Some things to understand about submitting short stories

There’s been a rash of mischief, or discussion of mischief, around short fiction submissions lately, and I find myself repeatedly saying the same things in different venues. For the sake of convenience, addressed to you, new writer, here is all my blather in one place.

The first thing to understand is the role a short fiction writer plays in the marketplace for short fiction, which is different from what many new writers think. Writers tend to be oriented around “I want my story out there in front of readers” and naturally think that because markets are a means to that end, that must be their purpose. From that line of thinking, markets provide a service to writers at best, or act as gatekeepers at worst. This is a fundamental misunderstanding.

A short fiction market – which could be a paper or digital magazine, an anthology, a podcast, even someone’s blog – is intended to present short fiction to its readers that it hopes its particular readers will like enough to keep reading / paying for. That’s all it boils down to. It’s not a service for grading stories, or for distinguishing good authors from bad ones. It is a service to some readers, the ones who like that market’s style. Maybe it’s a niche in the genre, maybe it’s a tendency toward humor, maybe it’s a bent for meandering stories. All markets have a style, whether they admit it or not. There is no such thing as a single market that caters to all readers. There is no gate to keep.

In order to present fiction to readers, the market must buy it. Typically they need a lot of it on an ongoing basis, so they put up a special web page where authors can offer stories. They need to standardize submissions as much as possible in order to streamline the process, because an open call for any goods or services will receive a flood. Typically this describes the type of stories they want (including length and genre, sometimes also details like “no zombies”) in order to articulate their style as best they can, and an outline of what they’re willing to pay for it. Even so, it takes a while to go through it all. Often the market will have “first readers” or “slush readers” to go through all the submissions and let their writers know “sorry, we won’t be buying this” or (sadly less often) “yes, let us enter some extremely-streamlined negotiations to buy this and get it in front of my readers”. It’s not personal, because they don’t have time for personal.

That makes you, the short story writer, a vendor.

I put that on its own line and everything, because it is an important thing to understand. It’s not very romantic. Once you internalize it, though, it’s easier to understand what’s going on. In particular, there are two important corollaries:

This is true of any vendor, whether you’re hawking stories to magazines or corn to roadside motorists. It’s just harder to see here, because it’s natural for writers to see magazines as a means to an end: you want your story in front of readers, first and foremost. The payment is for many writers kinda secondary, especially at first when the payments are so small, and that makes it harder to see how you fit into the ecosystem.

Think of yourself like a person with a farm stand, selling a small number of fresh vegetables. It would be nice if people came straight to your stand and threw money at you regardless of whether they liked eggplant, but typically you need to engage with people one at a time, give them a low-pressure opportunity to see how lovely your stuff is, and smile nicely as the vast majority of them pass by (you’ll have different stuff next week, after all). You’re the one who has to hustle here, making the effort to grow it all, clean it all up, and be pleasant despite the frustrations.

The magazines themselves are also vendors. They purchase stories, package them up, and deliver them to readers. If you’re a farm stand, then markets are a bit like restaurants buying produce to cook up and sell. Without vegetables, they can’t operate, but there are a lot of farm stands out there. The slush readers are basically their purchasers. They are walking through the farmer’s market, considering each stand as briefly as they can so that they can get through the whole thing with the best (in their eyes) stuff that’s on their list of ingredients. If they don’t buy your pumpkin, it may be that it’s a little small or squishy, or they don’t cook with pumpkin, or they just bought three and don’t need any more, or just have a gut feel that the kabocha over there will work better. They’ll be back tomorrow.

What I’m trying to get across here is that this is a routine business that people try to streamline as much as possible because there’s a lot to get through. Your role in this business is as one supplier out of thousands, but you are still producing the kind of thing of value that they need to buy.

I invite you now to consider certain occasional or proposed practices in light of these weird metaphors. These are all rare, for good reason.

  1. Paying a submissions fee

This is, I hope you see now, absurd. You are the one with something of value; it doesn’t make sense to pay people to consider buying it. They need to consider buying it in order to run their business.

I often hear horror stories about the sheer volume of slush, much some of which is terrible (if not outright abusive) and I sympathize greatly. Nevertheless, the slush readers and editors do not work for the writers. They do not provide you a service. They do not owe you anything just because you sent them a story. They are providing a service to the publisher and to the readers. Like purchasing departments, slush readers are a cost of doing business, that must be borne by the business. The publisher can (and should) be paying those folks. You should not.

The market that charges a submissions fee is attempting to outsource the costs of their purchasing department (or their whole operation!) to the vendors. Does that sound like a healthy business to you? Put another way: Would you eat at a restaurant that made its money from farmers and not from diners?

