by Amie Gibbons
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.
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.