A Walkthrough of the Short Story Publication Process
So, you just finished your masterfully written short story. What do you do next? How do you get it into the hands of an editor? What happens after that?
This is a walkthrough of the process from finishing the story to having the final anthology or periodical in your hands (or, as is common these days, on your computer screen).
Step #1: Are You Really Finished?
The manuscript is sitting in front of you. It's finished. Done. Hold on one moment.
Have you proofread your story? Even in a short story it's possible to make errors, such as a character ending up with two different names. Is your grammar correct? Not that you should write to AP style, but it needs to flow and read well. One good way of making sure of this is to read the story out loud to yourself (Some people use a screen reader, but that's less effective than your own voice).
It's also a good idea to have somebody else, at least one other person, read your story. The story should be as good as you can make it before an editor sees it.
Step #2: Finding a Market
A Google search for 'short story submissions' is likely to reveal tons of opportunities, but with little organization and no checks on which ones might be genuine and which ones might be scams. Making use of a specialist site is a far more efficient option.
The two best known are ralan.com and duotrope.com, and both are free (Duotrope does ask for donations, but they are not mandatory and their suggested donation is only $5 a year). Both allow you to search for markets by genre and the amount paid, and both do some basic policing of the markets they provide.
Red flags to avoid:
1. Never pay a reading fee. Only pay a contest entry fee if the prize is worth the fee in your mind. This includes extra fees for personal feedback and fees for electronic submissions. Although the last is often sold as cheaper than postal submissions, it is generally slightly more expensive. Magazines claim it only covers 'extra processing costs', but this fee can be as much as $5.
2. Never sign away any rights on submission. You might not get them back.
3. Avoid markets that say they can't afford to send you a contributors' copy. They might not be able to afford to pay you either.
Start at the top, with the highest paying markets, and work down. It costs the same to submit to Asimov's as to most 1 cent/word e-zines (Nothing, as Asimov's now takes electronic submissions). Do not submit to more than one market at a time unless they both specifically state they are fine with simultaneous submissions. Most markets ask for one story at a time and they may have other limitations, such as waiting a week after a rejection.
Step #3: Preparing and Submitting the Manuscript
All publishers are different. Read the guidelines of the publisher you have chosen carefully, then reformat your manuscript to their needs.
In general, if a publisher does not specify otherwise, the piece should be in Times New Roman or Courier New font, double spaced with no extra lines between paragraphs. Indent the start of each paragraph, using 'format paragraph' rather than tabs or spaces. At the top of the first page, place your legal name and contact information on the left and the word count on the right. A few lines below that, put the title of the piece, centered, with your byline centered below it. (Always use your legal name for contact information as you do not want to end up with mail sent to a pen name and bear in mind contracts and payments need to go to your legal name). In the header, on the right hand side, put the following information:
Author's Last Name / Title / Page Number
Always number pages unless specifically told otherwise.
Include a brief cover letter giving the story's title and word count. After you make sales, include your two or three best or most recent sales in the cover letter. Do not explain the story unless the editor specifically asks you to.
Make sure you have a brief, third person bio which contains a couple of interesting facts about you and, again, your two or three best or most recent sales. Some editors request this with submissions and, if not, you may need it later.
If the submission is requested by mail, print it in black ink on plain white paper and secure it with a paper clip or, for longer pieces, a butterfly clip. Never staple submissions. Do not send submissions by any mail process that requires anyone sign for it and, of course, never send anyone your original copy of the manuscript. Include an SASE. Generally, although publishers will send your manuscript back if you include a large enough envelope, it is more professional to print off a new copy for each submission. Manuscripts can get very ratty very quickly.
Send electronic submissions from a professional sounding email address, not, for example, one that is your favorite media character, RPG character, your pet... Your email address should be based off of your legal name or your byline. You may want to make a separate email address just for submissions, as this can help sort out responses. Make sure that the editor can email you back by adding their address to your whitelist if you use one. Most editors will not bother confirming that they are not a spammer so make sure that any such hard confirmation is turned off for that address.
