Parts One through Four
Since the written word has been offered to others for profit, there have been those seeking their work included in these publications. We, my brothers and sisters, come under the heading of the Seekers—writers of novels, songs, poems, essays, plays, and short stories. All are similar in how to go about getting published, like the way dogs, cats, babies, and drunken girlfriends all like to curl up on laps, but that is where the similarity ends. Each has their own criteria, demands, and audience. I’m going to discuss the what I have learned with regards to having a short story published. Business buzzwords will be bolded.
I started my career as a writer by penning a novel—silly me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story, just not anywhere near ready for publication. I needed to know more about not only what makes for a good story, but the process involved with the publication of that story. After switching over to short stories, I was encouraged by friends to seek publication of what I had written. Little did I know what that entailed, and I wished someone would have explained the process to me in depth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they would have if I had asked the right questions. The purpose of this essay is to help explain the process.
Some generalizations about how written work gets published.
Anybody can set themselves up to become a publisher, all they need is a business plan, adequate capital, time, and connections. Anyone can also be a writer, you take an idea, put it to paper, and offer it to the publisher for their review and recompense. If the work is good–you will both win. If it’s great—they make money and you go on talk shows. To get your work before the publisher, many fields require an agent to act as a go-between the two parties. Agents are a valuable resource for a writer because they know which publisher is looking for work like yours, and for the publisher, because they act as a filter for all the manuscripts out there for consideration. There are some large market publishers that will accept non-agented submissions, but that is only during an advertised period (Harlequin usually open in the fall, like a goodwill gesture before the holidays).
Today’s electronic world has made self-publication an easy option. Skip the outside publisher and keep any profits earned for yourself. Unfortunately, this also means the writer also takes on all expenses the publisher, i.e. editing, formatting, printing, advertising, distribution … well, you get what I mean. Self-publishing is not at all a new concept, and the writer should not be discouraged by my description of the process. It is just not part of the process of having a short story published unless all the stories in the book belong to one writer, then it becomes a collection as opposed to an anthology. Notice I keep using the word writer instead of author. That is because the general concept is we are all writers, but we are not considered authors until we have had something published.
Practical steps prior to submission of a short story.
You’ve written a story and you think it special enough to want to share it with the world by having it published. You believe it is something of quality, something people are willing to spend their time, or even money, to read. Whether it is something that will make them laugh or cry, it needs to be well written.
First, you must know what the market genre or subject is. You don’t want to offer Erma Entices Eatonville to a publisher of children’s books, and vice versa. Know your audience. Have select members of that audience test read your work to see if the plot/message is being presented as you imagined. If this is done during while writing the story, they are known as Alpha readers. If they are reading it after you have finished writing the story, AND, reviewed it for errors (punctuation, spelling, etc.), they are called Beta readers. Take whatever comments these readers have to heart. You may not always agree with their remarks, but remember, the way they have processed your story will be how the publisher will as well. Make whatever changes, then submit it to an editor for another review.
You should never have to pay for an Alpha or a Beta reader. There are enough people around willing to read your work, just make sure they will comment without reservation. Your editor, on the other hand, is someone you should spend money on. Always send your editor the best version of your story, this person is a professional hired to bring your work up to industry and professional standards. There are line editors and content editors. Line editors will read your work, line by line, and correct any punctuation, grammatical, or continuity errors in your work. Think back to your English Composition class in high school and how your papers were returned with red ink notations by the teacher. This is what a line editor does. A content editor will do the same but also, with your permission, rewrite portions to give it more of an impact. They charge accordingly, the content charging more because they are being asked to do more work. You can find an editor just by asking, most authors have an editor they can recommend. It is appropriate to ask a potential editor what their rates are and their timeline for returning your work, do they give discounts if you have them take a second look, etc. Editors are your employees, your contract with them the same as you would a roofer or house painter, you wouldn’t take the first person who came along just because of convenience. Editor prices will vary, many of them charge less than a penny a word for work being asked. If they charge more, they had better provide more than just spilling red ink on your work.
Where can you submit a story for publication?
This varies from story to story, I know that sounds simplistic, but basically, that’s about it. If you write children’s stories, research who publishes children’s stories, magazines, journals, anthologies. Find out if they are accepting submissions. If it is a magazine, get an issue and look for the submission guidelines, if it not specific, send them an e-mail (I would say write but in this electronic age …) and ask, are you accepting and what are your guidelines. Better yet, go to their website and look for their submission guidelines there. Take note, those guidelines will be very specific and if not followed exactly can be the reason for rejection regardless of how good a story you have written.
