The Craft explores a different aspect of the writing process each month. For December, I asked Alex Shvartsman—who’s sold nearly 60 short stories and is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects series of anthologies and the brand-new Coffee: 14 Caffeinated Tales of the Fantastic—about getting published. Here’s what she had to say…
James Aquilone: You’ve had pretty good success getting published in the short fiction markets over the last three years. What’s your secret? Does it involve bribes?
Alex Shvartsman: Absolutely — I do accept bribes from editors in exchange for submitting my stories to them. I mostly prefer these bribes in the form of chocolate, coffee, and flattery, but ultimately I’m flexible.
I attribute my relative success in short fiction publishing to my total lack of discipline and attention needed to write an actual novel. I’m like that dog in Up. While talented writers are spending months and years on writing the next Great American Novel, every time I start thinking about my own novel-in-progress, SQUIRREL! — a short story idea hijacks my brain and won’t let go until I’ve written it down. My total word output for the year isn’t all that great — but it’s all short stories, so it seems like a lot.
JA: Can you stand out in the slush pile—without writing a great story?
AS: I don’t think that you can. Ultimately, nothing you include in your cover letter is going to convince an experienced editor to buy a story they didn’t love. A poorly crafted cover letter, bad formatting, typos in the story are all things that can hurt your chances. If you do everything else right, it won’t make you stand out, but it will signal to the editor that you are a professional and can be taken seriously. They may approach your story with a tiny bit more goodwill, and maybe read a few moments longer if the story isn’t working for them, but ultimately only a great story will get you an acceptance. Even if you include chocolate with your submission.
JA: Are your odds of getting published better with any particular type of story or length, such as flash fiction, SF, fantasy, experimental, literary tales of robots in love…?
AS: An argument can be made that flash fiction is a little easier to sell than longer stories. This is not in any way meant to reflect upon the quality of flash. I love reading it, love writing it, and happen to think that in many ways writing a good flash story is more difficult than writing a similar tale at greater length. However, there are a number of great markets that are voracious consumers of flash fiction. Daily Science Fiction and Every Day Fiction publish a story per day. Stupefying Stories Showcase publishes multiple flash tales in every issue, and the Journal of Nature features a science fiction flash weekly. Compare that to most quality longer-fiction markets that can only use a few stories per month.
Another interesting observation I often hear from editors is that they don’t get enough hard SF. There is a lot more fantasy being submitted, so your odds may be marginally better with a quality SF story than a quality fantasy story. Having said that, ultimately only the quality of the story counts. If you write a great and totally humorless literary tale of robots falling in love with zombies, it will probably sell somewhere. Just don’t send it to Neil Clarke. Or to me.
JA: You’ve also edited three anthologies. From an editor’s standpoint, what are some mistakes that will get you a quick rejection?
AS: Blatantly ignoring the submission guidelines would do it. Someone sent me a horror novelette once, when the submission call was for humor short stories under 4000 words. Let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume this is the most brilliant horror novelette in the history of fiction and, once published, it will win them the Stoker Award, the Pulitzer, and a free Coke. Even if all that’s true, I’m editing an anthology of humor short stories. What am I supposed to do with it?
Assuming the submitter is competent and made no such obvious blunders, it’s important to hook the reader early. There are a lot of stories in that slush queue and, while it may be painful to hear, editors will often give up on any one particular story after only a few paragraphs. If your story gets really good on page 6, the editor will never know. The story needs to impress right away, and remain consistent all the way until the end.
Which brings me to the point about endings. Nothing is more frustrating than reading a story that you think you might actually buy, only to have the writer drop the ball at the end. This is, to me, worse than the story I can reject after the first three paragraphs, not only because I invested the time and energy to read the whole thing, but also because it let me down after I developed some expectations already. Please think your plot through, and make sure you have a satisfying ending. Bad endings are often a result of a writer pantsing the story (aka writing it without knowing what happens next) and then finding that they don’t have an emotionally and intellectually satisfying conclusion. Everyone’s process is different, and some of the best writers are pantsers, and they make it work. As for me, I never sit down to actually begin typing up the story unless I know exactly how it ends.
JA: Is there an art to submitting? Or do you just start at the top of the pro-paying markets and work your way down no matter your feelings about your story? Is it just a matter of having blind faith in your story?
AS: You absolutely have to have faith in your stories. If you think the story is good enough, keep submitting it until you run out of markets. I recently sold a story on its 27th submission — and sold it at pro rates, too, because a new market popped up that I hadn’t had a chance to try previously, and they liked it. Starting at the top is generally a good idea also; if you sell a story to a semi-pro market on your first try, you will always wonder what might have been had you sent it to Clarkesworld or Lightspeed first.
JA: Is it ever a good idea to submit to a non-paying market? What about an anthology that offers only royalties?
AS: The short answer is no.
The long answer is: “Noooooooooooo.”
The really long answer is, writers deserve to be paid for their work and publishers should not be launching a magazine if they can’t afford to pay. Just because you know how to set up a free WordPress account and cut/paste a story from a Word document doesn’t make you an editor/publisher. And I will burn with fire the next such “publisher” who offers to pay me in “exposure.” In terms of royalties only, it would have to be a trustworthy semi-pro editor/publisher with a proven record for delivering those royalties.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. One is sweat equity — I will give up, for free, reprints to podcast markets because they put in the effort of narrating and recording them. I’ll also occasionally submit reprints to non-paying translation markets because they’re putting in the work translating the stories. Heck, I might even give an anthology a reprint in exchange for the copy of the physical book. But if it’s ebook only they better pay me — because they are investing nothing in creating the ebook file, so why should I let them benefit from my hard work?
Charity anthologies are another major exception. I’m always happy and eager to donate a story, because they are not created to line the pockets or sate the ego of non-paying editors — they are put together for the purpose of raising money for a good cause. I had a story published late last year in an anthology created to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and have a story forthcoming in an ebook edited by Dean Francis Alfar where all proceeds will be donated to benefit the victims of super typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines.
JA: When should you go the self-publishing route?
AS: When it comes to novels, this is an increasingly complicated question. But, with short stories, the sales generally aren’t there, even for established authors. In almost every case, the benefit of having your story appear in a respected magazine, possibly be reviewed by the critics, and be read by thousands of readers, is worth infinitely more than a handful of dollars you might raise by self-publishing it.
I’ve created ebooks of some of my previously published stories once the rights have reverted back to me, and they’re available on a bunch of ebook sites at $0.99 each. I don’t mind admitting that the sales of those are pretty abysmal. I might be able to buy breakfast off the combined royalties earned by all those stories combined on a good month — but only if it’s a very inexpensive breakfast.
JA: What resources would you recommend for writers trying to navigate the markets?
AS: The most useful site for short story writers looking for market information is The Submissions Grinder, operated by Diabolical Plots.
The Grinder collects market data and also acts as a database, allowing you to keep track of your submissions pre- and post-sale. It’s also a great way to “spy” on the markets as people post their responses, so you can know who’s responding promptly to submissions these days, and who’s taking their sweet time.
Another great resource is Ralan.com — they collect market information and organize it by payment, and I frequently find new submission calls on there I wasn’t previously aware of. They also collect data that is occasionally difficult to find elsewhere, such as the acquisition editor’s name and the market’s estimated response time.
And if you want to kill some time, chat casually about writing with like-minded people, or ask some advice, head over to the Absolute Write forums. I frequently hang out in the Write1Sub1 sub-forum, where short story writers challenge themselves to finish and submit a story every month — or even a story every week.