I sold my first short story for publication at the age of 45. I’d been writing stories almost since I could write at all, and daydreaming of being a published author for nearly as long, but back then, what little I could learn about getting published (and paid for it) made it seem like such a long shot that I shelved that ambition until, late in my middle years, I realized that my “somedays” were running out. So I got serious, and was fortunate enough to enroll in a night school program that included a “Business of Writing” seminar on how to sell one’s stories. That got me started, and when I decided to embrace science fiction/fantasy (SFF) instead of “literary” fiction, I learned that the gates were open much wider, and the community was far more welcoming. I also learned that selling stories was every bit the thrill I imagined it would be.
I’m new to this career, but the steps in the process are fresh enough in my mind that I hope they could help others who just need a little demystification of the process to get started. I’ve come up with ten concrete, practical steps to sell your first SFF/speculative short story.
- Write the “final” draft of your story.
- Find your markets.
- Format your piece and follow the guidelines.
- Write your submission cover letter.
- Make and track your submissions.
- Handle rejections with grace.
- Handle holds with grace.
- Handle acceptances with grace.
- Sign your contract.
- Publicize your story and market.
Keep trying. It’s not that mysterious at all.
1. Write the “final” draft of your story.
Unlike in novel publishing, you won’t work with a developmental editor from the publishing magazine or website. The draft you send should be the draft you’d be happy to see published. That means that you’ve done your revisions and line editing, had some other eyes look at it and give feedback, and read it aloud a few times. If your story is accepted, the editors may have some small revision suggestions, but they’re treating your story as a finished piece, not a work under joint development.
2. Find your markets.
There are several resources to help you find the magazines, anthologies, contests, and websites (collectively referred to as the “markets”). In addition to print resources like Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers, there is a popular and robust search tool called Duotrope, that will also help you track your submissions (more on that later). At the time of this writing, Duotrope is a subscription-based service for $5 per month or $50 per year. I use the Submission Grinder, a free, donation-powered website that gives you much of the same capability, and has a good user base. I’ve been using it for a couple of years, and it happens to be run by Diabolical Plots, a professional rate (more on that later) SFF market itself.
Some other websites I use to find markets include:
- Locus Magazine
- Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA)
- Freedom With Writing newsletter
Social Media is especially helpful in finding markets. On Twitter, following short fiction authors you like will lead you to markets, editors, and other writers. (You’ll find some great stories to read, too.) At the time of this writing, I’m maintaining a Twitter list of short fiction SFF/speculative fiction markets you might find helpful.
Most markets advise you to read some of their past issues prior to submitting. It’s good advice. Aesthetic and thematic preferences become quickly apparent, and if you can’t see your story side-by-side with the ones they’ve published, it may not be the market for you. Many markets make explicit the things they’re looking for, and things that would be hard sells or instant rejections. Honor them, but where the guidelines are fuzzy, take a chance on yourself. Most editors are looking for stories that affect and surprise them, not ones that conform to a prescribed formula.
Some markets have special submissions periods for stories on a particular theme or topic. These can be fun, especially if you’re searching for inspiration and can quickly write on specification, as with a writing prompt. Watch for markets that solicit stories from particular underrepresented groups or identities. If you’re not a member of the group, cheerfully move on. There is no shortage of places to submit. But if you’re a member, dig deeper, perhaps with a note to the editors, to see if the market seeks stories centered around the group or identity, or simply wants to boost the visibility of those writers, and the topics aren’t in any way limited.
Some markets are permanently open for submissions year-round, but many have specific reading periods, and will not accept submissions outside of that period. Honor the reading periods: they allow a small staff (or solo operation) to buy stories, edit them, produce an issue, release it, and publicize it. Appreciate that a small number of people are doing an enormous job, usually in their spare time.
