Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Advice for Young Writers:

How Does the Short Story Market Work?

By Elizabeth Chayne
Copyright 2009 by Elizabeth Chayne, All Rights Reserved

Have you ever wondered how the writing world works? Well, you know the writing part, and the final magazine-in-your-hand part, but what happens in between? How do you get an editor to notice you?

The writing process is, when all is said and done, somewhat unglamorous. Editors do not prowl the streets searching for new writers the way music companies search for new rock stars. Editors usually know of the existence of a writer when the writer sends them stuff (manuscripts, not pears and apples!). Rarely, very rarely, an editor may see something written by you published in another magazine and write to you to ask if you're interested in writing something for her.

There are two ways a writer can make the first approach. You can query (which means writing a letter that basically says "I wanna write for your magazine. Can I?" in polite tones), or send your submission directly.

Many print magazines take a long time to produce, so an editor may start work on an issue months or even a whole year before its actual publication date. What does this mean? It means that if you've written a piece about Christmas, there's no point sending it in on November 1st because the Christmas issue is probably already in storage, and just waiting for December to mail out.

After the submission or query reaches the editor's desk (and sometimes it doesn't for months and months), the editor will read through it, and consider whether you're the writer he wants or not. He may ask other editors to read your story before he makes a final decision on it. If he decides to use your piece, then he'll send a letter to tell you so. If not, you'll get a polite letter from a computer, saying something along the lines of "Thanks, but no thanks."

Why the delay between the time your submission gets to the magazine and the time the editor actually reads it? The first hurdle is the slush pile. The slush pile is the place where all the unsolicited submissions end up in big print magazines. Volunteers or student interns are usually the people who shift through the gigantic pile of stories. Stories they consider okay are then handed on to an editor. You have to realize, though, that a slush pile is big... very big. And it gets bigger and bigger every day as more and more submissions come in. Your story can lie in the slush pile for months before anyone even opens the envelope. Seriously.

And then the editors are busy, too. They have lots and lots of submissions to get through, but they also have to worry about a lot of other things too (like the layout of the magazine, perhaps).

Once you do get the okay letter, you have to sign a contract which states what rights you're selling to the magazine, what price they're paying you, and other details.

Then, finally, finally, you get to see your story in the magazine and maybe get paid if it's a paying market.

Sounds like hard work, doesn't it? And this is what hundreds of writers writing for hundreds of magazines go through every day!


Further Reading

The Young Writer's Guide to Getting Published, by Kathy Henderson (Writer's Digest, ISBN: 978-1582970578)

A book that describes the publishing process in more detail, if you're interested.