A few weeks ago, a friend asked me for some advice about how to submit short stories to magazines and anthologies, so I'm sharing the advice I gave her with the world. If you're a new writer who's just stepping a toe into the world of publishing, or if you've gotten lucky with a few markets but don't really understand how the whole thing works, then this article is for you. This advice about submitting short stories is primarily for those writing fantasy and science fiction, as some of the details may differ if you write literary (for example, many literary markets allow simultaneous submissions while SFF do not), but no matter what genre you're working with, this six step sequence can help point you in the right direction.
And who am I to give this advice? No one, really, but I've published approximately 35 short stories (many of them very short), ranging from non-paying and token markets all the way up to professional and prize-winning. According to Duotrope, I've sent out 535 submissions in the last six years. I'm also an editor who has read a good deal of slush for both magazines and anthologies over the last five years.
Want to submit short stories to magazines or anthologies? Here's your six step sequence.
First of all, is your story ready to submit? Have you had your critique group or beta readers look at it, and implemented as many of their suggestions as fit your vision for the story? Have you teased out every possible specific detail about these characters, this setting, this situation, as you can fit into the space of a short story? Have you read it out loud to listen for clunky sentences, word echoes, stilted dialog? Have you let it sit for a couple of days (or even weeks) and then read it again with fresh eyes? Is it absolutely the best you can do at this moment in time?
If you answered no to any of the above, stop right now, and stop thinking about publication. Maybe it needs another rewrite, or five. Maybe you just need to write a different story. Or five.
Second, research the markets. Decide what matters to you. Do you want to be paid professional rates, or are you okay with less? Do you want a paper copy, or do you prefer online publication? Do you want to be in a well-established publication, or do you want to take a chance on something newer? Market listings such as Duotrope.com, the Submission Grinder, and Ralan.com are excellent search engines that can help you discover new markets and narrow down the ones that are looking for the kind of story you’re writing. To find anthologies, visit small press websites (or follow them on social media) to watch for anthology announcements, and skim Kickstarter for anthologies that may still be taking submissions. Always visit the magazine or anthology’s website, and be sure to read the submission guidelines. Avoid any market that charges a submission fee*, and watch for red flags such as asking for exclusive rights. After you look at a dozen or so submission guidelines, you’ll have an excellent sense for what’s normal and what’s not.
(*Submission fees are more common and accepted for literary markets, but are anathema in genre fiction. Contests are different, but should still be treated skeptically, especially if the entry fee is high.)
Third, once you’ve decided which markets you’d like to submit to, read them. If you’re looking at anthologies, pick up another anthology by that editor or publishing house. If you’re looking at magazines, pick up their latest issue. Most magazines are available online, but you can also go camp out at your local Barnes and Noble to look at paper issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, Asimov’s, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and a few others. Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and many others have podcasts you can download to listen to while you drive, walk the dog, or eat lunch. However you do it, make sure you’ve read at least a few stories in a magazine before you send yours there. You don’t have to read all of them cover-to-cover, but read enough to get a sense of what they value in a story, and if they’re publishing stories like the ones you’re writing. Even if your story is great, the editor won’t take it unless it’s also a great fit.
Fourth, use Standard Manuscript Format (unless otherwise specified) and submit the story according to the market's guidelines along with a brief cover letter. Do not describe your story in the cover letter. The cover letter should be very short, and include the story’s title, word count, any previous publications or writing education you may have, and a “thank you” for their time. Don’t have any publications or writing education? No problem, just leave that part out. Do not apologize for having none, or offer any rationalizations or frustrations about it. Simply omit. If you have other education or life experience that relates to the content of your story, you can also include that. For example, if you are writing hard science fiction about space travel and you have a PhD in physics, say so. Or, if you are queer and so is your character, you can let the editor know the story is #OwnVoices.
Here’s the standard cover letter I have sent out for years:
Dear [Magazine Title] Editors,
That’s really it. A cover letter is not a query letter (which you need for submitting a novel). It is simply a polite introduction that says “Here’s my story, thanks for taking a look.”
Fifth, practice Rejectomancy (and abandon all hope). You can keep track of your submissions at Duotrope or the Submission Grinder, which will let you see the average response times for markets. Most science fiction and fantasy markets do not allow simultaneous submissions, so you’ll need to wait until you hear back from the first one before submitting the same story to the second one (and so on). If you know that Asimov’s, for example, takes an average of 100 days to respond, but Clarkesworld takes an average of two days to respond, that can help you plan which markets to submit to first, and help allay your anxieties as you wait for that response. If you haven’t already, start writing a new story.
Sixth, when that dreaded rejection comes in, move on to the next market on your list, make sure to follow their guidelines (which may differ slightly from the last one), and submit the story to that magazine or anthology. Keep submitting until you run out of places you would be proud to see your work in. The pro-markets are great, but there are a lot of semi-pros and token markets that do a great job as well. Or, if the editors were nice enough to give you personalized feedback, you may want to do another pass through the story and incorporate their suggestions. Unfortunately, you can’t resubmit it to the same magazine or anthology unless the editor specifies that they’d like you to (called a "revise and resubmit").
If their response is an acceptance rather than a rejection, then do a happy dance, sign the contract (after reading it closely), make sure you get paid, and always share the news with your friends and social media followers when the story is released.
And then, if you haven’t already, submit your next story.