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Selling Short Stories 101: The Basics

Do you have a pile of short stories that you’ve written, but you have no idea what to do with them? How does a writer sell a short story? What can you do to improve your chances of getting it published? Consider this article a primer for submission. It’s for those people who don’t know where to begin.

Begin by writing the best story you can write. First drafts don’t count. Revise, revise, revise. If you’re bad with grammar and punctuation, ask someone to give it an edit pass for you. Go online and get feedback at Critters.org or at some other private critique site. Hone your story until it sings.

Evaluate Your Story

Once you’ve got it exactly where you want it, evaluate it.

  1. Who is your audience? Adults? Tweens? Kids? Practitioners of a particular profession?
  2. What’s the genre? Horror? Fantasy? Romance? Mainstream? Other?
  3. Does it deal with a specialized topic? Vampires? Fairies? Forensics? Religion?

By answering these questions, you’ll be ready to choose the best place to send your story. Not every story can be easily categorized, and that’s okay. However, you want to avoid sending your zombie story to a vampire magazine, for example.

Find Your Market

Experienced writers call the magazines and publishers who buy short stories “markets.” A market can be a paper magazine, a paper anthology (collection of short stories in book format), or an electronic magazine (e-zine) or podcast for audio. More and more people are turning to their favorite e-zine for their fiction, and these markets have gained credibility over the years. Some are even professional markets (meaning they pay professional rates).

There are good online sources for finding markets for your stories. Here are two of them:

It may take some practice to figure out how these sites work, but it’s worth the time. If you’re not computer savvy, find a friend who is and learn. You’re a writer. You can do anything.

Consider a Contest

Look at contests as well as markets. Previously unpublished writers often have a better chance of qualifying for certain contests (such as L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest). Avoid any contest that requires an entry fee.

Read the Guidelines

Once you’ve found the market you think best suits your story, visit its website and look for its submission guidelines. Even print magazines host their submission guidelines on their websites. You’ll find everything you need to know there. Keep in mind that:

  1. Every market has its own guidelines, and they will be different from those of other markets.
  2. They don’t write these for giggles. They mean what they say. Follow their guidelines exactly.
  3. Editors are busy people, and they’re looking for any reason to reject your story and get closer to the bottom of the pile. I’ve had stories rejected because the margins were off or because I used the wrong font.

The guidelines will tell you what the publisher wants to read in your submission letter/email. Pay attention, and don’t waste your own time. Make it simple and straightforward. Don’t tell them anything they don’t ask for in their guidelines. You won’t convince the editor to publish you with the brilliance of your letter. Your story will do that. Or, it won’t. Your letter should be succinct, polite, and business-like. Use bullet points where appropriate. Every editor has his or her pet peeves, and they will show up as rules in the submission guidelines. Ignore them at your own risk.

A Kiss for Luck

Having followed the submission guidelines to the letter, you’re ready to send in your story. Email it or mail it (along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope) to the publisher. Double-check that you’ve got it all perfect before you seal it. Then, kiss it for luck and send it on its way.

Tracking Your Submissions

It’s easy to forget when and where you sent something, especially if you have more than one story in the pipeline. Write it down. You can send yourself an email and make a folder just for submissions, or you could use an Excel spreadsheet. I use a free piece of software called Sonar 3. It’s designed specifically for the writer who is tracking many different stories.

The waiting is the hardest part of all. It can take months before you hear anything back, sometimes in double digits. Writers rarely experience instant gratification. While you’re waiting, work on your next story and your next after that. Before you know it, you’ll have a body of work, and you’ll be publishing all over the place.

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