Devising a Publishing Strategy
Are you ready for publication? Some questions you might ask yourself:
Do you have finished stories, poems or essays? A finished novel or collection?
Do you have excellent finished stories, poems or essays, etc.?
Do you have stories or poems or essays that you think other people want to read?
Have your friends told you that you should be publishing?
Are you eager to see your name in print?
Well, whether or not you are ready to publish now, you need to be figuring out the lay of the land in order to get published when you're ready.
Here's the deal: You need to figure out where work like yours is getting published. Of course your work is unique, like no one else's, but it should appeal to some audience that is already out there, so you'll need to figure out which publishers are able to connect with that audience that will be yours.
For short fiction, non-fiction and poetry, look at: MAGAZINES, CONTESTS, WEB-BASED PUBLICATIONS, ANTHOLOGIES, ETC.
Let's consider Magazines: Some are glossy, some are plain, some are photocopied pages stapled together; there are magazines for which work is chosen whimsically or else with great seriousness. There are magazines that exist online only. You need to figure out where your work belongs, where you want it to be, and where you will want it to be if you first plan doesn't work out. The old fashioned way of discovering magazines is to peruse them in a book store, or to use a source like Writers Market. Now, however, you are wiser to turn to Web-based resources to help you figure out where to send your work.
Duotrope is a website fueled by donations by users. You log on and either choose a magazine from their alphabetized list, or else narrow your search from the 2475 (as of June 1, 2009) magazines, print and web-based, that are accepting poetry and/or fiction (stories of all lengths, plus book-length fiction). So far they do not address creative non-fiction directly, but you can still use them for information. They have an online submission tracker through which you can keep track of where you've sent work. They also congratulate you publicly when you have something accepted. You can have regular updates sent to you by email. In Duotrope:
Please note button "do not show magazines that are temporarily closed to submissions." Note that you can choose to search only magazines that have won impressive awards. You can select by length of your work, amount of payment as well as by other parameters.
Writers Digest provides a for-fee service ($6/month, $40/year) or free with purchase of deluxe edition of Writers Market. It provides markets for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays and screenplays. For poetry and fiction, choose "consumer markets" and then below, when you search, you enter "fiction" or "poetry" or "short story" or "nonfiction." You can try this service free for a limited period of time.
Writers Digest also has information about agents, contests and awards, newspaper markets and online consumer and trade publications suited to traditional news and information stories.
In general, I'd say their format is not as helpful in searching for creative outlets as Duotrope's is. It's difficult to select for quality of publications, and the screen shows only ten markets at a time.
Litmags.org is another free online service that now has about 500 magazines in its database. This website service offers you the option to search for magazines by their circulation numbers, something unavailable through Duotrope or Writer's Digest (though the Writer's Digest books include circulation information.) Keep an eye on this site, as it has some advantages over the other.
Contests: You have a slightly better chance of getting published by winning or placing in a contest run by a magazine than you would cold-submitting to that magazine, because they generally have to publish somebody out of that pile of work. However, you have to pay money, so be careful. Basically, you're paying for the privilege of having less competition.
Absolutely enter: Free contests, contests for student writers, contests judged by just the right person, regional contests, contests focused on people just like you (e.g., with age limitations, regional limitations, special mental illnesses) because you've narrowed the playing field. Or if the contest is limited by subject matter, e.g., dogs, your dog poem stands a better chance here than sent to a magazine that does not specialize in dogs.
Note: The money from contests supports the magazines or writing organizations, i.e., good causes. Often you will get a copy of the next issue of the magazine or a year's subscription.
If you have a full length collection of stories, you should enter the contests for : AWP, Drue Heinz, Sarabande's Mary McCarthy prize, Prairie Schooner (Univ. Of Nebraska), etc. Full length collections of poetry should go to AWP, Sarabande's Katherine Morton award in Poetry, Juniper Prize, Yale Younger Poets Award Series (if you're under forty). For most of these prestigious contests, the judges change every year, so you should re-enter every year. If you win a contest, your book automatically gets some free press from that. You should begin your own list of contests you would love to win and keep the dates handy so you don't forget to enter.
Sources for Contest Information
The mother load of contest information is Creative Writers Opportunities List.
You can join the group, check the list regularly, or you can have email updates sent to you. My friend Susan says her spamcatcher won't let her receive the emails; I receive them, and there are so many I am overwhelmed. A few other good sources are:
Mad Poetry (from Madison Wisconsin)
Poets & Writers (classified ads)
The Poetry Resource Page
Writers Market site has contests, but the information is sometimes outdated or inaccurate.
Ranking of Magazines
Whether you are entering sponsored contests or sending to literary magazines in general, you will probably want an objective measure of how the magazines compare to one another. There is general but not specific agreement about this. Here are a few rankings I've found.
Rankings by Clifford Garstang of Staunton, Virginia, at Perpetual Folly looks only at the number of Pushcart Prizes awarded and special mentions in FICTION since 2000 (e.g.: Ploughshares 118, Zoetrope: All Story 75, Conjunctions 71, Paris Review 67, Southern Review 67)
This ranking, by Jeffrey Bahr, estimates the difficulty of getting POETRY published in various print magazines. (This one may be getting out of date). At the top are: Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares. Notice the first one is called Futility Review, a non-magazine that rejects everything sent to them.
