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How Do Litmags and Journals Affect Your Publication Strategy?

Strategy diagram
Short fiction publishing strategies

In the first part of this article, we explored some of the requirements of running a litmag and what that means in terms of author renumeration. So, knowing what we now know about costs affecting writer pay, how does this affect your publishing strategy? Should you only hold out for paying markets or give your work for free to anyone who will have you?

Let’s consider the implications of each type of publication and employ a little realism on where you are right now in the publishtratoshpere.

# What Kind of Writer Are You?
Career Writer

You’re someone who has, or is able to, make the time to write regularly and seriously. You’ve stalked all the agents and publishers on SM from your short list. You go to writing events as often as you can and keep up with new releases and what publishers are buying. If you are dead-set on being a novelist (and anything else if it means you can write full time AND stay on top of the bills), you’ll be working on a book already in some capacity. Short fiction is likely something you’re not too interested in. But don’t write it off too soon. Short fiction is a great way to experiment with forms and styles. And to develop your voice. Consider short fiction as your potential marketing. If you can get some pieces published, it gives you the opportunity to talk about your larger project in your author bio and to indicate to agents and publishers that you have a novel in the making. If you’ve already published a book, a short fiction publication is your chance to demonstrate your style to readers and provide links to your novel in your bio. In this instance, it’s important to identify short fiction markets who serve your target audience.

Sideline or Hobby Writer (Day Job)

You’d like to write full time, but right now you have to keep the lights on. You might struggle to find time to write after you balance both work and family commitments, but you persevere as best you can. You dream of one day getting that big break, if only you could finish something! You have lots of story ideas but not enough time to write them. This is the hardest writer to be, as you are torn between big ambitions and having to prioritise other people or things in your life. Sometimes you feel like it’s too hard and want to give up. You need some support more than anything at this stage. Writing short fiction might well be the best option for you right now. You can write short stories based within the worlds of your novel ideas, and about the characters. Short fiction gives you the sense of completion, of achievement in having finished something. And who knows? Maybe, one day, a time will come when you realise you inadvertently wrote one of those novels. If you had any of those short pieces published in litmags, you might also have inadvertently seeded your market earlier than you thought. So, keep at it!

Casual Writer (Not Yet Sure; Will Go With the Flow).

You like to write, but it’s not the be all and end all. You do it for yourself, not for fame or money. If a great opportunity comes along, then you’d be overjoyed, but you also won’t wallow in regret if it never happens. Life is too short and you have lots of other interests in your life, such as yoga, watercolours class, football, etc. Short fiction is also perfect for you because it isn’t an over commitment but an expression of your personality in much the same way as your other pastimes. If you were published, you’d be dead chuffed, but you don’t have a big book idea or the drive to dogmatically pursue a publishing deal.

# Strategy

If you are an unknown author without a book and haphazardly trying your luck with any publication that will have you, that’s fine and a natural state of affairs. You're testing the water and gaining experience in submitting your work and discovering what kind of writer you are. Discovering what kind of writer you are will affect what kind of audience you will cultivate. It will affect which publications you submit your work to.

Published and professional authors are most likely to get the big gigs. Some writers start at the top and work their way down the pay rate until they get an acceptance. That's one way, but is it the best? Yes, you can sub to the pro-rate slush piles in the hope something breaks through, but bear in mind the level of competition. Can you truly say your writing is at that level? If it isn’t, I’d suggest lowering your expectations for now until you are.

Think of it this way: getting published on the litmag circuit is akin to how bands used to start out thirty+ years ago. They played in their garage first, then, when they’d built up their playlist of songs and felt ready, they’d ask their local bars and other small venues and play for free, gain experience, test out what material worked and what didn’t. They did this for years, possibly. Once they strengthened their style and abilities, they became more ambitious. They started knocking on the doors of small but significant venues in the scene, where they knew they’d stand a chance of cultivating a real following, being spotted by a scout, or getting write-ups in significant news outlets. These venues were much more in demand, and they only gave out gigs to the most determined performers. If those performers did well and the public demanded more, they got pushed up the priority list.

But, the thing is, many of the most successful bands since the sixties had to do hundreds or even thousands of gigs for free/low-paid/no recognition – or for beer – before they got their break, from the Beatles to Guns n Roses (who I'm off to see in concert in June - can't wait! Anyway... back to the subject...). It was a rite of passage.

It may be painful to hand over your babies for free when you have laboured so much care and attention to them, but it is, unfortunately, the way of all things. Until you are in demand, don’t expect to be paid much. Us writers, unfortunately, don’t even get paid in cake. Boo!