What’s the harm, you might ask? First, this is terrible for new writers, who are much less likely to sell a story on the first submission. I’ve sold stories that got rejected ten, fifteen times. If I’d paid a submissions fee at each one I’d have lost money selling a thing of value. So fees present a potentially significant barrier to entry.

Second, fees warp the priorities of the market away from presenting the best possible magazine (or podcast, etc) and toward processing as many submissions (and their fees) as possible. Consider a market that has already purchased as many stories as it needs for the year: normally, that market would close to submissions… but if it charges a fee, then why would it not keep them open, reject everything that comes in, and pocket the fees? How would you, as a writer, know the difference?

There’s a hard truth here, which is that writers are more reliable than readers. They’re more desperate than readers. It’s hard for a market to find reliable readers, and easy to find writers. Most readers are experts in reading, in that they know how their end of things is supposed to work, and are quick to move on if their needs are not met. Many writers are new to this; they all sell many fewer stories than readers read, and it takes longer to understand how things are supposed to be. If a market allows itself to think about writers as a source of income, then writers instantly become a very attractive source of income.

Why should that matter if you just want your story read? Because a market with a financial incentive other than pleasing its readers is eventually going to start putting out garbage. If your story is rubbing elbows with garbage, it’s not going to get in front of the readers it deserves.

2. Paying for feedback or a faster response

This seems kind of reasonable, like legitimate services to offer writers, but there are landmines here. First, these things are not standard in any kind of sales environment. Occasionally something like high end software might offer a Starbucks gift card for feedback after a sale that’s partway along falls through, but this represents tenths of a penny on the dollar compared to the sale price, and is never a standard service offered by the buyer. There are good reasons that these practices are not standard.

Free feedback is usually honest feedback; if you’re paying for it, though, the market has an incentive to come up with something good, right? That seems OK, but consider: what if the reason the story is rejected is that it’s too much for their budget right now, or because the editor just bought a different story that’s too much like yours? What if it’s just a gut feel, it’s perfectly fine but they just didn’t enjoy it? If the feedback is free, they can freely admit that, or just say nothing. If you’re paying… then they kind of have an incentive to find something wrong with your story, even if that’s not really why they rejected it, even if it won’t really help you make the story better.

If you’re willing to pay for feedback on your story, I encourage you to either pay in time by swapping stories with another writer, or to simply pay a freelance editor. Effort flows from the writer, including the effort to make the story good, so it’s sometimes legit to pay money as a substitute for effort. But do it on your terms, from someone whose job it is to do what you want.

OK, what about paying for a faster response. Well, if writers will pay for a faster response, what is the likely change in response time to non-paying writers? Maybe all that money goes toward hiring more slush readers, or maybe not. If it does, then why are you paying to speed up everyone else’s responses? If not, then how would you know you’re getting what you paid for, versus others being artificially slowed down?

There’s another issue, too: “No” is always faster and cheaper than “yes”. Say your story comes up at the end of the day and the slush reader needs to catch a bus. The vast majority of responses are legitimately “no”; do you think you can tell the difference between a legitimate “no” and “you wanted fast and I’m in a hurry, so no”?

There’s also the fact that by paying an extra fee for an extra service, you’ve flagged yourself in their system, and that’s going to make some kind of impression on the person reading your story. If an editor gets your submission and sees it’s going to be more of a pain in the ass than the others, just subconsciously, is it going to get a fair shake? You’re setting yourself apart from other submissions in these ways, and you’re paying for the privilege.

And finally, again, other sources of income warp the financial incentives of the market. The market becomes less dependent on how good a magazine it puts out, and more on how many “services” it can provide writers. Again, the market’s going to start putting out garbage. It does you little good for your work to appear among garbage.

(Here is where I get off the beaten path a little: I think that this is a bad idea for Kickstarters, too. “Pledge $100 and get a professional critique” is corrosive, in my opinion. We know that many writers are also readers, and I myself have supported many markets’ Kickstarter campaigns. And many writers want to support markets they love by offering backer rewards, and that’s the best reward they feel they can offer. It comes from a good place. But terms like that make potential donors think about giving money as writers rather than as readers. Markets should aim fundraising squarely at readers, rather than thinking of writers as a source of funds instead of a source of stories. If they can fund themselves on the backs of the writers who hope to submit to them, they don’t have to put out a magazine that as many readers will like. Better, in my opinion, to keep a clear line.)

3. Tipping

This, to put it lightly, is batshit stupid, and I am only bringing it up because the folks at a certain new submissions platform seem to want this to become a thing. Nobody in this process provides a service to the writer. There is nothing for you to tip for.

Slush readers probably do deserve tips, but it is the editors and readers who ought to be tipping in this case. The practice of writers tipping markets for considering their submissions would be bribery, and it should not be tolerated or normalized in any way.

