Welcome back! Today, I’m going to discuss breaking into publishing, not as a professional employee, but as a fiction writer.
Back in 2006, when I was interviewing various professionals on their jobs, I’d just decided I wanted to become serious about my fiction writing, and was taking my first and only creative writing course in college. From my instructor, I learned that fiction writers published their short stories in magazines called literary journals, and that a website called NewPages would send me free journals if I promised to review those journals for free. As an aspiring writer, I thought this a win-win: between 2007 and 2009, I reviewed over sixty literary journals for NewPages, and learned so much about short story writing and different journals’ aesthetics.
I did write short stories, but my goal was to be a novelist, and I still wasn’t sure how to do that. Through a variety of books and online resources, I learned that writers can approach some small presses with their manuscripts, but only agents can approach larger publishing companies. In On Writing, Stephen King says that if a writer accumulates a list of journals she’s published in, then an agent is more likely to pick her up. So this became my approach: publish in journals so I could rack up enough credits to find an agent. During the years I reviewed journals, I started to send out my stories by traditional post, formatting my cover letters based on examples in Writer’s Market.
My first short story was accepted four years later, in 2011. So far, I’ve published ten stories—one journal paid $500, one anthology paid $50, and the rest have paid $0. Some editors have accepted the first story I sent to their journal; some have accepted the third to tenth story I sent, after they sent—or didn’t send—encouraging rejection notes on others; one story was solicited by a friend for an anthology. The quickest I’ve received an acceptance was a month after submitting, the longest was a year and a month. For every piece accepted, I’ve received at least seventy rejections.
Paying a couple hundred dollars in submission fees or postage to have a story published at a literary magazine that doesn’t pay me seemed worthwhile when I was younger and needed credits but has felt more foolish as I’ve become older, gained some publication credits, and learned more how some people play the game.
Sometime in the 2010s, through word of mouth I discovered that some literary journals accept solicited submissions, often from agents. Many journals accept less than 1 percent of submissions anyway, and if a journal with a submission fee accepts solicited submissions on top of that, lowering the rate of acceptance even more, I think it should inform writers on their website, so writers can decide whether or not to make that gamble. And once I learned that credentials, such as the school a writer attends or the people they know, count more than journal publications when landing an agent (I’ll describe the agent-searching process in another newsletter), I wished I’d at least tried to attend a more prestigious school, even if I’d had to take out loans. But there have been benefits to my dedicated sending-out process: I’ve learned to continue writing/improving and sending out, despite rejection; I’ve experienced the generosity of many editors and readers.
In 2019, I spent about $650 sending out work. Story submission fees are usually $3 to $5, even at places that don’t pay writers, and it’s usually $25 or $30 per manuscript to submit to book contests at small presses. (Some story contests are $20 to submit a single short story, but I rarely submit to them: to me, it’s not worth the gamble.) Even though I like to support journals and small presses and I can write off this money on my taxes—which I should have started doing in 2007 but didn’t start doing till 2016—it seemed like a lot of money, especially as a percentage of my current income, and I wondered, not for the first time, whether there isn’t a better approach for me. On the aggregate, it could be less expensive to start a small press and publish my own books—this approach has contemporary and historical precedent, locally and currently in M. Allen Cunningham’s Atelier26 Books and most famously in Virginia Woolf’s Hogwarth Press—and I might be able to promote them just as well as any other small press, though not as well as a corporate publishing house. Or maybe just as many people would read my stories if I posted them in a newsletter like this one. I haven’t made any major decisions, but I’m more open to alternative approaches, and I did decide not to seek out new submission opportunities this year, to give my mind and wallet a much-needed rest.
Thanks for reading! Next time, I’ll post a short interview with Patrick Ryan, the author of several books and the editor in chief of the literary magazine One Story. I hope everyone is still well and safe, from COVID and from the fires.