The State of the Publishing Industry

A few things concern me about the current state of the short story publishing industry. Some of these may apply to the book publishing at the same time. Let me elaborate.

Names are not acceptable on story submissions.

Some authors argue that stories are published by publishers more often because of the name of the author than on the merit of the writing. Along those lines, critics of Stephen King once said he could have published his laundry list and it would sell. And so, in response, a growing number of publishers are expecting authors to send in stories ‘without a name’ so that the work may be read ‘blind’. This has got to stop.

My concern is copyright. Without your name on your story, you have no way to claim you own it. If publishers want to remove your name after you send them a story, that’s fine. But they are just lazy. They refuse to accept your story with any identifying information in the file you submit. But that is like asking you to give up your rights to your work.

The O. Henry Prize organization does it right. They receives stories with names (printed in magazines) but remove the names when the judges are asked to read the work. Bravo! Why couldn’t more places be this professional?

Ask yourself this. Would you ever submit your book to a publisher without your name on it? Absolutely not.

Simultaneous submissions are not accepted.

Some publishers say you may not send your story to other publishers while you work is under consideration. It’s not easy for a publisher to decide, and over time, they tend to fall in love with certain stories, so they claim. And then, when they ask you to publish your work, you have to tell them the story has already been published somewhere else. Which might lead to you getting blacklisted by a publisher.

Most publishers that allow you to submit work simultaneously simply ask you to let them know as soon as you get an offer somewhere else. This is reasonable and professional. Authors need to stay on top of this.

Lately, though, it seems like the number of publishers who outright say you may not simultaneously submit stories to multiple publishers is growing. This practice seems especially rampant at the top-tier publishers, but it’s moving down to the mid-tier publishers as well. They want you to wait three to six months only to be told no, your work is not what they want. Meanwhile, you could have sent a story to a dozen places and found a home for it.

Think of submitting stories as something like going to job interviews. Two things are happening simultaneously. You’re hoping to get the best offer from multiple companies and they are hoping to snag the best job candidate from multiple interviews. The basic rule of thumb is simple: if you snooze, you lose. It’s a lot like playing the lottery, according to Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence. If the company holds out too long, they lose you to the competition. If you hold out too long, you lose that company to someone else who is interested in the job.

Now imagine that you’ve finished an interview at a company and they tell you that you must wait to do an interview somewhere else until you hear back from them. That would never fly. But that’s what goes on in the story publishing industry. They want you to submit and wait. And wait.

How do companies handle it? They make you an offer so great that you hold out for the job. They tell you you’ll get a gigantic bonus each year and keys to the president’s bathroom. Of course, if you hold out to long, you may not find a job at all. But they offer you such a sweet deal that you tell the other companies you’re still thinking things over. And likewise, if the magazine you are submitting to is good enough, you will wait. But what I see more and more are mid-tier magazines acting like they wear the big pants in the house. They think they can just demand that you wait for them, indefinitely.

Some authors tell me they ignore the ‘no simultaneous submission’ policies of publishers. That’s bending the rules, so I can’t condone that. I think it’s time that publishers show more respect for what writers are facing. Stories rarely fit with a particular publisher, for any number of reasons, which the writer can’t foresee. A writer needs to hit ten magazines at a time, if possible. Simultaneous submissions are the writer’s friend.

More publishers are charging fees for story submissions.

It used to be considered a big no-no if a publisher charged you a fee to read your work. You’d pay them and then they might just say no thank you to publishing your story. Today, it’s becoming more and more standard that they charge fees.

Paying for a reading service is not necessarily bad, because you’re getting something in return. If you’re paying and a publisher will offer feedback on your work, that might be worth it to you. But I’m talking about paying for nothing.

There are plenty of tools for tracking your story submissions these days. People used to write down where they sent stories, and then we used spreadsheets, and now it’s common to use platforms that track submission/rejection rates. Here are three highly different ones.

  • Duotrope (link) charges authors $5/month to use their tools, which is pretty cheap. They don’t charge the publisher to list information on the site.
  • Submittable (link) charges the publisher to use their tools. Then the publisher has the option to charge the author for each story sent in.
  • Grinder is free. The look and feel isn’t as well put together. The data isn’t very accurate either.

Already, you’ve probably figured out what I’m going to say. I point the finger at Submittable. Publishers using the site routinely charge authors a $3 ‘token fee’ to submit a story with no guarantee of getting published. Publishers claim they have to pay Submittable. They also claim this token amount weeds out all the rookie authors. They get too many stories and don’t have time to wade through all the bad ones. Only writers who are serious will pay.

But it also weeds out talented writers who are too poor to pay. And some rumors says they never look at what you submit, anyway. Who knows if they look at your work? You’re totally paying blind. At the very least, they could be transparent. They need to show where the money is going and how much they are getting. They need to do something for your $3. And some of these places are charging $20 or more.

It’s a publisher’s market.

At the end of the day, the three points I’ve talked about say one thing. Writers don’t have a lot of choice. The supply of stories is high and the demand is low. Well, that’s life. All we can do it grin and bear it. Hopefully, though, some common sense will prevail and some of these questionable practices will stop.