Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 13 in series)

The Numbers Game: What to do after you’ve submitted a story

Welcome back to my weekly series on how to market and sell short fiction. These posts are written in a very specific sequence, with each entry building on earlier ones. If you haven’t already, you can read my earlier posts here.

In the last few weeks, in Parts 10-12, I reviewed the process for submitting your short fiction to one of your targeted markets and included some advice on mistakes to avoid.

To start off this week, let’s assume that you’ve been following along with that process and that you now have actually submitted one of your stories to the top market on your list.

I’ve Sent My Story–Now What?

First of all, congratulations. Good for you. You’re on your way. So now you can just sit back and wait for the editor to reply to your submission, right?

Wrong (c’mon, you knew that was coming). What is right is to write. Write another story. Send that story out to your next top market. Then write another story and send that out. Rinse and repeat.

It’s a Numbers Game

Because, here’s the thing–here’s the secret to success as a writer, whether that be as a short fiction writer or as a novelist: it’s a numbers game. The more fiction that you’ve written and that you have out in front of an editor at a professional market, the better chance you have to be a success.

That may seem obvious, but many new writers send out that first story and then just sit back and wait for a reply–a reply that will likely be a rejection. Sorry, but the odds are that you’re not going to sell your first story to the first market you send it to. We’ll deal with handling rejections in a couple of weeks, but right now, just expect that you’re going to have to send your story out several times before you sell it.

My average since I began submitting short fiction is about a sale for every seven submissions. I’ve averaged much better than that rate in recent years, partly because I’m a better writer, partly because a lot of what I write now is in response to invitation-only anthologies, and partly because my numbers now include reprint sales, which are easier to sell.

But when I started, in my first couple of years, I averaged about fifteen rejections before getting a first rights sale.

Let’s Do Some Math

Most professional markets will take, on average, three months to reply. You learned last week that you can’t do simultaneous submissions, which means that you need to wait to hear back from each market (i.e., three months) before you can send that story out again.

Even if you can sell that story after only ten submissions, instead of the fifteen when I started out, you’ll still have taken thirty months, or two and a half years to sell that story. So if you just sit back and wait for a reply on a single submission, it will take you on average a quarter of a century to sell ten stories, which even isn’t enough for a collection. Get the picture?

You need to write a lot of stories and send each of them out as soon as they’re ready. This is why you must develop a list of multiple top markets. And you need to keep your stories out in front of those markets, even if they keep getting rejected. It’s a numbers game.

Seriously, if there is one secret to being a successful writer it is that you need to write. It helps you improve your craft and it helps you win the numbers game. Seems simple, but few writers get it.

Keeping Track: What, Where, When?

If you follow that advice, writing more and more stories and sending them out, then you will quickly need a formal and reliable process or system to keep track of your submissions, rejections, and sales. At a minimum, you need to track the following for each of your stories:

  • Market where story is currently submitted: Obvious, yes, but as you gradually have more stories circulating, this will become harder to track. Aside from just knowing that Story X is at Market A (and therefore can’t be submitted elsewhere), you also need to know that you shouldn’t submit another story to Market A again until they respond about Story X.
  • Date of submission: This lets you send the editor at Market A a polite query if you haven’t heard back in a reasonable amount of time on Story X. Reasonable to me is four months, which is simply one month past the typical response time for most pro markets. Also, for income tax purposes, you need to be able to show that you are actively pursuing income from writing, and that means you’ll need to be able to compile a list of submissions each year.
  • Markets that have already rejected this story: When Market A rejects Story X, you want to know where you can send it next, and that obviously can’t be to a market that’s already bounced the story.
  • Date of rejection from each market: Again, you need this sort of information to support income tax claims. In addition, my tracking system uses this, combined with the submission date, to calculate the average response time for each of the markets where I’ve submitted, so that I know when to query them about a submission, if they are generally much faster or slower than the typical three months.
  • Market(s) that bought this story: Yes, you will eventually sell your story. I pluralize markets because, in a later post, I’ll talk about how to sell reprints, so you will eventually need to track multiple markets where a story has appeared.
  • Date of story sale: You’ll want to track this for a number of reasons: income tax reporting, tracking your own progress of your career, etc.. And besides, it’s the most enjoyable entry to make in tracking submissions.


That’s the bare minimum. I also keep track of a lot of other information for a sale: dollar amount due, contributor copies due and received, payment date, country and language (and currency) of the sale (I’ll talk about selling translations in a future post), rights sold, word length of story, etc.. I also track things like submissions, sales (numbers and dollars), and rejections in total and per year.

But if you don’t have at least track the information in the above bullets, and have it clearly organized, easily available, and easily updated, you’re going to get into trouble.

