LabyrinthRat

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Contests can be a great way to get your writing out there, but be wary of those who take advantage of writers. José Pablo Iriarte shares some red flags that a publisher doesn't have your best interests in mind.

In my last guest post, I talked in general terms about selling short fiction, focusing on considerations such as how to find a market, how much pay rate might matter to you, how to format manuscripts, print versus online markets, and magazines versus anthologies. In my mind, the theme was You've finished you story . . . now what? As I said in July, though, there was really too much I wanted to say to be able to fit in one post, so now I'm back with more thoughts on what to do—or what not to do—with your short work. Today the focus is less on selling and more on adjacent questions, such as . . .

Should you submit short stories to contests?

My entry point into science fiction was Robert Heinlein, and as a young reader with completionist tendencies, I read everything I could get my hands on by him, short or long, fiction or non. In a collection if his letters and essays (I think) I recall reading about how he got this start. (I am going completely from memory here, so please forgive me if I get a detail or two wrong.) As I recall, he saw an ad for a short story contest, offering $50. So he wrote a story, decided he liked it, and eventually decided he didn't want to send it to the magazine after all. Instead he sent it to one of the magazines, who ended up buying it for more than the $50 he might have won from the contest.

This resonates with me. Most contests have anywhere from one to three winners who actually get something of value. On the other hand, any anthology or magazine will end up buying far more than that many stories. So I'm not sure your odds of winning a contest are better than your odds of selling a story—and in a sense, every story that gets bought "won."

This is not to say that I've never entered a story competition. But the contests I have entered have tended to have two features that mitigated those odds: a personal connection, such as being sponsored by a local writing group, and also, they didn't burn my rights unless they came with a prize at least as valuable as professional publication.

When people in Facebook writer groups I belong to share short story contest links, I find I often have to sit on my hands to keep my thoughts to myself, because on the one hand the vast majority of the contests I see have problematic terms in the contest guidelines, but on the other hand I know people don't like having their enthusiasm constantly harshed. But there are some things that are instant dealbreakers to me that I think aspiring writers ought to nope out of.

First, what do you agree to simply be entering, regardless of whether you win or not? Read the fine print, because I swear it seems like the majority of contests I see online claim the right to publish any entry, and often they claim derivative rights, like film rights or rights to make other works with the same characters or audio rights. Also, which finalist stories does the contest intend to publish, and are all of them being paid at a rate you find acceptable?

I personally am not interested in anything that pays less than professional rates, but many contests pay a hefty sum to the first-place finisher, but then they publish the top several finalists. If first place is publication plus a thousand dollars, while second place is publications plus a hundred and third place is publication plus no money, consider how you feel about the lower prize tiers.

(Here's more with   The 5 Most Common Misconceptions About Writing Contests — Debunked)

Red Flags

For me, the rights grabs present in many contest guidelines—Again, please, actually read the fine print! —are a red flag. But rights grabs are not unique to contests. Some paying and non-paying short fiction markets are also guilty of trying to make you sign away rights that should absolutely stay with you.

In the category of instant Nope from me are contract terms either giving a market rights to make derivative works, or taking from me the right to make derivative works. If I want to have my favorite protagonist appear in all of my stories, hopping from planet to planet and fighting crime, nothing should stop me. If I want to set all my stories in the same fictional neighborhood, nothing should stop me. And most importantly, if a creator in a different medium, like comic books or film, is interested in adapting my work, the market should not even be a part of that negotiation.

Reprint rights are also an important consideration. Like virtually all authors I know, I sell reprints of previously sold stories. They don't make a lot of money, usually, but since the story has already been written and paid for at professional rates, anything I earn after that from another market is gravy. Reprints also allow me to boost my readership by reaching folks who may not have previously encountered me, especially if I can sell a reprint to a market that publishes in a very different form, such as audio, or perhaps to a different readership.

It's reasonable for a market that pays for first rights to want a certain exclusivity period. Maybe two or three months during which they want to be the only place my story can be found. I will accept up to a year. A market that wants to retain exclusivity for longer than a year edges into red flag territory for me. (Also, markets should expect no compensation when I resell my own work, other than perhaps an acknowledgment that they were where the story was first published.)

A more nuanced rights question is whether to give a market audio rights along with print rights. Many markets have podcasts along with their print edition. If the market is one I'm proud to appear in—one I've heard of and read myself, say—I'll generally let them have audio rights to the story without qualm if I know that a podcast is part of their business model. On the other hand, some markets have boilerplate contracts where they ask for rights they don't intend to do anything with, just to have them. If a market asks for audio rights but as far as I know they don't use them, then I'll push back and ask to have that struck from the contract.

That's an important point, so I'll pull it out on its own: Remember that contracts are actually negotiable.

