(Strategically) Publishing Short Stories

It’s September, which means that literary magazines are shaking off summertime drowsiness and reopening to submissions. Unless your goal is simply to be published in a lit mag, any lit mag, you should make your submission process as strategic as possible.

The following is strategic advice I received from Jonathan Escoffery and Elinam Agbo, fellows in my Aspen Summer Words fiction workshop. They entered the workshop as fellows due to their impressive résumés of published work, so when they started talking about how best to get short stories published, I sat up and took notes.

(Literally. On a manila folder.)

(Literally. On a manila folder.)

Determining Where to Submit

There’s no reason not to start at the top, Escoffery says. Literary agents may not be reading a start-up literary magazine, but they do take notice of what’s going on in bigger publications and may offer promising writers in these outlets representation. (Think Granta, Kenyon Review, A Public Space, and so on.)

For similar reasons, look at those magazines whose short stories are regularly a part of Best American Short Stories anthologies, the O. Henry Prize, and the Pushcart Prize. 

Matchmaking Your Tone and Voice

That said, not every big magazine is going to be the right fit for your work. With this in mind, read widely to get a sense of what Narrative wants versus The Paris Review, and so on.

This research doesn’t have to be financially prohibitive. If you’re in a larger city, newsstands should sell these magazines, but even smaller cities tend to have 20-50 literary magazines on the racks of the local Barnes & Noble. If you’re really out in the boonies, there are usually a few free stories available for you to sample on all but the most paywall-prohibitive lit mag sites.

Alternatively, consider making a list of short story writers whose careers you admire, especially those with whose work you’re in conversation. Read their biographies and contributor notes in various publications, see where they’ve published, and determine which magazines you’d also like to submit to.

Once you’ve made your list, submit as much as you can, and do it in tiers of five submissions at a time. Start with the big publications that you feel are right for your piece. If you exhaust those options, move on to the mid-sized ones, then the small ones.

The Logistics of Submission Fees

Agbo and Escoffery both encourage fiction writers to look for outlets that pay for short stories (and they don’t just mean contributor copies). Academic institutions tend to have the financial backing to do so.

Is it all right, then, to submit to your favorite publication if they don’t pay? Of course, but Agbo and Escoffery say the maximum reading fee they’d pay for publication in an outlet that doesn’t pay much (or at all) is $3. However, both agreed that they would be willing to pay, say, a $25 entry fee to a contest because that entry fee usually reduces the number of competitors.

A last caveat on contests: only submit to ones where you know of the judges. If you don’t, it either means that your work may not be the best fit for the contest or that the judges aren’t much.

Thanks again to Jonathan Escoffery and Elinam Agbo for their generous guidance in June and for their even more generous approval of this blog post.

Now, go forth and submit! Here are two resources to get you on your way.