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Successfully Navigating the Literary Marketplace

Author: Wendell Mayo
Date:   01-16-02

First presented March 16, 2000 by Wendell Mayo at the Houston Writers Conference.

Imagining the Territory

So... you've written something, perhaps you've written many things, but you are faced with the nagging fear that what you've written looks nothing like the popular books you find on newsstands; there are no renegade submarines, love affairs, gosh, not even one murder can be found among the pages of your writing. You fall into a stupor, you dream, you wonder if there is a world where what you write will ever be published and, if not fame, you'll gain at least some recognition for your originality and means of expression. You wake up. You go looking for the real territory that you imagined in your dream ...

Finding the Territory

The two clearest distinctions between the literary marketplace and commercial marketplace are compensation, circulation, and genre. On average, commercial magazines simply pay more for first rights, say, $100 to $5000 for a short story; by comparison, literary magazines pay as little as contributors' copies to $1,500. (A recent student of mine was paid $1,500 for a story in Doubletake, and that seemed to me at the top-end of the range.) Circulations are also different, say, 100,000 to millions for commercial magazines-and from 500 to 100,000 for literary magazines, with a literary magazine such as The Sun being at the top end. All that said, you probably wonder: Why would anyone want to publish stories in literary magazines if commercial ones seem so lucrative? The answer: While there are only a handful of commercial magazines publishing stories, there are literally thousands of literary magazines. In a year's time, for instance, the New Yorker gets around 24,000 submissions from which it takes only about 50 (0.2 percent). The odds for literary magazines are better, though not much better. A good solid literary magazine such as the Mid-American Review publishes about 24 stories out of 2,400 submissions a year (1 percent). But with literary magazines there are a wider variety of types and editorial tastes to which you can match your work. Finally, genres tend to be limited in the commercial arena; except for the vital existence of a few commercial literary magazines such as the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Esquire, many commercial magazines publish fiction restricted to genres of mystery, science fiction, romance, and others.

The Land of Lakes

These days, many literary writers establish their reputations in the literary marketplace, and then use that to help with book publication and commercial success later. So, you've decided to set out into the land of lakes - this land of a thousand literary magazines. What is this territory like? As you may have guessed, it's a wild and varied terrain; in one place you see a traditional lake, blue, tracing a fine circle with its shore; you see magazines with solid plots and traditional resolutions; then, by comparison, there are small ponds, very deep. Ah! you say, the avant-garde! - and over there, some lakes with rocky shores of irregular shapes, a preponderance, you think, of "eclectic" magazines; soon all these watery bodies begin to blur in a multitude of ways: their shapes and depths and colors seem boundless: historical, experimental, spiritual, gay, religious, lesbian, occult, ethnic, erotica ... America! you say under your breath - and you'll likely be right - these thousand lakes do reflect many interests of all kinds of people living in this country who are writing expressively and not necessarily in defined commercial genres.

The Maps

As daunting as this land of lakes may be, there are some excellent maps of this literary territory, some in bound volumes and some on the Internet. Here are a few, with descriptions:

  • Novel and Short Story Writer's Market (Writer's Digest Books)--This is probably the best; it covers many of the better publications with detailed descriptions of tastes, editorial guidelines, payment, and rights.
  • The International Directory of Small Presses and Magazines (Dustbooks)--Thousands of literary magazines are listed here; it's very comprehensive and includes international magazines and those that are highly specialized and do NOT publish fiction as well. But it gives scant information about tastes, guidelines, payment, and rights.
  • The Literary Marketplace (LMP)--Like a telephone book, it contains names and addresses of many, many publishers, broken down by type, but not much else.
  • Bookstores and Libraries--Browse them; read some of the selections; jot down names and addresses of editors. For current publishing opportunities, check out the Writer's Chronicle, published by the Associated Writing Programs and/or Poets and Writers Magazine.
  • Pushcart Prize Anthology (Pushcart Press)--Annual anthology of the best of literary magazines and presses selected by editors themselves; you'll not only find fiction in here, but a list addresses of prize-winning magazines and presses.

And some of these on-line sources are quite good and can take you to publisher's web pages quickly:

  • Webdelsol--Contains many useful links to literary magazines and resources for writers. Check it out.
  • Mid-American Review--Also contains useful links under "Writer's Tools" link.
  • Zuzu's Petals--Same concept as Webdelsol, but with even more links to literary magazines and e-zines.

Navigating the Literary Marketplace

Many people write these days. As a consequence, even small-circulation magazines receive thousands of submissions each year, from which they can select only a handful to publish. Here are some tips to improve your chances to get where you want to go:

Make sure your work is perfect. It should be clearly printed or reproduced. It should have no typos. And it should be a fully realized work of fiction. Know why the work is ready to be made public. Know what it says, its effect, its contribution to the literary arts. Have a sense of that yourself.

Know the market. Purchase or find in the library copies of The Novel and Short Story Writers Market, The International Directory of Small Presses and Magazines, and/or The Literary Marketplace. Consult these guides thoroughly for submission guidelines specific to each magazine. Read sample copies of the magazines you wish to submit work to.

Cover letters should be simple and to the point, e.g., "My short story's enclosed. Can you use it?" Include any previous publishing credits. You may also want to include something about your training in writing or in the arts or humanities in general. Do not explain your story.

Fiction writers should send one story at a time, double-spaced, with a reasonably sized typestyle, say, 12-point, Times Roman. Put your address and phone, single spaced, in the upper right of the first page; then double-space down a couple times, center your title, double-space down again, then start your story. Stories over thirty pages are tough to place. Include an SASE with all correspondence to editors.

If you send your work simultaneously (one story to more than one editor at a time), you must keep accurate records of when you sent something and to whom. If your story is accepted for publication you must notify other editors right away, usually by mail, that you are withdrawing the work from consideration (and don't forget your SASE).

Keeping Your Morale Up on the Journey

Traveling this terrain can be daunting. You'll travel lake after lake, portage over some pretty rough ground. There will be times when you won't see an end to things-success. To keep your spirits up, first, don't write "for" any particular magazine; rest assured that the variety of magazines is such that a good solid story will find its way to an editor who'll appreciate it; so write honestly, truly; express yourself-and it's a good idea to get some courses in techniques of fiction to be sure that you're clearly rendering your stories.

Next, to keep your morale up, keep your hand in play. Get to know at least thirty different literary magazines. Next, do as I have told my students in the past: Write ten good stories and send them to thirty magazines, one story to three each (unless they do not take simultaneous submissions); if a story's rejected, then send it to another magazine right away; make sure that you keep these stories in circulation for a year; if you do this, it is highly likely that you'll get a story (or more) accepted for publication.

Another way to keep your morale up is to make the whole process of submission a part of your life; get into a routine; if you didn't pay your bills on time you'd probably get demoralized (or worse); well, the same goes with writing and submitting work; set yourself goals to get your work in the mail and keep it circulating; if you do this you won't feel like you're failing yourself (and, in fact, I believe you won't fail!).

Wendell Mayo is author of three critically acclaimed volumes of fiction, Centaur of the North (Arte Público, 1996); In Lithuanian Wood (White Pine, 1999); and B. Horror and Other Stories (Livingston, 1999). He teaches and directs the Creative Writing Program at Bowling Green State University. Further examples of his work can be found at http://personal.bgsu.edu/~wmayo.

Copyright 2001 Wendell Mayo. All rights reserved.

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