If there were one thing, a relatively easy and free thing, you could do to increase your chances of selling your SF/Fantasy/Horror short story, would you do it?
Sounds like a trick question, right? I’m going to say something obvious like “Write it!” or “Edit it!” or “Submit it!” All are vital, obviously.
But I’m actually talking about something I absolutely refused to do for years when I first started submitting. Part of it was on principle. Part of it was ignorance. A wee bit of it was access. Most of it was stubbornness.
What am I talking about?
I’m talking about reading the market you’re submitting to.
Yes! I know! There are tons excuses, and I have used them ALL.
- It’s pointless when markets give you guidelines!
- I don’t want to self-reject!
- I don’t want to “write to a market”!
- It won’t really matter if my story is good enough!
- I don’t want to get discouraged by all the amazing fiction I fear I’m not on-par with yet! // I don’t want to get discouraged by the crap that gets published when my own stuff is *so* much better and still not selling!
- There are so many markets, I don’t have time to read them all!
- I can’t afford it!*
*I can’t afford it!
The last one is the only real reason reading a market might be hard at times. But honestly? Most of the pro speculative fiction markets release some free fiction online these days, so it’s not really an excuse unless you struggle to find consistent internet access. In which case? Ignore me and focus on doing what you need to do to get by and still write.
But if you have steady internet access, there’s no excuse for not reading a market’s free offerings.
It’s pointless when markets give you guidelines!
I used to think this kind of research (and it is research) was a waste of time. Markets have guidelines! They tell you what they want! True.
However, no guidelines (save a few that are reeeeeally detailed and tend to end with “but don’t take our word for it: surprise us!”) can really give you the gut-sense of the kind of work a market tends to take.
Reading a couple of issues, or a smattering of free stories, will help you see if your story really does fit their market, or whether it’s a stretch. There’s a big difference between a market that likes whimsical, bittersweet stories set in the modern day with a just a hint of magic or aliens, and a market that likes grimdark Fantasy and dark SF. Both might still say they take “SF/Fantasy” but reading a couple issues will give you a gist of what they really mean.
Which leads me to excuse #3:
But I don’t want to self-reject!
For those not in the know (or who haven’t struggled with toxic perfectionism), self-rejecting is when you want to submit your work, but decide (preemptively) that the editor at X market won’t like it, so you don’t send it.
Is the risk of self-rejection increased by reading a market? Not in my experience. As someone who absolutely has struggled with toxic perfectionism and a tendency to tuck things away in a drawer “until I really know how to fix it” (i.e. never), reading a market before I submit actually gives me more confidence when I submit. I know whether my story is right up their alley, or whether it’s a stretch.
There’s nothing about reading a market that means you can’t push the envelope of what they tend to publish, but reading a market does give you an idea of the various editors’ tastes. If there aren’t ANY splatterpunk-style stories in their recent issues, there’s a chance the editors just don’t like those kinds of stories. However, if–for example–your story otherwise fits their melancholy, poetic style, they may be willing to take a risk on a bloodier story.
Knowing a market is smart: the more you know, the more you can push the boundaries, while still running a much higher chance of success. Think of it as a band covering a classic song. If you know the type of stories a market publishes, you may be able to show the editor a new interpretation of that tone and style, while still being completely unique to yourself.
Which leads me to:
But I don’t want to “write to the market”!
I’m not suggesting you only write stories that suit a given market. Write what you want, what appeals to you, and what you love. Reading several issues of a magazine will simply inform you of what markets your story has the best shot at, and if those are pro markets, you may want to send your story there first, before sending it to other markets that may not be as obviously a perfect fit.
Not knowing the style of a market won’t help you be more authentic. It likely just means you’ll send a lot of good work to the wrong markets and waste your time and theirs before your story eventually works its way (by chance and luck) to a better suited market.
During my time as a slush reader, one of the #1 reasons a story was rejected was because it didn’t suit the market. At the time, the magazine took specifically dark sci-fi, but we got tons of high fantasy, tons of light sci-fi, tons of straight-up horror (biggest offender was no sci-fi element). The stories could be fantastic, but if they didn’t fit what we were looking for, they got rejected.
Which leads me to…
If the story is good enough, it won’t matter!
It does, though. A well-targeted submission will absolutely beat out a poorly-targeted one. You may have written the best golden-era hard SF story in history, but if you send it to a fantasy market or a market that prefers sociological SF, or a dark fiction market, it’s going to be dead in the water. While I’m sure it occasionally happens that a market publishes something completely outside its usual sphere, I suspect that’s probably the province of top-tier pros whose names will sell copies even with an erotic clown novella.
At almost every convention panel on submitting fiction, slush editors complain that the number one reason for rejection is that writers don’t follow guidelines. Even if you follow the guidelines generally, you’ll follow them a hell of a lot better if you’ve read the market once or twice. I remember getting a query for a children’s novel while slushing at that dark sci-fi market. I still have no idea why the agent thought that wasn’t a waste of everybody’s time.
