Publishing In Small Journals: The Un-Fairy Tale
By Brianne M. Kohl
Once upon a time, there lived a writer. She was lovely and kind. Small woodland animals adored her and followed her everywhere she went. Little blue birds whistled her awake each morning from her wide-open perpetually-summer window.
This writer was great, basically.
She wrote a short story and she thought it was pretty good so she sent it off to the biggest names in all the kingdoms: Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, The New Yorker. She was a modest soul but she believed in herself and her story. Then, she went back to cleaning soot from the fireplace and talking to the mice that lived in her skirt pockets.
Far, far away, maybe in another kingdom but most likely in some suburban home office, the Powerful Editor read and loved this writer's story. The editor plucked her from obscurity, whisked her away from her dirty hearth and published her story. The entire kingdom rejoiced. She was beloved by all.
I am not that writer.
I don't know anyone who is that writer, although, I've heard from a friend of a friend that she really does exist. I'm glad she is out there, publishing her work and being brilliant and loved by all. Who doesn't love a good happily ever after?
But, I'm just a regular writer – probably like you.
We write and send our work out into the ether, hoping some editor will pluck it from the air and show it to the world. We slog our way through Rejection No-Man's-Land. At night, we close our eyes and wish upon a star that someone will take notice. Someone will read our work and connect with it. We hope we make them laugh or cry or both or neither. We hope it pisses them off or soothes an ache they didn't even know they had. We hope they read our words and see themselves somewhere in the margins.
We believe in ourselves so we send our work out to the biggest names in the land – Conjunctions, Tin House, Southern Review. That is an excellent plan! You don't know if you’re the fairy tale writer until you’re actually in the fairy tale. But, if you try only to find you are not, don't overlook the smaller yet equally important journals - places like The Masters Review, Carve and The Stoneslide Corrective.
Editors at small presses love your work so much, they are likely reviewing it for free, in their spare time, once they’re done cleaning their own fireplaces. They may not always be able to pay you, but trust me, they want to. That is how much they believe in your work.
Small presses are career builders, magical stepping stones to the Big Powerful Editors (and sometimes, these Small Press Editors become the Big Powerful Editors). They are the gate keepers. They will help you hone your craft and teach you the ins and outs of publishing. A good Small Press Editor will work with you to make your story or poem shine. Small Press Editors are the Fairy Godmothers, turning your rats to footmen and pumpkins to carriages.
Working with these gate keepers gets your work in the door. It allows you to build a reputation as someone who is serious about writing. You'll network with other writers and publishing professionals. You will learn from them and your writing will get better, sharper. Then, when you submit to the big name publications, you can say, "See, these other editors loved me. I belong here, too."
And, you will belong. Not because of some fairy tale that may or may not be true for some other writer. Because you did the work. You took yourself and your talent seriously. You worked your way up and you found a community along the way, adding bylines and building your confidence as you went.
When choosing a smaller journal to submit your work, do your research. The big name places are big because they have a reputation for excellence. Smaller journals - places like Spark: A Creative Anthology, Cleaver and The Bohemyth - do too, but you have to be careful. Sometimes those magic beans have no magic at all.
Do they pay? Not all places can afford to pay you and that may be OK. A lot of well-established writers disagree with that because they believe this work has monetary value. Trust me, I do, too. I love getting paid.
Well-established writers have something you may not have, though: the privilege and luxury of submitting from a higher place on the mountain. They worked for that so there is nothing wrong with them making those demands. You can, too, but unless they are reading blind submissions, editors take note of bylines. Even the ones that say they don’t. If you need to build up your writing resume, there is nothing wrong with a mutually advantageous relationship with a non-paying market.
Unfortunately, a lot of small places cannot afford to pay their writers. Some magazines will offer a token payment – akin to buying you the beverage of your choice - just to show how much they appreciate their writers. If a journal cannot afford to even offer that, what do they provide you instead of money?
Do they promote their writers? If you aren't getting paid for your work, you should be getting something out of this arrangement. A simple byline is not enough. Check their social media platforms. Do you see them engaged with their readers? Will they work to promote not only their journal but their writers as well? Do they nominate their stories for awards like the Pushcart Prize? You are taking your writing seriously and you need to match that effort with a journal that takes itself seriously, as well.
If they do not pay, do they offer free submissions? Be wary of a place that does not pay but requests a reading fee or tip jar submission. Some places will offer free regular submissions but also expedited tip jar submissions with feedback. If you want to spend that $3 to get some feedback, that is your business. But, you should have the option to submit for free. And, if you are paying money, you need to get something of value out of it.
Is their publication professional and free of typos? Anyone can start a Wordpress journal but the serious editors will make the effort to engage and actively edit their writers. This includes simple copy edits. Sure, as a writer, you should submit a clean draft but an editor that lets these obvious mistakes slip through to publication are not worth your time. They will not ever become The Big Powerful Editor. It is likely that these places have a low readership.
Whether you are the fairy tale writer or not, your goal should be to find readers and to create work that has a voice. Journals with a beautiful aesthetic and an excitement for their industry will help amplify your voice.
I hope that you are the fairy tale writer we've all heard the whispers about. But, if you are not, so what? You'll work a little harder. Go write the fairy tale you want to live. Besides, it must be kind of a bitch getting any writing done with all those little blue birds constantly circling over head.
Brianne M. Kohl writes and submits her short stories for publication from her home in North Carolina. Her stories have appeared in several publications including Spark: A Creative Anthology Volume IV, The Bohemyth, The Stoneslide Corrective and The Masters Review: New Voices. Visit her at www.briannekohl.com or follow her on twitter: twitter.com/BrianneKohl.