4. (Not actually proposed by anyone) Bribery

I debated listing this one, since to my knowledge no market is actually consciously doing this. But I know there are writers out there who are… not explicitly thinking along these lines, but not exactly ruling it out, either. And it’s kind of why writers tolerate being asked to pay money in the first place, that sense that a little cash might make things easier.

Selling of any kind is frustrating, let alone when you’re selling something so personal as a short story. It’s temping to spend a little money for a boost. But that boost is not worth it, I would argue, and likely counter-productive.

The markets you’re trying to sell to are not grading you. There is no “If a story is objectively good, we have to buy it” rule. The question the market is (or should be) asking when they read your story is not “is it good?” but “will our readers enjoy this?” So yeah, a lot of stories get rejected for not being good enough. But good stories get rejected, too, because they’re not a fit for that particular market. Someone picking up a sword-and-sorcery magazine doesn’t want to read a brilliant spaceship story just then. Sometimes the restaurant just doesn’t need pumpkins.

There are few circumstances where a writer would be better off having a rejection magically turn into an acceptance, and it’s impossible to know when you’re in one. That’s hard, but it’s true. It’s hard to accept or recognize, but you know it’s theoretically possible that your story is not yet up to snuff. Putting a not-quite-there-yet story in front of a reader will turn that reader off. When they see your name again in the future, on better stories, they’ll move on without reading.

Even if the story is brilliant, putting it front of the wrong audience is a waste. The readers who would love it won’t see it, and the readers who do see it won’t love it. It’s in your interest as a writer to place your story as perfectly as possible: that means you want the slush reader or editor to be as objective as possible when deciding “will my readers enjoy this story?” and if the answer is “no”, trust them. (…And maybe curse their names under your breath and treat yourself to ice cream, because nobody says you have to be a cold-blooded pro all the time.)

So, what does all that mean for what I want you to understand about submitting short fiction? I can really only speak to the science fiction and fantasy genre here, but if you are new to writing and submitting short fiction, I think you should know these things:

  • You are the one offering a thing of value in this business transaction: a story that a market may wish to pay for so that they can make their readers happy. Money flows toward you.
  • It is not normal to pay markets in any way to submit to them. That includes fees for any part of the submissions process. Markets that offer fast response times, or feedback on stories, do so to entice you to submit to them first. Tips are absolutely not normal.
  • It is not normal for markets to require that you be a subscriber before you can submit, as that is basically asking you to pay them twice: through money and by inflating their subscription counts. It is, however, perfectly reasonable for them to suggest that you familiarize yourself with the types of stories they’ve published. They want stories that their readers will like, and the easiest way to sync up with their readers is to be one.
  • It is occasionally normal to pay third parties – the postal service, for example, to deliver a paper manuscript, or a freelance editor to help you iron out problems. They are providing a service to you. The market you submit to is not.
  • It is all-too-normal for a story to be rejected; it is not normal for an author to be a jerk about it. You’re going to have other stories to sell than this one, and people remember abnormality. The readers at markets therefore tend to blissfully forget the stories they rejected, and keenly remember authors who are jerks. If you are businesslike and pleasant even in the face of rejection, you’ll get a fresh chance with your next story.

One final point: one of the reasons I wrote all this up is that a new submissions management service popped up, showing a price list containing things like submissions fees, fees for faster responses, and even tips. I was extremely unhappy about that, because even just a price list like that normalizes practices that, I hope I have shown, are not just abnormal but actively detrimental. A healthy short fiction marketplace should not tolerate or normalize the spread of bad practices.

Edited to add: I am informed that my understanding of the quality of the slush pile is a bit outdated, and that in fact much of it is high quality. I am overjoyed to hear it. That is to everyone’s benefit.

I am less overjoyed, but not terribly surprised, to learn that fees in the academic literary marketplace are common. I’m not going to call them “normal” – over the whole short fiction marketplace, of which they are a small part, they still are not. All I can say is, the fees are still not good practice – I would urge someone in writing for that market to tread carefully and think about the points I raised above.

3 thoughts on “Some things to understand about submitting short stories

  1. I have often thought about this. This is very much getting free content from us and making us pay for them to make money. They are clever in that they have understood the vanity factor associated with writers wanting to see their work in print – hence willing to pay.
    It seems unfair that there is no way of curtailing this activity which in my view is totally unethical. ie can we report journals that do not pay authors for the work they publish to a regulatory body? I think not. Even high ranking journals pay nothing to authors and request submission fees. A pity that all writers simply don’t get together and refuse to submit anything for 3 months and see what happens then to these prestigious journals. I’m angry on many counts!

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