I remember feeling like a fraud when I started my college internship in the writing department’s Publishing Lab.
I was halfway through my BA in Creative Nonfiction, but didn’t have any publication credits to my name, save for a couple blurbs in music magazines. I knew how to edit, but I had a minimal knowledge of the publishing industry, and now it was my job to offer guidance on the very subject to dozens of students who were seeking homes for their work. My lack of experience was sure to make me transparent.
During the month leading up to my first day, I lurked through literary magazines and religiously read articles about the publishing process in Writer’s Digest. There’s an overwhelming amount of information on the subject out there, and the looming fear of rejection makes the whole concept of submitting all the more daunting to an unpublished writer. It was clear why my coworkers and I often had to “lure” students into the Lab with baked goods, encouraging them to take the chance and send their writing to publishers.
The more of their work I read, the more I got into the habit of mentally selecting markets for every short story, poem, and essay that slid across the table or popped into our inbox. Where does this belong? Which audience would devour this? I cherry-picked potential magazines and curated them into lists for each particular piece, using a handbuilt inventory that my team and I constantly updated.
The concept of publishing became less intimidating and more gratifying.
Still, I won’t pretend that the process is painless. There’s a lot of polishing, waiting around, paperwork, and emails. The reward, of course, is well worth it. What I’ve found from working with many writers is that they hit a roadblock somewhere in between finishing the work and sending it off: choosing where to send it.
It’s not over yet.
This should go without saying, but whenever you’re submitting work, you want to make sure it’s in a state that’s as close to perfect as possible. Yes, publishers have editors, but if you think that none of the editing process really begins until after your work has been accepted, then it’s time to wake up. Any submission that arrives in an editor’s hands filled with careless grammar mistakes, incomplete sentences, or glaring inconsistencies will be rejected instantly. It doesn’t matter if you sent them a story that would make Hemingway jealous. The fact is, editors and publishers are busy producing books and magazines, and they don’t want to take time to do your work for you. Fixing a minor mistake here and there is one thing, but if your story still reads like a draft, they’ll treat it like one and kick it right back.
Be a perfectionist. Be nitpicky. At some point, be ready to let go, but not before you polish your piece to gleaming quality. You can do this a number of ways. Try reading your work aloud to hear the flow, word choices, sentence structure, and dialogue. This is the part where you can catch repeated or misused words (which spell check might have missed) and pick up on elements that sound unnatural. Have someone else read it over, too. They’ll be able to find mistakes that your brain can’t, simply because our brains automatically fill in the gaps and read our work the way we think it’s supposed to be read.
Once your piece is in what you consider to be “publishable” quality, nail the format. Some places aren’t picky about this, while others have an exact formula they want you to follow. Pay attention to submission guidelines. A good rule of thumb if a place doesn’t specify is to use the Shunn format for standard manuscripts, or the ol’ academic throwback: MLA. If you’re unsure of where to start when it comes to formatting your work in a word processor, Nathan Bransford has a clear guide about manuscript formats, and Walden University has helpful PDFs outlining everything from adjusting spacing, to page number formats, to headers and beyond.
Get to know your piece.
You don’t have to take your story out to dinner or anything, but you should spend a fair amount of time familiarizing yourself with its aspects to help you narrow down where you’ll be sending it.
Is it fiction, nonfiction, poetry? Is it a short story, essay, lyric poem? What’s the title? What’s the word count? What’s the genre, subgenre, and tone? What’s the theme? Is it character-driven, plot-driven, style-driven? What audience are you writing this for, and what audience do you think would like it best? (Keep in mind, these won’t always have the same answer.) Is this piece meant to cast light on a certain subject, or start a discussion? Is it topical, political, historical, or futuristic? Humorous or serious? Dark or whimsical?
Take note of this information. It will later become your filter.
Before going into what the publisher is looking for, decide what you’re looking for.
Everyone feels lucky when a publisher accepts their submission. But think about it. This isn’t gambling or rock-paper-scissors. The publisher (hopefully) doesn’t just close their eyes and randomly dig something out of a slush pile. They genuinely like your work and want to showcase it. You, as a writer, have the liberty to decide what kinds of publications are lucky enough to receive said work.
Think about compensation. Is it enough just to be published and have your work out there? For some writers, especially emerging ones, it is. You can reach a new audience, promote yourself, and amp up your resume with a shiny new publication credit. However, writers have bills to pay, too, so there’s no shame in seeking payment from whomever is going to publish you (and could subsequently profit from your work). Larger magazines with a following might offer pro payments (usually fifty bucks and up) or semi-pro (which usually start at ten bucks), while smaller indie-mags might be more apt to offer token payments (less than ten bucks per piece) or a few free copies of the publication itself. Decide what’s best for you, and what you’re willing to settle for. Keep in mind that an up-and-coming magazine might not be resourced enough yet to pay much, or at all, but if you really like the magazine, there’s no shame in supporting them at their humble beginnings. If they do eventually blow up and become famous, you’ll be able to maintain a legacy of being one of their original authors!
