How to Submit a Short Story

A friend in my writer critique circle asked how to go about submitting short stories for publication. There’s a lot of information out there on this subject, but I thought it might be helpful to collate the information that has been helpful to me, as well as throw in some examples from my personal experience. In this post I’ll describe where I find markets, the submission process, and what goes into a cover letter.

Step 0: Write the Story

Easy right? Okay, so maybe this one is obvious.

However, I think it’s worth mentioning because a particular story may have been written for very different reasons. For simplicity, I’m going to collapse all of those possible reasons into two categories: 1) you wrote the story in response to a specific prompt (or have a story that responds to a specific call for submissions), or 2) you have a story you wrote and want to submit it generally.

I have no data to back this up, but I would guess that it’s probably easier to get the first kind of story accepted than the second. My reasoning is that calls for submissions are often quite specific, and are usually due to the publisher wanting to promote discussion on, or advocate for, certain topics. These topics are likely to be ones that the general body of submitted stories don’t adequately address, or perhaps there is a particular high demand right now (like seasonal stories)… otherwise the publisher wouldn’t see a need for an anthology or targeted issue. There is an active request for a kind of story, whereas in a general submission you are trying to make the case that your story is worth their time and money.

I’ve had 2 acceptances out of 23 short story submissions. Both of the short stories I’ve had accepted were in response to specific, themed calls for submissions. I realize that this is purely anecdotal information, so take it for what it’s worth. (It’s also entirely possible, for example, that I simply write better stories when I have something to focus on, rather than when trying to come up with a topic on my own. Or it could be that I simply haven’t submitted enough general stories.)

Bonus: If you’ve written the story in response to a particular call for submissions, then you already have your target market (Step 1) as well.

Once you’ve got your story, make sure it is in William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Format, which is what 99.9% of editors want to see.

Step 1: Find a Market and Understand What They Are Looking For

Many sites compile up-to-date listings of calls or markets. For example, the SFWA blog has a “Where to Submit Short Stories” category. Angela Benedetti posts current anthology listings monthly to her blog. There are probably many such blogs and websites, which a quick web search will return.

There are also several markets that are very specific in what they are looking for. For example, The Future Fire has the following guidance for fiction submissions:

The Future Fire publishes beautiful and useful fiction and poetry that focuses on the social-political elements of imaginary, futuristic, fantastic, horrifying, surreal or otherwise speculative universes. We are particularly interested in feminist, queer, postcolonial and ecological themes, writing by under-represented voices, and stories from outside the Anglophone world.

Even most un-themed markets will offer general guidance on their submissions page for writers that explains what they are looking for. The below is from Asimov’s Science Fiction:

In general, we’re looking for “character oriented” stories, those in which the characters, rather than the science, provide the main focus for the reader’s interest. Serious, thoughtful, yet accessible fiction will constitute the majority of our purchases, but there’s always room for the humorous as well. SF dominates the fiction published in the magazine, but we also publish borderline fantasy, slipstream, and surreal fiction. No sword & Sorcery, please. Neither are we interested in explicit sex or violence. A good overview would be to consider that all fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of human existence, but that in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the Universe.

Strange Horizons goes even further, specifying in detail what they DON’T want to see in their slush piles.

If you’re willing to pay a monthly fee, sites like Duotrope will give you access to a searchable database of markets for a wide range of genres, including pay rates, typical response time, average acceptance rate, and a whole lot of other very interesting (or not) data. There are free alternatives, such as The Writer’s Database, though it doesn’t appear to be as full-featured (but come on, it’s free).

A go-to reference for markets, agents, and a whole host of publishing information is the annual Writer’s Market. I’m personally not willing to buy a new copy every year. The good news is, I never have to, because a nearby library always has a copy!

Major science fiction markets that accept general submissions:

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands more… These are just the big names off the top of my head that are very well known, pay SFWA professional rates (currently 6c/word for short stories), and are read by tens of thousands of regular subscribers.

If you don’t read much short fiction, you probably aren’t ready to submit any. Find a magazine, journal, anthology, etc of the kind of thing that you like to write, and see what they publish. Note the common themes, the caliber of the writing, the cred of the writers, the literary-ness of the tone, and especially the submission guidelines specific to that market. If a market fits something you’ve written or would like to write, you’ll know.

Step 2: Write the Cover Letter

Many markets will give specific guidelines on what information they would like to see in a cover letter. The following are typical:

  • The title of the story and the byline
  • The word count
  • How the story responds to the theme or call (if applicable)
  • Your publication history, in brief
  • Any other information that may be pertinent

As an example, here is my cover letter to Crossed Genres Magazine for the submission of The Parched Lands to their theme of the month, Expectations:

Dear Mr. Leib, Ms. Holt, or Editors

I would like to submit my attached story, “The Parched Lands” for publication in CG Magazine’s issue on the theme of EXPECTATIONS.

I am a science teacher who wrote this story in response to the many oppressive influences I see working within American public education. The story is roughly 5000 words long. It has not been previously published, nor is it under consideration for publication elsewhere.

A short story of mine about linguistic deculturalization will appear in The Future Fire’s upcoming professional-rate anthology, “We See a Different Frontier”.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,
Nalin A. Ratnayake

Note that I made sure to look up and address the editors by name. My credentials as an educator were relevant, as the story was about education. I also mentioned an upcoming story of mine in an anthology which had a lot of thematic cross-over with the overall mission of Crossed Genres. I also tried to keep it short and to the point, with zero fluff. Note also that most markets will not accept simultaneous submissions (stories that have been submitted to more than one market at the same time), and few accept reprints (stories that have been previously published).

Here is another example from my submission of Remembering Turinam to the post-colonial SF anthology We See A Different Frontier:

Dear Mr. Fernandes, Editor

Attached you will find my submission, entitled “Remembering Turinam”, for your We See a Different Frontier short-fiction anthology call. “Remembering Turinam” is roughly 5,400 words long. It has not been previously published, nor is it under consideration elsewhere.

My story drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including China’s occupation of Tibet, the “English Only” movement in U.S. public schools, as well as my own grandparents’ experiences in post-British-Colonial Sri Lanka.

Thank you for considering my work.

Sincerely,
Nalin A. Ratnayake

Again, this story was submitted in response to a specific, themed call for submissions. The second paragraph there may be superfluous to a general market that doesn’t have specific themes or topics they are going for. Note also that there is no publication history listed here — I didn’t have any at the time.

In the current world of digital submissions, the cover letter is seldom literally a letter. Most submission managers I’ve used (and believe me I’ve used a lot more than my two published short stories) will have a web form field that you can copy-paste in your cover letter text. In some cases, the submission has been via email, in which case the cover letter is the email text itself (unless specifically requested otherwise… always check).

Step 3: Wait

Many markets list their average turnaround time. Many do not. Some do, and are wildly inaccurate. It’s also entirely possible that your story is a statistical outlier and just happens to take way longer or shorter than average for the slush readers and editors to get to. In any case, I’ve found it best to just forget about a story once it’s been submitted, and move on to the next project. It could be days, weeks, or months before you hear back, and it’s no good clicking refresh on your inbox every day for weeks on end (believe me).

In the meanwhile, use that time to write another story!

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