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Imagine you’re a high school counselor helping seniors apply to colleges. Each student has a prioritized list of the schools where they want to apply. The students then submit applications to all their chosen schools and wait to hear back. Then they select from among the schools that accept them, and off they go the following fall. Sounds familiar, right?

Now imagine we introduce a wrinkle into this familiar process. Students apply to one school and must wait for a decision before applying to the next. Also, each school’s average response time varies widely from a few days to several months. Would this change your approach as a counselor working with these students? Absolutely!

Short story markets

The process of submitting short stories for publication is very similar to what I just described. Most markets (magazines, anthologies, etc.) don’t allow simultaneous submissions. That means authors can only submit each story to one market at a time and then must wait for a decision before moving forward. A lot of markets also don’t accept multiple submissions at the same time. Strategy becomes an essential element in deciding how to proceed.

In addition, like colleges, the sci-fi and fantasy short fiction markets can be divided into tiers. The top tier consists of the SFWA qualifying markets that pay authors professional rates (typically 8 cents per word). As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my goals is to join the SFWA, so I have my eye on several of these markets. Naturally, competition is fierce at this tier, and roughly 1-2% of stories are accepted.

Next are the “semi-professional” markets that aren’t on the SFWA list and typically pay lower rates (maybe 1-3 cents per word). These are still desirable places to be published, so they’re competitive and usually accept less than 5% of stories submitted.

Then we have the markets that don’t pay anything. Publishing for free isn’t a deal-breaker for me since I’m under no illusion that I’ll make a lot of money from short stories. I’m more interested in getting published than getting paid. Most of these markets accept less than 10% of stories.

Playing the game

So how do I formulate my approach? That’s an excellent question that I’m still working on answering. Each story is different and needs its own strategy, so I’ll be playing this game multiple times.

Fortunately, I have an excellent source of intel on all the short fiction markets. The Submission Grinder is a clearinghouse of data on nearly 400,000 short story submissions by about 8,000 authors to more than 2,800 open markets. It contains detailed data on acceptance rates and response times for every market.

Naturally, analysis paralysis is a risk, so I’ll need to study the data, make a plan, and execute that plan without overthinking things. Single-digit acceptance rates are daunting but not disheartening. I know I’ll get a lot of rejection letters before I find a home for each story. That’s just the nature of the game.