The science fiction/fantasy short fiction landscape has many markets that pay on a per-word basis. “Professional rates” (as defined by the SFWA at the time of this writing) start at $0.06 per word. Other markets offer “semi-pro” or “token” payment rates, or a flat sum. Some (especially anthologies) offer royalties, or pay in “contributor’s copies.” Many are unable to offer any payment at all. Realize that most of these markets are labors of love. They don’t make a profit, and depend on donations. The staff have day jobs. That said, carefully consider your attitude towards “working for exposure,” and whether the non-paying market you choose will give you the kind of exposure you want. For me, there’s something especially validating about even a token payment. It means I’ve sold a story.
Some markets (most in “literary” fiction, less in genre fiction) charge a submission or reading fee. Be wary of these. Contests often have submission fees to cover their prize amounts), but in SFF, reading fees are often considered exploitative of writers dreaming of being published.
Probably the single most enlightening experience I’ve had in short fiction publishing was volunteering as a slush reader for Shimmer Magazine, during its final year. Slush readers are unpaid readers who help winnow down the submissions by issuing rejections and escalating the top candidates. Not only did reading slush give me a chance to read a lot of good stories, but it also gave me a sense for how editors discuss stories and weigh their merits. And it let me experience what kind of writing “pops” from among hundreds of stories under consideration. I can’t overstate how valuable it is to look at the submissions process from the other side.
3. Format your piece and follow the guidelines.
The top pet peeve I read from editors is about writers who don’t follow the submission guidelines. The guidelines may specify the file formats the market accepts, the fonts and line spacing, the information that should and shouldn’t appear on the page headers, whether to underline or italicize, and the minimum and maximum word count. Take these as hard rules. It shows consideration for the editors’ time. They don’t want to haggle with you about accepting PDFs when the guidelines say DOCs or RTFs.
Many markets will ask you to use “Standard Manuscript Format.” The most common example of this format I’ve seen referenced is from William Shunn: https://www.shunn.net/format/story.html
Some markets will also specify the kind of stories they don’t want to see. For example, they may be burned out on seeing vampire and zombie stories, or they don’t want explicit content, or they have a hard policy against depicting rape or violence toward children. Attend to these restrictions, and don’t waste everyone’s time.
The submissions guidelines may also mention “simultaneous submissions” or “multiple submissions.” Simultaneous submissions are when you submit the same story for consideration at more than one market at the same time. Some markets take more than a year to make a decision, and tell you that simultaneous submissions are okay, as long as you notify them if you get accepted elsewhere. Others expect a shorter turnaround, and ask that you only submit your story to other markets after they have rejected it. Multiple submissions are when you have more than one story under consideration at the same market. Some markets allow this, to a limit. Others ask that you wait for a decision before sending them another story.
4. Write your submission cover letter.
Don’t agonize over this. Keep it simple. The cover letter is not the place you need to be creative or make a sales pitch. For most markets, the following format is sufficient:
Dear Editors, Please consider my [approximate word count]-word short story "Story Title Here" for the next issue of [market name here]. My fiction has appeared in [up to 3 other markets that have published your work, if any]. Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely, [etc.]
If you’re a member of the SFWA, a Clarion graduate, or have some other writerly credentials, you can mention that. If the market states an interest in publishing emerging writers, you may mention that, if accepted, this would be your first publication. If you are an acknowledged expert in a particular relevant domain (like, you program robot behavior for a living, and your story is about robots), or a member of an underrepresented group writing about your group from an insider’s perspective (“own voices”), mention that. But be brief, and keep it to-the-point. Unless specifically requested, DO NOT summarize or tease your story. Let it speak for itself.
Some markets might ask you for a short third-person bio or even a statement of purpose. Feel free to get creative here, but look at the bios and statements already published by that market for a sense of what they want.
5. Make and track your submissions.
As you get the hang of the process, you will make more submissions, and sometimes those will take several months to resolve. There are guidelines on when to query (inquire after a submission that has received no response), whether you can submit a story to multiple markets simultaneously, and how long before you can submit to a particular market again. As you get busy, you may lose track of whether your story has already been rejected by a particular market, or when the submissions period opens. It pays to get into the habit of tracking the status of all your submissions. You can do this using online tools like Duotrope or Submissions Grinder, or you can just make your own spreadsheet with rows for each story + market, and columns indicating when you made the submission, the status of that submission, the market’s website, and the dates of any follow-ups and responses.
