Finding markets for short stories

I subscribe to the Gotham Writer’s Workshop newsletter, and in the latest issue, I found a link to an essay by Jacob Appel on Tips for Placing a Short Story.

One comment caught my eye:

In 1998, I won the Boston Review’s annual short fiction contest for my story, “Shell Game with Organs”—a breakthrough event in my career that led me to obtain my first agent. At the public reading sponsored by the Review, I informed the audience that more than seventy-five other journals, both large and small, had previously rejected the piece.

I commend Jacob Appel’s determination to get his story out. I marveled that it got rejected 75 times. I percolated on this, because it gave rise to an important question:

Is it possible that 75 markets could be a home for one story?

I spend a lot of time on Duotrope combing through the database, but I often find myself lost trying to figure out where to send my work. It takes homework to know a market.

There are a few things to know about a journal before you submit:

1. Editorial guidelines

2. The tastes of the editors based on real selections – read, read, read the stories

3. Interviews with the editor

4. If the editors are also writers, read their writings (optional)

Lauren Becker is a case and point for me. Her work as the Editor at Corium is tremendous, but there are many of my pieces I shouldn’t send to Corium because it’s not close enough to her editorial mark. And yes, she’s rejected my work because of that but her feedback has been helpful to get closer to the bullseye.

Editor Kevin O’Cuinn at Word Riot drives me (pleasantly!) batty with his wonderful rejection notices. Really I can’t thank him enough for the time and effort he puts into those notes. Alas for me, I still haven’t cracked the code on Word Riot yet. I will someday, damn it. When I do, it will be because of Kevin’s persistent guidance on what is appropriate to submit.

This leads me back to Mr. Appel. How is it possible to have 75 different markets that could have been the right place to submit the same story? Is it possible?

I don’t have THE answer, but I have MY answer: probably not.

The fact that Mr. Appel won a prestigious award from The Boston Review flies in the face of my comment, but I don’t think his experience is typical. If you got rejected for a story 75 times, chances are good you need to either rewrite it, or scrap it altogether.

After reading Jacob Appel’s essay I looked back over the list of journals I’ve submitted to over the past few years. I couldn’t say if there are more than 75 journals on the list. This year, even before I read his essay, I’d already begun combing through the hit lists of other writers as a way to introduce myself to new journals.

For example, I met Nicolette Wong, editor of A-Minor, on Court Merrigan’s blog. Later, I submitted to A-Minor … and yes, got rejected … but it was a great experience. Ms. Wong is an editor who certainly knows what she does and doesn’t want, which is always helpful.

I’ve raved on my blog before about Court’s “Failure” page, and he’s introduced me to journals like Neon, Revolution House, and Flywheel. I hadn’t looked at those markets before seeing them on Court’s list, but I’m glad I came to know of them.

There is no magic when it comes to finding the best markets to submit your stories. It takes upfront work to identify a market where a story could fit editorial tastes, and each interaction you have with the editor or staff is an opportunity to refine your understanding of that market.

After that, hopefully you can step back and watch your hard work and persistence pay off.

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6 Responses

  1. It is a quandary when submitting. I know I tend to agonize, and put hours of research into deciding where to send something, and finally, I end up targeting a few specific places that I send to over and over. I have no idea if that is an effective strategy or not in relation to journals.
    For my other chosen field, the genre fiction, I used a similar strategy – researching then targeting – and although I was rejected by the initial editor, she passed me on to another editor that she thought was a better fit, and that was how I was signed.
    What I take from my experience, your comments, and the fact that it appears that this guy randomly sent his story to 75 places without researching if it was right or not – is that researching your market is valid time spent.

    • Yeah, I agonize over it too Wren. I think it’s a common theme amongst those who submit regularly. And yes, like you, I wind up submitting again and again to the same markets … or at least until I get accepted there. Then I tend to try new ones again to conquer the next hill.

      Knowing how successful Jacob Appel has been: he’s been nominated for a Pushcart twice, won a short story contest from the prestigious Boston Review from that *76th* entry (and then got an agent as a result of winning the contest…) and had his work appear in a lot of high end journals, I’m not sure I’d go so far to say his selections were random, but I think it’s unlikely 75 markets could have been equally good for one story.

      Regardless, I totally agree with you that researching a potential market is essential. Once you submit though, and start getting feedback, it really is just the beginning of a writer’s personal journey with that journal, I think.

  2. I wonder how different is the short story market from the “regular” fiction or non-fiction book market. I wonder if someone could sell her/his stories as e-books.

    • Yes, it is possible for a writer to put together a collection of their own stories and offer them as an e-book. I haven’t done it (yet?) but I’m sure others have.

      I’ve also noticed many authors that have relationships with small press journals work with them to issue chapbooks. For example, I know Right Hand Pointing issues chapbooks through its other imprint White Knuckle Press. There are many such indie presses that issue chapbooks and collections of short stories.

  3. Markets for short stories, like markets for anything else, take time effort, search, networking and more to access. It is th enature of things to take some time in order to find the niche for anything we try to bring out, product, service, or else….most of the time we learn through trial and error.

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