This time of year, all the online writer’s helpers start to talk about how THIS is the year you’re going to get published. Go on girl; show them what you’re made of! In this, they are simply echoing the sentiment of most novice writers. These magazines have headlines like “New Year’s Resolution: Get a Publishing Contract for Your Book” or some such, and that sounds really good, except that it’s fabulously wrong.
Saying that “this is the year I get published” is putting the cart before the horse, counting your chickens before they hatch, stitching in time and saving nine – look, I’m not sure about that last one because we’re no longer an agrarian society and all our consumer goods come from Wal-Mart and are cheaper to replace than to repair and thus these old crafty nuggets of wisdom don’t have real meaning for us in the high-tech and alienated 21st century, but publication is the result of a lot of hard work and solicitation. It’s the applause that comes after the show, and a big part of the reward for all your hours and hours of effort.
The author has very little control over when he or she gets published. That is, unsurprisingly, up to the publisher. They tell you to do a lot of cute things like carefully read the publication you’re submitting to, and to try to tailor your writing to that publication, but that’s all bullshit. Send your best work to absolutely anyone willing to look at it. The last thing you should worry about is whether or not your piece is “right” for a publication.
Believe me, you’re going to be told in no uncertain terms if the piece is not “right” for a publication. You’ll know because you’ll get a letter or email within 2-6 months of submitting that says “this piece is not right for our publication.” They may or may not really mean that – you might just be catching the publisher on a bad day.
They’ll also wish you the best of luck placing that piece elsewhere. They don’t really mean it, nor does the person who drafted up the form letter in the first place. They don’t really care one way or another.
Still, if you want to get published, it’s helpful to know what kind of venues are out there, and exempting trade publications, I’ve narrowed it down to three.
1 – Academic Journals
This is unsurprisingly where most academic writers get their starts. Academic writers are by and large never published in their school’s own journals unless they are faculty. Academic journals have very small circulation, and most of those copies don’t leave the university campus, where the pages are torn out and used to roll the worst joints ever.
2 – Contest Rags
Leading the pack is Glimmer Train, a magazine with a readership consisting entirely of contest entrants, of which it must be said there are quite a few. . Contest rags usually run anywhere from four to twelve contests per year, which you can enter by submitting a moderate fee and sending in your best work. These magazines count on you checking the website over and over again, looking to see if your entry got picked, and possibly checking out enough online content to be enticed into buying the hard copy of their journal in the vain hope that it might improve your odds of winning the next contest because, you know, there’s like a database for all that stuff. Or something.
3 – Genre Publications
Back in 1998 I picked up an issue of Amazing Stories Magazine. This was the same Amazing Stories magazine that inspired the 1980’s TV show of the same name, and which only recently ceased publication after an 80 year print run. This is telling: these things basically don’t exist anymore. When you do see a genre publication, it’s usually because some old, rich crank got it in his head to reinvigorate the pulps that he so loved as a child regardless of whether or not anyone might actually buy one, or if an advertiser would actually buy space in the back. These magazines pretty much exist to get your hopes up that pulps are making a comeback and that the age of the casual reader has returned. While casual reading has never really gone out of vogue, it has been replaced by the internet, the kindle, and by the thousands of cheap paperback novels you can pick up in the airport for a price comparable to that of a magazine, and with no ads.
So in short, don’t make 2010 the year you’re going to get published. Make 2010 the year you’re going to submit, submit, submit! Write it and send it until your fingers bleed! Don’t be a pest about it, naturally – when a publication asks that you not send additional work until you’ve heard back from them on your first submission, they really do mean it – but the only way to get published is to write, write well, and submit often. If you can make it your new year’s resolution to submit, then you might be able to make a 2011 resolution to get published again, because you don’t learn anything the first time around, do you?
Looking Back – 22 July 2021
So cynical! So bitter! So…not completely wrong though, honestly.
Publishing is a crap shoot and a writer’s best bet is to write often, write well, and then just absolutely spam their Submittable list with every story they write. I’m sure some editor somewhere is reading this and thinking “That’s not okay – don’t be telling people to spam me with their stories!” And I reply “Shouldn’t you be going through your slush pile or something?”
I would hate for it to be said that I ever discouraged anyone from writing, so I will say that just because the odds of getting published aren’t great, that doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t refine their work and try to get it into as many hands as possible. If you’re a writer, honestly – what else is there?
But I do caution any writer working today to understand how hard it is, and how unlikely it is, to make a living solely off of wordcraft, or rather, how unlikely it is to find “success” as a short story writer, poet, or novellist without a pretty dodgy definition of “success.” I am making the assumption here that a writer reading this and thinking about success means that they could at the very least make a living…but when a typical payout for a short story contest is maybe $100 and contributor copies…well, you’d need to win two contests every single day to make a not-quite middle class income.
I’ve met, and taught, a lot of writers who look at JK Rowling or Stephen King or whomever and say “that’s me!” and the fact that so many students (hundreds) point to the same 2 authors (or, like, a small pool of big-name authors) coupled with the knowledge that I am just one teacher out of literal thousands…it merits some management of expectations.
The writers who make it as writers, I have learned, stay flexible. Maybe they don’t sell a novel for a million dollars – but they do find work writing copy, or through tech-comm, PR, or something of that sort. A few (like me) find a living in academia.
And the nice thing about taking ANY sort of writing work, even if it’s not writing fantasy stories for cash, is that it’s still writing, and though I am not generally a fan of litmus tests or gates, I will say that I think a “real” writer can find joy in just about any writing task. I write lesson plans and own them – same for when I wrote makeup and fitness tips, medical product pitches, diet advice, online encyclopedia articles, and all sorts of other verbal miscellany. It didn’t really matter if it wasn’t magical or suspenseful or mysterious – it was writing. That is what mattered.