Publishing Short Stories: The Nuts and Bolts of Submitting
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Aspiring writers can get tunnel vision. People get so focused on getting a novel published that they don't think about other writing markets. In particular, I'm talking about short stories. Many would-be novelists write short stories as well, but I'm amazed at how few of them even consider trying to have them published. I've seen very prolific people who've written dozens upon dozens of short stories, but only put them on their own blogs, where - let's be honest - nobody reads them.
I won't lie - publishing short stories can be tough, almost as tough as publishing a novel. The better markets are highly competitive, often accepting well under one percent of the thousands of submissions they receive every year. That said, publishing short fiction can be a great way for an unknown writer to get some exposure, build a brand, and even make a little money. For writers of science fiction and fantasy in particular, publishing in speculative short fiction markets can be one of the few ways to get a reputation in an oversaturated field.
So today, I'll go over a few short fiction basics - where to find the markets, which markets are best, how to submit, and what to expect.
Preparing Your Work
One thing right off the bat: Stop putting your stories on your blog. Anything that appears on a publicly accessible website is considered "published," and those stories can only be submitted as reprints, which many of the bigger markets won't even take.
There are a few things you should do before you start submitting. First, get all of your stories into Shunn manuscript style. This is standard formatting for most markets - 12-point font, double spaced, indented, contact information in the top left of the first page, and saved in .doc format. Don't sweat over this too much, as you'll be changing things around when you start to actually submit. You should also work up a short bio, which many markets will request. You'll be updating this one as well, adding in major sales as you make them.
Now, we're going to find some markets. If you're a reader of short fiction, you may already know of a few markets. If not, you can go down to your local library and check out the Writer's Market guide - making sure, of course, to pick the one for the current year - but I'll make it easier for you and give you some resources you can use right now.
There are several websites for tracking submissions, the main ones being the Submission Grinder and Duotrope. Of the two, Duotrope is more complete, featuring fiction, poetry and non-fiction markets in a variety of genres. Submission Grinder focuses more on speculative fiction and, as of this recording, does not feature non-fiction markets. However, Submission Grinder is completely free, while most of Duotrope's features are locked behind a paywall.
With the available search tools, you can easily search for markets that fit your piece based on genre and length, and then further winnow them down based on factors like payment, response time and acceptance rate, as well as any restrictions they might have.
The Basics of Submission
Once you've found a suitable market, go to the submissions page on their website and find out exactly what they want. That's important, because submission standards can vary a lot, and failure to follow their rules can get your submission sent to the trash.
Find out how they want you to submit. A lot of smaller markets take email submissions, but larger ones tend to use submission software such as Submittable or Moksha and will ignore anything sent to them through email.
Check the formatting requirements - almost all of them will want Shunn formatting, but many publications now read blind, which means you need to remove your name and other identifying information from the document. Other markets might want more information, such as a phone number or word count added to the document. Some publications only take submissions in certain electronic formats - .rtf or .docx - or want them cut-and-pasted into a form or the body of an email.
If you've shopped a novel around before, you're probably used to querying multiple agents at once. In short fiction, this is only acceptable if the market says they take simultaneous submissions. Most speculative markets don't allow this, but it's a lot more common with literary markets which (not coincidentally) tend to take longer to respond.
Finally, some markets will only take a certain number of submissions per reading period or expect you to wait a certain period of time after receiving a response. Don't spam these markets - it makes the editors cranky.
You've submitted your first short story. Congratulations! Now, while you wait impatiently to hear back, let's dive into some of the finer details on publication and rejection.
You will be rejected, and a lot. To repeat, many of the most prestigious and highest paying markets have acceptance rates well under one percent. Some markets have higher acceptance rates, as do certain types of fiction. However, as I mentioned in my series on flash fiction, a "high acceptance rate" may only be three or four percent.
As of this writing, I've been rejected 775 times, more than once every other day since I started. Needless to say, if you are going to face so much rejection, you need to learn how to cope. You need to learn to take that rejection in stride, take the story and find another market for it. If, after each of those 775 rejections, I'd gone running off to Twitter for consolation, I wouldn't have had time for much else.
So when is it time to give up on a certain story - or a certain market? It's a judgment call as much as anything. As far as markets go, there is a certain point at which you acknowledge that these editors are not interested in the type of material that you're sending them and it's time to move on. I like to go by the cumulative odds of rejection. I have a little cheat graph for it:
Look up the acceptance rate for that particular market and you can see how many submissions you would have to send to hit a cumulative acceptance chance of over 50%.
Don't use this as a strict rule - it's more of an answer to the question "Is this a lot of rejections?" You may have reason to continue submitting to a publication well after this point. For example, I've have 45 pieces rejected by Flash Fiction Online (including two pieces - "Starless Night" and "Swarm Mechanics" - which I later sold to professional markets). They have an acceptance rate of about three percent, so I'm well over that 50% line. I keep submitting to them because they take a wide range of material and are often the best market for what I write. So...onward to fifty, I guess.
As to pieces, I'd suggest sticking with them - spend enough time shopping a piece around and you will find someone to take it, even if it's a non-paying publication that takes everyone, which leads into the next topic:
I've always believed that writing is a thing of value and the writer should always be paid for it, but I haven't been practicing what I preach:
A majority of my "sales" have been to either non-paying markets or markets that offer what's called a "token" payment - usually a flat fee of between three and ten dollars, and under one cent per word in any case.
Markets like these have proliferated, as people have started their own digital-only publications, many of which are little more than someone's blog. Payments are small, acceptance rates are high, and it's never clear how big the audience is for any of them.
Should you submit to these markets? I'm of two minds. On one hand, I've done it myself, and I've seen writers with more professional credits than me shop their work to non-paying and token paying markets as well. The reason is simple - it's always better for a piece to be published, even in a minor market, than for it to sit unread on your hard drive. You'll be submitting to markets like this a lot early on, as they give you a chance to build up some early credits and they're often less picky about reprints, so you can send them material you've already put online.
On the other hand, the value you get from these markets is minimal, even if they pay. As you build a reputation and a following, you may find that there are other things you can do with those unsold pieces that give you more value. You might include it in a self-published anthology, give it away as a Patreon reward, put it in a private newsletter, do a dramatic reading on a podcast (I understand some weirdos do that), or even - yes - post it to your blog as a reward to faithful readers.
My real advice is to have some ambition, but still be realistic. Don't be afraid to pitch to the big markets, and don't be too snobbish to shop them to the little guys.
But enough about failure - what happens after you're accepted? If you watched my recent video on scams, you might recall me mentioning that some anthologies have fishy contracts. Almost any paying market is going to ask you to sign some sort of agreement, though this may be pretty informal.
The Submission Grinder flags markets with "non-standard" terms, which may or may not be a problem, but it's always worth looking into. Read any agreement carefully for what rights they want and how long they expect to keep those rights. Be very cautious about any market that insists on treating a submission as consent to publish, and never agree to hand over any rights in perpetuity.
Look, don't sweat too much about your short fiction. True, it's harder to do this than it is to just dump it all on your blog, but you have a lot more to gain. Treat this as a good start.