Secrets of Publishing Revealed!
Letter from the Editor, Spring 2009 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
RECENTLY, I'VE BEEN FLOODED WITH QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW TO GET YOUR WORK PUBLISHED. I guess if you stay in this business long enough people start thinking you have answers. Truth is: I don’t. I don’t have a clue why some journals pick the stories they do. I can tell you what we look for (and I think I try to do that in all of these essays) and I can help you manage the art of the creative process and encourage you to revisit your work in the process of revision (another reoccurring theme here) but I have tended to stay away from the more technical aspects of publishing aside from my Unkie Editor piece from the Spring of 2007. So, here's what I want to cover: managing the preparation of your manuscript, distribution and publishing of your work–together this is the awkward left business arm of your creative body.
The creative process–almost by its very definition–means that you will struggle with the business side of being an artist. The stereotype of the artist almost always includes the old tropes of frustrated, confused dreamers shooting arrows at critics while they are increasingly private, huddled around manuscripts, refusing to share them with anyone–a slight twitch in the neck at the very mention of it–with nicotine stained fingertips in dark rooms, chanting till they are old and gray, “The world does not understand me!” It is truly a grim portrait of the undiscovered. The fact is, you must send your work out into the world—there is no point putting it off. There are certain exceptions; the sort of day dreaming writerly-harlequin-vignettes that include agents banging down door of this artist's hovel. These brash sexy baritone agents from New Yawk with their waxen chests bore straddle the firm back of a white horse. W:e young, innocent writers flicking the tears away we whisper, "The artistic savior cometh! They cometh!" And as the thunder and lightening crash behind our magical agent, they raise a lantern to their chiseled face, pushing the hair out of their eyes and take us into their arms whispering, “I’ve found you, I’ve finally found you.” I think I can hear nails on a chalkboard somewhere. Yuck! God, I can't believe I wrote that!. No, my friends this ain’t going to happen.
The truth is, being a successful writer is going to include some mastery of the business side. So, while what I am going to suggest may seem foreign, weird or a little bizarre to you butI urge you to accept my advice. So, when that last draft of your manuscript is finished you should don a pocket protector, crack your knuckles and get to work.
The first very basic thing you have to do is to get your story ready. Now, listen up. Do not skip over this step just because you want to feel “independent” or because you think artists ought to be live outside the rules. Your story should be saved in a Microsoft Word format (.doc is almost universally acceptable). If a literary journal asks for .rtf, send it in .rtf. If they ask for it in the body of an email, you send it in the body of an email. Next, your story should have your name, email address and word count on the right side of the first page, single-spaced. Your title comes after that, centered. You should not use any, and I mean any funny fonts. I use Times New Roman because it is clear, bold and easy on the eyes. Your story should be double-spaced, please double spaced it is very hard to read single space online--no--the editor will not print out your short story to read it. Again, do not keep it single spaced.
Remember, the person reading your story sees hundreds, maybe thousands of stories—they will get annoyed when they must format your story for you. And last, but not least, don’t forget to paginate.
Next, where do you find a journal that’s accepting submissions? How do you figure out who publishes short stories out there? There are thousands of places to send your stories and with the advent of web publishing there are new literary journals popping up every day. I primarily use two websites to find these journals; Newpages.com and Duotrope.com. NewPages has an extensive list of journals which have paid to have their sites listed. These journals want your story. NewPages is also a great place to read reviews of these journals. Duotrope.com has a H-U-G-E database of searchable literary journals. Want a literary journal that publishes mystery in the UK? Want to publish a piece of flash fiction and get paid 5 cents a word? You can search for that. It’s pretty incredible. What’s even more incredible, (and what I completely overlooked for the past 2 years of using their site) is that you can track all of your submissions. Plug your submissions into a personalized database, tell them the name of the story, where you sent it and then voila! When a journal has kept your story for too long their fancy feature even makes you aware of it; your entry turns red. It’s honestly one of the best tools a writer can use. Everyone should use their site (and best of all it is free!). Donations should be given though on a regular basis, $10. 20 a year if you can spare it. ______But, how do you know if the journal is right for you? The standard advice you find when you pick up a journal or go to their submission page goes something like, “for our general interests please read our journal.” Okay, lemme just call this out—I have never heard a more repeated load of hogwash. I have to read your entire journal to maybe get a sense of what you’ll publish? What if the journal moved between editorships? What if it’s been publishing for 25 or 100 years? Who the hell has time for that? Seriously. (Note to self, make sure we don’t say that anywhere on our website!) Anyway, so you got the dilemma there. Here’s how to solve it: Find out who they’ve chosen for editorial prizes, nominated for awards like the Pushcart Prize, Best of Short Stories, et cetera. Read the nominations at the Million Writers Award. Every year storySouth hosts an annual competition. You can search every nomination for as long as the competition has been going on. You can query editors for this information, why not? It is truly a useful tool. This allows a writer to surf through the minds of what editors believe to be their best material. I have personally used this and realized I wrote nothing like what certain journals considered great and I’ve now found journals that were much more up my alley.
