I understand why novelists get agents. I really do. If I could be a writer and never write a cover letter or sort through potential markets, I would be in Heaven. Unfortunately, that isn’t how the real world works–and short story writers and poets rarely get agents.
The cover letter issue has been covered in every writer’s instruction guide out there, but the most we typically get from those same guides on deciding where to send our artistic darlings is “Familiarize yourself with the magazine.” Am I the only person that finds this advice utterly useless, especially in regard to poetry? I’ll give you–this is important advice for the freelance article writer, but all too often the same magazine or journal that writes in their guidelines, “Familiarize yourself with our journal” also writes “Open all to all or most genres. Send your best work.” Say huh?
I’m not complaining exactly. As an editor, I know how hard it is to write submission guidelines that really explain what you’re looking for. At the same time, there is a certain level of frustration in sifting through hundreds and hundreds of guidelines that all look exactly the same.
Equally frustrating is trying to narrow the field to a few potentials when there are so many print and online journals and mags out there right now. (Whoever says literature is dying obviously hasn’t gone through this process.) So recently, I devised a set of criteria I use every time I’m looking to send out my work:
I only submit to journals that I respect. Yes, that implies a certain level of familiarity, but that familiarity ranges anywhere from “I’ve been reading this rag since I was 14” to “I’ve seen multiple Pushcart wins from this mag” to “I know the editor and trust their judgment implicitly.”
I don’t differentiate mags that accept online submissions from mags that don’t, but I absolutely will not send my work to a magazine that doesn’t at least have a web site. Even better is a magazine that puts samples on their site to better guide potential authors (and subscribers–I’ve subscribed to mags that I first encountered through this process even when I wouldn’t submit my work to them).
Early in a writer’s career, I think it’s reasonable to submit to low (500 or less) circulation magazines, but once you’ve obtained a few respectable publication credits, it’s time to up the ante. I currently only submit magazines with a circulation of 700 or more.
Yes, I submit to paying markets first. Even if that payment is $5. And unless it’s a truly respectable venue, I only submit to magazines that pay at least one copy.
I refuse to submit to any venue that purchases “all rights.” First rights, archive rights, electronic rights, and the rights to anthologize are all fine, but “all rights” is unacceptable no matter how much they’re paying you.
Using Duotrope, any rag with an exceptionally long response time must also have an exceptional payment rate or circulation to garner my submission.
I don’t personally submit simultaneously because I don’t trust myself to remember to contact one journal if another accepts a piece, but I think most writers–and poets in particular–should take this into account if they’re comfortable with it.
Special Note on Contests
I used to flounder when it came to contests, but I read an article not long ago (and I really wish I could remember who wrote it) that offered a mathematical formula for determining whether or not to submit to a contest. That formula was simply “Entry Fee = Prize/10” or put another way, the prize must be 10 times the amount of the entry fee to justify the entry fee. I now use that formula for the contests that I enter and for the contests that I publicize through Twitter.
With all these criteria in place, you’d think that the submission process would be much easier. While it does help narrow the field, it doesn’t reduce the time commitment in the submissions process. In fact, it makes it take a little longer. The tools I use to reduce the time commitment include:
Writer’s Market – While this is a paid service, it’s still the most comprehensive market database out there and includes circulation information for most.
Duotrope Digest – Average response times, including the percentage of assumed rejections, is an invaluable tool. A high percentage of assumed rejections indicates a serious submission management issue.
Funds for Writers – Free e-newsletters provide information about a variety of markets (paying and small), contests, and fellowships. A paid service provides even more. A variety of e-books are also available for purchase.
CRWROPPS – I don’t personally use CRWROPPS, but have heard great things about it from other writers I know.
I also sign up for every local lit and/or writing-related email distribution list I can find, from those run by individuals to those run by nonprofit organizations, as well as free newsletters from magazines or journals with which I’m familiar and respect (so that I’m notified of new calls for submissions right away). I keep an eye on the publishing opportunities/contests/calls for submissions sections of Internet forums in which I participate. And I listen, listen, listen to what other writers are saying. Someone else’s good experience with an editor or publication could be the deciding factor for my next send.