I was asked on Twitter a few days back if I had ever written a post on how I sell my stories. It was a question I had not been asked before, and while I have written well over 5,000 posts here, I could not find a post on the subject of how I sell stories. I’m going to answer a slightly different question here, however, because selling stories is somewhat out of a writer’s control, just a few of which are the editor’s tastes, whether or not similar stories have already been purchased, the amount of available space in a magazine issue, etc.
Instead, I’m going to talk about how I submit stories because that is something that is entirely in my control. The following is based on what I do today, and keep in mind, this comes from 20 years of experience submitting stories to magazines, only during the last 7 of which have the stories actually sold. I didn’t always follow these steps. Like many things, this process evolved out of a lot of trial and error, and learning from experience.
1. I write the best possible story I can without any thought of where I might send it. The single most important thing for me when I sit down to write is to tell a story and to make it the best possible story I can tell. I avoid thinking about possible markets at this point because doing so may alter the story into something it isn’t meant to be.
Then, too, I find that you try and target a story for a given market, you end up writing a market story. If I aim for Analog, for instance, I end up writing an “Analog story.” If, however, I write the story I am trying to write, I may end up selling it to Analog, even if it doesn’t seem like a natural Analog story, and that, I think is a good thing.
The takeaway is that I try never to think about where the story will sell when I’m writing it. I try only to concentrate on writing the best possible story I can write.
There is one important caveat to this: writing for a theme anthology. My story, “Flipping the Switch” appeared in the theme anthology Beyond the Sun. In that instance, I knew that the story needed to have a certain theme to it (voyaging to distant stars) and I made sure that was executed in the story–but beyond that, I just tried to tell the best possible story that I could manage.
2. I try to fulfill obligations first. After I have written the best possible story I can write, and I’m ready to send it out, I consider any obligations I’ve made, even informal ones. If I’ve mentioned to an editor that I might have a story for them, and then express interest in seeing it, I’ll send the story to that editor first. Sometimes, and editor will say, “I haven’t seen a story from you in a while,” in which case, if the story falls into the genre of what that editor publishes, I’ll send the story their way.
Having obligations like this is a good problem to have, but it is also a problem that most1 unpublished writers don’t have to worry about.
Obligations like this take any real judgement out of the submission process for me, which is nice. I write the story I want, and because I’ve spoken with an editor about it, and that editor has expressed interest, I send it along. It doesn’t guarantee a sale, but it does give me a place to start.
3. I always try to submit to “pro” markets first and continue to submit to pro markets until they have all been exhausted. By “pro” market, I am referring to markets that qualify as “professional” based on standards set by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This is a personal choice, and is something I decided to do almost from the moment I began submitting stories 20 years ago. I aim for the pro markets because they set the highest standards (in my opinion) of both quality and payment.
If you are just looking to get published, you open up your possibilities of submission to dozens of markets beyond the pros. But I wanted to publish stories in the same magazines that my heroes published their stories, and so I aimed for these markets from the start.
4. After narrowing the pro-markets, I send the story to the market for which it has the best objective fit. What do I mean by “objective fit”? Quality of a story is subjective, but there are some things about a story (and market) that are objective. Length and genre are two of the most common, and these are often the ones I use first.
An 8,000 word novelette would not be a good fit for a market like Daily Science Fiction, which mostly publishes flash piece of about 1,000 words. A 4,000 word sword & sorcery story, though well within the length range of magazine like Analog, does not fit because of the genre.
Independently, length and genre can narrow the pool of pro markets. Only a handful of pro magazines take novellas, for instance. A novella is a story longer than 17,500 words. Each novella that appears in a magazine takes up as much space as three or even four short stories. In mind mind, that tells me that the novella needs to be very, very good. It also limits the markets to which I might send such a story to perhaps three. If genre is considered, the number drops even further, so that submission decisions can sometimes be made entirely based on objective characteristics of the story.
5. Follow the story submission guidelines for the market in question. In speaking with editors, you learn pretty quickly just how many submissions don’t follow the submission guidelines for the market in question, and are thus eliminated before the race even starts. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to follow the submission guidelines. Doing so will ensure two things:
- That your submissions appears professional.
- That you’ve made it easy for the editor (or first readers) to access the story.
Submission guidelines often include the manuscript format. Many markets ask for magazines in standard manuscript format. If you don’t know what standard manuscript format is, check out Bill Shunn’s post on the subject.
Some markets, like Daily Science Fiction, ask for the story in plain text in the body of an email message. FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS!
6. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Waiting to hear back on a story is often the most difficult part of the process, but over the years, I’ve found that for me, the best possible antidote to the post-submission anxiety is to get started on the next story. So once I have a story in the mail (electronic or otherwise), I return to step 1, and start a new story, trying to write the best possible story I can.
A note on cover letters
Since I know that some people will be curious (I was curious when I was an unpublished) writer, I’ll provide 2 examples of cover letters that I use for my stories. The first example is a formal cover letter when I don’t know the editor. The latter is a more informal cover letter that I’ll use with editors I’ve know, or magazines I’ve sold to before.
First, the formal:
Dear Dr. Schmidt,
Please consider the enclosed 5,500 word science fiction story, “Take One for the Road” for publication in Analog. My stories have previously appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show and Apex Magazine.
Thanks in advance for your consideration.
Jamie Todd Rubin
Next, the less formal:
It was great hanging out with you at Worldcon again. That was a great lunch that you, me and Jay had. I’ve enclosed the 8,900 word novelette we talked about for your consideration. I hope you like it.
Happy holidays, and thanks again for looking at this story.
Have any questions on submitting stories? Drop them in the comments.
- Not all, of course. There are always exceptions. ↩