Electronic submissions should be sent in the file format requested. It is very important to have Word if you can afford it, as track changes does not work well in the free alternatives and some editors require the use of it. However, do not send in .docx unless requested as many editors are still using an older version of Word. If a file format is not specified, send the manuscript in .rtf, as this can be read by any word processor, whilst maintaining your formatting. The 'save as' option in your word processor will have an option to save as .rtf. Never send submissions in WordPerfect format or other such obscure or obsolete formats...although many editors will request a resend if they can't read the file, some will just bin it.
Step #4: Dealing with the Response
Publications can take anything from a few hours to several months to respond to your story. While waiting, work on more stories. Online databases such as Duotrope often contain the average response time.
If about fifty percent more than the average response time has passed or if the publisher asks you to query after a set period of time, send a polite query to the publisher. In that query, act on the basic assumption that the reason for the lack of response is technical problems. Do not accuse the publisher of ignoring you and always be polite.
Most of the time, when you get the response, it will be a rejection. Most of those rejections will be unhelpful forms. Occasionally, you may even get an unprofessional rejection - one which suggests that you are so bad that you should never submit to them again, insults other industry professionals or criticizes your real or apparent politics, religion or sexuality. These are very rare, but do happen. The best response is to ignore them, and avoid submitting to that editor again. When you get a rejection, do not respond to it. The only time you should respond is if the editor states or implies that they may be interested in the story if you make changes. In that case, you should consider whether you are willing to make them and it is often a good idea to politely tell the editor if you intend to or ask if they would be willing to take it if you did X or Y. Some people keep all of their old rejections, but others find that depressing. However, it is very important to keep track of rejections. Editors may get angry if you keep sending them the same story (mistakes are understandable and usually forgiven, but consistent repeats of the same error are likely not to be).
If you are lucky, you may get a personal rejection. Many editors do not send these because of writers who have insisted on arguing with them or insulting them. A personal rejection should be carefully considered, but not treated as a mandate for change. If you are getting the same notes from different editors or if the rejection elicits a reaction of 'duh', then rework the story. If not, then avoid it. I once received two personal rejections from different editors on the same story. One said the opening was terrible and dragged the story down whilst the other thought the opening was brilliant and the rest of the story not up to the same standard. Both were experienced, well-reputed editors. It is always worth remembering that editors are human.
Then, you may get a rewrite request, in which an editor says they will look at the story again if you make changes. Always consider whether the requested changes will improve the story in your mind. It is seldom worth making changes you don't like unless you are already under contract (and sometimes not even then).
Finally, if you are lucky, you will get an acceptance. If so, then on to the next section.
Step #5: Signing the Contract
There are generally two ways in which acceptances are handled. The majority of editors send out a simple note saying they would like to take the story and asking you to verify that it is still available. It is best to respond to these quickly, but the response need not be long.
Some editors will send out a contract with the initial acceptance note. The majority do not. If the acceptance is coming from an actual company (many e-zines are small businesses owned by the editor), the contract may have to be sent out by their legal department. The majority of contracts are sent out electronically.
There are three typical ways in which a contract can be dealt with.
The first is that you receive the contract either electronically or in hard copy and are instructed to sign it and return it either by fax or postal mail. If you mail it, it is wise to email the editor immediately so that they know to expect it and can ask you to resend if it is lost. Two copies are generally requested, but always make and keep a third copy (or keep it electronically on your hard drive), just in case you do need to send it again.
The second is an electronic contract with e-signature. For this, the latest version of Acrobat Reader is required. You do not have to pay for this software and it comes for all platforms, so all writers should have it. In this case, you add your e-signature and email the contract back. Some publishers are now using third party digital signature services such as EchoSign or Secured Signing. These are very easy to use and do not generally require that you have an account with the service.
The third is the electronic contract without e-signature. These are very common, but be warned that they may not be legally binding. For short stories, the risk is generally worth it, especially if there is no or low payment. The common procedure is to either type your name on the document or simply respond to the email with 'I agree' or similar language.
