Recently (just this morning, in fact, while taking a shower) I came up with an interesting idea for a short story. Lately I’ve been trying to get one of my little sci-fi short stories published somewhere, and the story I’m currently sending around doesn’t look very promising. One of the big things that reduce its chances is that it’s a longer piece (around 3,700 words). The sci-fi mags I’ve been sending to prefer shorter stories. They have two very good reasons for to: firstly, a shorter piece costs them less money (since they pay by the word) and secondly shorter stories are easier to read, especially on the web. So I’ve been on the lookout for some short story ideas that I can work out in only a few hundred words or so.
The idea I found this morning fit under that description pretty well (at least, I think so; I know myself, and I could probably stretch it out to a couple thousand if I’m not careful). I really like the story, I like how it will flow, I like the message it will send, I like the characters I’ve thought up. I have only one problem: the story isn’t sci-fi. There is nothing about the story that requires any sci-fi elements whatsoever. Now naturally I could put it in a sci-fi setting with no problems; but the story works just as well in the 1800s as it would in the year 3000. So why am I limiting myself to a sci-fi setting?
That got me thinking. I know a good amount about submitting to sci-fi publications, but I hadn’t researched any other genre of fiction. I remembered my creative writing class where my teacher told us that, while he personally really enjoyed “genre fiction” (which means sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, etc) it was “literary fiction” that would really make your career as a writer. I was interested at first, especially when I heard that he’d had a few short stories published himself. I quickly lost interest after I asked him how much literary magazines typically paid, and he told me that he was never actually paid for his work. Instead by being published he had gained greater exposure. It helped his reputation, so that eventually he could be published by the big and prestigious magazines and could generally make a name for himself in the literary world. That was a big turn off for me. I’m open to being wrong, but I have studied (metaphorically) under the school of artists like Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellett, and my big brother Steve Hamilton (whose wonderful works you can find here, among other places), all of whom taught me three things: your art is worth something, people who claim that their “exposure” is better than getting paid are trying to take advantage of you, and you should never sell away all the rights to your work. Now lesson three doesn’t really apply here, but lessons one and two kept me from investigating literary fiction any further. Still, now I had a cool story idea that didn’t by necessity have to be “genre.” Why not give non-genre publications a chance?
So I did some investigating. I’d like to share my findings with you, as small and cursory as they are, in the case that you might find them useful or interesting.
Lets look first at the biggest and the best literary magazines. These are the ones that I know I have no chance of getting into. Still, why not start at the top? I did the same thing when I was researching what was a reasonable price to be paid for sci-fi short stories. In that case I found that the best and most prestigious publications paid more, but not significantly more, than the more middle of the road publications. Figuring out what the big boys pay gives me a good sense of what the ceiling is for literary short stories, regardless of my (non-existent) chance of getting published in them. I looked at five magazines I got from a “Most Prestigious Literary Magazines” list. Number one was The New Yorker, which was surprising to me. I didn’t know that The New Yorker published short stories. As it turns out they only publish one an issue, so it’s not surprising that I was unaware. They take unsolicited submissions online, though they didn’t say how much they would pay on their website. I Googled around and found that nobody (except the people at the New Yorker and the writers who are published) knows precisely how much they pay for a story. However we do know that they pay a LOT. Thousands of dollars per story seems typical. Of course this is The New Yorker we’re talking about, so I didn’t expect anything near that from any publication I could get published in.
Ploughshares gave me a more believable (from my point of view) price point. They pay $25 a page with a minimum payment of $50 and a maximum of $250. That’s compares very reasonable to sci-fi pricing which pays about 5 to 10 cents a word typically, which translates to about $15-$30 dollars a page. The other three magazines on my list (The Atlantic, Harpers, and Tin House) didn’t list any price whatsoever. Still, I had my data point. Now I investigated a few middle of the road publications at random to see what I might be able to get for my story.
I discovered two things: first, there is a huge amount of literary magazines to choose from. There are hundreds. Some are well respected publications with a large readership. Some are sponsored by a university. Some are just glorified WordPress blogs. The second thing is that almost none of them are willing to pay for your work. After slogging through a dozen I only found one that provided compensation, and they paid a flat fee of $25 regardless of length. The rest weren’t willing to put up a dime. One of them in particular really got me riled up. I won’t name names (I don’t want to give them the traffic) but the “magazine” was just a WordPress blog with it’s own domain. In the first paragraph on their submissions page they let people know that “Our only criteria is quality.” Really? So you want quality work, but you’re not willing to pay for it? Cuz hey, for what you’re paying (that is, zilch) I’d gladly let you publish the stories that the paying publications rejected. If you want my quality work then you’ll have to pay for it. What would you think if someone put out an ad saying “WANTED: skilled carpenters to remodel kitchen. Only applicants that do quality work will be accepted. We won’t pay you, but you’ll get some exposure when we show our kitchen off.”
That wouldn’t have been enough to warrant complaining about here on the blog, but what I found next put me over the edge. Apparently they’re in the midst of selling a book collection of the stories they’ve published this year. This was bad enough (the stories were good enough to sell at a profit, but not good enough to pay for?) but what I found next took the cake. They were having a “submission contest” for stories to put into their next book. They charged $11 for the privilege to submit a story to be considered for publication. They are charging writers so that they can, in turn, sell their work to other people at a profit. One story would be chosen as the grand winner. I thought “Alright, maybe they’re not total scumbags. Maybe the cash prize is worth the risk. Then I found out that the grand prize was 100 copies of the final book, to sell on your own or give to your friends.
Let me just spell this out, one more time. They are charging writers for the privilege of having their work sold at a profit without compensation for the hope of winning a prize that consists of advertising their publication for them.
The mind boggles.
Listen, maybe I’m a crazy coot. I haven’t sold a single story, haven’t made a single penny at writing yet. So take my advice with a generous helping of salt. But please, if you’re an aspiring writer out there, listen to me. If your work is good enough to be published (ie, good enough for them to make money off of it) then it is good enough pay for. Do not devalue your own work. Writing is a skill, a skill that takes time and effort to sharpen. Insist on being compensated.
As for me, I’m going to take my short story idea and place it in a sci-fi setting. Because at least they respect that a writer deserves to be paid.