Another thing to consider is whether you want your work to appear online or in print. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both formats. A professor of mine once said that they prefer online publications because you have a chance to reach more people. This also makes it easier to share your work with others or display it on your own website. The reality is that people turn to the internet for most things these days, literature included.
On the other hand, print will always have a respectable reputation. Remember when you were a tiny writer and you dreamt that someday when you were older your name would be in print, typed in a hard copy you could hold in your hands?
Aside from pride, there’s a permanence factor to print. You have something tangible that you can keep forever, even if the copies eventually stop being produced and are archived away. Ironically, that’s why a different professor claimed she favored print—it gave her more of a chance to remove herself from her earlier work. Because her latest writing was more accessible than the oldest, which remains unavailable to read on web servers, she was able to evolve. Online writing is immortal; having older, less favorable work floating around the internet makes it a hell of a lot easier for inexperience to come back to haunt you.
Start your research.
Once you have all the necessary information about your story (word count, genre, sub-genre, type of market you want to submit to, etc.), you can start searching. Databases are a great resource to utilize.
Poets & Writers lets you search literary magazines, small presses, and contests, with some simple filters such as genre and whether or not they allow simultaneous submissions.
Duotrope, this deeper dive, if you’re willing to pay a small monthly fee, lets you search by category, subgenre (no more rummaging through all fiction magazines; now you can narrow it down to quirky steampunk flash fiction!), payment type, length, style, and even different types of poetry.
Googling is an obvious one, but it’s more in how you use this popular search engine to your advantage. If you enter the right keywords, sometimes you’ll encounter market lists that other writers have already made for the genres in which you’re seeking to publish. Be sure to check the date of these posts before getting too excited though—I often come across some great fits only to discover the magazine’s been defunct for the last three years.
Write down the name of each market you come across that seems like it would be a good fit, along with the reasons why. (Some places ask for you to explain this in your cover letter.) Save the link to their submission guidelines. Keep track of all this information in a master file to help you remember which pieces you’ve submitted, where, when, and why. This is the kind of list that doesn’t have to be crumpled up and tossed away after your piece is submitted either! If you hold onto these lists for future use, it will simplify the process next time and prevent you from having to research the same information.
Make your decisions.
Some publishers are cool with simultaneous submissions (submitting a single piece to multiple markets at the same time), while others are adamantly against it. If the markets you’re submitting to fall into the former category, then it’s time to take a deep breath and send your piece off to a carefully selected variety of publications. Having your work in the hands of multiple editors, rather than waiting on just one person, will help ease the inevitable impatience of Reading Period Limbo. However, it’s best to limit the number of places you submit to at once, for tracking purposes more than anything.
But if the magazine maintains the rule that they can be the only ones receiving your piece for now, abide by that. If they choose not to publish your work, then you’re once again free to try elsewhere. Don’t get discouraged by the vague rejection that your work “just isn’t right for us.” It might not be right for one publisher, but it could be the exact piece for somewhere else. There were dozens of editors who told J. K. Rowling that Harry Potter wasn’t for them, but that didn’t stop millions of readers from deciding that it was.
Be a friend.
When it comes to finding markets for your work, the best person to trust is yourself. You wrote your pieces and therefore you know your pieces. You know what your taste is, and you will be the best judge of where you’d like your work to end up. Rather than only reaching out to popular publishers because it seems like that’s where the best work lives, spend time digging. Create your own library of potentials. Don’t treat this list like an overnight assignment either; add to it naturally as you read and discover more.
There are markets to be found everywhere. You can peruse the online catalog of NewPages, the magazine section of Barnes & Noble, your local zine shop (if you’re in Chicago, make sure to stop by Quimby’s in Wicker Park), the tables at the next AWP convention, and your local library. If you come across a lit mag that you love, but don’t have anything for them right now, just add it to your list and refer back to it when you do.
Once you’ve accumulated your own directory, swap some of the listings with your friends. Introduce them to an indie sci-fi magazine they’ve never heard of, but would make a great home for their poem about an underground cyborg utopia. In turn, they can refer you to a pulp horror contest they heard about in their Sunday writing group.
One of the greatest things I learned while working in the Publishing Lab is how valuable it is to collaborate with others. Consulting with students about their writing put me in touch with a large creative community of artists who work across a vast variety of genres and mediums. Take advantage of that. Go to open-mics, poetry readings, comedy shows, local music performances, magazine release parties, submit-a-thons, and literary exhibitions. You’ll feel inspired and discover new venues to produce and showcase your work.