How to Submit Short Stories and Poetry For Publication
by Anna Zumbro
After a tornado of critiques and revisions, you’ve got a story or poem that you’re ready to share with the world. Now what do you do?
Navigating the world of submissions and getting to the emerald city of publication can be daunting. Let this article be your yellow brick road to literary success.
First, you’ll need to decide where to submit your work. There are a number of resources that can help you. Duotrope tracks thousands of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction markets and operates on a paid subscription basis. It allows you to search by genre, length, pay scale, acceptance rate, and estimated response time. The Submissions Grinder is a free database, similar to Duotrope, that currently tracks fiction markets only. Ralan lists speculative and humor publications. Poets & Writers maintains a searchable database of literary journals and contests. Other sources include The Review Review and Writer’s Market.
Pay scale is often divided into four categories: pro, semi-pro, token, and non-paying or “for the love.” Professional rates for short stories are $0.05 USD per word or higher (some organizations, such as Science Fiction Writers of America, use $0.06 per word as the minimum for pro rates). Semi-pro publications pay $0.01 per word or higher up to pro rates, while a token payment is less than $0.01 per word. For poetry, a payment of $50 per poem and higher is considered a professional rate. Less than $5 per poem is a token payment, while anything between $5 and $50 is semi-pro. Non-paying publications do not offer money, though they may offer contributor copies. These definitions are mainly used to determine membership requirements for different writing organizations. Higher-paying markets are generally more selective.
Many writers look at acceptance rates and response times and conclude that their best bet is to submit lots of pieces to lots of markets. Can you submit your story or poem to several different markets at once? Can you send several pieces at the same time? Well, it depends.
The first scenario—sending one piece to different markets at the same time—is called a simultaneous submission. Some markets allow you to do this, while others require that you give them exclusive consideration. The market’s guidelines will tell you their policy. If you decide to submit simultaneously, make sure all the markets to which you send the piece accept simultaneous submissions. After your work is accepted at one place, you’ll need to withdraw it from all the other markets; that’s difficult to explain if those market don’t allow simultaneous submissions, and can lead you to get a negative reputation among editors. For this reason, it’s a good idea to divide markets into tiers according to preference. Submit first only to the ones where you’d most like to be published. After you’ve heard back from all of them, send the story or poem to the markets on the next tier.
The second scenario—sending several pieces at the same time to one magazine—is most commonly allowed for poetry and flash and is called a multiple submission. Read the guidelines carefully to find out how many pieces you can submit at once.
Keep in mind that many markets do not accept work that has already been published, and if they do, you must identify it as a reprint. Work posted publicly on a blog is considered published. To be safe, password-protect any work that you choose to post on a blog if you think you may submit it.
Finally, some markets charge submission fees, often two or three dollars per submission. Contests may charge more. Although you always want to be careful when paying for submission services, a fee is not an automatic sign of a scam. Many legitimate markets charge them to pay for their submission manager or the cost of printing submissions, and often allow you to send your work by mail without paying a fee. However, there are also numerous markets at all pay scales and prestige levels that do not charge fees. It’s possible to make lots of submissions without ever paying to do so. If you’re not sure whether or not a fee is worth it, it’s a good idea to research the market further and ask other writers for advice.
Formatting Your Submission
When you read submission guidelines, you’ll find that many markets require you to submit in Standard Manuscript Format. If you’re not familiar with this, you’re in luck: this Academy article explains what to do.
Standard Manuscript Format is common, but not universal. This is one reason it’s important to check the guidelines. Some markets want you to remove your name and contact information from the work (don’t forget the header!), so they can judge submissions blindly. Some want you to save your attachment in .rtf or .txt or to paste it in the body of an email rather than attaching it. Some may ask you to insert the phrase “Van Halen hates brown M&Ms” just to prove you’ve read the guidelines.
So what’s a writer to do? That’s right—read the guidelines.
If you need to attach the document, put your last name and the work’s title in the file name (or the title only if it’s a blind submission). Editors get dozens of attachments titled some variation of “Magazine Submission.” Make your work easy to find.
The only information you need to include in your cover letter is the title and category of your submission, approximate word count or line count, and your name. Keep it polite, professional, and to the point. Here’s an example:
Dear Literary Genius Quarterly Editors,
I am submitting my short story, “The Telltale Abbey,” for your consideration. It is approximately 3200 words long. Thank you for your time.
If you know the name of the editor, you can address it to them. If the work is a reprint, identify it as such. Some magazines also ask you to note if the work is a simultaneous submission. If you’re submitting by email, use a clear subject line like “Submission: [Title] by [Author]” (or whatever the guidelines specify).
You can also add a line listing previous publication credits. If you do this, limit yourself to the top three. Don’t worry if you don’t have any previous credits—many magazines are happy to discover new writers.
Logging and Tracking Your Submission
Once you’ve sent your work off to see the publishing wizard, make sure to record the title, market name, and date that you submitted. Duotrope and The Submissions Grinder both allow you to record this information online, as well as to see how long other writers’ submissions have been pending. A simple spreadsheet works too. This information will help you stay organized, and, if you need to, query.
With short stories and poetry, a query is a request for information on a pending submission. A market’s submission guidelines often tell you how long you should wait before querying. Markets that use Submittable let you check your status. Otherwise, see how long responses usually take on Duotrope or The Submissions Grinder. If your submission is far past what’s been reported, it may be time to write a message explaining what you submitted and when, and asking if they received it and have any information for you. Keep it short and sweet.
After you’ve logged your submission information, try to put it out of mind. A great way to stop obsessing? Write, so you have more work to submit.
Getting a Rejection
We’ll start with rejections, because those are most common, even if you’re the great literary hope of your generation. All writers get rejected, even the masters. This article alludes to The Wizard of Oz; L. Frank Baum, its author, collected his rejections in a “Record of Failure.” Though it may feel like failure, think of it as progress toward publication. It’s not enjoyable, but it does get easier with time.
Here’s what you should not do if you get a rejection. First, don’t respond to the magazine, not even to say thanks. They’re busy enough with new submissions, and continuing correspondence will only take up their time. Never, ever respond to explain your story or complain about the decision. It won’t change their mind on this submission, and it might lead them to automatically reject your next one. Even if you never submit there again, don’t send an angry response. Editors talk.
If the editor includes specific comments about your story or poem (think “Jack was an intriguing character,” not “I enjoyed reading this”), that’s a personal rejection. It may include advice about how to improve your story or poem. As with advice on Scribophile, consider it, but don’t feel bound to follow it if you disagree. Another editor might like your work exactly as it is.
Second, don’t let a rejection lead you to believe that your work is bad. Rejections happen for lots of reasons. Maybe your steampunk squid romance was too similar to an already accepted piece. Maybe you sent them a great epic poem, but they only have space left for a haiku. Maybe they really did like it, just not enough. So send it out again, quick. There’s probably someone out there who will love it.
Getting an Acceptance
Congratulations! Your work has been accepted! After dancing for joy, what should you do?
Let the editor know that you’ve received the acceptance and send them any information they may have requested, such as an author bio. If the publication pays its contributors, they’ll probably send you a contract. Read this carefully before you sign. Make note of what rights you’re selling. The contract should specify how long the publication has exclusive rights and where (print, online, geography/language) as well as any non-exclusive, archiving rights. Once the exclusive rights have expired, you will be free to submit the piece as a reprint or to self-publish it. Return the signed contract, making sure to save a copy.
Withdraw any pending simultaneous submissions. Share the news. And celebrate! There’s nothing like finding your work a home.