At Bookfox, fiction and nonfiction writer John Matthew Fox rates journals according to categories such as ridiculously competitive (commercial mags) and highly competitive. In the extremely competitive category are: Granta, McSweeney's Quarterly, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House Virginia Quarterly Review, Zoetrope
John M. Fox also
ranks some online magazines Here are his top choices:
Michael Tyson, on his blog Fungible Convictions offers some suggestions for creating your own rankings, using such attributes as age of publication, independence of publication, etc.
And of course, you should develop your own opinions about magazines you like and don't like, and always you should be on the look-out for magazines that seem to publish work like yours.
Poets and Writers, May/June 2009, p. 52-63 has an article about magazine rankings that also discusses web-based publications, called, "The Lit Mag Moment."
One of the loveliest surprises in your writing life may come when you open Poets and Writers to the beginning of the classified section, Anthologies, and you see that someone is putting together an anthology for stories and poems about Boston Terriers, and you just happen to have just completed your villanelle about your Boston Terrier, Duke. Always check for anthologies in of interest in the classified section of Poets and Writers, and also in the list serve CRWROPPS. Some anthologies are published by big companies, some by magazines, and some by freelance editors. Recently a friend and I did a public radio fund-raising spot in which we read radio-themed poems; my friend solicited the poems through CRWROPPS.
Some magazines want to be the only magazine considering your work at a given time. You can avoid this issue by choosing only magazines that allow simultaneous submissions (this is something you can select for on the Duotrope and Writers Digest sites). Most magazines now do allow simultaneous submissions, so long as you promise to contact them should the work be accepted elsewhere.
There are writers who say to ignore this no simultaneous submissions order, on the basis that it is so unlikely for any given editor to choose your work (as a new writer) that chances are strong you will never get caught. On the other hand, there are people who always follow the rules. Of course, if you have a personal relationship with an editor, you will be most respectful.
Cover Letter: Be as clear and concise as possible, and keep in mind that your cover letter is the first opportunity to pique the interest of an editor or screener. It is also your first opportunity to annoy the editor. Assume that all editors are struggling writers.
A Comment About Editors: Editors are over-worked and underpaid; in fact, many of them are not paid at all. Thousands of stories and poems come in monthly, and they work through the piles. If you have not had experience with working for a literary magazine, you should try it, in order to have a more complete understanding of the process. So, be kind to editors. One editor told me that at the AWP conference people snubbed her and yelled at her for not accepting their work. She said she would probably not ever be publishing the work of those people.
That said, some magazines really do take too darned long to look at your work; consult Duotrope for approximate information about how long it generally takes to get a response; writers provide that information and you can too.
Finally, here's a strategy for sending out work when it is ready:
Choose your top 5 places that allow simultaneous submissions and send your work out. (The Tough truth about the top tier lit mags: They get tons of work submitted, thousands of stories and poems a month. At these magazines, you are competing against your professors, as well as against Tobias Wolff, Francine Prose, Aimee Bender, Lucia Perillo.)
While your work is under consideration at your top tier journals, choose five more places in case the work is not accepted. When/if the work comes back, send it out again. You may find that you set your sights lower as you continue to send the work out, working down to the magazines where mere mortals get published.
Another strategy: decide how often you want to send out work, and set a schedule. You might decide to send out one piece of work per week. Just consider it part of your job as a writer.
Warning: You only get one shot with each publisher with each piece, so make it count. This is the reason to be sure a piece is finished before sending it out into the world.
An aside for those of you writing at book-length. You have the option of having chapters published as a stand-alone pieces (as some of your professors do). This can create interest in your book-length work, and may get you the attention of agents. Plenty of novels and most story collections and books of poems are published without agents. If your work would fit best with a mainstream New York publisher, then you need an agent; otherwise, you need to learn about small presses and figure out where your work belongs.
If you're looking for an agent, you can consult one of the many books about agents. The one that gets the most flattering reviews is Jeff Herman's Guide To Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents 2009 (19th Edition): Who They Are! What They Want! How To Win Them Over! by Jeff Herman. If you don't like all the exclamation points, try Guide to Literary Markets by Chuck Sambuchino; it's a Writer's Market book.
Publication is always a challenge; it's an even bigger challenge for certain kinds of writing. Novellas, long stories, Narrative poetry, epic poetry, experimental writing that is intentionally boring or difficult is going to be a challenge to get published. Do not give up on publishing these works, but do the extra research to figure out where this sort of work is getting published.
A Note about Rejection
When my first collection was published, I had a two percent acceptance rate. You will get rejections; it's part of the deal. You can save, them, burn them, wallpaper with them.
There is a magazine called The Rejected Quarterly. In order to submit to this magazine, you must include, with your submission, five rejection slips.
Good luck with your writing and publishing.
More Help for Writers...
Bonnie Jo's Pep Talk for the June 2010 Graduating Class of Pacific University's Low Residency MFA Program