Why We Pound on the Publishing Door



Why do fiction magazines reject so many of the stories they receive?  Same answer as the one promised in the title and I’m going to answer up front.

It’s because we’re all still children on the playground, clamoring for approval.  You want the longer answer?  Keep reading.

I got a rejection today on a short story.  It was from a magazine I’ve gotten a few other rejections from and will probably get more from in the future.  It’s the name of the game.  We write, edit, submit, and get rejected.  The magazines take maybe 1% of what they receive, usually less.  I liken it to getting struck by lighting.  Why do they do this?  Are they just jerks who enjoy leaving people out?

Not really.  It’s because they can!  They get thousands of stories submitted every year.  They can afford to be picky.

Even the magazines that don’t pay, or at least don’t pay pro rates, get a ton.  What’s up with that?  I don’t send my stuff to the ones that don’t pay.  What’s the point?  If I wanted to just get it out there, I’d post the whole thing or parts on Wattpad, my blog, whatever other platforms, and have links to the for sale stuff self-published on Amazon.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to do that if none of my short stories get picked up by a real magazine; it’s not a bad plan, and I have author friends who are willing to help me out with marketing.  But that’s my point, self-publishing isn’t just for those who can’t get into a “real” publication anymore.  It’s a valid option for legitimate authors.  So why am I trying the magazines first?

Why do magazines, even the ones that don’t pay, have such an easy time getting content?

Because (and this is just my humble opinion, take it or leave it) it’s prestigious.  It’s a golden stamp of approval.  Your card’s been punched.  We don’t want to be swimming in the sea of self-pub’d authors on Amazon.  We want to be lifted out of it and put on a gold colored raft, handed a towel and hot coffee, and told we’re special.

You can put it in a cover letter that someone who “matters” thought your writing was good enough.  That’s it.  These magazines are gatekeepers, not because we merely let them be, because we want them to be.  If they only take 1% at the most and yours is in that 1%, well then you’re the shit!  You’re awesome.  You are better than hundreds of other writers.  And you can put that stamp of approval on future cover letters, to tell all the other people who “matter” that your card’s been punched by one of their own.

Anyone can self-publish any piece of crap they want.  That’s partially what we’re worried about.  Saying I published this and that myself doesn’t mean anything to the other gatekeepers, because no one but you has put their stamp on it.

Except, and here’s the big except, if you get readers.  If you have thousands of people willing to put money down for your stories (shorts would probably work best in an anthology if self-published) they have punched your card.  It takes thousands to punch it compared to one or two of the “right” people punching it, but still.

So why do we go to the gatekeepers first?  Because it’s easier to send out a story and wash your hands of it than it is to figure out how to promote it and continuously do that.  Every.  Single.  Day.

For the rest of your life.

Dun, dun, dunnnnnnn.

We’re writers–that’s our talent (hopefully not our only one), but when we submit to a magazine, publishers, agents, ect…all we have to be is a good writer.  And damn lucky…obviously. If you’re self-publishing, you have to be good at marketing, too.  And that’s a different skill set.  Not only do you have to be good, you have to be a business, and you have to work your ass off.  Hard work’s hard.

But here’s the thing, you’re going to have to do that eventually, anyway.

You get that publishing deal for your book because you had a cover letter with a few card punches in the form of short stories published in magazines; you still have to do the promoting yourself.  That big, fancy publishing house is going to save their marketing dollars for their big, fancy authors.  Of which, you are not.  Not until you prove yourself through sales, which means you have to learn how to market.

Maybe being published by an actual house would help you get picked up by readers.  At the very least, you’d get cover art (again, a skill you could learn or hire out for, technically), so that might help catch a reader’s eye.  But other than that, do readers care if you “real” published or self-published?  Not if they read the blurb and the first page and like it.

And most writers know this nowadays.  Soooooo, back to the original question.  Why are we pounding on the door, begging the gatekeepers to let us in?

Because we’re still children on the playground, clamoring for approval.  We want someone to pat our heads and say, “Good monkey,” we want to point to the shiny publication with our name on it and say how special we are.  We. Want. The Prize!  And a prize doesn’t mean anything if anyone can get it.  We don’t just want any old prize (participation trophies, ’nuff said).  We want the gold medal.  The one that says we’re the best, that we beat other people in our field at something.  The less people who can get it, the better it must be, and so we fight.

It’s human nature.  If other people want it, it must be worth something.  That’s how we’re wired.  (I’m drawing a lot of parallels to sex here right now.  If you just give it away, your body’s not special.  What?  Just me on that one?  Girls, you know I’m right, but I digress.

We want our cards punched, dammit.  And so, we’ll keep submitting to these gatekeepers, and they’ll keep holding these hard to get prizes of that hit-by-lighting shot of getting published, which is only prestigious because so many of us submit that we make sure the odds are never in our favor.  Because we want it that way.  Because we can’t win it if it doesn’t exist.  And we want to win it.

Happy Writing!


Guest post courtesy of Amie Gibbons. She is a lawyer/writer/science geek who blogs about writing, legal tidbits, and fiction pieces. Check out more of her writing on her blog.

