Selling Short Stories

Venture Magazine, July 1957 issue

Lady looks MAD. One too many rejection letters, perhaps?


Like so many of the things I write about on this blog, I am certainly no expert with this week’s topic. In fact, in even bringing it up for discussion, I feel like I have a big sticker on my chest that reads: “Hi! My name is: NEWB”. So bear with me, gentle readers, as we plunge into the dark world of selling short stories. (Cue scary music)

“Short story” is a catch-all phrase for anything less than a novella (between 17.5k and 40k words), or a novelette (between 7.5 and 17.5 words), although some argue that novelettes are just long short stories. [These are the number definitions used by the Science Fiction Writers of America and are pretty standard.] Short stories, less than 7.5k words, are rarely published in single author collections- apparently, you have to be megapopular for publishers to even consider it. Rather, most short stories are published from multiple authors and in the context of serial publications- magazines, ezines, periodicals, anthologies, etc.

And these publications themselves can vary wildly in their audience size, their prestige, and the payment you can expect from them. Some pay on the word, with five or more cents per word generally accepted as the pro rate, and one to almost-five cents being semipro. Some publications pay a token amount that can be just a few dollars or quite a few dollars; this can be calculated on a less-than-one cent per word model, or just a flat rate regardless of length. And some only pay in the enjoyment, exposure, and credentials that you get from publishing something.

Whatever you submit to and whatever pay they offer, these publications need your work. They need you. They cannot survive without writers. But you’re kidding yourself (or you’re Stephen King) if you think they’re coming to you. You have to go to them, present your story at its very prettiest, and rub your lucky Buddha belly. So here are a few things you can do to improve your chances of successful publication (besides the prettying and the rubbing).

Make sure the magazine you’re submitting to actually publishes the things you’re submitting. You are totally wasting everyone’s time if you submit your über-gory retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to a ezine that does, yeah, fairy tales, but for ten to twelve year olds. You want to check on genre, audience, preferred length, anything that might make them exclude your story. Better yet, if you have the chance, read through a few back issues to get a feel for the serial.

Similar to the above, follow submission guidelines exactly. Seriously. Don’t assume that everyone uses the same guidelines, because they probably don’t. Some want a cover letter, some want .pdf docs only, some want everything just pasted into the body of an email, some use an external submission engine. Make sure you know what they want so you can give it to them. Just like you wouldn’t send out an identical query packet to ten literary agents without checking their guidelines (I hope), don’t do it to periodical editors, either. They’re professionals. If you want to work with them, you should be, too.

And don’t get hung up waiting around for a response for one story. Send off the next one. And the next one. And start writing up another. Places you submit to will tell you if they allow multiple submissions (submitting more than one story to the same publisher) and simultaneous submissions (submitting the same story to multiple publishers), and you should respect those wishes. But the point is, don’t stand still waiting for a response. In this game, that is a seriously slow way to built your writing credentials. Write and submit, and write and submit, and write and submit. With short stories, you’re unlikely to get bored at it.

But surely there are less newb writers out there willing to share wisdom. Tell us what I missed in the comments below. And happy writing!

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2 thoughts on “Selling Short Stories

  1. It’s also important to be able to find which magazines you can even submit to. One database I like to use is Poets & Writers which among other things as a database of literary magazines. You can filter it to look for ones that accept poetry, fiction, nonfiction, etc. You can also choose to check only those that offer payments. It’s very useful and I’ve found quite a few places to submit by looking through their listings.

    • That’s definitely true. One of my biggest impediments when I first started was that I didn’t know how to find magazines to submit to- a lot of time was spent just sifting through Google search results. It worked, but I knew there had to be an easier way. These days, I mostly find myself at http://www.ralan.com, which also filters somewhat based on genre and on pay-grade, but I’ll be sure to check out Poets & Writers. Thanks for the tip!

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