[process] Fiction submissions starting at the top

I was recently in an email discussion about short story marketing, and I mentioned the old “start at the top” theory. This seems like as good a time as any to touch back on that topic, which is a true evergreen in that it evolves but it never dies away.

One thing a lot of aspiring and very new writers seem to do is avoid sending their stuff to the big markets first. I’m here to tell you, you don’t get credit for earning your way up. (And yes, that’s exactly what I did in my career.) You sell to any market because the story is good and it meets the editor’s taste. Hitting a bigger market just means hitting the right kind of good and that particular editor’s right kind of taste.

The thing is, you don’t know. The writer is the worst judge of their own work. Make it as good as you can, send it out, and keep it out when it comes back. You also won’t get demerits for accumulating rejections. The opposite, in fact, with some editors, who may begin rooting for you if they like something in your auctorial voice or style.

So what does “start at the top” mean? The answer is not as inherently obvious as it might seem to be at first blush. I break it down into three axes:

  • Pay rate
  • Prestige
  • Career goal alignment

Pay rate is the easiest to understand, and it’s often where people will begin and end their analysis. The best paying non-invitational market used to be SCI FICTION. It may be Jim Baen’s Universe now, but I’m not certain any more. A number of markets cluster in the $0.050 – $0.070 per word range. This is a very valid way to evaluate markets, and absent other determining criteria, is a perfectly good decision driver.

However, prestige counts, too. A pair of simple examples of markets whose prestige is out of proportion to their pay rate: Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Talebones. If you went by pay rate alone, you might never look at either one of them. Yet if you dip into the year in review and honorable mentions sections of YBSF and YBFH, you’ll see stories from those markets very well represented. They get good critical coverage, and they are read in significant part by an audience of people already working in the field.

Career goal alignment matters, also. Analog pays well and is highly prestigious, but if you want to be an epic fantasy writer, and your short fiction runs toward the lesbian zombie airship pirate subgenre, Analog should probably not be your first choice of markets. The inverse is true of Realms of Fantasy — if your stories clank when they walk, maybe they don’t want to seek RoF as their natural market. This of course requires an understanding of the demographics and positioning of the markets you’re submitting to. The Locus year in review issue is useful for this, as are the aforementioned Year’s Best volumes, but in truth, nothing substitutes for reading the actual markets themselves.

[ ETA: As lordofallfools correctly points out, one of the best markets for aspiring writers is Writers of the Future. That market is by definition a one-shot (well, ok, a two-shot), but it can be real boost in all three senses outlined above. It certainly was to my career. ]

What this all boils down to is that your list of “start at the top” markets will have a lot in common with other people’s lists, but it will vary. As you submit more, and sell, your list will evolve — sending first to an editor who’s expressed interest in your work via a checkbook is both good business loyalty and plain old common sense.

Do you have a different take on starting at the top?

7 thoughts on “[process] Fiction submissions starting at the top

  1. I do _not_ have a different take, but I am glad that someone is giving this advice.

    I came up with the ‘start at the top’ approach myself, for the reasons you gave – it didn’t hurt, and I had no way of knowing who would accept the story. Most of my writing pals are mainstreamers who have a more earn-your-way ethos, though, so I felt like I was guilty of amazing hubris.

    However, my first published story was in _Asimov’s_. So I offer myself as a datapoint: it can happen, and you are giving great advice.

  2. The one thing that I would mention about this theory is that time may be a factor. The higher you aim the less likely (usually) you are to succeed. It’s awesome to succeed, but, basically, the chances are smaller. And when it can take some of the magazine several months to get back to you then that’s essentially increasing the length of time before that story is likely to ever appear.

    Now if you write fast enough, and have a high enough volume of stuff out and about then that doesn’t matter so much, but when it takes you a month or two to crank out a short, (I’m getting quicker, but not much) then that becomes a serious concern, and aiming a little more modestly can have its payoffs.

  3. J. R. Tomlin says:

    I have to quibble with the argument that the higher markets necessarily take longer. I know some minor markets that take months while F&SF which is about as high as you can get has a slush reader who is SCARILY fast. How he bounces my stories back to me so soon is still a mystery.

    So don’t assume that the prestigious markets will tie your work up longer. Duotrope is always good to check if that’s a concern, although for me it isn’t. If it takes a few months to be in RoF I’m going to complain? NOT! LOL

  4. Jay says:

    @ J. R. Tomlin

    I’m so sure it’s that the necessarily take longer. And some midrange markets are notoriously long. But, yes, high pay/high prestige markets tend to have more in the submission pile, which unless you’re GVG and JJA at FSF, means time.

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