Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 9 in series)

Markets, Markets Everywhere: How to select the right market

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

In part 7, I explained why you should “start at the top” when deciding where to first send a story, meaning starting with the very best markets available. In part 8, I recommended market list sources available on the web and talked about how to use them to develop your own personalized list of top markets.

This week, I’ll discuss how to determine which top markets on your personal list are the best (or at least an appropriate) fit for the particular story that you’re planning to submit.

How to Pick the Right Market

Use your chosen market list (Ralan, Duotrope, etc.) to access the market’s website and find their submission guidelines page. Submission guidelines (or GL’s for short), if they’re well written, will provide you four important types of information.

  1. A summary of the rights they will want to license from you;
  2. The payment they offer for those rights;
  3. The types of stories they publish, including genres and sub-genres, as well as the maximum length for a story (and sometimes, the minimum and preferred lengths); and,
  4. A description of the process for submitting a story for their consideration.

First thing to check: make sure you understand exactly what rights you will be giving up (and for how long) if you sell to this market. I dealt with understanding rights in part 4 and part 5, so I’m not going to repeat any of that here. Read those posts if you haven’t already–they are probably the two most important in this series for a new writer.

Remember that your top markets will be those that acquire first rights. Be aware that there are some markets that only take reprints (second rights). We’ll deal with those in a later post, but for now, just make sure that you don’t submit a never-sold story to a reprint-only market.


Since it’s on your “top markets” list, we’ll assume the market you’ve selected is paying professional rates. If the market is asking for more than minimum rights, you need to decide whether the payment rate or the cachet for selling to this market is worth giving up the additional rights. Your story, your career, your decision.

Another consideration is the timing of payment. Most markets pay “on publication” (after your story is physically published in the magazine or anthology). Less commonly, a few (very few) will pay “on acceptance”, paying you when they accept your story for publication, which is a bonus for the writer.

Types of Stories Published: Genre

Before submitting to your target market, your most important task is to ensure that your story is a good fit in terms of genre, style, and tone to the type of stories that regularly appear in that market. Let’s deal with genre first.

The most common genres you’re going to see in the speculative fiction markets are SF, fantasy, and horror. Many markets will publish all three. Some will focus only on one. Some will narrow their genre focus even farther (hard SF, space exploration SF, alternate history, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, supernatural horror, etc.). Mystery and crime are other common and healthy short fiction genres.

Do NOT submit a story to a market that is not the genre they publish. They have a specific audience on their subscriber list, and if that audience wants high fantasy, that editor will not buy your urban fantasy.

I’m frequently surprised by how many new writers do not understand genre, or even worse, cannot correctly identify the genre of a story they’ve written. The only way to understand genre differences is to read widely across the spectrum of speculative fiction. If you want a starting point for understanding the various genres, sub-genres, and their characteristics, check out this site:

Even if your story is a match to the market’s preferred genre, you still need to be sure that it’s a fit for style and tone. The guidelines will give you some idea, but you’ll generally have to get a sample copy or two and read the kinds of stories they publish. Do they seem to prefer character or plot-driven stories? Optimistic or pessimistic? Dark? Humorous? Literary prose styles? In short, does this market feel like a good fit for the kind of fiction that you write.

Yes, this requires more work, but if these markets are really going to be where you target your stories, then isn’t it worth the time and effort to understand the types of fiction they publish?

Types of Stories Published: Theme

You’ll usually find it easier to determine if a story is a fit to an anthology than a magazine, since most (but not all) anthologies are themed, meaning they are looking for a very focused and specific type of story around a particular topic. Some magazines will occasionally have themed issues as well.

Themed markets can be cross-genre or genre-specific. Some anthologies and magazines that I’ve been in recently have had such themes as apocalypses (cross-genre), Japan (fantasies only), circuses (fantasies), werewolves (fantasies, in case you hadn’t figured that out), and resource wars (cross-genre).

Themed markets are generally feast or famine for a writer. If you have a story that’s a fit, you’ll have a better chance of getting a sale than in a generic market, simply because the theme narrows the competition. The narrower the theme, the better chance of a sale if you fit the theme, assuming your story is written at a professional level to start with.

Just be wary of very narrowly themed anthologies, since those projects also have the highest probability of long delays before publication or possibly never getting published, since they have the greatest difficulties finding sufficient quality stories to fill a book.

Types of Stories Published: Length

Most markets, whether magazines or anthologies, will specify a maximum length in words for stories that they will consider. Don’t exceed that maximum–you’ll only irritate the editor and have a quick trip to the rejection pile. Once you’ve sold a few or get to know a particular editor, you can sometimes email them if you have a story that’s a strong fit to their preferred genre or theme, and ask them if they’d consider a longer work. But don’t try that as a newbie.

