Submission strategies for literary journals
Published: March 11, 2010
(This article appeared in the April 2010 issue of The Writer.)|
Publishing in literary journals is an excellent way to earn credibility in the literary world. But if you’re going to nab a spot, you’re going to have to fight for it. The following is a no-holds-barred guide to submission.
The best and worst time to submit. The best time to submit is at the beginning of fall hunting season, when 80 percent of journals open on Sept. 1. If you submit just as their reading period opens, you’ll be on the top of the stack. The worst time to submit is just after Christmas, because everyone has used the break to submit. Also, since many university journals don’t read during summer break, you should target journals unassociated with universities in May and June.
The sweet spot. The ideal word length for stories is 4,000. Editors love 4,000-word stories—they’re big enough to be a story and small enough to take few pages. If you’re writing 8,000-word stories, you’re fighting an uphill battle. To be published, your 8,000-worder has to be 10 times the quality of a 4,000-word story. So if you’re trying to break in, keep it short.
Submit locally. Remember locavore—the word of the year in 2007? It’s someone who eats locally. Be a locareader and a locasubmitter. Discover the literary journals at colleges and small presses in your state (especially if your stories take place in that region). Editors hunger for homegrown talent that can spin beauty from the places they love.
The four tiers of rejection letters.
1. Form letter: “Thanks for letting us consider your work.” (Translation: Off the mark, but submit again.)
2. Second-tier form: “We found your writing to be of exceptional quality.” (Translation: Nice work.)
3. Personalized note: “We loved the characters, but the ending didn’t work.” (Translation: You’re very close!)
4. Editorial advice: your manuscript with notes all over it. (Translation: Send another story now!)
Themed issues are your friend. If you have something appropriate for themed issues, submit. Your chance of getting into a themed issue is often stronger because of fewer submissions. Also, enlarge the theme—most journals don’t want stories right on the nose.
Beware of simultaneous submissions. Most writers don’t worry about breaking a prohibition, if there is one, against simultaneous submission (“sim sub”). It’s only a problem if two journals accept the same story (which is rare). But realize that sending a sim sub to journals that outlaw sim subs is a gamble. You don’t want to guillotine your relationship with an editor, but you do want to publish before retirement.
Play the odds. Realize that top journals like Zoetrope: All-Story and The Paris Review receive 10,000 to 20,000 submissions a year, many from authors with multiple books under their name. If you’re OK with these odds, then send your work. But the best strategy for beginners is to send to mid-level journals—find some at www.newpages.com, or check the averages at www.duotrope.com.
Credit woes. Don’t fret if you lack credits. As a former journal editor, I’ve rejected many writers with high-level credits and published those with no credits. All that matters is the quality of the work. Also, remember that many journal editors actually want to publish new voices.
Know thy literary journals. Figure out the ballpark aesthetics of journals. If they have examples online, read a few. Write down a few descriptive words. You should know things like the fact that Glimmer Train prefers more conventional stories with strong emotional undertows, and Conjunctions favors stories that subvert stylistic and narrative conventions.
Don’t sweat the cover letter. Don’t worry if you sign in blue or black. Don’t worry if you address the cover letter to “Fiction Editor” or an editor’s name (but spell the name correctly if you do use it). Don’t worry about whether it’s “a SASE” or “an S.A.S.E.”—either is correct; it just depends on whether you pronounce it as one word or say each letter separately.
John Matthew Fox
John Matthew Fox has published fiction in Tampa Review, Los Angeles Review and Pedestal Magazine, and nonfiction in the Los Angeles Times and US Airways Magazine. He blogs about short stories at www.thejohnfox.com.