The big, paying publications are the places where you’ll get 0.03-0.08 per word, or more. It’s unfortunate that these pay rates mostly reside in the US, and - if you are not American - the US market is notoriously difficult to crack. In anything, actually. But, if you do get your work into one of the behemoths, you’re more likely to get noticed by industry bods than in ‘lesser’ publications. This also goes for big, industry-recognised awards and competitions. Good if you are working on a book and want to get samples of your work out there with the hope it will lead to interest in your ongoing career. Competitions, in my view, are only worth paying to play if they are truly going to lead to opportunity. There are many competitions out there that seduce writers with a big monetary prize but charge the earth in reading fees. In reality, probably hardly anyone’s heard of them, other than they charge ridiculous fees to read your work. These are often for the purpose of raising money for the publication or to pay the judges. So, be prudent. If you are short on cash, I’d only invest in the competitions that are really worth it, such as Myslexia, Bridport, BBC Short Story comp (if you are a British published author). There will be some US comps that are worth it, but I don’t know which those are (please do share in the comments of any you know about). Otherwise, look for the free comps that offer either good prizes or are industry-recognised.

Non-Paying, Awards Recognised/Arts Council

They might not pay, but an arts-council-backed or any other awards-recognised publication is worth not being paid. These are important kudos points for an author. These are also the publications that will do any or all of these things:

- Actively pursue an agenda of publications that they intend to nominate (and, hopefully, win) for important awards.

- Be nominated by others for important awards.

- Have already won awards in the past.

- Be involved with, as an organiser or proponent of, an award or have created their own, recognised award.

Paying markets will also pursue awards, but the point here is that non-payers can make up for the lack of financial reward by putting your work forward as a nomination. If you get placed, they’ll also shout about it and be much more open to publishing you in the future.

Non-Paying, No Awards/Recognition

These publications are trickier to judge because they can be so wide-ranging - from hobbyist Ezine to quirky trend setters or trailblazer markets. To be fair, if they are truly trailblazing, they would probably fit into the non-paying awards recognised section, but not always. There can be a little (a lot?) of snobbery in the literary scene. That, if writing isn’t done in a certain way, or it's not left outrageously ambiguous or arty, then it isn’t worth a sniff. Look for signs of this because if your style fits into neither of these things, you'll likely be wasting your time submitting to them. Of course, non-paying, no awards publications can fill the gaps and give many more unorthodox or edgy writing a corner from which to reside and speak. Things to consider with this type of market:

  • Audience. Is it your kind? If so, then building a readership with a small group of likely fans might be way more important than kudos points, depending on your current pursuits (refer to the What Kind of Author Are You? section).

  • Commitment. How committed are the editors? If issues are irregular, they blog often about time investment issues, or they give no significant editing input, it might not be the wisest place for your work. Editors who prioritise the publication, work with you on getting the story right, and meet their deadlines may not have reached success with the publication yet, but they are in good stead to do so in the future. It works both ways in kudos points for both publications AND authors to be able to say “We published their first/early work” or “My work featured in their pages back when they were just starting out.” You could make publishing history. Who knows?

  • Style and community. Is it potentially to your tastes? If you are unsure if your work is right for the publication’s audience, consider if it falls within your tastes or ethos. Reading the About page on a magazine’s website can give you some clues on whether the editors share or have a similar worldview to you. If you think they do, do you have a piece that would speak to them about that worldview and have something to say about it? Also, what is their community like online? Look at their social media. Do they and their followers share posts and support one another, get into conversations? Or do they splash out a lot of spam-like posts shouting about publications but without much engagement? A community that supports one another can be worth gold. Word of mouth can be a miraculous thing.

  • Editing standards. How particular are you about your work and how it’s edited? The experience and standards of editors can vary greatly, so it’s worth reading an issue if you can to gauge the standards of editing. Some publications barely get involved in any kind of editing (because they simply don’t have the time) and some will be meticulous in what they perceive as an acceptable standard. Either of these extremes will be evident once you read some samples, and you can judge if those editing standards live up to your own. How you would like to see your work presented to the public (and industry)? Inexperienced editing can be more detrimental to your work than not being published. Unfortunately, inexperienced writers desperate for a publishing credit don’t tend to understand this. That’s why I’m telling you now. Be picky enough to present your work in its best light; don’t be so precious about your work that your pedantry prevents you from being published.

I hope this article, and part one, help to give you some perspective and, potentially, some sort of strategy when it comes to publishing. I also hope you see the value in litmags and short fiction journals, the role they play in the literary circuit, the effort they put in, and how much they - and the writers they publish - need your support in keeping up the good and dedicated work they do.

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