Short Story Writers: We Want You

Monday, October 1, 2018
By: 
Kirsten Alexander

There’s a particular type of magical thinking employed by short story writers. This story will find a home in the magazine of my dreams. My lack of profile, the number of submissions they receive, networks and nepotism – all irrelevant. Quality will win out. This story will not languish in my Submittable list or in a slush pile. This one will be longlisted, shortlisted, then win the prize. I might be offered a publishing deal, like the woman who wrote ‘Cat Person’, the one who was published in 'The New Yorker'.

Getting published

Here are some facts – facts that are hard to double-check and frustratingly vague, since literary magazines are cagey about numbers they fear may affect their ad revenue, reputation or in any way change people’s behaviour. 'The New Yorker' gets more than 400 short story submissions a week. It publishes one story a week. The published story most often comes via an agent, as ‘Cat Person’ did, not from submissions. I’m not sure why getting this many submissions a week would be a secret, but there are countless articles in which a journalist tries to get a more specific number and is pointedly denied. Does 'The New Yorker' fear writers will stop submitting once they realize the terrible odds? (They won’t. See ‘magical thinking,’ above.) And why would they care since they never publish any of those stories?

I digress, and 'The New Yorker' may not be a place you have an interest in approaching. So here are some other numbers. 'Tin House' magazine also gets about 400 submissions a week. They publish one new writer per issue. The most recent figure I could find for 'The Paris Review' said they received 15,000 story submissions in 2013. (Another side note: 'The Paris Review' only accepts hard copy submissions, ‘through the mail’ and won’t send you a rejection letter unless you send a stamped envelope. You pay for the postage on your rejection letter. I mean … no one likes email but it exists for a reason.) 'Granta' publishes four issues a year. They publish to themes but you can’t send in writing related to an upcoming theme because they’d rather not tell you what the themes are. (Thumbs up to 'Griffith Review' for being less coy.) The most recent 'Granta' offers six pieces of fiction, one an extract from a published novel. 'The Big Issue'’s 2018 fiction issue also received more than 400 submissions (what is it with that number?) and published thirteen of them. The wonderful online 'Review of Australian Fiction' published two stories by Australian writers every two weeks but is gone, as are 'Sleepers Almanac', 'Cutwater', 'Wet Ink', a dozen others. 'Glimmer Train' recently announced it’s shutting its doors, too.

In addition to writers being up against the volume of submissions literary magazines receive, and the scant number of outlets, many magazines have submission periods of only a few months, outside of which they won’t read your work. You might wait up to a year for a response. You might be asked to pay to submit. You may need to be a subscriber or student, under thirty, published, unpublished. Your story might be the wrong length. You might even live in the wrong city. (I won’t dive into the conversation about how geography affects publication, other than to say it shouldn’t. Brigid Delaney wrote an article about that topic for 'The Guardian'. In short: ‘In Australia the literary scene that counts is Melbourne’s.’)

One of the lessons from all this is that writers should never send their story to one outlet then sit back and wait. Magazines that don’t allow simultaneous submissions are being downright cruel, knowing what they know. Don’t waste your time with them. Writer and editor Mark Akers, in 'Review Review', says: ‘The reality is that if you don't simultaneously submit, it may take decades for you to get that one piece published. Yes, decades. I once had a short story that took 130 submissions to get accepted. It was a quirky story, but I believed in it, and so I kept sending it out, unchanged … But 129 journals said no to publishing it. Now imagine that I hadn't simultaneously submitted that piece and the average response time for each journal was three months (and I immediately resubmitted to a new journal as soon as each rejection came in). If you do the math, that's 390 months to find publication. Yep. Just shy of thirty-three years to get published …’

Getting read

Getting a short story published in a good magazine is tough. There are more aspiring writers than there are available story slots. And it’s not a level playing field. In 'The New Republic', Theodore Ross writes about working as an intern at an American magazine: ‘The literary editor at the publication once told me that in his many years only one story had emerged from the slush pile and into print. He said it with some distaste. It hadn’t been his decision and he considered it something of a stunt. We would reject hundreds of stories at each slush session. Yet he would publish just twelve stories per year, each one from recognized writers via agents that he knew. Perhaps other publications handle their slush with more tact than ours, and some make a point of recognizing new writers, but the result is the same: The writers quite literally had no chance.’

