Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.32: Short Story Markets

Your Hosts: Dan, Mary Robinette, and Lari, with special guest Erin Roberts

Erin Roberts joins us for a discussion of short story markets—a topic which is very susceptible to “churn” because of the way short story markets come and go. We cover how to research and evaluate the various markets based on what you need from publication, and what you might reasonably expect from them.

Credits: This episode was recorded remotely during the Great Isolation, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Pick a couple of contemporary short fiction writers. Track their publication history, and get a feel for how their writing career has developed.

Thing of the week: Nebula Awards Showcase 2019, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Do you need to be prolific to make it in the short story markets? No. How do you find short story markets? Look for the lists, such as The Submission Grinder, or collections of award-winning short fiction, and see where they were published. Pay attention to what you like. Look at the audience size, the pay rates, and is it shiny for you? Do you need to be famous as a short story writer to break in as an author? No. Be your own kind of writer. How do you stand out from the crowd? Write the story that grabs you. Learn to write a competent story. Then learn to trust yourself. 

[Transcriptionist note: I may have confused Erin and Lari at some points in the transcript. My apologies for any mislabeling.]

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 32.

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Short Story Markets, with Erin Roberts.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Lari] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Erin] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Lari] I’m Lari.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] Thank you. We are very excited to have Aaron Roberts with us for this episode. Erin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

[Erin] Sure. I am a writer, primarily of short stories. I’ve had short fiction published in Asimov’s, and in Clarkesworld, The Dark, and PodCastle. I also was, which is great for this particular episode, a slush reader for EscapePod for about two years.

[Dan] That is fantastic. Thank you for joining us.

[Dan] This is, as most of our episodes are this year, a topic that was requested by listeners. So we’ve got several questions, and most of these rather than about fiction writing are about fiction selling and fiction markets. So I’m just going to start. The first one here, the question is, with so many short fiction markets, does a good short story author need prolific-isy to gain notice and readership?

[Erin] No.

[Dan] Maybe the first question is what are… He says with so many short fiction markets. The short fiction market is so different today than it was when I was breaking in like 15 years ago. What are the short story markets? What are… I mean, without an exhaustive list, obviously. Where are the places people can look today to sell short fiction?

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things about this is that… I’d like to try to give this advice in a way that’s as evergreen as possible. So… Because markets are constantly appearing and disappearing. That’s been true through the entirety of publishing. So, what you’re looking for are markets that you kind of want to be in. The best places to find those are places that collect lists. So you can go to some place like The Submission Grinder or Duotrope or Ralan’s, or you can go to an anthology of books… Of fiction that is award-winning and look to see where those pieces were published. These are all places that you can find markets, but the process of figuring out which market you want to be in… Like, giving you a list of “Ah, this market is…” Like, we can do that, but it’s not…

[Dan] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] The chances of it being outdated a month after we record this is pretty strong.

[Erin] I also think that a lot of it’s about you. The kind of stories that you like. The markets are different, they all have different styles, they all have different sort of editorial focuses. So, I would always say, read a lot of current short fiction, and see, are you gravitating to a certain market? Are you like, “Ah, the stories in X are the stories that I would love to be alongside.” Because one of the best things about being published in a short fiction magazine is saying, like, “Well, my story’s great,” but also, “Oh, my gosh, these other stories, I’m so excited to be a part of this.”

[Dan] So, back to the question, then. In order to really get out there, to gain a readership, to gain notice as a short fiction writer, do you need to be prolific? Do you need to be constantly publishing in tons of different markets?

[Mary Robinette] I don’t think that you do. I mean, when you look at someone like Ted Chang, he does not constantly publish. Like, it is a thing you can do. But the question I would ask is why do you want to be noticed? Like, what are you trying to gain from that? So, here is my advice when you’re thinking about like, what market to go into, and this is taking on to what Erin says about like what is important to you. That there are, I think, three things that help you decide what market to look at. One is the size of the audience the next is the pay rate. The third is the shininess. So, audience is literally how many people are going to see this thing. Pay rate is exactly what it sounds like, are you being paid adequately for your effort? Then, the shininess is how much do you want to be in this particular market? Like, there’s… I grew up reading The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. So, getting into that magazine was… That was shiny for me. Even though they didn’t have the best pay rate when I got in. Shimmer Magazine is beautiful, and I wanted to be in Shimmer, even though the market size is very small. So, that varies. But at other points in my career, where… Like, there was a point when we were in New York and I was supporting my husband and myself on our… On my theater and writing income, which is exactly as large as you’d imagine that to be. So, at that point, pay rate was the most important thing. So, like the number of markets that you go into, the only thing that that affects is… The two pieces of that that you are affecting there are the number of eyes that are seeing your words, and how much money you’re getting paid. So, for a career, it’s like which piece of that are you trying to manipulate?

[Erin] I’ll also say that both as an editor and an agent, I was very scared of the word prolific. I didn’t know prolific-isy was a word, but I’d be… I’m even more scared of that one. It’s possible to be prolific and be really good, but I think when there’s… The stress is on the quantity, it always makes me fear for the quality. So if someone’s trying to just write and write and write, it immediately makes me suspicious that there isn’t that much attention to editing and just letting the material rest so you can take a new look at it. So, I would say, for me, it’s always best to just pay attention to what you’re putting out there, first and foremost.

[Dan] So, I suspect part of the thought process behind this question is someone who wants to break into the market, someone who wants to gain notoriety, either because they want to move on to getting a big publishing contract or something like that. So, Lari, you as an editor may be the one to answer this. To what extent does that matter? Does somebody need to become famous quote unquote as a short story writer in order to break in as an author?