After you’ve formatted your story correctly, and found a journal that jives with you, you’ll need to create your cover letter. The cover letter explains the title story, gives a word count and tells them who you are. Old school print publishers enjoy a nice biographical cover letter, but the good cover letter essentially does one thing: makes you not look like an ass. When I worked for Phoebe, I remember one cover letter by a guy who sent a black and white picture of himself looking very scholarly holding a big sunflower. It was, well, awkward and it made him look silly. You don’t want silly. You don’t want distracting. No one gets published by the cover letter but plenty turn off the reader in their cover letter.
Do not lie in your cover letter. NEVER lie. Do not make something up, claim publishing credits that are not yours or prizes that do not exist. Last quarter two writers claimed to have won the O’Henry prize—they hadn’t, know how I know? I looked. To do something like this almost guarantees that your material will be ignored (just FYI, I read both manuscripts, of course, and commented on both of them as we promise). As an editor, I am bewildered that this happens. In fact I think it's pretty sad, the only thing I can guess as to why is that the beginning writer is so tired of being rejected, so sure that fake publishing credits or fake awards is what will get someone to pay attention to them that they think they need to lie. Listen up, good writing climbs to the top and eventually if it’s good enough you’ll find a home for it. I firmly believe that, so say it with me: good writing climbs to the top. In short: let your writing speak for itself.
Now, one piece of advice that may be controversial, be leery of contests that ask you for $20 (and over) for submission fees if you don’t receive anything in return. The literary contest is one of the main revenue streams of the literary journal business model. It guarantees an operating budget subsidized by your submissions on a regular basis. It requires very little overhead costs and almost always is sure to turn a profit. It is my firm belief that any journal that takes $20 and over for a reading fee and does not give you anything in return is essentially running a high brow Ponzi scheme. There are plenty of things they should be giving you with their fee, including: a subscription to their print journal, a guaranteed read with a notable author, a discount on services or other contests or as we do: a customized review of your work. Again, do what you want with your money–but for me–unless the literary journal fully discloses what my reading fee will include then I have to believe that their only obligation to me is cashing my check. What about us? All of our contests include a customized page-by-page review of your manuscript. The average review of the work we do in the Richard Bausch Short Story Prize or the Emerging Writer Award is between two to three and hours of work, when you take out the PayPal fee that means my staff members are making right around minimum wage. 83% of our contest fees go directly to the staff that are reading your manuscripts.
Finally, should you submit your story to more than one place? My answer is 100% yes. You should send each of your stories out to 3-5 places (but no more than that). Any literary journal that expects you to wait for them to make a decision before you move on and send your story somewhere else is dimwitted. I know from personal experience the plight of a literary journal that accepts a short story only to find it has been accepted elsewhere. To have a no simultaneous submissions policy is not realistic in a world of instant gratification. Further, any literary journal that takes 6 months with a decision on your short story doesn’t have enough staff and is not really involved in the literary conversation. Now, you must tell the journal if your work was accepted elsewhere and you must withdraw your story in a timely fashion. Log into their submission system and withdraw it (if they offer that option) or write them a nice note and give them the good news. You should always tell them where your work will be published and when its appearing. It’s a very good way for them to remember your name.
Now, expect to be rejected, and have a plan for when you do. If you sent your story to five places and it was rejected by 5 places then, it’s at this point that you should sit down with the story and read it again. Edit it. Read it out loud (that's what Kendra is always telling me to do.) Look especially at the first page, your opening, go through the whole thing and just make extra sure that it’s the best version you have. Then, after that’s done, send it out to five more places. Keep your stories circulating. No one is waiting for your stories; you have to put the stories in their hands.
In closing, we will all be rejected much more than accepted—it’s just the way it goes. It’s not personal. Sometimes a journal rejects you and heck, they don’t even know why. Maybe their issue was full, maybe the person who read your piece wouldn’t know good writing if it smacked him in the ass—it’s just the way it goes, but you should always be passionately revisiting your work, fighting to get it out there. This is about hard work, sure it's about talent but the longer that I'm in this game I believe more and more its about hard fn' work. Don’t give up. It’s a damn hard profession but with a strong work ethic and a little talent you’ll find a home for your beautiful stories—I know you will.