And it’s not just about the editor’s tastes. It’s about the readership, too. If someone’s paid money for an issue of a hard SF magazine, and they get an issue with a high fantasy romance story, they may not buy another issue. If they want to read ghost stories, they may be put off by super-gory splatter punk monster horror. A market presents a certain kind of entertainment to its readership, and it’ll take a lot for it to buck that reader expectation.
I don’t want to get discouraged by the awesome stuff/terrible stuff a market publishes!
I relied on this excuse for a long time (more on the “awesome stuff” side, but occasionally rage-reading rotten fiction and wondering how the heck it got published). I didn’t want to be influenced1, but more, I didn’t want to feel that horrible sinking dread in my stomach that whispered, “Your work isn’t good enough yet.”
That was my toxic perfectionism. It made me tuck stories into drawers “to cool” (forever) until I was “a good enough writer” to do them “justice.” That time never came. And when I did finally get around to submitting some of those stories I thought weren’t quite good enough yet? I sold a lot of them.
Writers are terrible judges of their own work. Whether you inflate your awesomeness or magnify the awesomeness of others, we just can’t always see the truth about our own work. Submitting means giving our work to an unbiased eye and letting them make a call on it. Sometimes that’s a No. Sometimes it’s a Yes. Sometimes a story you adore just will not sell, while another one you thought was kind of middling sells to the first market you send it to.
That’s the fiction market, baby. The only way to know if your work will compete is to submit it. The only way to give yourself a teensy leg up in submitting is to have a good idea of the kind of work a market publishes, and you get that by reading it.
(And if you hate everything a market publishes, why are you submitting to them? They’re obviously not your cup of tea. At least reading the market ahead of time will help you realize that before wasting everybody’s time.)
I don’t have time to read all the markets I want to submit to!
I know. And here I make a confession: I don’t actually think you should read EVERY market you want to submit to. I KNOW! TRICKSEY LIES!
But seriously: there are hundreds of markets. Many come and go throughout the year. Fledgling markets die in infancy. Old Dependables croak after a hundred years.
But I’ll bet there are a couple markets you almost always submit to, your favorites, the ones that would make you faint if you got an acceptance from them. We’ve all got our white whales, maybe even a whole pod of them.
So read those. Read the top three markets you’ve recently submitted to. Read the one or two that you’re dying to crack. It will absolutely not hurt your chances, and it could very well launch you out of the slush pile.
But I’m lazy…
I have to be honest: not reading markets came down to me being lazy. I had a dozen excuses that justified it, but in the end, I just didn’t want to put in the time or effort. I barely had time to write, how could I make more time to read a bunch of magazines (you know, besides the obvious: that reading short fiction helps you write short fiction. And reading, in general, for a writer is a kind of a requirement.)
It took me a long time to choke down my own reluctance and get to work. It has helped. Has it guaranteed sales? No. There are markets I’ve read over and over that I haven’t cracked yet. But the more I read them, the more familiar I become with their style; the more familiar I am, the better I target my work to them, which means more often than not, I get a hold notice and sometimes personalized rejections.
That puts the onus back on me to improve. But it shows my work–even when imperfect–is getting closer and closer to the mark. It has unquestionably improved my odds.
During my time as a slush editor, on more than one occasion, I witnessed a writer whose work was professional-grade, but had to be rejected because the story wasn’t a good fit, or wasn’t as good of a fit as another story we were considering at the time. It wasn’t a judgement on the quality of the story, just on its suitability for the market. I also witnessed with delight the times those writers got closer and closer to the mark, learned more what we were looking for, and finally hit it. I think I was as excited as the author, so glad to finally have a chance to say YES.
I’m going to go out on a limb here (based on what I’ve heard agents and book editors say), and suggest this is true for submitting any kind of fiction, short or long-form. Knowing the kind of thing an agent represents, reading some of their previous offerings, reading what a publisher tends to take–it’s all good research.
Do you have to? No, but you’re going to be competing with folks who will do their research, and I can guarantee they’ll be giving themselves a leg-up over you. Why not arm yourself with a little knowledge? It certainly won’t hurt your odds.
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1 Although I have worried about this in the past (when I was brand-spanking new writer and protective of my delicate ego), I didn’t feel this excuse warranted its own segment. Reading will always be a part of writing. You can’t avoid it forever. And if you’re worried about your voice or style being influenced by others, you know what the cure is?
READ MORE. Read broadly. Read all sorts of writers on all sorts of subjects. Doing that will ensure you don’t unintentionally become a stylistic copycat, writing in somebody else’s style. You’ll bring ALL of your favorite stylists to the table, and the unique combination of those, melded within you and mixed with your perspective, will develop your own voice. Trust the process. You’ll be fine.
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So what’s your excuse? Do you make a habit of reading magazines you submit to? If yes, how do you fit it into your reading schedule? Do you prefer reading online or on paper? If no, what do you think holds you back? What keeps you from looking?