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Submission for Beginners: The Reality of Lit Mag Publishing

The literary journal submission process is pretty much synonymous with rejection and if you’re aiming at the crème de la crème of journals, the story you’ve slaved over is doomed before you even log into your Submittable account. A former reader for the top-tier literary magazine Tin House reported that the publications’s monthly “slush pile,” the term for a pool of unsolicited submissions, is about one thousand strong. The number of stories that get accepted? One or two every three years. To make matters worse, established writers and the connected MFA crowd are clearly given an edge over the newbies, as an article in The Review Review on publishing poetry makes clear:

those of us working within the academy see the high-praise doled out by deans to journals that publish 90% “established writers” and only 10% “emerging writers,” which essentially translates into Creative Writing professors and their students vs. the rest of the poetry-writing world. Thus, the quantitative data (which most journals disclose in their Poets & Writers listing) suggests that these journals, despite what they may say on their submission page or in some other public forum, read the bios of the submitters first. There’s no other explanation for the 90/10 split. And as for the remaining 10%, if we think that some principle of egalitarianism suddenly emerges with regard to those submissions, then I think we’re deluding ourselves.

But take heart, new writers. You can and will be published. While there’s a lot of advice out there about how to get your work accepted, much of it is not honest about how to actually play the game. Allow me to offer some tips, based on my own experience as a reader and submitter.

Don’t waste your time on the likes of Plougshares or The Paris Review. In case Tin House’s stats didn’t already scare you, then I have to break it to you that you aren’t going to win the lottery here. Instead, aim for journals where every submission is actually read by someone whose job it is to find good work to publish, not just push the slush pile into the recycling bin, and where your chance of publication is at least equal to Harvard’s acceptance rate. Poets and Writers has a great database of journals and News Pages is an excellent resource, with a Call for Submissions page. The Review Review also has an extensive, alphabetized list of magazines and journals.

Don’t waste your money on contests. I admit it, I still submit to a contest now and then because the prestige and cash prizes are such appetizing carrots, but deep down I know it’s kind of a scam designed to cull revenue for underfunded journals. Whereas general submissions are typically free or low-cost and stories can be considered for present and future issues, with contests you usually get just one shot. Furthermore, that guest judge who’s been such a big influence on you and is sure to love your work doesn’t actually read every submission. You still have to make it through rounds of review before your story might ever cross that person’s desk. Save your money and buy subscriptions to literary magazines instead.

Everyone tells you to purchase and read every single journal you submit to, but what writer can afford that? While it’s important for your stories to be a good stylistic fit, you can get a sense of what kind of work a journal publishes based on excerpts featured on their website or by researching the writers they’ve already published. If you’re submitting to an online magazine, however, then you have no excuse not to peruse a least a few issues. Pay special attention to length. While submission guidelines usually tell you how many words editors are willing to read, shorter pieces are more attractive to editors and readers alike and are easier to place.

Remember that no publication is too small. Years ago, I published a story in a little-known online magazine, back when any online publishing was considered second-rate. I was sort of disappointed, until I discovered a secret about those up-and-coming journals: they work hard for their writers. Because of the dedication of the editors at that journal, my story was nominated for an award and ended up in a print anthology of online writing. Two agents saw the piece in the anthology and contacted me, which is such a rare occurrence, it’s like I got struck by lightning. Twice.

Furthermore, you never know where those journals might end up. An underdog today could become the next Electric Literature.

Know that it is about the work and the fit. When readers are combing through submissions looking for new material to publish vs. just soliciting friends or famous writers’ agents, things like your cover letter and even typos matter a whole lot less than the overall quality of your work. That doesn’t mean you should be sloppy in your submission. A grammatical error in the first paragraph or failure to follow proper formatting rules (seriously, who doesn’t double-space a submission?) can certainly turn a reader off, but if your writing is compelling, that will far outweigh petty irritations that can be worked out in the editing process. You’d think writers experienced enough to produce exciting, quality work never make formatting mistakes or send in stories with typos, but you’d be wrong. I never look at the cover letter before I start reading, in part because I know the writer’s history may bias me, but also because I’m reading for the story, not the author bio. So sometimes as I’m reviewing submissions, I like to play a little game with myself: after getting a couple pages into a story, I guess at how accomplished the writer is, then check the cover letter to see if I’m right. It’s no surprise that a lot of messy, crackpot stories come attached to wildly inappropriate cover letters as well, but a more interesting thing I’ve learned from this game is how often error-riddled submissions that are a poor stylistic or tonal fit for the journal come from accomplished writers with a list of awards and publications as long as my arm. In other words, in my own experience, I have found absolutely no correlation between a writer’s resume and the strength of his or her submission. This proves that publishing is a crapshoot and even those who’ve excelled at it, the ones you assume are doing everything right, are making mistakes, too.

I highly recommend volunteering as a reader for a literary journal. It’s enjoyable to work behind the curtain and even though a lot of it involves saying no to people, finding stand-out work and voting for it to be published is a great feeling. It’s also an excellent way to build your network of writers and editors, people whom it may be advantageous to know down the road, which leads to my last tip:

Network as much as you can. I did not do enough of this in my early years (because I was living abroad) and I’ve paid the price for it. Now, I know you’re going to say writers aren’t known for being outgoing, but we are known for drinking. If you can do your drinking at readings or other literary events, go for it. Knowing other writers means being connected to people who can review your work, may solicit you for submissions or invite you to participate in a reading series, or just offer up useful information. Remember, as with any other industry, it’s not just about what you know, it’s also who you know.

Lindsay Merbaum is a fiction writer and essayist. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Epiphany, PANK, The Brooklyn Review, Hobart, The Collagist, Anomalous Press, Gargoyle, Dzanc Books Best of the Web, Harpur Palate,The MacGuffin, and Gloom Cupboard, among others. Honors and awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination, a storySouth Million Writers Award nomination, and receipt of the Himan Brown Award for Fiction from Brooklyn College, where she received her MFA. She is currently at work on a novel.

Originally published at on February 19, 2015.

Lover of strange tales and strong cocktails. Author at Creature Publishing and Book Reviews Editor at Necessary Fiction.

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Lindsay Merbaum

Lindsay Merbaum

Lover of strange tales and strong cocktails. Author at Creature Publishing and Book Reviews Editor at Necessary Fiction.

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