If a publisher is accepting submissions, another consideration is whether your piece fits the size criteria, market type or length definition. Still working with the children’s magazine as an example, what if they are only accepting Flash Fiction pieces? Flash Fiction is any work 750-1,000 words or less. Count the total words of your story, minus the title and byline, for your word count. Is it less than that amount of words? If it is more, then it is a Short Story. Short stories measure up to 10,000 words, more than that it becomes a Novelette or Novella. A Novel is considered over 40,000 words. For the sake of example, yours measures 2,100 words which means you need to find somewhere else to submit it too.
If you don’t know where to look for open markets, try asking for recommendations or do some research to find out who has made a call for submissions. By reading this I know you belong to a Facebook writing group. Many of your fellow members will share information about who is accepting submissions. Another source is by subscribing to online resources like Duotrope of The (Submission) Grinder for referrals. These sites collect all the information I will mention here and periodically report what they know about these publishers. Another source is internet websites such as Writing Career, where like the two listed above, also list open markets and writing contests, both paid and unpaid. When you get one of these recommendations, go to that publisher’s website first to verify it is open, and second, to make sure your work fits within the parameters of their publication.
What are you looking for when you look at the publisher’s page?
Let’s stick with the children’s story theme, the publisher has a menu heading that says About which will tell you what type of magazine/journal they are and what type of story they are looking for. Unless you are already familiar with this publisher, you should read this over, as story submission takes time, so you want it to be a worthwhile investment of yours. The one you are looking at says their audience genre is YA or Young Adult, which usually means a high-school-aged audience. Don’t be discouraged, I’m sure your story, Conversations with Bingo, would be considered cute if the teen were babysitting a younger child, but I wouldn’t expect them to go out and purchase a copy for themselves.
Keep searching until you collect a list of publishers of stories for the appropriate audience. For example, you are given a list of twenty publishers, but only three meet your market type or criteria (let’s call them A1, B2, and C3). Let’s investigate those three: age appropriate, check; accepting submissions, check; genre appropriate, check; length, check. Okay, you have three possibilities, now what? This is where you dig deeper into their submission requirements/guidelines. Do they pay for stories they accept? What, you hadn’t thought about being paid for writing your story!? Don’t feel bad if that hadn’t crossed your mind OR if your intention is to make writing your sole career. Let’s work on the premise that you want to get paid for your work. Publisher A1 has a pay scale of $.06 per word (six cents) and B2’s pay scale is royalties only. Publisher C3 is a non-paying market type. Publisher A1 will pay you six cents a word for your 2,100-word story. Nice, that is a one-time upfront payment for the right to publish your story in their magazine/journal. Publisher B2 will pay you after their product has sold a few copies. This is usually an annual payment of an unspecified amount, paid equally to all the authors featured, typical of anthologies. Publishing with C3 will give you exposure but no monetary reward. This is not a bad thing–everybody has to start somewhere, and the chance to advertise that your work can be read in C3’s magazine/journal is a good thing, just not an immediately profitable one. For this example, you decide you want to be paid for your work, so good-bye C3.
Side note: Another thing to consider is the rights or ownership of the story. Some publishers will state their intention for the rights, others might wait until you are presented with a contract. I must admit I was uncomfortable at first, but this is a personal and important decision each writer must make. My advice is keep the rights, or make sure they return to you in the end.
Now what else does the publisher want? Electronic submissions, both A1 and B2 specify this mode only, but what does that mean? It means they do not want to receive a hard copy of your story. You send them anything through the postal service and they will just pitch it without even giving it a glance. There are several ways to submit a story electronically: cutting/pasting it into a box on their publisher’s website, attaching it to an electronic entry form through a submission service, or sending it as an attachment to a specified email address used just for that purpose. Some things to note about these methods: the first is the submission service. It is a good thing to register with this service, but use a passcode you can easily remember because it banks your information and saves time down the road with future submissions. Second, the cut/paste method. Be prepared to lose any formatting you might have had; spend the time to fix the paragraph spacing. Lastly, when it says an attachment to the email, be sure you present it as they specify: no PDF, .doc, .docx, or PDF. These can be deal breakers.
Already you are probably thinking this is just nit-picky stuff and you are right it is, but remember there are thousands, if not millions of writers out there competing for a spot in a publication that is only going to be accepting applications for a small amount of time, for a small amount of print space. So yes, they can afford to be picky–it weeds out many prospects, and the point of this exercise is to make you one of the select few who has a chance for consideration.