When you start making story submissions, you will probably find yourself refreshing your email and trying to perform predictive math on the submission / rejection / acceptance rates for your markets. BE PATIENT. SFF markets have a pretty good turnaround time compared to literary magazines (where you can wait a couple of years for a form rejection letter), but it may be months before you receive a decision, and a year or more before your story sees publication. Often, the submissions guidelines for a market will tell you the number of days you should wait before inquiring after your story’s status.
You may end up cringing at the story that was accepted, because you’ve moved far forward in your craft between that time and publication. But such is the game. Just use it as an incentive to get your next story out there.
6. Handle rejections with grace.
In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King described a spike on his wall, on which he’d stuck every rejection letter he got. For him, the thicker that stack, the better–it meant he was putting his work out there, and each rejection was another step toward an eventual acceptance. That’s a healthy and useful way to see rejection. You will get rejected, and you may not always know why. Your story may not fit the aesthetic of the publication. It may have structural problems. The quality of its writing may not be up to par. Or maybe it just didn’t “do it” for that editor, at that time.
Whatever the case, the best response from from you to a rejection is no response at all. The markets don’t owe you an explanation, so don’t demand one. Stick the rejection on your virtual spike and move on, revising your story if you wish, and choosing another potential market. (Unless specifically requested, do not revise and resubmit a story to the same market.) Occasionally an editor may offer some feedback when rejecting a story. This is not, on its own, an invitation to resubmit. You may be inspired by it, or you may reject it utterly, but don’t consider a personalized rejection to be an invitation to debate your story’s merits.
Rejections sting. There’s no way around that. But be a professional and deal with it gracefully. Resist any temptation to toss a barb (or worse) back in response. Rejections are not of you as a writer, but of that particular story, and you may write other stories you’ll want that editor to consider. Be someone pleasant to work with.
7. Handle holds with grace.
A “hold” is when an editor gets back to you saying they haven’t made a final decision whether to buy your story, but they’re putting it on a short list for consideration after they’ve reviewed all the submissions. Congratulations! Your story has done better than the vast majority of submissions. Now the editors will have to make decisions that factor in how much space they have in their next issue, whether any theme has emerged among the candidates, and which stories best reflect the diversity of their submissions. You may still be rejected. Or you may make a sale. And the waiting will be nerve-wracking.
But be patient. Putting together an issue or anthology takes a lot of work, and many short fiction publishers are doing it on their own time.
8. Handle acceptances with grace.
Congratulations! You did it! At this point, the editors may request a few minor edits from you. They may ask for a short, third-person bio, and an author photo. Some publications may even do a short Q&A interview with you about your story. Respond promptly. They are at a particularly busy stage when they are putting the issue together, and having everything they need makes it easier to put out the issue on schedule. And thank them. They liked your story enough to put it in their labor-of-love publication, and as long as you’re professional and polite, you have the foundation of a writing relationship you can build on.
9. Sign your contract.
Your contract specifies the agreement between you and the publisher to publish your story, with what recompense, the media in which your story may appear, and the length of time you grant the publisher exclusive rights to present your story. Typically, copyright remains with the author for the small markets. Pay attention to the exclusivity periods, because when that expires, you may be able to submit your story as a reprint to another market. If there are clauses in the contract that give you pause, Google them–there are many discussions you can find about publishing contracts. It’s not unheard of to negotiate the contract, but bear in mind that most markets are using boilerplate contracts and don’t have the legal resources to hammer out separate considerations for you and your story. Pushing on the contract may make it more than your story is worth to the market.
10. Publicize your story and market.
Self-promotion is not a sin. When you’re also promoting the market that published your story, you’re helping them as well, not to mention all the other writers published in that issue. Boost their signals on social media, and let them boost yours. Bask in that special sunshine of being a published writer. And keep working on the next story.