Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 7 in series)

Where to First?: How to choose short fiction markets

Welcome back. This is the seventh in my weekly (more or less) series of posts on how to market and sell short fiction (I missed a couple of weeks due to some extended travel and vacation, but I’m planning to return to a regular weekly posting schedule). This series is written in order, with each post building on the earlier ones. If this is the first post you’re reading, you should first read my earlier posts here.

This week, within this broader series, I continue the mini-series of posts started in Part 6 on the actual marketing of short fiction. These posts will take you from knowing when you’re ready to send a story out to the point where you actually sell that story. Then I’ll start another mini-series on everything involved after you sell a story up to where it appears in print.

In Part 6, I introduced Robert A. Heinlein’s famous “Five Rules of Writing”:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

This entire series focuses on Rules 3-5. In Part 6, I discussed the controversial Rule 3, and gave some tips on how to follow that rule. The balance of this mini-series will focus on Rules 4-5.

Where to Submit First?

So we’ve reached a point where you’ve finished a story to your satisfaction and are ready to submit it to a market. You’re now facing your first and perhaps most critical marketing decision. Where should you send it first?

The emphasis on “first” should be obvious, assuming you’ve read my earlier posts on understanding rights and licensing for short fiction (part 4 and part 5). You can only sell “first rights” to a story once, so you want to sell those valuable first rights to the very best market possible. This leads me to what is probably the most important piece of advice I give on selling short fiction: start at the top.

Start at the Top

What does that mean? Simple: find the very best market that you can and send your story there first. Period. End of lecture.

Okay, not the end. Not the end because, although it’s simple and obvious advice, for some reason new writers often balk at following it, especially the fearful beginners (see Part 2 in this series for the types of new writers).

Self-Rejecting Writers

Why do they balk? It’s simple. They lack belief in themselves and in their work. Their argument generally goes something like this: “I’m just a beginner / I’m not very good / It’s my first story” or some other self-diminishing reason, followed by their conclusion that no top market would possibly ever buy their work.

This is self-rejection, and it’s based on a flawed premise. To quote multi-genre, multi-award winning writer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, “you are the worst judge of your own work.” Kris and Dean Wesley Smith drive this point home in their short fiction workshops, where you submit three completed stories that include, in your opinion, your best and your worst story. An exercise follows where workshop participants create an anthology built from those submitted stories. Guess what? Your “worst” story is generally picked by your fellow workshop members for their anthologies as frequently as your “best” story.

Editorial Need

The other argument against self-rejection is editorial need. You have no idea what the editor of that top market that you’re avoiding needs for their anthology or for the next issue of their magazine. A beginning writer once told the famous SF writer and editor, John W. Campbell, that he had never submitted a story to Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog) because he didn’t think his writing was good enough. Campbell responded with an indignant, “How dare you do my job for me!” Exactly. Your opinion means nothing. Only the editor’s opinion counts.

What if You Don’t Start at the Top?

If you’re still not convinced, then play this scenario through in your head. Imagine that you’ve written your first story, made it as good as you possibly can, and are ready to try to sell it. Let’s say you don’t follow my advice. Pretend you send it to some semi-pro market or worst still, some market that pays in “exposure” (I hate that term. You want exposure? Then sell to a top market).

Now pretend that you do sell it to that lower market. Imagine yourself opening that acceptance letter / email. Imagine your reaction. Excited? Happy? Sure…at first.

But I guarantee that your next feeling is going to be doubt. A little nagging thought will appear in the back of your mind: “Gee, if they bought it, I wonder if I could have sold it to a better market?” Now think about that, and you’ll feel that initial thrill slipping away.

And guess what? You’ll never know. You’ll never find out if this story could have launched your career right out of the gate by appearing in Asimov’s or Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or a top professional anthology. You’ll never find out because you’ve thrown away your only chance to sell first rights to that story. Top markets don’t buy second rights.

What Do You Have to Lose?

If you submit to a top market and don’t sell it, what have you lost? Nothing, aside from time (more on the submission time issue in an upcoming post). And no, if the editor at that top market rejects your story, they will not record a “black mark” against you (another oft-mentioned and equally silly fear of newbies). They won’t even remember you, unless your story came close (which is a good thing). These markets get hundreds and hundreds of submissions each month, most of which are read by slush readers, not the editor, and I guarantee you, they forget a rejected story immediately.

One last argument for “start at the top”–if you do sell to some lower level, non-pro market, nobody will care. Nobody. Established pros won’t be impressed. Editors at the big markets won’t be impressed (do not include those sales in your cover letters. You’ll just underscore the fact that you’re a newbie, and worse still, a newbie who submits to non-pro markets. I’ll have more to say on cover letters and submitting in an upcoming post). So what have you gained by selling to a lower, non-pro market? Nothing. So don’t do it.

Defining a Top Market

Assuming I’ve convinced you to start at the top, how do I define top? Ultimately, a top market depends on your goals as a writer (see Part 2 for more on that). However, for me, a top market means the following:

  • They pay “professional” rates (since we’re talking about speculative fiction markets, I use the SFWA criteria for professional payment of a minimum of five cents USD per word. Yeah, that sucks. You will not be quitting your day job even when you start selling short stories.)
  • They have a good reputation (a sale to this market will look good on your resume and will impress pros and other editors)
  • They publish stories that consistently show up on the major award lists (check out past winners of the Hugo, Nebula and other awards. You can find a list of major and minor SF&F awards on my website here under “Awards”)
  • They offer other benefits, which are important to you personally (for example, I love the semi-pro Canadian magazine, On Spec. I like their taste in fiction and how they treat their writers. Plus, hey, I’m a Canadian. So On Spec is on my submission list, where it might not be on yours. They’re not at the top, but they’re on my personal list.)

That’s it for this week. Yes, I’ve spent an entire post in this series trying to convince you to send your short fiction to the very best market you can find first. That alone should tell you how important that advice is to any writer planning to use their short fiction to help build a writing career. You’ve worked hard to make your story the best you can, right? So why would you offer your best to anyone less than the best?

Next Week

Next week, I’ll point you to some great short fiction market lists available on the internet and discuss how to interpret submission guidelines for short fiction markets.

Next week: Where do I look?: How to find short fiction markets

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.



I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:

Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.

He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.

We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.

As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!

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