Publishing is not all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it. You can write back to a magazine expressing qualms about a term and asking to have it modified. There is a well-known magazine of stories for children that is notorious for offering previously-unpublished authors absurdly grabby contracts, and then backing down to more reasonable terms when they get any pushback at all. If I felt the need to ask for changes, I would simply politely reply to the offer of publication with my concerns, and propose alternative wording for the contract.

(Here's more with Are Writing Contests and Book Reviews Worth It?)  

Professional Business Practices

A final type of red flag for me is when a market's editors or publishers behave publicly in a way that strikes me as unprofessional. Do the market's editors constantly vent on twitter about the quality of their submissions? When they do vent, are they so specific that it's possible for the author they're complaining about to recognize their own work being described? We're all making ourselves vulnerable when we submit our work. We don't know how our words might come across to somebody who doesn't know us, or how many stories with the same troubling theme are in the slush pile alongside our own. And editors don't know what was in our heart when we wrote a story. When an editor doesn't like a submission, they have a very simple recourse: say no. That's it.

Venting isn't the only troubling publisher behavior, though. Is the publisher careful and conscientious with my privacy? Not long ago, there was a short fiction publisher who was in the habit of posting, in a publicly accessible space, lists of titles and authors of rejected stories. If my story gets rejected, I intend to do the sensible thing and send it to another market—I don't want a public record existing of who has already passed on it!

Another publisher had a homebrew submission system (as opposed to the popular services like Submittable or Moksha) that was easily hackable—I mean so easily literally anybody who knows how to type stuff on a browser address bar could gain access to any submitter's information, including home address and legal name.

I also recall a market that specifically excluded submissions from writers who were members of the Science Fiction and fantasy Writers of America—I can think of plenty of reasons why you'd want to exclude writers who are aware of their rights and who have resources available to protect them from predatory publishers, but none of them are good ones.

An editor behavior that doesn't quite rise to the level of a "red flag" but that still troubles me is an editing process that is so hands-on it rises to the level of rewriting the work. I expect to be edited—both in terms of developing undeveloped parts of the story and also in terms of copyediting. But if a story is so far from an editor's vision that we need to have round after round after round after round of revision, if the editor is proposing entirely different wording throughout a story, making it hard for me to remember what was mine and what was not, then I have to wonder why the editor bought the story.

I am friends with a lot of writers who are more or less in the same career stage as I am, and I can't help but notice that it's never the most prestigious and recognized markets that have an issue with rewriting authors' works, but rather some newer and less experienced ones.

(Here's more with How to Win Short Story Contests: Insights from A Writing Competition Judge)  

Value Yourself

What all of these concerns and red flags come down to for me is newer writers not realizing that they have more leverage than they think they do. A magazine, an anthology, a contest . . . they all need content. You provide that content. They can't exist without it. So by all means be open to learning and improving, but you don't have to put up with abuse. You don't have to tolerate markets that try to grab more rights than they pay for. You don't have to work with people who don't respect your privacy and safety.

And if you feel like accepting abuse is the only way to build a career, I'll let you in on a secret: the most abusive markets I've seen are virtually never the ones who actually have the power to build your career.

Remember: What you do is valuable!

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. Thanks so much for this advice. I have entered one contest; won it; and received an expensive computer as a prize. I wonder now whether I should have entered the story to a magazine. I will certainly think about this in the future.

  2. Not a comment: I'm interested in finding known, relilable magazines for short stories. Marion Cuba

    1. Every genre has its own literary scene. I could tell you the magazines I read most regularly (Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed) but it won't mean much if you're not into the same stories I am. Here's a thought, though: Go to a short fiction market database like and perform a search as though you intended to submit: Click on Search → Advanced Search (Fiction). In the genre box, choose your genre(s) of choice. In the Story Length pulldown, choose short story (or whatever you want). And then when you get your results, sort them from most paying on down*, and then look up the markets you find and see if you like what they publish. A lot of times people don't realize that genre isn't enough; I won't name names, but there are short spec fic markets that just aren't my jam, but others that are. So if the first couple you try aren't to your taste, keep looking--I bet you'll find something!

      * I realize that using pay rate as a proxy for market quality is very iffy, but if you're completely unaware of the landscape in a given genre, I think it's not a bad place to start. Markets that pay well often can afford to do so because they have more readers, and markets with more readers often deliver a popular product. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  3. Thank you! Yes, we do need to value what we create. By valuing ourselves, we value all writers and we need to expect and demand that from others. I no longer give my books away, except as gifts to a select few. This holds especially true for libraries. We should any artist devalue himself/herself and the creative process and hours of work we put into our stories and books? Thank you for putting that out there.