Breaking In (Part 6): From the Top
Originally, I had planned for yesterday’s Breaking In to be the final installment of the miniseries. But, as I wrote, I realized I had quite a lot to say on a certain sub-topic of “My Plan”, that being why I’ve decided to start by submitting my work to markets at or near “The Top”. In other words, I’ll be submitting my stories to markets that are among the highest paying and most respected in what they do.
There are several reasons to start at the top, and I’m going to discuss five reasons that drive my thinking. First, if I’ve put in the effort and written a great story, if I believe in that story, and believe it’s really good, then it only makes sense that if I’m right then top editors will agree with me. And if they don’t, then maybe I’m not as right as I think I am, so I’ll try the next market down. I do mean maybe, though, because the way these markets work, there’s a perfectly good chance that my story never stood a chance for reasons outside my control. The point is, though, if I actually believe in my work, my actions should follow that belief. If I don’t think my work is really that good, well, maybe I ought to take a step back to the drawing board and keep working at it until it really is as good as I can make it.
The second reason to start at the top has to do with making a living. If we postulate that the average short story is 5,000 words long (a postulate I can’t really prove or disprove at the moment, but bear with me), and further postulate that the top markets pay around $0.05 or $0.06 per word for new writers (a postulate that’s easily verified by glancing at the payment terms on the guidelines of top markets, and crossed against the SFWA’s minimum membership qualification of having stories published with a payment rate of no less than $0.05 per word) that means that a new writer can expect, on average, $250 per story from a top magazine. If we drop below the SFWA limit into sub-optimal magazine markets, that amount obviously drops. But at $250 per story, to make a very modest living of $40,000 annually writing short stories alone (and that is very modest, considering self-employed writers need to pay both their own income taxes and the employer’s portion of those taxes, and have to pay all their own health insurance, etc.) then a writer will need to publish 160 short stories every year. That means getting a new story accepted and published on average about every other day. Returning to the average length of 5,000 words per story, that means the writer would be pumping out 800,000 words of finished publishable material per year (2,200 words of finished, final draft prose per day). This is no mean feat. All the while, said writer will be living on a very tight budget. Putting that same amount of work in for anything less in compensation borders on making of the writer a slave laborer.
Of course, in reality I (and most other short story writers) have a day-job. And you might think that means my reasoning here is invalidated by that. However, I will have to disagree. The fact that most of my potentially available writing time is taken up doing something else (something that probably pays more than writing short stories does) does not invalidate that the rest of my time, effort, and work has value. If readers, ultimately, are going to be getting that value (in the form of some entertainment) then I, as one of the key laborers involved in producing that value (i.e. the manuscript) deserve to be fairly compensated for that effort. And my figures above pretty much prove that anything less than a “pro” rate clearly falls below the threshold of what we consider “fair compensation”.
The third reason to start at the top is that, if there are indeed factors outside the control of the writer that will affect the likelihood of getting your work accepted, the chances of getting published becomes a game of numbers. Each time you submit a story, you have some random chance of getting accepted. But each market you submit to that chance is independent of the likelihood it will be accepted anywhere else. In other words, the likelihood that your work will get accepted by one of the top markets doesn’t affect, and isn’t affected by, the likelihood that it will be accepted at a lower-tier market; aside from the fact that once your work has been accepted at one market, you can usually no longer shop it to other markets. You’ve already done everything you can to increase those likelihoods to their maximum possible (by writing an awesome story). But if a lower-tier market accepts your work, you’ve locked that story out of the higher-tier markets. Statistically, therefore, you’re actually more likely to be successful getting your work published at higher-tier markets if you start by submitting your work there, first.
The fourth reason relates back to the first, with a dash of pride thrown in. Again, if I really believe I’ve written something that’s good, I’ll want as many people as possible to read it. I want this in part because I gain a sense of pride and pleasure from knowing that a large number of people are (potentially) gaining joy from reading my work, and in part because the more people who read and like my work, the better it is for my long-term career potential. More people who like my work when I write short stories means more people who may remember my name if and when I make the transition to novel writing. And because I want to get my work in front of more eyes, I’ll want to sell my work to the markets that pay better. That’s because there’s a strong correlation between how much a market pays and the size of its readership – which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The fifth reason is perhaps the weakest, but still a good reason. While it appears that top publishers in the novel and short story world keep an eye on other top publishers, it’s not at all clear to me that they keep an eye on the lower-tier publishers. If they do, then it might be worth getting your name in print in these lower-tier publishers. But if they don’t – and I suspect that they don’t – then there is no career-building value in getting published there.
So, there you have it. My reasons for why I will be starting at the top when I try to sell my fiction.