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, 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.
PLAYING THE SHORT GAME — The Book!
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!