My Submissions Spreadsheet
A quick chat about the fields in my submission tracking spreadsheet gives me a chance to share some things I’ve learned in the course of publishing 43 short stories and racking up over 1,200 rejections.
I don’t necessarily recommend that you track your short story submissions using the sort of spreadsheet that I use. I’m the type who likes to do everything by hand, and I tend to be a bit obsessive about trivialities. My method isn’t for everyone.
The reason I’m writing about my submission tracking spreadsheet is that it gives me a handy way of sharing some things I’ve learned in the last couple of years as I’ve published 43 short stories or flash pieces—and racked up over 1,200 rejections.
So let me go through each field in the sheet that I used to keep track of it all.
The “Market” and “Website” Fields
The first two columns in my spreadsheet are self-explanatory: the name of the journal and its website. Enough said.
The “Notes” Field
This field in the spreadsheet contains the most important information of all: notes I jot immediately after reading a handful of stories published in that magazine’s most recent issue.
Was I favorably (or unfavorably) impressed by the quality?
Was all of the content straightforward contemporary realism? Or did it get experimental, surreal, bring in magical realism or speculative elements, etc.?
Was the tone sober? Humorous? Edgy? Minimalist? Arty?
Do I note a willingness to take on transgressive or NSFW themes?
A great many journals have at least some content available online, so it isn’t hard to research markets for free. This provides me with the most influential criterion for deciding whether I want to submit, and for selecting which story of mine might fit.
There is little point in wasting my time and the editor’s with a submission that, while perhaps a swell story, is obviously not what that journal prefers.
Nor does it make sense to try to place a story in a journal that I might not wholeheartedly recommend to a fan or reader. I want to be able to say, “Read the whole issue! You’ll find a lot to like.” In other words, I want to feel proud to be published alongside the other authors in the magazine.
I also use this field to note other details specific to the journal or magazine, for which I haven’t got a dedicated field below.
The “Pays?” Field
My options in this spreadsheet field are “Yes,” “No,” “Copies,” and “Unsure.” The last option is for if the submission guidelines make no mention of pay—although, if we’re being honest, this is tantamount to admitting there’s no pay. Some journals don’t pay cash but do offer a free copy or copies of the number your work appears in, which is certainly better than nothing.
There’s a cachet to publishing in paying magazines, though some journals known for high quality do not pay, especially in the literary fiction world. If you’re all about that dollar, you know which venues you’ll prefer.
A common Twitter gripe from lit mag editors is submissions not following the guidelines. It wouldn’t be very smart to pour your labors into crafting a piece of writing that feels perfect for a given journal, only to start off on the wrong foot with the editor by blundering with the submissions rules. The following deserve specific attention.
(I should note that I mainly write literary fiction and speculative fiction. Most of what I know about publishing in magazines comes from those genres. A fair amount of it is probably universally applicable, though.)
The “Simultaneous Submissions?” Field
In lit mag parlance, a “simultaneous submission” is a story you are submitting to more than one magazine at the same time. I’ve learned that, while sci-fi mags, for example, quite commonly require that you submit your story exclusively to them and wait for a response before sending the story elsewhere, literary fiction markets which prohibit this practice are relatively rare. In this spreadsheet field, my options are “OK,” “No,” and “Unsure,” and in practice I treat Unsure as a tacit OK.
If an editor catches you breaking their rule, they might ban you, or at least put a dark magic hex on you. So behave yourself. My own policy is generally not to submit to literary magazines which disallow simultaneous subs. With sci-fi journals, however, I do—not only because it’s a more common rule in that genre, but also because sci-fi mags more often pay writers. They bait the hook, I bite.
Please note that the universal rule with simultaneous submissions is that, if you receive an acceptance, you must immediately notify every other journal to which you’ve sent the story that it is no longer available. If you fail to do so, the editors’ dark magic hexes, combining in unholy power, will pursue you through this world and the next. (Honestly, it’s just common courtesy.)
The “Multiple Submissions?” Field
Most journals want you to send just one story, then wait till you hear a decision before sending another. If the guidelines don’t even mention multiple subs, then in this field on the sheet I enter the number “1” by default.
But some markets will consider more than one story at a time; for these, I note e.g. “1+” or “1–3” etc. Others allow only one short story but up to, say, three pieces as long as each is short enough to qualify as “flash.” Note, though, that the word limit for flash varies by the magazine.
The “Word Count” Field
There’s remarkable variety in the word count requirements of magazines and journals.
Some specify a simple upper limit. Others give a range. Online-only mags often like short content, while print mags may theoretically look at stories longer than 10,000 words.
Commonly there is one limit for short stories and a separate limit for flash fiction.
Occasionally there is a lower limit, i.e. a minimum length requirement.
Some give a wider possible range but specify narrower “sweet spots.”
There are even journals which specify a cumulative limit but allow you to submit as many stories at once as you like, so long as the grand total is below the limit.
Further complicating things is that some mags specify word count while others specify page count.
In this field in the sheet, I note this in as much detail as possible for each journal, then abide by it. I take it for granted that, if an editor wants nothing longer than 1,000 words, my 5,000-word masterpiece will not be the one story to finally change their mind.
The “Query After” Field
I am always grateful when submission guidelines specify roughly how soon I can expect a response. I note such information in this field. Some journals claim to reply in, say, two weeks; others ask you to wait nine months or more.
