Managing Short Story Submissions

An unexpected thing happened to me recently.

I typically send out 10 stories and each one goes to maybe 10 publications. Instead of shooting a single shot from a rifle and waiting to see if I hit the target, I take the shotgun approach, splattering the short story publication market with everything I’ve got. Since it’s all about fit, and you’ll never know for sure where your story will fit, you’ve got little to no chance of getting published if you only send out one story at a time. In fact, take the Ray Bradbury challenge. He says to write one story every week for a year. You’re bound to have a few gems in there when the year is done. I have found, though, that I need an additional week to edit each story, so I don’t write that fast. On top of that, many publications prefer if you wait to submit something new. Take it easy and don’t bombard them with your work. But do carry a shotgun.

As I mentioned in a previous post, more and more places don’t like it when you submit to multiple publications at the same time. I have this twisted theory that they like to reject writers, but they don’t like getting rejected. But that’s just my two sense [sic]. Sure, they’ll say they need time to plan out a publication, and when you let them know the story they are dying for has already been published somewhere else, well, they’ll blacklist you and call your grandfather a dirty-rotten-pig-stealer. But really, you have to eat too, don’t you? Would you go to a job interview and wait to hear back before applying at another company? The best thing to do is to let them know when you get published someplace else. But, please, be sure it’s for a story you really sent to them.

Let me get back to the point. An unexpected thing happened to me recently. I’d sent out a story and two publications asked for it on the same day. I received two emails in a row requesting my work. What are the odds? I was stupefied. Should I go with the first email? Should I go with the publication that offered better compensation? Should I go with the website that looked better and probably attracts more readers? It turned out that one of them noticed a few typos in my story and the other one didn’t. I went with the guy who cared more about what I had written. He turned out to be a fantastic editor and got me to write a better ending. I learned to be a better writer from him.

Meanwhile, I had another story published at another publication and after it went online, friends pointed out the typos in my work. I contacted the publisher there and they said they don’t edit anything they publish. I found that strange. But they said I could have my work edited somewhere else and they’d put the new copy online. Crisis averted.

So what I’ve been thinking about is a better way to determine which publications are worth my time and which ones aren’t. Along those lines, I dug up some old responses I got when my stories were rejected, things publishers said that just caused me to stop and wonder. Now, I know, you don’t want to argue with these people. If they reject you, go someplace else. If the rejections hold merit, learn from them. If they say stuff like I’m about to show you, run in the other direction. If they don’t edit anything you send them, take your shotgun someplace far away.

Here’s one example. I wrote a piece called The Finale Days.

Reviewer comments: The story regularly struggles in grammar and spellchecking, enough to frequently throw me out of the narrative and making it difficult to continue reading at times. This actually begins in the title, where it seems like “Finale” should actually be “Final”.

To be fair, there were some typos in there that I hadn’t caught. But the title wasn’t one of them. I admit, too, it’s a bit odd. But unusual stuff like that catches the reader’s attention. Think of it like “The Dog Days”. Dog is almost never used as an adjective. And the same for Finale. But it can be done. And I did it on purpose. I went with The Finale Days.

Here’s another one. I had a story were one of the main characters dies. On purpose. I was told things like this:

If you have an interesting character, for pity’s sake, don’t kill him! Accidents are a sign of weak plotting.

I was like, what?? How many great books are there that do just that? The Crossing is a prime example. McCarthy builds up your love for a wolf for the first 120 pages and then (spoiler alert) the wolf dies. I think I read those 120 pages about a dozen times. It was some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever seen. Not to mention that McCarthy has since then won the Pulitzer Prize for the The Road, in which the wife of the main character has died. There are a handful of overriding emotions authors typically put in stories, such as frustration, sympathy, and remorse. McCarthy can throw all of them at you with the turn of the page.

The point of this post is simple. I’ve decided to beware these warning signs and to avoid places that give bad feedback when they reject a story. There are plenty of other oceans to swim in.

 

The Time of Blood

In a previous life I worked in the music business. I’d studied this nebulous topic in college, along with music theory and recording techniques. When I graduate, I got a job working here:

Among my better moments I got to work on sessions with Bob Dylan. I was young and naive and he was this wizened legend. I tried to appear amiable but I don’t think he paid much attention to me. In fact, I was somewhat speechless around the guy. Dumbstruck. But if I were to meet him today, I know exactly what I’d say. I’d talk about the weather and hot dogs and the price of tea in China.

As fate would have it, I made it into the rock and roll history books. I’ve been quoted by a Dylan biographer here:

Behind the Shades: The 20th Anniversary Edition by Clinton Heylin (2011)

More about the music is here:

New Bob Dylan CD

Dylan and Bromberg had a different take on what the mix should be. Final credit for the production work was given to someone else, as seen on this Wikipedia page:

Good as I Been to You

Let the good times roll.

Homeless Cam

 

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 some highly different ones, and also some places to find publishers, but without any stats to go on.

  • Duotrope (link) charges authors to use their tools. 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 There’s not enough participation there to give you accurate information.
  • Ralan (link) is a well maintained list of places to submit writing. No stats provided.
  • Hey Publisher (link) This site is a graveyard of publishers that aren’t active any more.

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 ‘token fee’ to submit a story with no guarantee of getting published. Fees range anywhere from $3 to $50. They claim this token amount weeds out all the rookie authors. They say they get too many stories and don’t have time to wade through all the bad ones. Only writers who are serious will pay, they claim.

Although they charge you for submitting stories, they don’t all pay to publish your work. In business that’s better known as a ‘cash cow’ or easy money. In rock n roll it’s called: money for nothing.

It also weeds out talented writers who are too poor to pay. Some rumors floating around say the publishers never look at what you submit, anyway. Who knows if they take your seriously, or just take your money? 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 cash.

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.