Ask an experienced writer where you should submit your stories, and they’ll invariably tell you to “start at the top, and work your way down.”
The logic behind this is perfectly solid. Even if you suspect that your story isn’t amazing, you may well be suffering from a common writer affliction: underestimating the quality of your work. So why do an editor’s job and self-reject? Let them see the story and decide for themselves.
But where, exactly, is this “top” you should start at? Is it based purely on the amount of payment offered? If this were the case, TOR.com would get to see every story first. Yet I have never submitted there, and possibly never will, because I can’t imagine waiting a year or more, at any venue. Instead, I consider a combination of factors when trying to decide which publication should have the privilege of rejecting my next story:
Prestige – How reputable/popular is the venue
Exposure – How many people will read the story if published
Speed – What’s the likely turnaround time
Terms – Which rights are sought
Let’s examine the PEST method, keeping in mind that I’m discussing speculative fiction only, which is why The New Yorker and its ilk aren’t mentioned below.
What publishing credit would you be the most proud of? In terms of respect, nothing comes close to the big three: Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s and Analog. They’re the gold standard, and it’s hard to make the case for sending a story which might be appropriate for one or more of those magazines elsewhere first.
The big three all pay professional rates, but prestige isn’t necessarily tied in to payment. There are a number of magazines that pay only a penny per word that are highly respected. Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Shimmer and Andromeda Spaceways are a few notable examples. I often submit to ASIM and Shimmer before sending the same story to higher paying venues.
New publications don’t get completely ignored under this method. Instead of considering the magazine/anthology’s history, I consider instead who the editors are and what their track record is in the industry. I was interested in aggressively submitting to Stupefying Stories right from the start, because it’s edited by Bruce Bethke. If there’s ever an open call for one of Mike Resnick’s anthologies, I’ll be eagerly writing a new story from scratch just to have something I can send in.
I care about how many people will ultimately read my story. Every author does. So when the time comes to submit, I am more likely to send my work to a publication with a large readership than a higher-paying but obscure journal or anthology. Every Day Fiction pays token rates, but they provide more exposure than most online markets. I gladly submit to them, and will continue to do so.
On the other hand, be wary of non-paying markets that boast about how appearing on their web site will help promote your brand and advance your writing career. It won’t. Most of those markets are read by a few hundred people, at best. And you won’t be doing yourself any favors mentioning the fact that you’ve been published by such in your cover letter. Things are a bit different on the literary fiction front, but when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, there aren’t any non-paying markets I can think of where I’d be interested in submitting original work.
How long does a market take to respond to your submission? Some of the very best markets are also the fastest—Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, F&SF are among publications where most submissions are handled within days rather than months. There are dozens of other great markets that manage a turnaround of 4-6 weeks. It’s logical to submit to all of those before sending your story to Dark Discoveries, GUD or TOR.com where your submission is likely to languish for a year.
In their desire to get published, writers often ignore the finer details of their contracts. There are a number of important details you should consider, before signing on the dotted line.
First, never give up the ownership of your work. Very few publications ask for it, but stay as far away as you can from the ones that do. Maintaining ownership will allow you to eventually sell your story to reprint markets, Best Of anthologies, Podcast ‘zines, etc. You might even hit a jackpot and have your story optioned for a movie or a screenplay. Or, perhaps, you simply want to make the story available for free on your blog. If you aren’t careful, you could forfeit all of those opportunities with a stroke of a pen.
Most reputable publishers won’t attempt to grab full rights. But you should read the contract carefully to see exactly which rights they do want. They’ll typically ask for a certain period of exclusivity. Obviously, you can’t do anything with your story until they publish it. In some cases, the rights will revert to you immediately upon publication and you can begin to submit elsewhere. In most cases however, they’ll want a period of exclusivity that can range from anywhere between a few months and a few years. I think anything up to a year is pretty reasonable. My personal upper limit is 18 months.
It’s very important to note that this period of exclusivity (be it 0 days or 2 years) typically begins on the date of publication, not when the contract is signed. In these cases you must make sure there’s a reversion clause in your contract. A reversion clause states that the publisher has a limited amount of time to print your story. Without such clause, a publisher could hang on to your story indefinitely and you won’t get it back – even if you didn’t sell full rights.
This sort of thing doesn’t happen often. Most publishers mean well and operate in good faith. However, it doesn’t hurt to make sure reasonable terms are spelled out in the contract. If there’s something there that doesn’t sound right to you, it’s perfectly OK to ask the publisher if they’d be willing to alter it. After all, agents negotiate novel contracts with publishers all the time.
So there you have it – my method for ranking short story markets. Nothing earth-shattering, but hopefully there will be some glimmers there to help you figure out which editors to PESTer with your own submissions next.