What's So Great About Submitting to Literary Magazines?
By Becky Tuch
Now and then I give talks to writers about the ins and outs of submitting to literary magazines. I discuss how to write cover letters, how to find appropriate journals for specific kinds of work, where to find calls for submission, how literary magazines are ranked, and so on.
At the outset, however, I always like to back up and ask why. Why submit? It is work, afterall. It’s work to locate the appropriate journal, work to research their guidelines and reading schedules. It takes work to fill out those little submishmash forms or else to stuff envelopes and go to the post office. And it takes money. Your time is a form of money, of course, but also a handful of journals have begun charging reading fees.
Plus, the lit mag that ultimately takes your work might not have a very large circulation or be very well-known. For some people it can be a thrill to get published anywhere, anytime, no matter how unknown the venue. For others, unless the literary magazine you’re getting published in is The New Yorker, it might be unclear what all the fuss is about, why anyone would go to all the trouble.
So, why submit? Here are some reasons why I think the work is worth it:
Build Your Resume
Aside from that warm glow that washes over you when you’ve had a story accepted for publication, you also get to add another writing credit to your bio and your resume. This is valuable when you’re applying for grants, residencies, scholarships and/or teaching positions. It also looks good on your query letter if and when you submit longer work to agents.
Will a pub credit from, say, Xylophone Review based in Guam and with a circulation of 75 people really help you get a grant? The short answer is that you never know! Perhaps one day you will realize that The University of Guam is the one and only place you want to teach creative writing. Won’t you be happy then, to have that publishing cred!
Plus having publishing credits demonstrates that you are a professional, committed not only to writing but to getting your work in the public eye. People reviewing your CV or bio, whether they be agents, the decision committee for a writing residency, a grant committee, or a potential employer will respect the effort you’ve made to find readership for your writing. (Please note, however, that Xylophone Review is not, in fact, a real literary magazine.)
Build Your Sense of Community
Just as you never know when a publishing credit might come in handy for you, you never know how connecting with a literary magazine will change and enrich your career. I know numerous writers who, once their work was accepted by a magazine, were then asked to be on the staff of that magazine as contributing readers or editors.
Additionally, many editors promote their authors, not only during the season of their publication but for the rest of their careers. One Story’s Debutante Ball is a great example of this. Each year the editors of One Story throw a giant party to honor contributors who have published a book in the same year their story was published. Lots of other editors do this in similar ways, either by sponsoring readings, interviewing contributors on their website, or simply promoting writers’ work on social media.
You, in turn, help bring in business to the journal by promoting your published work to your friends and family and encouraging them to buy that issue or subscribe to the journal. You may even become a subscriber yourself, if you’re not already. Being more tuned into a handful of journals, getting to know the editors, letting them get to know you and your work, promoting what they do, them promoting what you do…Heck, it all starts to feel like one big literary family after awhile.
There are now more anthologies than ever that cull material from lit mags. There’s the Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-Required Reading, Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing, Best of the Net…Then there’s the Pen/O’Henry anthology and the Pushcart Prize anthology.
Increasingly, the editors of these anthologies are finding work from lesser-known journals. This year’s Pen/O’Henry anthology featured the requisite New Yorker stories. But it also included a story from Santa Monica Review and two stories from Ecotone. On his incredible Perpetual Folly blog, writer Clifford Garstang breaks down journals included in the Pushcart Prize, dating back to 2008. This year shows many stories from small mags like Rosebud, Upstreet, Southern California Review, Quarter After Eight, and others.
The moral is that though the lit mag you’re submitting to might have a small circulation, or even possibly a funny name, you just never know where that published piece’s journey will end.
Agents Read Lit Mags
You might be surprised to learn that many agents do actively look for new clients within the pages of literary magazines. You might also be surprised by the journals that they read.
In the July/August edition of Poets and Writers magazine, agent Nat Sobel talks of finding his client Wiley Cash upon reading a story of his in Crab Orchard Review. This, says Nobel, is one of 175 lit mags that his agency, Sobel Weber Associates, reads on a regular basis. Amin Ahmad has a wonderful piece on Grub Daily about being contacted by two agents after having a story published in The New England Review.
If an agent comes upon your story in a lit mag and contacts you, you have a fine advantage in the publishing game: a literary agent who is already interested and invested in your work.
Improve Your Work
Recently, I had a friend look at a short story of mine. She said she liked the story, but she highlighted a few paragraphs that struck a wrong note. I thought she made a good point. When I considered the story, I could see she was right—the paragraphs were not necessary.
Well, did I rush home to take those paragraphs out? Absolutely not. I sat on the story for months and months, twiddling my thumbs, working on other projects, going for long jogs, etc.
It was only when I saw that a journal I love was about to close their reading period that I finally revised the story. In the journal’s submission guidelines, they also stated a strict word count. Needless to say, I finally got rid of those unneeded paragraphs.
Knowing there is a place for you to send your work is often the best motivator for getting the story in tip-top shape.
See Old Work in a New Way
Many lit mags are either themed journals themselves (criminal justice, J Journal; music,Conduit; motherhood, The Mom Egg, etc.) Or else they are generalized magazines that publish to specific themes once in awhile (“In the Dark”, Hayden’s Ferry Review; “Southern Sin”, Creative Nonfiction, etc.)
You might not think of a certain piece of writing as publishable. Yet when you look at it within the context of a particular theme, lo! Perhaps the piece is suitable for submission afterall. It might need work to get it into shape, but it’s worth a shot.
Another advantage of pursuing this angle of publishing is that the competition may not be as stiff. While a journal’s ordinary submissions might be in the thousands, a theme issue may not have quite so many submissions.
You can learn about upcoming theme issues by checking out calls for submission lists on Poets and Writers, NewPages, The AWP Chronicle, CRWROPPS-B, and The Review Review, and also by liking literary magazines on Facebook and following them on Twitter.
Practice Getting Rejected
Rejection is inseparable from the writer’s life. It’s certainly inevitable when you are submitting to literary magazines. Learning how to keep your cool when you’re disappointed or at times even frustrated is a fine skill indeed. Some writers talk about keeping a single piece in circulation indefinitely until it finds a home. Some talk about sending a story to five new places for every one rejection. Some discuss eating lots of ice cream.
Whatever your strategy for dealing with rejection, have one. Savor it. Relish in it. This is going to come in handy throughout your career, whether you’re sending out book proposals, query letters, full manuscripts, or waiting anxiously for your first big review.
Cultivating your cool head, your thick skin and deft ice-cream-eating skills is sure to help you over the long and exciting course of your career.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.