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22 thoughts on “Why We Pound on the Publishing Door

  1. I know this feel. I submitted poetry to online magazines and journals to be rejected. At first I was pissed, then I started to just delete the rejection emails, and now I just don’t even submit anymore. I have readers who have purchased my book and love my work, and that’s enough for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great article. I’ve asked these same questions myself. Also, when I read the other stuff they do publish, I often wonder “if you published that crap, why didn’t you publish mine?” There’s no accounting for taste.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Totally! I scoff at some things I find in libraries and online and wonder why they accept this and not my brilliant work. Contacts, my dear. You gotta know the right people. Someday, you will know the right people too. Don’t give up.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The stories published in magazines generally reflect the tastes of the editors. I used to love the stories in the New Yorker but lately one out of every three is memorable while the others leave me scratching my head!


  4. It’s a thrill, a joy, a blessing and pure elation to see your work in print. It’s momentary. And sometimes it takes so long that looking at the piece is like looking at something someone else wrote. And by then you’re back into writing something else. I submit to magazines and publishers in paying markets because I want to reach readers and I want to be able to make my living doing what I do best. Non-paying markets irritate the heck out of me. Very disrespectful of the time and skill it takes to write well.

    If you keep at it, in every phase, from the writing and self-editing to submitting and following up, you will eventually find your alignment with publishers, editor and audiences that appreciate your work. For me it’s not about monkeys looking for pats on the head. It’s about entering the writing tent with my fellow scribes and our readers and reveling in the craft. It’s not about the approval of others. It’s about approving of myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Love LOVE this post.

    I’m conflicted as a writer. I write for its own sake. I’d keep writing even if I were my only audience.

    And I desperately want approval from the gatekeepers. But maybe it’s time for me to tell that kid in the playground, that that prize is just make believe.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m new to the publishing world. Well, besides my blog, I haven’t published anything yet. I haven’t even tried. This is due to fear of success and fear of failure. And lack of motivation. Anyway I would really like to start getting my stuff out there but am not sure where to start. How do I find journals or magezines that do pay if my story/article is picked? Also I’ve heard that you need an agent to get published (in the big publishing houses) but need to be published in order to get an agent. Is this true?



    1. Basically, figure out your genre or type, and google magazines that publish such and such. Yes, it takes forever 🙂 There’s also The Writer’s Market, which is magic. It has (almost, which is why you still have to google) everything in it for the year. I just get the one for novels and short stories because I don’t need ones that cover poetry and non-fiction, but they have those too.

      Once you have short stories fixed up and have had people critique it, then you just go to their website and follow their instructions for submitting.

      For books, yep, you probably need an agent.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting take – I’m not sure that I completely agree.
    Don’t get me wrong – If I ever make it into one of the magazines I submit to, I will be the bragging 5th grader on the playground, running around and showing off to everyone.
    I like the challenge that comes with writing a piece for submission. Different publications have different styles and themes. I like using my submissions as an excuse to have paper hard-copies delivered to me by mail, and I like crafting some of my work to a style that I think matches certain, favorite magazines.

    Of course we all want to be encouraged and justified when we put our writing out there… but I don’t think Lit Mags are ONLY about monkeying around.


  8. Quote: ‘do readers care if you “real” published or self-published? Not if they read the blurb and the first page and like it.’

    Will a reader read the first page if they know it’s self-published? Maybe. But, I know a lot of people who wouldn’t or, who having tried to read a self-published book or two, know what they’re in for. It’s probably going to be subpar.

    For me, as a reader, if a publisher accepts a work out of the hundreds, likey thousands, of submissions they received, then they thought this piece of writing was better than the rest. Sure, some editors will have a different taste in stories than I, but generally if it’s a magazine, reviewer, or journal I read regularly, it’s publishing writing I typcially like.

    And, as someone who reads and selects fiction for a magazine, I have to say, most of what I get to read is crap. There’s a smaller number of stories that are okay plot-wise, but have issues with the grammar and clunky sentences. Others are blase’ while gramattically flawless. Again, most of the slush pile is crap, neither well-written or interesting in any way. If those submitters later choose to go post these online or self-publish, then that’s even more reason for me to read editor-chosen material and not self-published material, in any form, if I can avoid it. The gatekeeper isn’t for the sake of the writer to win his gold medal in the publishing industry, it’s for the sake of the reader, it’s so the reader doesn’t have to do what I have to do, which is wade through a ruck of rotten stories to find the few good ones. It’s not a fun job for most. I admit that I like it; I like finding the good stuff for my magazine that is. One shouldn’t have to spend time on published (self-published or otherwise) digging around, finding the few quality writings available. In my experience, it’s a job readers don’t want to waste time on. That’s why we have publishers.

    I wish everyone luck. But, play the game fairly, and don’t try to cheat by calling yourself “published” when you’re not published. Self-published is just a marketing term for vanity press. I’m not fooled and neither are most readers. We want quality and we know it takes an editor and a legit publisher to give it to us.


    1. I disagree with your opinion that self-publishing isn’t published works, although there is still that stigma with some people (although it’s decreasing over time). Other than that, I can see where you’re coming from on general quality. There are many self-published authors that could boost their quality of writing/editing.


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