How to submit to Literary Magazines

This article was originally written and published to Pigeon Review, a literary and art magazine.

This article is designed and written for new writers looking for publication, but it’s open to everyone. (My article for artists is on the way!) This article is also focused on fiction-based writing, not articles, book reviews, etc.

Finishing a short story is a fantastic moment, one filled with pride and a little trepidation, if you’re anything like me. Because now that it’s done, I want to share it with the world!

Here are a few steps to get you started with publishing.

Step 1: Regular Submission or Contest Submission?

When I finish a short story, my immediate thought is, “Yeah, that’s good enough to win a competition.” Because of this thought, I tend to hang onto my stories until I find the perfect competition.

I cannot tell you how highly I discourage this practice.

By hanging onto the stories, I don’t allow myself to fail (learn), or discover the niche that I might inhabit. Additionally, I won’t get published if I never submit, or only submit to competitions.

That all being said, if you have a piece of writing you think is absolutely phenomenal, something that is easily worth the three thousand dollar prize, and you’re okay with entry costs, let that story be your “competition entry” story.

Step 2: Finding the right publication

Assuming we’re talking about general publication, how do you find where to submit it?

Worry not! There are lists!

One of the more popular ones is Duotrope which has a cost associated with it, but not all cost money. I personally use pw.org (Poets and Writers) and Literarium. A quick google search will give you a plethora of lists on which literary magazines to submit to.

The smart thing to do is to read back copies of the magazine you want to submit to. This gives you an idea for the kind of writing they tend to publish. This also helps support the magazine if you buy the copies!

Of course, you may have spotted the small problem here. There are hundreds of literary magazines, and each of them wants you to [ideally] purchase a few back issues to read and get familiar with. Cost aside, the time needed is astonishing. I love reading. I read nightly. I read everything I can get my hands on. But hundreds of back copies across a hundred different literary journals is a huge time commitment.

I’m not urging you to not read back issues. But use your time wisely. If you’re writing hard sci-fi, then yes, give a look to some of the previously published work and see if there is any hard sci-fi. It’s probably best not to send a book review to a publication that doesn’t publish book reviews. If you’re an erotica writer, double check before you send! This all goes hand-in-hand with understanding the guidelines.

Step 3: Understanding the guidelines (and following them)

Most of the time, guidelines are quick and to the point, the dos and don’ts laid out simply. This is usually where the preferred wordcount is found, along with the genres that aren’t accepted. Sometimes, guidelines can get a little complicated with the terms, here’s a little help with three of the most common terms.

Simultaneous Submissions: This refers to sending the same story to multiple magazines. Look carefully at each magazine, some don’t like simultaneous submissions and prefer you only send your story to them. (On a personal note, I don’t like to submit to these places. Having one of my pieces tied up with one journal doesn’t make me too happy.)

Multiple Submissions: This refers to sending multiple stories to the same journal. Again, some journals encourage it, some don’t care either way, and some ask that you only send one at a time.

Reprints: Rarely, a journal will take previously published work, or “reprints.” This is more commonly seen in anthologies where they want to re-publish authors works. Normally, a journal will prefer previously unpublished work.

Before you send your work in, double-and-triple-check the guidelines.

Not following the guidelines is the easiest way to have your work ignored, unread, or unpublished.

Not following the guidelines is the easiest way to have your work ignored, unread, or unpublished. Most literary magazines get hundreds of submissions a month and if you don’t take the time to properly format your story, remove the indents, change the font, or do whatever it is they’re asking of you, there’s a good chance they won’t take the time to read your story. It also shows the literary magazine you aren’t serious about your time or theirs, and worse, it shows you aren’t serious about your work. Literary magazines don’t want to publish someone who doesn’t take the craft seriously, especially when the other people they publish clearly take the craft seriously.

Step 4: Know your rights

The worst thing that could happen, in theory, is you get published (yay!) and make a little money (yay!!) but accidently sell the exclusive rights to that story (no yay). Most magazines won’t attempt to outright strip you of your rights. It’s usually a bit of oversight on the part of the writer and a poorly placed “rights” section by the magazine. Still, as a writer, you’ll want to avoid this.

Luckily for you, in most countries in the world, a creator’s rights are fairly well protected, even if something were to happen. Let’s talk about what some of those rights are.

First: The right for the publisher to be the first to publish your piece. This is what Pigeon Review (the journal I wrote this article for) and most publications will ask for.

Serial: The right for the publication to publish your piece in a printed magazine.

Online: Same as serial, but for a publication to publish your piece online. Pigeon Review also asks for this.

Quick pause- Normally you will see two of the three above together, if not all three. Publications usually ask for “First Serial” or “First Online” or even “First Serial/Online” rights. They want to be the first to publish it, and they’re telling you where it will appear.

Territory (USA/Africa/World/etc.): Some publications will ask for territory-specific rights. This gives them the right to publish your work in either a specific country, continent, or the world. Even if an organization has multiple branches around the world, they can only publish in the places they were given the rights to. This becomes gray area when the subject of “previously published” comes up. If you have a piece published in North America and now you want to enter it in a British competition, but they don’t allow previously published work, reach out and see if they consider it “previously published” if it happened in a different territory.

One time: When the publication wants to publish your work once. If a publication wants to re-publish you work in an anthology, or a “best of” collection, they would have to ask for permission.

Archival: When a publication wants to store your work for reprinting later. This means they will have your work even if it doesn’t appear in print or on their website. Be careful when giving away this right as some publications take it to be exclusive rights. What are those?

Exclusive/non-exclusive: Exclusive rights are when you sign over the rights to a publisher that make the piece of work exclusive to them (think of a novel). Non-exclusive means you can then publish your work elsewhere after they’ve published it (what usually happens with short stories). Sometimes, a writer’s retreat or residency will ask for the exclusive rights to any work created there as a way of making money to keep the residency going.

Anthology: This is for when a publication wants to print or reprint your work in a collection, like a “best of.” Some writers will have their previously published work appear in anthologies since it loses “value” if it’s been published before.

Audio/Film: Self-explanatory, these are the rights to create an audiobook or film. Unless you’re selling a book to a movie studio, you probably won’t come across someone asking for film rights, but audio rights are more common. Some competitions (notably the Audible competition) ask for audio rights for your story.

By and large, when you sell the rights, even the exclusive rights to your work, you don’t sell the right for the publication to make money from it in other ways than publishing it. They can’t make merchandise, sell the film rights without your approval, or turn it into a Broadway play.

Further Tips

Cover Letters: Cover letters can be important when submitting a story or they can be completely unnecessary. Usually this comes down to the publication and how formal they are. When we get submissions at Pigeon Review, we get everything from personalized notes to generic letters to simply, “Editors, Here’s my story.”

As an editor of a publication, I can’t let a cover letter, no matter how well it’s written, be the deciding factor on whether or not to publish a story. I let the story be the only deciding factor. However, there are other publications out there that won’t read your story without a cover letter.

My advice? Have one ready, but only use it when required. It will save everyone time.

Keeping track of your submissions: I tend to make a spreadsheet of all my submissions. This includes the story I sent, the date I sent it, the amount I paid, and whether or not it was published (so I’ll have a list ready for any anthologies). Duotrope and Submittable have tools that are like this already, but I find it comforting to have one on my computer that I can access whenever I want that is laid out to my specifications. Of course, you can add a website link to where you submitted your tory, the name of the editor, and any other information (like a twitter handle) that you please, but I keep it simple.

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