Also, while it’s hard to get exact circulation or subscriber numbers, if you look through magazine media kits (where the most optimistic numbers appear), you might be surprised at how low the figures are, both print and online. So getting your story published is hard, and if you do, unless you’re published in one of the top-tier magazines, hardly anyone will see your work. (Last side note: if you’re truly keen on print and only print, go for 'Overland'. Their 2016 print circulation figure of 11,000 per issue is among the best. Bonus that their website reaches 80,000 monthly readers.) Most literary magazines – because of design, tone, outlet, intent? – are read by people who want to be in literary magazines, people who know one another, people who live in the right cities. I suspect most writers want to be read more widely than that…

Books are an option, of course. Last year’s 'The Best Australian Stories' (now 'Best Summer Stories') published twenty stories in 2016, twenty-one stories in 2017. 'Best Summer Stories' offers twenty-eight in 2018. And while it’s great the number is rising, that may be happenstance, and there’s stiff competition here too. In order to catch attention, the editors of story compilations understandably want high-profile writers, familiar names, the same people who are being published in the bigger literary magazines ... I won’t discuss the dizzying difficulty an unknown writer faces trying to find a publisher for a collection of stories. (Or a known writer, for that matter.)

And yet, people love reading short stories. They always have. Feel free to come at me and argue that, but I’ll stand by it. Stories are just not being offered in a way that works for modern readers or writers. I suspect readers want a choice, rather than the one or handful of stories the editor of a magazine has selected for them. And want an easy way to make that choice without jumping from site to site. I think readers want to be able to choose a story that suits their mood, from a deep collection, without having to shell out for a whole book or magazine of which they will only read a small part. And writers want an audience and a way to earn money.

Thinking about all of this led to the creation of Storymart.

What is Storymart?

Storymart is a website (stay with me) dedicated to short stories. It is respectful quality outlet that has no goal of replacing or competing with literary magazines, but wants to offer readers and writers a good alternative. One that allows readers to choose the individual stories they want from a large pool, and pays writers each time their story is read.

One of my preferred Australian story outlets is 'Kill Your Darlings', which closed its print edition in 2017. They publish a lot of great fiction online, but they’re still a magazine, and with entirely separate aspirations from ours. We aim to be something different: a subscription-based short-story library/shop/treasure chest. Pick the noun that appeals. It’s the verbs we’re most interested in: subscribe, choose, control, earn.

We are currently gathering quality short fiction from living writers across the world to offer to subscribers when we launch, Netflix-style. We’d like to publish stories by writers committed to their craft, who truly want to connect with readers. And we’d like them to earn money via readers’ subscription fees. We have room for more stories than any magazine ever can. We’re interested in previously published work (because published stories don’t always find the audience they deserve, through no fault of the writer). And we take simultaneous submissions (because we’re not jerks).

Here I want to shout out to print because I’ve had writers bristle at the fact we’re doing this online. Storymart can only work online. Being online allows us to serve writers and readers in a new way, but I love print too. I have the cliched stack of books next to my bed. And I’m about to publish my first novel through Penguin Random House – it’ll be paper and an ebook. I’m thrilled. As someone who values writers and story this is – hand on heart – a genuine attempt to address several problems that exists for readers and writers.

What we need now is for you to trust me with your writing. We’re not suggesting you should stop submitting elsewhere. Even though you are now fully informed about the degree of difficulty in finding success. We understand you think we’re a second-best to your real dream of publishing in A-list literary magazines. We know you think it’s giving in to publish online. Nor are we saying we’ll publish everything we receive – we have standards that are nothing to do with available space. But maybe we can work with you while you continue to find a wide spread of outlets for your work. So send us your stories. I’d really like to read your work.  

If you need more convincing, email me at kirsten@storymart.com

www.storymart.com