Submission Tracking Tools

So what should you use? I use a big (by now a very big) spreadsheet, with my stories across as columns and the various markets down the page in rows. When I submit a story, I enter the mailing date in the corresponding cell with an “M” prefix to denote a mailing. Rejections get recorded the same way, with an “R” code, sales with an “S” code. I have a collection of macros that give me all the reporting and summaries that I need. And, no, I won’t make it available to you. It’s far too customized to how I sell and track.

While a spreadsheet works for me, you may want to look at some of the submission tracker options that I list below. A caveat: I haven’t used any of these, so I have no idea of their functionality or value. Check their features against the list of what you need to track that I provided above.

In Part 8 of this series, I discussed the various online market lists, including the subscription-based Duotrope. Duotrope is not my preferred market list, especially now that you need to pay for it, but many writers have found their submission tracker to be useful. You can sign up for a free trial if you want to check it out.

Another market list site that includes a submission tracker is The Grinder, which has the additional benefit of being (currently) free.

Finally, Sonar 3 is free submission tracking software, made by Spacejock Software (Simon Haynes, Australian author of the Hal Spacejock novel series).

Next Week

Next week, I’ll try to provide some insight about what happens at a magazine or anthology when your little tale lands in their pile of manuscripts. We’ll look at the process they follow to select or reject stories (which may surprise you), and discuss why even good stories get rejected.

Next week: Behind the Curtain: How and why an editor chooses (or rejects) a story

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!

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure.

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  1. Also in terms of the question of how much you should edit after you write it always reminds me of the difference between a writer like Hemingway and a writer like Asimov. They say that Asimov could pound out a publishable story with little or no editing at all, while Hemingway would rewrite his stories over a hundred times to make sure that every sentence, word, and comma was in its proper place. I myself tend to edit as I write. To me tho whole process feels like shaping a sculpture. You start with the rough form of what you want to represent and then you mold it and define it until it comes as close as possible to the idea that you had in your head.

    1. Well, I'll take Hemingway over Asimov any day. I'm sure that Asimov could produce a "publishable" story in one draft, but Hemingway's stories are several light years above merely "publishable."

      Not that I'm recommending editing a story a hundred times — if anyone missed it, I deal with the issue of how much editing is too much (or not enough) in Part 6.

  2. Thanks for your really insightful blog. When I found it I ended up reading through all of the posts right away. It was nice to see that I had already done a lot of the things you suggested for new writers. But I did have a question. Once you've sent your story to several of the top markets and it gets rejected do you go ahead and send it to lower tier markets? I recently made my first sale (to Bards and Sages) and I was really excited about it until I read your blog and now I feel like I might have short changed myself. I thought that even if I didn't get paid much I could at least mention in my cover letter that I have published before. Is it really not worth mentioning sales to such magazines? Thanks again for your great blog!

    1. Thanks for dropping by. If you can wait, I deal with the question of what to do when you've run out of your top markets in Part 16, which will be posted two weeks today. The short answer is no, I don't recommend ever sending a story to lower tier markets. The longer answer will be Part 16.

      I've never heard of Bards and Sages, so I doubt an editor will have heard of them. Sorry. Re your question, "Is it really not worth mentioning sales to such magazines?" Yes, it's really not worth mentioning such sales. That's why I say that in the post. I know you're proud of your first sale, but it's not going to impress anyone. Send only to pro markets, write a lot of stories, and keep sending them out to pro markets. When you get a pro sale, include that.

      A cover letter with no credits sent to a pro market shows that you're a newbie who at least knows to submit to pro markets. A cover letter with low level market credits shows that you're a newbie who doesn't know any better.

      Your career, your decision. But I'd leave it off.

  3. I've found Duotrope to be worth the five bucks simply as a tool for comparing markets. I start my submissions based on turnaround time. Then after I get my Clarkesworld rejection, I move on to other pro- markets with shorter response times.

    1. Kenton, thanks for dropping by. A few thoughts:

      First, your strategy works if the fastest markets are also your top markets. For me, they aren't. I recommend starting with the best markets based both on pay rates and their cachet on a writing resume. I cover this in detail in Part 7 (

      And I said this week, it's a numbers game. If you have lots and lots of stories out there, response time on one market for one story isn't a factor. I still recommend sending to your top (i.e., *your* most desired) markets first, regardless of their response time.

      Finally, I keep track of my own response times in my submission tracker. As you sell more, response times are going to become specific to you as you escape the slush pile. The response times on places like Duotrope tend to be biased from writers still in the slush (because there are so many more of them). You'll quickly figure out what a market's response time is based on your own experience.

      But as I've said and will say several times through this series: your career, your decision.

      And good luck with your writing.

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