Here’s a key piece of advice for selling short fiction: shorter is better. Let’s say you have a 6,000-word story, and you’ve found a market that specifies a maximum word count of 6,000. Yes, you can send your story there, but understand that you’ll have a harder time selling that story than you would if you tried the same market with a 3,000-word story.

Why? Think about it. Anthologies and magazines (print for sure, and even e-magazines) have a maximum number of words of fiction that they publish for that anthology or per issue. Yes, there’s some flexibility, but not a lot. If that market’s editor has a choice of publishing two good 3,000-word stories or one good 6,000-word story (yours), they’re generally going to go with the two stories.

It just makes sense. It’s a lower risk. It gives their readers more stories, plus if a reader doesn’t like the first story, they might like the second. Picking a single longer story is a higher risk choice for an editor. For you as a writer, this means that the longer your story is, the better it has to be.


If you’re applying the guidance from this series from week to week, you should have used the resources provided from last week in Part 8 to compile your list of top markets that fit your kind of writing and your goals as a writer. Next step is to use this week’s post to filter through that list and pick the market to where you want to first submit your story.

Next Week

In part 10, I’ll deal with point #4 above: how to actually submit a short story to your selected market, including what to put in a cover letter and how to format a manuscript.

Next week: Dear Editor… : How to submit short fiction

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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  1. Just a heads-up to those of you who are following this series — unfortunately, I won't have a post this week (tomorrow), but Part 10 will get posted next Saturday as per usual, and then I'll be back on a regular weekly schedule again after that (I hope).


  2. Okay, here is what I am currently doing for one of my stories (I could be way off base here, but it seems to make logical sense to me)… The story is an alternate history piece set in the 19th Century and is very Canadian in focus; thus, it is more probable to find a home within a Canadian market. I sent it off to one top Canadian market — it came close, but didn't make the final selection. I intend to send it to another top Canadian market, but it is too long. So, I am doing a re-write to shave off at least 600 words. If it doesn't sell in that market, I would either be looking at lower tier Canadian markets, or re-writing again for potential top foreign markets.

    Again, love the series.

    1. Neil, normally I'd be telling you to send to the top genre markets first (which, unfortunately, aren't any of the Canadian markets). Canadian content doesn't matter (most of my stories are set in Canada). However, if the alternate history tale assumes a knowledge of Canadian history, well, then yes, you're probably going to have to market this to a Canuck market. If you think a rewrite will make it acceptable to a non-Canadian market, then go for it. Your other option is to wait for a Canadian anthology where it might be a fit. Good luck with it regardless. And glad that you're enjoying the series.


      1. Hi Doug; yes, it is the latter. An alternate history centred around the 1837 Rebellions which in this timeline happen earlier and technically are not actually rebellions. If the current re-write isn't successful with that second Canadian market, I will have to rethink this piece. As a longer story, but not novelette length, and an overhaul re-write I still think that it could be acceptable to a non-Canadian market.



  3. Thanks, Michael. Yes, I'm definitely going to keep going with it and finish the series that I outlined in my post #1 (although as I mentioned in my reply to Geoffrey's comment, the series will go beyond my initial target of July).

    Re your second point, actually short fiction pays much better now that it ever did, and there are more markets available to you. But no, you don't write short fiction to get rich. It's for all the reasons I covered in Part 3.

    I'll mention that there are other revenue streams from short fiction beyond that first rights sale. I'll be dealing with them in future posts: reprints, foreign languages translations, collecitons, and ebooks.

    Glad you're enjoying the series and thanks for commenting.

  4. Thanks, Geoffrey. Yes, once this series is done (which is looking to be Aug – Sep of this year — a lot of the topics that I thought I could cover in a single post are taking two), I will be putting out a book that consolidates all of the posts. Glad that you're still finding the series to be helpful. It makes writing the posts each week a lot easier and fun knowing that someone is reading them!

  5. This series of posts MUST collected into a book. These posts are simply the best "how to" instructions on this subject that I've ever read. It's practical, it's comprehensive, it's sympathic to the challenges, and it's straight talk. Incredibly valuable stuff.

  6. I've been following this series for awhile, but I didn't have time to post, so I thought I'd chime in and tell you that I think it's a great series and I hope you'll keep going with it.

    These days it feels short fiction pays so poorly it's hard to view it as a commercial opportunity at all. I will probably get some short fiction out there, but I've almost wondered if I should just ignore price and post it to my blog or something. It's a discouraging market.

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