In all cases, read the contract before signing it. Generally, short story contracts are easy to handle without needing an IP lawyer, but you should still read them. Do not sign away all rights on fiction. To go into all of the nuances would make this walkthrough too long, but generally the contract will specify payment, some kind of exclusivity period (normally six months, but some publishers request a year) in which you cannot sell the story as a reprint, and what happens if they do not publish after all. A good contract has a deadline that states you get your rights back if the story is not published within a certain period of time, but you can decide for yourself how important this is. One pitfall is what happens if the magazine goes bankrupt, which can result in your story not being published and your rights being tied up for months. Unfortunately, this is hard to avoid.
You should receive, within a reasonable amount of time and at the very latest at the time of publication, a countersigned copy of all signed contracts. Keep these contracts in a safe place as they are legal documents. I recommend keeping contracts for at least three years.
Step #6: Working With The Editor
Most stories are not published by the magazine in the exact form they were received from the writer. Contracts generally give editors the right to make non-substantive edits before publication. This generally means correcting typos, fixing grammar and tidying up the document. For substantive edits, the author has to sign off on them. You may also be asked to make the changes yourself.
Some editors, especially with writers they do not know, will ask for substantive changes before acceptance. Even if that happens, expect to have to sign off on or make minor changes between acceptance and publication. It is important to be polite and cooperative. If you can't stand an editor, then bear in mind there are others, and you do not have to work with somebody you don't like. However, you should be professional under all circumstances; if you are mad with an editor, vent to a friend, not the editor. That said, it is perfectly fine to question changes. If you feel that an editor is asking for something that would damage your story, talk to them. They will often negotiate. Remember that the editor is never your enemy. You both have the same goal and a good editor is like a good gem cutter; they bring out the sparkle in the raw material.
One other thing is that, while relatively rare in the short story world, editors may change the story's title or ask that you change it. (In novel publishing this is incredibly common and few novels are published under their original title). It's best not to get too attached to your title.
Eventually, you and the editor will agree on a final version of the story that will be the one published. This can mean a few minutes work or it can mean several hours. Don't get discouraged, and remember they like your story or they wouldn't have bought it.
Step #7: Galleys and Proofs
Once the final version is agreed on, that may be the last you hear until the book is published. However, many publishers will ask for authors to help with the final proofs.
If this is the case, you will be sent an electronic copy of the final book and asked to read through your story and check it for errors. You will be asked to either sign off on the story as error-free or send back a list of mistakes that can then be corrected. Reading proofs is your last chance to make sure that the final story is absolutely right.
Step #8: Promotion
You want the book to sell as many copies as possible, right? Most publishers do not expect heavy contributions to promotion from anthology or periodical contributors. However, they may ask you to recommend reviewers to receive ARCs if they give them out. They may also ask that you spread the word about the book.
Social media is a good way to do this...use your social media accounts to let all of your friends know when the book is coming out. Post again when it is released and consider including a link straight to a place they can order a copy or download the book. If you have a blog, then put it there as well.
However, resist the temptation to review books you are in on Amazon or anywhere else. Don't go around asking your friends to give the book five stars either. Sock puppet reviews are tacky, tasteless and if you are found out, your reputation will take a plummet. Asking your friends to buy the book is one thing, but leave whether they review, and how they review, up to them. Also, resist the temptation to comment on reviews or engage reviewers, especially if you get a bad review. Bad reviews happen and are best ignored.
The feeling of holding the book in your hands that has your name in the table of contents is unparalleled. A novel is, of course, even better, but knowing you are actually published is a boost to one's self-esteem that few things can match.
However, getting there can be a long, hard slog. The best advice to a new writer is that you only need one yes, no matter how many nos you have to go through to get there. You will get rejected. You will get rejected a lot. You may end up tied up in a contract that goes sour or have a magazine publish your story and go bankrupt a day later...without paying you. All of these things may happen, and probably will. Writing is not a job for the thin-skinned and should be approached with your emotional armor fully intact. Knowing what to expect, however, is half of the battle when it comes to reducing stress, staying professional and finding success.