Other things the publishers will mention are Reprints, Multiple Submissions, and Simultaneous Submissions. Your eyes might be glossing over now, but don’t worry, here’s an explanation. Reprints means your work has been published elsewhere. A publisher can choose whether to accept a piece that has been featured elsewhere. You look at your work and think, “nope never been published.” But wait a minute, did you share it on a public Facebook writing page, or on a blog, or on a site like Wattpad? In the industry, these are considered previously published and therefore rejected. If you shared your story on your Facebook page under a private setting or in a closed group for review, it’s considered fresh and yet unpublished work. Multiple Submissions means you might/might not submit more than one story to this publisher during this submission period. Example would be if they are taking stories for the month of November but not again until January, then you may submit one in November but not another until January. Some say multiple submissions are accepted, but usually they will put a limit on how many. Simultaneous Submissions means you might not be able to submit your work elsewhere for consideration until it has been formally refused by this publisher. Most publishers will list how long to expect them to consider your story, and in fact, advise that you contact them if you think it has taken too long. The cons with not accepting simultaneous submissions is your story can be held captive by one publisher so long that you are missing other opportunities with others, and some have been known to take up to six months. That is your choice if you want to go that route. If a publisher does accept simultaneous submissions, it is not only polite, but standard practice to let a publisher know if it gets accepted elsewhere while under their consideration.
Side note: I set up a poll in a Facebook writing group asking if the members always adhered to this guideline; never adhered to this guideline; or did, but felt bad about it. They had only one choice to make. It was about 2:1 for adhering to the guideline and being true to one publisher at a time. Of those who responded, one-eighth admitted to having done it at least once.
So how does all this affect your decision to submit to A1 and B2 publishers? Well, this is your first, and only, work and other than your editor and friends, no one has read it. That takes care of reprints and multiple submissions, but what about simultaneous? Let’s go with A1 says yes, but B2 says no. What do you do? That will be up to you, but for this exercise, we will go with A1 from here on.
How do you get your story to the publisher and impress them to read it?
Yes, the question said, impress them. Shouldn’t your story alone be the deciding factor? Well, yes, that is the deciding factor for whether it should be included in their publication, but, they are receiving so many submissions, you must impress them to take their time to read yours over someone else’s. That can be done several ways with the submission letter, an author bio (biography), or just by properly jumping through all the submission hoops established by the publisher. This last could possibly include a restriction of who may submit: first-time, female authors from Canada with red hair. Yeah, that last part is an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
Submission letters are probably the most important part of the process; remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Publishing, on any level, is first and foremost a business, and the personnel involved in content selection should be respected as professional business men/women. Your letter (email) should be business like, date at the top, name, business, address, and who it is being sent to above the Dear XXX. Yes, I know we are doing this electronically, so this information will already be on the email heading, BUT making the extra effort will catch the eye of the reader and give you a better chance of moving on in the process. If you don’t know who will be reading this in order to put their name or exactly where this internet site originates, no problem. Using our example you want:
Notice it says “Madam/Sir”; this is politically correct as well as professional and when in doubt, alphabetize.
The first sentence of your first paragraph should NOT be a question; no What if or Did you ever… Your first sentence must be a strong statement about your story that will entice the reader to continue reading to see if you validate your point. Example:
The relationships we have when we are children are meaningful and help to shape the adults we will become. None of these is more meaningful than the relationship we have with our beloved pets.
The reader cannot argue with this statement and in fact, if he/she wants to find out why you feel this way, he/she needs to keep reading your letter. This is a good place to practice your elevator pitch. The elevator pitch is a synopsis of your story that you have prepared to present just in case you ever find yourself on an elevator with the person who can make the decision about your story. You can either ride up in silence or you can make conversation with a captive audience. Your pitch must be short and to the point, while remaining interesting, because you only have the time between the doors closing and opening to speak.
Continue your letter by telling how your original story, (insert name), goes on to explain/explore/entertain (whatever) your first statement. Be sure to include the word count, rounded up to the next fiftieth; this is usually a requirement of the publisher that it be mentioned in the body of the letter, and/or maybe in the subject line of the email itself. If your work has been published before, be sure to mention it here and cite the publication. Notice in the example below that I have also included a comment about a pen name. This is not necessary if you submit it under your regular name, but should be mentioned if you don’t.
Attached is Conversations with Bingo, an original short story written under my pen name, Somebody Else. It is about 2,100 words long. The story tells of the ten-year relationship between a boy and his beloved dog. Throughout good times and bad, his faithful companion was always there as his sounding wall to hear comments about his hopes and dreams, fears and delights, and disappointments and joys.
If the publisher has requested any special requirements for submission, like the ones mentioned above, now would be a good time to list them.
I am currently an unpublished author, but I believe my story would fit well with your publication. I have resided in Toronto for six years, and am a member of the Women of Fire Hair Club (yeah, cheesy, but you get the idea).
If you have received writing awards of note, or have had work published elsewhere, make note of that, being sure to cite where your work can be found so they can look you up for comparison if need be. If in their submission guidelines they ask for a head shot, it should be mentioned here that it has been attached to the email. If they ask for an author’s bio, you can mention that it is either attached as well or may be found below the signature line on this email.
