Playing the numbers game: how getting published is NOT like getting married

Saturday Evening Post - November 28, 1903
It’s a good guess that the submission process in 1903 did not resemble the process of today. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no secret that the Internet has changed pretty much every facet of our lives over the last twenty years.

That’s just as true for writers as for everyone else. And it’s true not just in terms of how we research, write, and edit, and how our readers find and read our work, but in how we reach the organizations that publish it.

I invite you to take a trip down memory lane with me as a reminder of how much has changed. In the days before almost every aspect of our lives went online, here’s what a short-story writer would have done to try to get published in a literary journal.

The old way

  1. Purchase, or find in the library, The 19xx Writer’s Market*
  2. Make a list of publications that seem appropriate.
  3. Track down copies of those publications, either by visiting a well-stocked local bookstore or (more likely) by writing away/calling to request a sample.
  4. Wait for said copy to arrive in the mail.
  5. Read the publication. Determine whether it is a fit. If no, repeat steps 2-5. If yes, proceed to step 6.
  6. Prepare your manuscript by printing out a clean copy per the publication’s specifications.
  7. Purchase two manila envelopes, one to include inside the other as an SASE (self-addressed-stamped-envelope—remember those?).
  8. Trek to the post office to purchase appropriate postage for the SASE and the envelope.
  9. Wait.
  10. Wait some more.
  11. Receive the SASE in your mailbox (your REAL mailbox). Pause for a moment before opening it to pretend that the publication would return the accepted manuscript marked up with suggested edits.
  12. Open the envelope and read the letter informing you that “We regret that this piece is not right for us, but we wish you the best of luck with your writing.”
  13. Repeat steps 2-12.

*I was amazed in researching this article to see that a printed version of The Writer’s Market is still being produced.

I’m exhausted just writing about it. But now there’s…

the new way

Duotrope, the submission management tool I’ve been using since January 2013, condenses—or completely eliminates—steps 1-8 and 10-12.

You still have to wait for a response. But now you can easily see exactly how long each piece has been out and estimate when, based on feedback from thousands of other writers, you might expect a response.

This new and radically easier method has, however, exacerbated a problem that always existed, but which some publications—especially those with roots in the print world—have not quite yet adapted to. It is…

“I don’t want to marry you. I just want you to publish my story”

You’ll often see the following rule in a publication’s submission guidelines: “Do not submit without reading a sample issue.”

In the days when you might, if you were industrious, submit to five or six or even twelve or fifteen publications a year, that rule was not unreasonable. But twenty, or thirty, or forty? At a cost of $10 to $15 for a back issue, plus the time involved (several hours per publication), the simple edict to “read a sample issue” becomes an investment plus another part-time job.

Copyright: olga_sweet / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: olga_sweet / 123RF Stock Photo

The challenge is that the publication is acting as if it expects the writer to date it monogamously with the intention of marriage, researching its tastes and preferences, bringing roses to the first date, and never inquiring about its crazy mother. But to have a chance at publication, writers have to to put out to many publications. Simultaneously.

As an editor, I appreciate receiving submissions appropriate to my publication. It would be nice if writers could be on intimate terms with every publication they send a story to, the way I feel intimately familiar with the style and tone of New Yorker fiction because I’ve been a subscriber for many years. (Proving that deep understanding does not lead to consummation. My odds of winning the lottery are probably higher than those of having a short story published in the New Yorker.)

Let’s face it: as a writer, I’m not going to become as familiar with all the publications to which I submit as the publications would like me to be.

It’s like applying for a job or to college. Nobody expects you to apply for only one job or to a single college. The shotgun approach—blasting your resume to as many employers as possible—is not effective either, of course. There remains an expectation of due diligence on the applicant’s part. But it should be a two way street.

The few (publications) bear some responsibility to the many (authors). Please—make it easy to become somewhat familiar with your publication’s content without becoming a lifelong subscriber. Abandon the idea that even a well-informed fiction writer can subscribe to every worthy literary magazine. I applaud publications that are available electronically, that offer a free sample or several stories free on line, and especially those that provide editor interviews on Duotrope. I’m much more likely to submit to them than to publications that dispense copies only by mail or require registration and payment to read anything online.

Welcome to the new world

These new relationship tools, which replace the static and instantaneously outdated printed lists of the past, contain both the problem and the seeds of a solution. They multiply the reach of the many to the few while at the same time making it easier for the few to discover and evaluate the many.

In the end, we are still human beings trying to connect with other human beings. Our tools have not—yet—usurped the role of the individual in creation or the role of another individual in responding to that creation. I hope we can keep it that way.

How has technology changed the way you interact with institutions?

9 thoughts on “Playing the numbers game: how getting published is NOT like getting married

Add yours

  1. I’m querying novels and I do love how much I save on postage. When I started querying back in 2007, everyone wanted paper queries and sample pages. It was costly. Now I fire off an email query. That’s way better.


    1. I’m glad to hear novel querying has caught up! If I were an agent these days, I couldn’t imagine wading through all that paper–plus having to keep track of who had sent what, when.


  2. Man. Just yesterday, right? Thanks for the Duotrope link and your thoughts on submitting in this day and age. Another issue — since self-publishing is easier than it’s ever been. One new book shows up on Amazon every five minutes. We are awash in writing, which is probably a good, if intimidating thing.

    The problem of keeping up with reading publications you want to submit to, is huge. I like how you kind of give permission for a heavy skim rather than a thorough read.

    My question: what’s next?


  3. Do I remember those SASE days – and I don’t miss them! You certainly get it right about how hard it would be to ‘marry’ every publication we wish to submit to, Audrey. The online submissions for most magazines has become the norm – and it’s great. Now I don’t even submit to any that don’t have that modern system in place.

    A little off topic, but things have changed with book submissions too: I’ve noticed, over the course of querying for my first novel, that some agents are very kind and have auto-received messages in place, to let us know they got our email, and sometimes even a hint in that message, as to how long it might be before hearing back. I really appreciate those who take that time to be human. And also those folks who respond personally (even when it’s a form) to reject. But, there are still those who never respond – not even to acknowledge receipt. And while I do understand they are busy, I have to wonder, how difficult would it be to just click reply and paste in a brief line?


  4. Interesting to read. I don’t write short stories, so I’ve never been down this route. I can see where purchasing all those magazines would be costly.

    I do remember, however, when I wrote my book in 2003 and explored the world of agents, most querying was still done via snail mail, and The Writer’s Market in paperback form was the way to go. Times, they be a-changin’.


    1. Yes–I guess we don’t even have to go back 20 years to see the changes. I would imagine there’s a bit of the same thing in play when you’re searching for an agent these days. You need to play the numbers game by querying lots of agents, but at the same time need to be able to write a coherent, personalized query letter to each one. A big investment, for sure!


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