My Year in Publishing, or Thank Heavens for Duotrope’s Digest

“Congratulations! Your overall acceptance ratio is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets”, tells me my control panel at Duotrope’s. Now that the ratio in question is some 26% for the past twelve months, or around 20% in total, this number makes me feel rather good. There was a time when it was somewhere around five percent, and the message was just as cheerful, making me both hopeful and apprehensive (because if measly five percent was still higher than average… oh deary dear). But stats are stats, and they tell me that I’ve had a total of thirty-nine submissions, of which eight received a positive response. It’s strange how small that number looks when isolated, compared to how loud the words of each one of acceptance letters ring in your head when you read them.

But really, they’re just stats. Numbers. What’s more important is what my year’s worth of publishing attempts had taught me. I won’t insult your intelligence by ladling out obvious pointers like ‘proofread your work’, ‘observe formatting guidelines’, ‘be polite to editors’, but I’d like to share my real experiences, in the hope that other aspiring writers find them useful. And here’s the first piece of my advice.

Duotrope’s Digest. Find it, register at it, use it, love it.
Seriously, if you’re looking for a market for your story, you will never find a more useful resource. I honestly cannot remember how I found it myself, but I’m pretty sure that had I found it before my first few submissions went out, I would’ve saved myself a lot of time spent awaiting response. It’s ridiculously easy to get the hang of, so I won’t explain all of its features here and just touch upon my favourite – average response times statistics. When sending your first pieces out into the world, it’s certainly discouraging to have them bounced back at you after a day with a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’ – but that is NOTHING compared to having to wait for a few months for the same answer. Sure, most publications include a tentative response time in their submission guidelines, but Duotrope’s database shows response times reported by real people.

Which brings me to my second point.
When in doubt, go for the quicker markets.
I don’t know as for you, but for me, ‘in doubt’ seems to be the ground state of being when it comes to submitting stories for publication. I will talk about this is more detail below, but for this point, my main lesson was – a quicker denial is better than a slower one. An acceptance is good at any speed, of course, but let’s face the truth, there’s going to be much less of those. So if you’re not yet sure where your piece belongs and want to test the waters in several markets, go for quicker ones. At worst, you’ll get a form refusal. At best, you’ll get an actual opinion on the piece – which may be about something that doesn’t work in it (which is for you to agree or disagree with), or even that it’s a great piece, but you’ve picked the wrong market (which means that the hunt is on for you). But whatever the responses, you’ll have gained some experience, built up some basic rejection-handling skills, maybe even gotten some opinion on your work – and you did all that in a matter of days or a few weeks, at most. Alternatively, you’ll have gotten your piece published.

Finding your market requires lots of luck, lots of patience, and some more luck.
They say that the most important bit of getting something published is finding the right market.
I say – NO, REALLY?

In all seriousness, it seems that every publisher out there wants everything and nothing. Your work must be original, stirring, thought-provoking, character-driven, something they’ve never seen before, something that’ll keep them reading, something in the genre of the publication or, worse, any genre at all as long as it’s interesting. Here comes the cry of a young writer in the desert, also doubling as a newsflash – there ISN’T anything new left, not anymore, and probably not for hundreds of years already. Every story has been told, in some shape or form. New genres, yes. New styles, yes. New stories, no. We never REALLY crave new stories. We crave stories that we can relate to, characters that are in some way like us, or our ‘types’, plots that allow us to relive our brightest moments or to vicariously live out the adventures on which we never dared embark.

So, the bad news is, you can never write a truly original story. But the good news is, you don’t really have to. But the bad news (again) is, recycling existing material into something engaging is getting more and more difficult, and the editors are so very good at spotting stock plots and cardboard cutout characters. Potentially worse news is that sometimes, those seem to be the things they are actually looking for, in some cases. But many still look for stories that move THEM on a personal level, which is both good and bad news for you, because something that moves you may mean absolutely nothing to your editor. Still, I would much rather have my work rejected for not provoking feelings in the decision-making reader than accepted because said reader considers it a potentially good sell.

So what do you do? How do you pick a market? So far, I’ve only seen one place that said, ‘we don’t know what we want, send us your best and we’ll see if it works for us’. Some may consider this blanket approach unhelpful. I personally appreciated the honesty. Because in the end, subject to possible genre and style limitations, that’s what it boils down to – the person reading your work. Maybe as I get more experience under my belt, I’ll come up with better advice on the selection of market. But so far, my belief lies with luck, patience, and luck. With time, you become better at spotting opportunities. My best shot so far, which was acceptance at first go, was with Crossed Genres, who announced a theme for their upcoming issue (now out), which happened to be a perfect fit for a story I’d had in my head for years, but never got around to writing. So, if I may be forgiven for the self-indulgent quote mangling, I saw, I wrote, and I bloody well conquered.

And since I’m tooting my own horn here, may I say that the story is currently available right here on the magazine’ website, and the printed version of Crossed Genres Quarterly 4 comes out the first of January, so be sure to check it out. Here’s a preview of their gorgeous cover:

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