Storyville: Ten Ways to Evaluate Fiction Markets
So you’ve finally got a few short stories finished and you’re dying to send them out into the world. How do you know if a market is “good”? Here are ten tips for evaluating fiction markets—the very traits I look for when trying to decide whether or not I should send a website, journal, magazine, or anthology my writing.
1. PAY RATE
This may seem like an obvious one, but if they pay .05 a word, which is the standard professional pay rate, or more, they are probably a good market. I have run across very few places in the past five years that pay well and are shoddy. And in the end, even if the cover art isn’t the best, or the editor isn’t well known, or the company you keep isn’t elite, if you just got $200 for a 4,000-word story, it’s still a success on some level, right?
2. ACCEPTANCE RATE
This is a bit trickier, but I tend to gravitate towards publications that are more elite. Why? Well, because I want to suck up some of that rarified air, I want to be in good company, I want to feel special, yeah? Don’t we all? The most painful part of submitting your work to magazines and journals with an acceptance rate of 1% (or lower) is the constant rejection. You will get rejected. You will get rejected a lot. MOST of your stories will get rejected. To be that one story in a hundred that gets in, you really have to be exceptional. It is kind of like winning a contest, or a lottery—the odds are long for sure. But, if you do get in, you know that you have done well, you can shout from the rooftops, Tweet about it, and post about it all across Facebook. And people will congratulate you—they will think differently about you, they will be impressed. Seriously. And a few will hate you, but such is life.
How can you tell if a market has a good reputation? Well, one way is to open up your ears and keep track of what people are saying. For many years I bought books from Cemetery Dance, the publisher. But I also subscribed to the magazine. So I knew about it, read it, and some of the biggest names were published on their pages. I pay attention to my fellow authors, and when they are excited about a new story sale, whether it is to Shroud or Black Warrior Review or Apex, I pay attention. I listen when awards are given out, and I see who is getting recognized—for editing, for design, and for the writing. When I read The Best American Short Stories anthology, or The Best Horror of the Year anthology, I pay attention to where they got their stories.
4. BIG NAMES
You must have a list of authors you love to read, the big names. So of course, if you see a story by Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, George Saunders, or Joyce Carol Oates in a publication, it’s probably a good one, right? Big names are the authors that the whole world knows, but also keep an eye out for the lesser-known authors that are repeatedly getting recognized. Here are a few names that have been in the Best American Short Stories anthology repeatedly over the last few years: Steven Millhauser, Rebecca Makkai, Jill McCorkle, Ron Rash, Kevin Moffett, Karen Russell, Lauren Groff, and Kevin Brockmeier. If you don’t know these names, maybe you should?
5. YOUR PEERS
Above and beyond the aforementioned “big names” whose presence should immediately tell you the journal or magazine you are scrutinizing is extraordinary, what about your peers, or other emerging authors? There are certain authors that I really enjoy reading, authors I think write like me in one way or another. Some of them are horror writers, some write with a heavy setting, some are genre-benders, and some are literary minded with a bit of darkness. Whatever traits they have, I respect their work, and if I see them place a story someplace, I usually deem that publication “worthy” if I haven’t already. No, stalking is too strong a word. Let’s just say inspired? If a market is good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. So create your own list of authors to chase, to trust, and see where they place their work. Whether it’s a Facebook announcement or by perusing the table of contents of the latest edition, if I see work accepted by authors such as Stephen Graham Jones or Matt Bell or Nik Korpon, I’ll pay attention. If I’ve heard of the journal, I’ll make sure it’s on my list of favorites, see if I’ve got a story submitted there already, if I’ve hit them up before. If I haven’t heard of the journal I’ll do a bit of research, and if it looks good, submit.
Another great way to see if a publication is doing well, and is worth your time and energy, is to look at the various awards that are given out each year. I probably find at least two or three magazines each year when I read The Best American Short Stories anthology—often in the back under the “100 Other Distinguished Stories” section. When I read the long and short lists of nominations for the Bram Stoker Awards, I often discover new magazines, or affirm old favorites. It’s just something to keep in mind.
7. READ IT
I know it seems obvious, but actually buy the publication, or at least, check out a copy from the library, and read it. What did you think? Was it good? Was it just average? Did you find a few stories that really blew you away? I’ll admit that I started sending short stories to Shock Totem, a magazine I really love, long before I started buying copies. I thought I had them figured out. But after several rejections, I picked up a copy and was really impressed. It was a window into the kind of fiction they like, and after reading a few stories, I felt like I had a better sense of what they were looking for. (No, I’m not telling you what I learned—go buy a copy, you cheap bastard. BUT, if I had to suggest an issue and a story or two, I’d pick up Shock Totem #3 and read the stories “The Meat Forest,” by John Haggerty and “Drift” by Amanda C. Davis.) When you are at book fairs or library sales keep an eye out, I’ve gotten a lot of older editions of journals and magazines for $1 (or less), everything from Tin House to Caketrain to Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. Some of my local used bookstores also carry literary journals and genre magazines. (And for those publications that are FREE online, you really have no excuses for not having read the work there.)
8. LENGTH OF PUBLICATION
There are certainly tons of new publications launched every year, and many of these fledgling journals will fail, which is a real shame. If a magazine can stand the test of time, they must be doing something right, don’t you think? The biggest risk is that they may become outdated and out of touch, but that doesn't mean they aren’t worth your story, even if you have to mail it in. That’s right, an actual envelope with a stamp on it and everything. Whether it’s twenty years or five, if they’ve been out longer than a year or two, if they’ve put out 20 issues, they probably know what they’re doing. If they are a new publication, look at all of the other things I’ve already mentioned—pay rate, acceptance rate, who they are publishing, who the editors are, the cover art, the website, the language they use when talking about themselves? All of that adds up.
9. PROFESSIONAL LOOK
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but screw that, you can. One of the biggest turn-offs for me about a press, a novel, a magazine, journal or website is half-assed production values and terrible art. It’s an immediate reason for me to reject them. If I know that I won’t be proud to hold up the issue and say, “I’m in here, bitches! Bow and pay homage to my greatness!” then why bother? If the literary journal has some boring landscape on the cover, or a photo of a rug, or something just overdone and boring, why bother? They just revealed to me that they have no imagination. And the only thing worse than no imagination is bad taste. I’ve seen so many terrible book covers in the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres. If you just slap a terrible illustration of a dragon or demon on the front, a picture of a planet, or some half-naked woman, you really aren’t trying. I’ll pass.
10. PRESSES AND AGENTS
Most everything I’ve said about journals and magazines also applies to presses and agents. I use similar criteria. For presses, look at the body of work, the authors, the cover art, awards, sales, etc. For agents, see if they represent anybody you know, any books you've read, and their recent sales. But it's all very similar.
Ultimately, you have to do your own research, and make your own decisions, but I think that if you follow the guidelines above you’ll have a good place to start.
Instead of stories this week, I’m linking up to some of my favorite publishers, in each of the main genres that I write. I challenge you to buy at least one copy of one magazine. Read it. See what you think. And if you love them, send them your work. Only Juked and Needle don’t pay money, just copies.
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