If a market blows right past that time frame, it is generally acceptable to query. On more than one occasion, my query email has alerted the editors to the fact my story had slipped through the cracks of their review process.
But some journals specify that you should not query ever. (I confess I find that arrogant of them.)
Others state that, since they cannot respond to declined submissions, you may consider yourself rejected after a given number of months pass. While this attitude may look inhospitable, I’ve found it’s nice to be able to presume with certainty that I’m rejected without being told, rather than have to sit and wonder for months on end.
The “Resub Wait” Field
In this field in the sheet, I write a note if the guidelines ask writers to wait some span of time after receiving a rejection before sending another story. For example, “30 days” or “3 months.”
When I get a rejection, I’ll consult this field and note the date when it’ll be okay to try again.
In case you need to hear this: Don’t hesitate to resubmit to a magazine that has rejected your work. The journal Gone Lawn rejected me 12 times before accepting a story from me. MoonPark Review rejected me 11 times, and Defenestration eight times, before picking up stories of mine. Honestly, I was about to give up hope with these venues before placing work with them. You really never know.
The “Picky Rules” Field
One thing quite a few magazines have in common is the standard manuscript format they prefer. When in doubt, you cannot go wrong with what’s called Shunn formatting. (Shunn specifies “classic” and “modern” formats; I never seen a literary fiction mag require the “classic” version.)
I use this “Picky Rules” field to note any deviations from Shunn formatting the journal requires. For example, if they want prose single spaced, not double spaced, I indicate that here.
(There was a time when, under “Picky Rules,” I noted if content warnings were required. But now my policy is to include content warnings by default. This courtesy is becoming standard operating procedure in the literary fiction world.)
The “Blind Submissions” Field
When a journal says they “read blind,” what they mean is that their readers should receive a copy of your manuscript with nothing to identify the author. If so, I put the word “Blind” in this field.
You’ll be expected to submit a manuscript in which your name, address, byline, bio, etc. are all deleted. Your personal information will be in a separate cover letter (such as in the body of your email, etc.) which the editor-in-chief, but not the readers, will see.
Beware breaking this rule. Some magazines automatically reject your piece if your name is on the document, including in the filename. (The friendlier ones ask you to resubmit with an amended manuscript.)
My habit is normally to include content warnings in my cover letters. But if a journal reads blind, the readers won’t see the cover letter, so I put the content warnings on the first page of the anonymous manuscript as well.
The “Fee?” Field
Some literary magazines charge a fee to read your work, commonly $3–$5 USD. This field in my sheet has four options: “Yes,” “No,” “Free Period,” and “Free Categories”. There are journals which charge a fee most of the time but offer fee-free periods on occasion. Others charge fees for, say, short stories but allow fee-free submissions of flash pieces, et cetera.
My list, which focuses on literary magazines with a handful of genre markets as well (principally speculative fiction markets), includes about 800 journals to which fee-free submission is possible, as well as about 100 journals which require a fee. And this list of magazines is absolutely not exhaustive. So, if you are uncomfortable with fees or cannot afford them, don’t despair of finding fee-free markets; there are zillions.
Should you pay to submit? The practice of charging reading fees is controversial among editors and writers. When deciding whether to pay, I think the key question is, “What does publishing mean to me?” If you see the act of publishing as a way of participating in and contributing to a literary scene mainly populated by other writers and editors, a kind of closed ecosystem or subculture of literary folks, then you can easily view the fee as a way of pitching in to support the scene. (Many small magazines are essentially volunteer-run, after all.) If you haven’t got this view of things, but perhaps have the more traditional idea of publishing to reach general readers and be paid for your work, not to pay for the privilege yourself, then fees are not for you.
I myself don’t submit to mags with reading fees. The ultimate reason is that I’m too broke to afford them. Remember when I wrote above that I’ve been rejected more than 1,200 times? If each rejection had cost me three bucks, that’d add up to half a year’s rent—or, if you prefer, the price of a single glass of 1947 Château Cheval Blanc. Tchin tchin!
Here, I’ve got three columns to track my own submissions:
The “Last Sub Date” Field
The date of my last submission to that market. This is useful of course for deciding when and whether to query (see “Query After” above).
The “Submitted” Field
The title of the work I’ve sent them. Aside from the obvious reasons, this field is useful if a story I have out on simultaneous submission is accepted. I’ll need to withdraw it from everywhere else, of course.
The “Rejected” Field
A list of the stories they’ve previously shot down. An inky foul aura emanates from this cell in the spreadsheet.
Unless a magazine asks to see a modified version of a rejected piece, you can assume that rejected once is rejected forever. Send them new stories, not a revision of the same one.
Take the Leap?
If you are interested in publishing short fiction but haven’t tried yet, I hope this has helped clarify how things work. I encourage you to try.
Researching magazines to submit to can look like a lot of work, but the upside is that you will familiarize yourself with plenty of brand-new fiction from authors who are currently down in the indie trenches with you; it gives one a sense of just what everybody is doing right this moment, especially if, like me, you normally spend most of your time with books written decades ago.
And if you’re afraid of rejection, all I can say is, scroll up and review my dismal numbers. Despite my paltry 3% acceptance rate, I’m happy that slogging through the process has made it possible for a handful of my stories to appear in journals alongside some truly impressive stuff.
I hope the same for you! (With, naturally, a better acceptance rate.)
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