How to Publish Short Stories and Other Fiction

Market Research

To publish short stories, or any other type of fiction, requires market research, a time consuming but necessary part of the writing process. Almost no one enjoys this aspect of the writing process. I've often thought that it would be wonderful to have a databank to which authors sent their work, and which editors scouted. Hundreds of impartial paid readers would scan the stories that poured in—thousands of stories, categorize them, and rate them. Editors would bid on the best, and writers would be spared hours of research and months of waiting. What a pleasant thought.

Until then, writers hoping to publish short stories in print or online will have to continue to seek out suitable markets, review writers' guidelines, and pore over back issues.

Where to Look

For Canadians, The Canadian Writer's Market is a good choice, though I still find that the Writer's Market is indispensible. US readers click here instead.

These reference guides report what a market pays, how many words submissions should be, which editor handles which type of fiction (always double check this with a quick telephone call), how many submissions are accepted each month, and many other useful and important details.

I prefer to use the online version of Writer's Market, which is searchable, has a submissions tracker, and is updated continuously. A one year subscription is $39.99 US, a little more than the printed version, even without shipping costs, but well worth the price, and you won't have to figure out how to dispose of the hefty outdated version each year.

Other Market Resources

Magazines such as Writer's Digest and The Writer have sections for markets, and if you are member of your local writers' Guild or union, their newsletters will almost certainly have a list of new or changed markets.

Alternatively, if you already know which magazines or journals you'd like to target, and you are certain they publish short stories of the type you write (see below), find their address in the masthead and contact them directly for writers' guidelines and the fiction editor's name.

Selecting Your Market

Faced with all the market choices, narrow your selection to the ten best choices for your work. Which magazines or journals are most likely to publish short stories like yours? Identify the markets in your genre. Do you write literary fiction? If so, look for literary journals. If you write mysteries, search for mystery magazines, etc.

Once you have narrowed your search to the correct genre, you need to evaluate these potential choices.

  1. How many stories do they publish each month? (If hundreds of authors compete for only a few spots a month, you will perhaps feel better about being rejected)
  2. What subject matter interests them?
  3. How quickly will they respond?
  4. Do they accept online submissions and reply by email? (Both of which reduce your waiting time.)
  5. What is their word limit?

If your story is 2300 words, do NOT send it to a market that accepts stories up to 2000 words. You may believe that the extra 300 words won't make a difference, but their ceiling is there for a reason. To ignore it is to waste time and postage.

Similarly, if the guidelines ask for stories about single life, and you hope to publish short stories about a married couple who visit a nudist colony for the first time, you had better find a different market.

Magazines receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of submissions a month from all those other writers who also want to publish short stories, and a constant complaint of editors is that writers do not take the time to understand what each editor wants. The upside of this is that it eliminates much of your competition. So stand out from the rest, and do your homework. Not doing so will waste months as you wait for what can only be rejection.

Review Sample Copies

Some factors, such as tone and sophistication, cannot be judged from a market listing. You will need to get your hands on a physical copy of the magazine or journal. If there is no online sample available, try to find one in a bookstore or library. If all else fails, contact the publisher and ask them to send you a sample back issue.

When you have your sample copy, skim it.

  1. Are the stories plot or character focused?
  2. How image-rich is the language?
  3. Is the diction simple or sophisticated?
  4. How "dense" is the writing?
  5. Are stories filled with action or thought?
  6. Is the tone light or serious? Conservative or liberal?

Analyze for anything else you can think of, and look for similarities between stories that may indicate an editorial board that prefers one kind of story over another. Find ten markets that publish short stories most like your own.

Why Ten?

You have written the stories, you have researched the markets, and now you will have to wait, often for months and months!

With an archaic process like that, you need to keep your work in circulation. If you try to publish short stories by sending them out one story at a time, it may be years before you have anything in print. And yet many publications still require that you send nowhere else while they consider your work.

On the one hand, this is understandable. Their editorial committee may meet once every few months. They consider each story, argue over which ones to select, and finally make their decision. If your work is chosen and the editor contacts you only to learn that you sold the story elsewhere, you will be hard pressed to ever sell them anything else.

On the other hand, the mail-in submission process is ridiculous in its length, there are numerous markets, and it is increasingly unreasonable to expect writers to wait months for a response. So do you disregard the editor's request and send simultaneous submissions to multiple markets, or do you comply and wait?

I recommend that you choose ten magazines and send only to those ten until one of them publishes you. No simultaneous submissions, just one or two stories to each magazine. As soon as one publication returns your story, send it out to another and send the rejecting magazine something else.

In this way, you become known to the editors. Persistence pays off, and before long, they'll recognize your name and provide you with more feedback. They make an investment in you. If you heed their advice in the next story you submit, they may remember you and be pleased. One day, you will send them something they like. So focus. And never give up. If you want to publish short stories, persistence is crucial.

Online Markets

Many legitimate journals now publish exclusively online. For less waiting, and easier access to archives, I encourage you to research online markets, preferably ones that pay, and always where your work is vetted by professional writers. This is important. You can publish without payment, but not without the vetting process if you want your publication credit recognized.

You can submit to Page 47, the online anthology of short fiction. Please also  review the writing already published in Page 47 Online Anthology, to see what we do with the stories we publish. 

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