Author head shots are used by the publisher for identification and promotion purposes. You do not have to run to a professional photographer for just one photograph—yet. This picture should be clear, sharp, and a good representation of your personality. It should be submitted in JPEG format for ease of duplication. Eventually you may want to get that studio shot for the back cover of your novel, but that is way down the road. If the publisher does not require a head shot in their submission guide, you can always just mention that one is available upon request in the body of the letter.
Your author’s bio should be written in third-person narrative. It can be difficult to speak of yourself as someone else, but think of what you would want a trusted friend to write. It should be no more than 100 words as a courtesy to the publisher. It can speak about your background, your family, your interest in writing, and maybe address something about your personality. If you are an established author, here is where you mention that and any awards you might have received. This blurb, like the head shots, will be used by the publisher as well, and should constantly be refined as your career advances and you evolve as a writer. Your first version may seem awkward when compared to your tenth, but eventually you will find the words to best represent your professional persona.
Finally, your letter should thank them for this opportunity and close with a comment about how you look forward to hearing from them and a positive comment about how they will enjoy your story. Sign it “Sincerely” (or something similar), with the name you want to be on your contract, along with all your contact information (address, phone, email, website, etc.). Let me state that again–the name you want to be on your contract! If you have a pen-name, then that should be mentioned in the body of the letter, the author’s bio, the title of the head shot JPEG file, and under your real name as:
My Real Name
(writing as Somebody Else)
If you want the contract to be issued to you under your pen-name, then that is how you should sign the letter and skip mentioning it in the body.
Okay, am I ready to send this story to the publisher?
Almost. Trust me, it will be worth it. Go back over the submission guidelines to see if the publisher has mentioned how they want the actual story to be presented. If it does not give any direction, then your story should be submitted using the Shuun format. The Shuun format is a directive about margins, fonts, font sizes, spacing, headers, and title page layout. If you have written your story using this method, you have no problems. If you haven’t, check online for some direction (either Google or YouTube) and re-format you story. If they do give directions, follow them as closely as possible. Sometimes publishers request that your document not have paragraph indents, or be presented in single spacing. Some may even ask that all reference to the author be removed from the story. This is usually done when the story goes before a panel for blind judging. The anonymity allows for the work to stand for itself, which is why it is important to put so much other information in the submission letter–it may be your only way to influence the editor/publisher.
This really seems like work; the story didn’t take this long to write.
You’re right, it is a lot of work, but you must remember the publisher has the advantage over the writer. Unless they are looking for the work of a specific contributor, they really do not care who you are when your story comes in. It sounds heartless, but this is a business and time is money, so you had better give them something worth their time.
You have a story (universally formatted), a head shot, an author’s bio, and a submission letter, so let’s do this. WAIT, it is worth one more look, almost like a checklist. Go back to the submission guidelines, and yes, yes, yes… you’re ready. But this publisher wants you to submit on their website, now what do you do? You fill out their information boxes, cut and paste your letter into the appropriate space and either do the same for your story, or attach the file. Remember, when you cut and paste any document, go back over it to make sure your paragraph breaks are there. If not, re-install them to make the best presentation, showing emphasis to detail.
Okay, that’s it, there’s nothing more you can add, so you take a deep breath and hit the Send button. Be proud, you are one step closer than before to becoming a published author.
You wait, but not for long. If the publisher is of note, you will probably get an automated email stating receipt of your story and giving direction to contact them if you do not hear their decision about your story. If this email doesn’t come within 48 hours, send them an email and ask if they received your story or if you should send it again.
You should have four objects in your possession when this process is over: your story, your picture, your biography, and your original copy of your submission letter. Good, you want to keep all of them available for the next time you submit a story for consideration. If it’s the same story, use can use the same letter MAKING SURE to change the date, name of publication, etc., to save yourself unnecessary embarrassment. If you are submitting a different story, you already have the components, just retool the letter for the new story. If you get poor results after several submissions, try retooling your letter. If you still have nothing, try retooling your story.
If you get a rejection letter, don’t feel bad. There are only a certain number of spots in any roster, just try another team. I like to think of these as not being rejected, but this publisher has declined to use my story now, which is a roundabout way of saying “thanks, but no thanks.” In fact, I have never received a letter with the word reject in it. If you do, that is not a publisher of worth. Sometimes, they will take the time to make positive comments or suggestions about how to improve your story. When you receive this type of letter, my advice is to send a polite response acknowledging their decision. Remember this is a business and you are a professional–leave them with a good opinion of you as someone positive to work with. It may help the next time you send them a story.
If you get a letter of acceptance, congratulations! Look forward to them sending you a contract and working with their editor to make your story fit their mold… but that is another topic for another day. Have fun, and welcome to this wonderful world as a professional writer. I hope this hasn’t been too confusing, nor disheartening. It really does get easier as you go.
(November 2017 All rights reserved)