Short story submissions: Ten case studies

I had a fun and informative conversation this morning on Twitter with numerous folks, including Ann Leckie (of GigaNotoSaurus), Michael D Thomas (of Apex Magazine), and Damien Walters Grintalis (of talented writer fame). Others joined in as well and then I had to go leave and help my fiancee register online for a convention, so I probably haven’t even seen the entire conversation in its final form.

But one of the points that was raised is that established writers often don’t share information about how often they are still rejected by magazines. That’s probably true, though I do see successful writers sharing their statistics now and then.

Then another point was raised. Even those stats don’t really communicate the full weirdness of what being a short story writer is like.

Compared to a lot of people, I could be considered a successful writer. I’ve sold 32 short stories to science-fiction, fantasy, and horror markets over the past eighteen months. Of those, 15 were sold to markets to pay a professional rate according to SFWA (at least 5 cents per word).

Yet, here are some case studies from my life as a writer who submits a lot of stories. I’ve held back the names of the publications from these case studies, but these are not hypotheticals.

CASE 1: PRO MARKET
I sold a story to this pro market ten years ago. Since then, I’ve sent them at least 15 other stories (recently, for the most part) and they haven’t bought any. The closest I’ve gotten is one rewrite request.

CASE 2: PRO MARKET
I’ve submitted five stories to this market in the past eighteen months. They bought the last three in a row that I sent them.

CASE 3: PRO MARKET
I’ve submitted 14 stories to this market in the past eighteen months and haven’t sold any. The closest I got is one that made it to final consideration. (Repeat this case about eight times for other pro markets that I’ve sent anywhere from 2 to 6 stories without success.)

CASE 4: PRO MARKET
Sixteen submissions, and five sales. I once sold them two stories in a row. Another time, I went 0 for 4 (even after selling them a few).

CASE 5: PRO MARKET
Six submissions, and two sales. I’ve gotten three rewrite requests from this market. I’ve never sold to them without doing a rewrite. In one case, the editor and I went back and forth for weeks through three or four different versions.

CASE 6: PRO MARKET
Sent them one story and they bought it.

CASE 7: SEMI-PRO MARKET
Nine submissions, no sales. (Again, repeat this case many times over. More times than I can count.)

CASE 8: SEMI-PRO MARKET NOW PAYING PRO RATES
Fourteen submissions. They bought the third one, and have given me straight rejections since. Only a couple reached a second round of consideration.

CASE 9: SEMI-PRO MARKET
Nine submissions, two acceptances. The second acceptance followed a rewrite request. After receiving the request, I procrastinated on it until the editor wrote me a note saying the story would be a good fit for an upcoming theme issue if I could make the needed revisions. This is the only time an editor has asked me to send in a specific story.

CASE 10: PRO MARKET
Six submissions, two sales. One acceptance followed a rewrite request that more or less required the entire story to be rewritten.

I could go on and on. But the point is that there’s no easy road to success. Some markets will buy three stories in a row, and some will send you fifteen rejections over two years. Even though I may be getting rejections for 80% or 90% of my submissions (it hovers somewhere between there), that doesn’t apply equally to all markets.

So far, I’m not writing what a lot of markets are looking for. Or not writing it with the requisite awesomeness to beat out everything else in their submission pile and win one of the few open spots. But, on the other hand, there are a few markets that I seem to be pretty in tune with — at least for now.

Sometimes I get an acceptance from a prestigious pro market one day, and a rejection from a token-paying market the next day. (Seriously. CASE 11: TOKEN PAYING MARKET… Four submissions, no sales. This is a market that pays $5 per story.)

What’s more, many stories rejected by one market will go on to sell to others. One story I sold to a pro market was rejected by seven semi-pro markets along the way — some of them very small. Their loss? Not really. Their editors were choosing stories for their own idiosyncratic tastes and needs, just like the pro editor was. It just turned out the pro editor wanted or needed what I was selling, and they didn’t.

During the Twitter conversation this morning, somebody made the point that being successful at selling short fiction is a matter of persistence. Based on my experience, I think that’s true. Einstein is supposed to have defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing and expecting different results”. Either Einstein was wrong, or the world of short fiction sales isn’t what he would consider “sane”, since that’s exactly what I end up doing all the time.

As time has passed, I have found myself a lot less likely to be surprised by anything that happens. I wrote a story about a year ago that I was certain would be easy to sell. It’s now been rejected by twelve markets and is still looking for a home. Honestly, I still think it’ll sell someday, even if it has to go to twenty or thirty markets.

But I’ve learned not to place too much faith in any one story. Early in my career, I got paralyzed by the idea that every new story had to be better than all the others that came before it. And that if I didn’t keep ruthlessly moving up and up with every single submission, I’d be recognized as a fraud.

The truth is that individual data points don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. Writing and selling short fiction is not like a growth chart that progresses linearly through time, always going up and never going down. It’s more like the stock market or weather patterns. Things can swing wildly up and down from one data point to the next (gushing pro-rate acceptance, followed by humiliating token market rejection), but somewhere (if you stick with it long enough and amass enough data) a trend should emerge. And hopefully that trend is what’s going up.

So, in a very real way, these case studies don’t matter. They just don’t encompass enough data. To get a meaningful idea of how my writing is progressing, I need to look at the biggest possible picture. But in the moment, when I’m working on a story or reading a response email from a market, the individual case is also all that seems to matter.

It’s natural and it’s human. We can’t always see the bigger trend, and sometimes localized patterns take on out-sized importance. I got three acceptances in one day! I’m a master of the universe! Or, conversely, it’s been two months since I’ve gotten any acceptances. I’m a fraud and utter failure. Neither is true, of course, but feelings aren’t always rational.

These kinds of posts usually end with a call to action, and some bits of advice. I don’t usually like to give advice like that — to be a successful writer, you need to figure out what particularly is holding you back and take steps to correct it. To the extent that other people can help you with that, it’s people who are familiar with your writing, your habits, and your goals. I don’t know you. I can’t tell you what to do.

But I can tell you that even though my trendline appears to be climbing up at the moment, I still have my momentary troughs and valleys. (I actually got two rejections in the time it took me to write this post.) Some setbacks last longer than others. Some come from surprising places. Some take a lot of work to dig out of. But they happen to everybody — or at least to most of us.

So there you go. It’s a weird world, and some parts of it may never make sense to us. All we can do is write the best story we can today, and then write a better one tomorrow.


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