[Lari] Absolutely not. I also think editors use a little bit too much the idea of falling in love. I think we kind of lean on it a little bit too much. But it is true that a lot of the publishing process involves a couple people just falling in love with your writing. So an agent falling in love with your writing, and an editor falling in love with your writing. Often, that doesn’t really have anything to do with your previous platform.

[Erin] I just want to build on that to say that I think this question may also be coming from the idea that there is a way to sort of game the system of publishing. Like, if you do this thing correctly and follow this path, it will lead you to glory. So to speak. But I just don’t think that’s a good way necessarily to go. Because you have to love the writer you are, instead of dream about the writer you wish you were. And figure out, if you’re a prolific writer, and that’s your style, then go be prolific. But if you’re not, don’t stress about the fact that I will never succeed, because I am not this other person. Live in your own career and your own writing style and process.

[Dan] Excellent advice. I want to break right now for our book of the week, which is, actually, appropriately, the Nebulous Showcase. Mary Robinette, can you tell us about that?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, one of the things that we’ve been talking about is how to find good markets. Looking at a collection of award-winning fiction is a way to figure out which markets people are publishing in that are… That other people are also reading. So the most… We’ve got the Nebula Award Showcase 2019, which was edited by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia. That has a collection of the winners and nominees for the 2019 Nebula awards. So it’s got people in there like Rebecca Roanhorse and K. M. Szpara and Sarah Pinsker. It’s got just a ton of really good fiction. So, if you’re wanting to get a better idea of the sort of landscape, grabbing the most current Nebula Award Showcase at whatever point you’re listening to this. It may be that you’re listening to this and are grabbing the 2020. But grab that, and enjoy some really… The fiction of people who are at the top of their game right now.

[Dan] Excellent. All right. There’s another question here that I think is similar to the first one we had, but takes a different approach. What the question says is by submitting to one of the most famous sci-fi/fantasy magazines, I learned that they receive about 40 stories a day, but publish about 12 stories every two months, including those from established authors. I imagine many submissions are good, but how do you stand out from the crowd? So, rather than using short fiction to stand out in some other way, how do you stand out just enough to get published? How do you get noticed? How do you grab the attention of a short story publisher or editor?

[Erin] When I was… I’ll say when I was a slusher, we just read stories. A slush reader for a magazine reads all the stories that come through the door, and decides which ones to pass up to the editors. At EscapePod, actually, the process is blind. So we don’t know who’s sending it, and if it’s like my favorite author ever or someone I’ve never heard of. What I learned from that is just write a story that grabs a reader. A slush reader is just a reader that has been given a particular title in a particular role. They’re not any different then you as a reader, except maybe that they do it more. So when you’re reading stories, what grabs you? That’s the same thing that’s going to grab someone at a magazine. So if you write a great story, then it should grab someone’s perspective and make them want to read more and publish it.

[Mary Robinette] So, I’m going to add on that. That is absolutely true. And also, there is a thing that happens… That I’ve seen… It happened to me… Happens to a lot of writers. Which is that your publishing… Or submitting, and then you start getting the personalized rejections. Then you make a sale, and you don’t know why that story sold and none of the others have sold. Like, what did I do, and you try to replicate it. You can’t. Then you go through a dry spell for you don’t sell anything. Then suddenly you sell something, and you have no idea why. Here is what I think is happening this is based on having done the slush reading that Erin did, but in a slightly different form. I slushred for Asimov’s, but I was… They divided their slush into three piles. The first was complete unknowns. The second, the B pile, was people who had some credits. Then the A list was people who had already sold to Asimov’s. All that that was really doing was triaging the sort of process. Some people in the B pile were people who’d been in A… Or been in the C pile and gotten moved in for a slightly closer read. But what it meant was that I was reading stories and all of them were competent. Like, every single story in that pile was competent. The thing that was frustrating was that for a long time, I was like, “Ah yes. I understand why editors so frequently say write a story that rises above. And that they can’t describe what this rises above means.” But, comparing what is happening with that pile with the authors that I know, and myself who can’t… Who are like, “Why did this one work?” Here’s what I think is happening. I think what happens is that you learn to write a competent story. Then you learn to trust yourself. That there is a period of time in which you are writing competent stories, and there’s nothing structurally wrong with that sucker. But you are so focused on the technique of it, but you aren’t actually thinking about all of the things… You aren’t interrogating any of the things that you are actually interested in. You’re trying to mimic things that other people are doing. So they’re a little bit stiff. They’re a little bit predictable. But there’s nothing wrong with it. Like, no one can point at it and go, “This is wrong here.” Then there’s a point at which you write a story that is coming very much from your own self. Those are the stories that are unique and stand out. Because they are stories that no one else could write. The stories that don’t stand out are the stories that anyone could have written. They’re just… There’s… Again, there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just not doing that extra step of letting your own voice out. In this case, what I mean by voice is your own personal taste out. So I think that one of the things that you can do is… As a writer, is to remember that you have honed your reading experience over your entire reading career, which is much longer than your writing career, and to trust your reader instincts over your writer instinct.

[Dan] That sounds like awesome advice. We, unfortunately, are out of time. We’ve got some homework coming from Lari.

[Lari] Yeah. So, I want you to pick a couple of contemporary published short story writers, and just trace their publication history. So you can see where they’ve been published, at which points in their career, and hopefully that will help you start sketching a roadmap for your own.

[Dan] Awesome. All right. Well, thanks everybody for listening. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.