According to Duotrope, there are over 5000 literary magazines out there. And it seems like every day, a new literary magazine pokes its head into the Twittersphere and thus creates another potential home for that precious poem you’ve been working on.
How do you even begin to consider where to send your submissions? It’s true what everyone says – publishing is so subjective. As an editor of one of those countless literary zines and an associate editor at another, I can’t even begin to fathom how many times I’ve said “no” to a piece simply because it didn’t fit with the aesthetic of the magazine and not because it wasn’t good.
Thus, the task then becomes evaluating every single magazine out there, reading what they publish, and then ascertaining from that mammoth undertaking what outlets best fit your piece…
Because that’s impossible: If you had to do that, there’d be no time left to write, plus, by the time you finished, half of the zines would have shuttered and been replaced by another couple thousand you need to evaluate.
Luckily, there are shortcuts. Not fast tracks, mind you, but shortcuts: Things you can do to really understand what a literary magazine is all about and how it jives with your writing. Three steps, give or take a handful of substeps. Let’s do this.
Step 1: Know your writing
Don’t roll your eyes. I know, this seems like one of those “OK, but what’s really the first step” things. But I’m serious. How can you begin to market your own writing and judge its fit at a literary magazine if you don’t even know what it is you write?
Are you seeing themes running through your pieces? Do you write about environmentalism or unrequited love or the dark side of home gardening? Is the voice consistently sarcastic or stern or morbid? Do your characters face most of their obstacles internally? Do they all come from broken families? Do they go on interplanetary adventures with a robot sidekick who has a penchant for wisecracks?
Understand your writing. Analyze your writing. Know it. Know your brands. Know your tendencies. Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re writing a short fiction about Skeletor’s side hustle as a freelance graphic designer, probably don’t send that to the traditional literary market Ploughshares, even if you know it’s the greatest masterpiece you could ever conceive of. The brands just don’t match.
Writing the tale of a tortured college student who sits in his room the entire story and debates which major to choose to achieve his goals in life better? Probably don’t send that to Apex, a magazine focused on sci-fi, horror, and fantasy. Unless you plan on having him abducted by aliens, and then we can talk. (Maybe.)
Make a list of all the themes, trends, and other common aspects you see a lot in the work you write.
Step 2: Know the market
Now that you know what you’re writing, we can start looking at ways to decide where to send it. You know the old saying, “write what you’d want to read;” well, that’s pretty true. What you’re writing won’t be the only of its kind. I mean, of course it is: You’re a unique and wonderful creator who stands alone. But what you’re writing has similar pieces out there. Even if the similarity is that it’s just so oddball and off the wall that it doesn’t really seem like it’d fit anywhere.
Guess what? There are literary zines for that.
But in order to read similarly to what you write, you have to find those zines, and if you aren’t reading them already, it’s time to get to it. There are many popular resources that offer insights into literary journals, such as NewPages, Submittable, DuoTrope, and this very magazine. All of these offer resources and insights into literary journals.
There are other sources, though. One of those is Jim Harrington’s Six Questions For… blog, where “editors and publishers discuss writing flash fiction, short stories, poetry, and novels.” It’s a fantastic resource and well worth poking around. You get to hear from actual editors about what they’re actually looking for.
But while you’re there – or while you’re reading The Writer’s own “Literary Spotlight” column – maybe listen to a bit more than just the basic parameters. Listen to the way the editors answer. Are they funny? Serious? Specific? Open-ended? You should be evaluating editors and the work they publish in the same way you evaluate your own writing. Because when you start matching up adjectives – “Hey, this editor uses sarcasm, just like this sarcastic piece I wrote about my cat earning a Ph.D.” – you start finding potential homes for your writing.
Speaking of getting to know a literary magazine, Twitter can give you exactly what you need. And it’s even better if you don’t know where to start. Twitter is where to start. Search for magazines, #callforsubmissions, or writers you like and begin reading stuff. You don’t have to read a lot, or all of it, or even that much; just read enough to find similar writers and editors who share some qualities of your own work, see where they publish, and go follow those magazines. And those magazines are likely going to be following other magazines like them, writers they’ve published, and writers they like. So you can go poke around on those profiles, too.
And hey, before you even poke around on their profile or website, you can pay attention to how they act on social media. Are they cracking jokes and posting irreverent memes like Daily Drunk, or are they sharing inspiration and encouraging conversation like F(r)iction? Maybe they’re super conversational and supportive like trampset, or maybe they’re always promoting their writers like Split Lip. You can learn a lot about a magazine by the way they handle themselves on social media. If you find their social content resonates with you, it’s probably not a bad place to add to your submit list.
While you’re poking around, check out who these magazines’ editors are. That information is readily available on websites or zine Twitter profiles, and you can repeat the whole process with their editors’ profiles, too.
Behold, the power of social media.
Step 3: Know the guidelines
Another one of those “OK, that’s not really a step” steps. But let me, as an editor, tell you that it is 100% a necessary step. The quickest way to get a rejection? Send something that a magazine isn’t looking for or ignore its submission guidelines.
Do they read blind? Don’t put your name on it.
Are they fiction and nonfiction? Don’t send poetry.
Do they have a max word count of 1,000 words? Better hold off on that 6,000-word essay.
Every editor wants every submission they get to be the one they accept. But you take that option away when you don’t give an editor something they can accept. Do yourself a favor and prepare yourself for submissions by sending something that, at the very least, fits inside of the oblong rhomboid of their publishing aesthetic. The more reasons you give them to reject you, the more likely they will.
All of the guidelines are found on the magazine websites, and they’re all easy enough to follow. If not, they will almost all, across the board, offer a contact email for questions.
All in all, what these steps boil down to is know what you’re doing. Other people are doing it, so it can be done. Just know what you’re doing before you step out into that great big (welcoming) universe that is the publishing world.
—Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. Twitter: @sippenator101; more at joshsippie.com.