I have to disagree with some of author Dean Wesley Smith’s conclusions about short fiction publishing, in his article “When to Mail Short Fiction To Traditional Publishers”.
First, he argues that there are only 4 or 5 science fiction magazines worth submitting to and only 2 or 3 for fantasy. If you’ve submitted a story to those top few places and none of them want to publish it, he thinks you’re better off self-publishing it as an e-book and starting to earn royalties from it immediately, rather than keeping it on submission to successively less high-paying and less prestigious magazines until someone finally accepts it.
He does offer the caveats that he’s only offering his opinion, that every writer has to decide for himself or herself which magazines are worth submitting to, that there are no right or wrong answers. He’s outlining his own strategy for deciding whether to try traditional or self-publishing for a short story in the hope that seeing his thought process will be helpful for other writers. He also suggests that if a writer doesn’t already have a track record and fan base, keeping a story on submission for longer might make more sense than self-publishing.
However, I’m not sure how he came to the conclusion that there are only 4 or 5 places worth sending science fiction to and only 2 or 3 for fantasy. And I’m surprised that the only science fiction magazines he mentions by name in the article (Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog) are both print magazines. Especially since some of the highest-paying and most prestigious magazines these days are online.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of magazines that publish fantasy and science fiction and pay at least 5 cents per word. I’m not distinguishing between print and online magazines in the list, because I submit my stories to both kinds. If anything, I have a slight preference for online magazines, especially online magazines that offer the stories as free content, because people are more likely to read your story if they can click on a link and immediately read it without paying anything (especially compared to the likelihood that they’ll order a print magazine off the Internet or go to a bookstore to look for it):
Analog Science Fiction and Fact (SF)
Asimov’s Science Fiction (SF)
Beneath Ceaseless Skies (F)
Buzzy Mag (F, SF)
Clarkesworld Magazine (F, SF)
Daily Science Fiction (F, SF)
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F, SF)
Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (F, SF)
LORE (F, SF)
Tor.com (F, SF)
Waylines Magazine (F, SF)
This is a deliberately conservative list. I left off magazines that are often closed to unsolicited submissions or that only accept a limited number of submissions each day, as these practices could be seen as hindrances to authors who want to submit stories there. I also omitted publications that have themes for each issue or give preferential treatment to certain nationalities. Otherwise I could have added AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Apex Magazine, ChiZine, COSMOS, Crossed Genres Magazine, Crowded Magazine, Lightspeed, Nightmare Magazine, Strange Horizons, and others.
I still ended up with 11 excellent places to send science fiction and 10 for fantasy. If I restrict the list even more to those considered “professional” by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, I get 7 for science fiction and 6 for fantasy.
Smith’s main argument is that an author loses money from potential sales the longer a story remains unpublished, and if you keep a story “in the mail” until it sells to a magazine or anthology, it might take years. (Of course, “in the mail” is an outdated term; of the magazines on my list, only Fantasy & Science Fiction still requires paper submissions sent through the mail. Everyone else prefers submissions sent electronically.)
The part about taking years is absolutely true. I’ve had all my short stories traditionally published in magazines before self-publishing them, and it’s taken between 1.5 and 7 years from first submission to publication. Losing money from potential sales? Sometimes true. Smith estimates that you can make $12.50 a month self-publishing a short story. Many authors can and do. Many others do not.
I’ve averaged $21 a month from sales of “The Shoemaker’s Daughter”, but that seems to have gotten a boost from the coincidental similarity of its title to that of Adriana Trigiani’s best-selling novel The Shoemaker’s Wife. My average monthly profits for each of the other 6 stories I’ve self-published range from 13 to 24 cents. At that rate, even if I sold a 5000-word story for 1 cent per word, I would be losing money on potential sales only if it took longer than 17 years.
The break-even point for a $10 sale, the lowest payment I’ve ever received from a magazine (for “The Shoemaker’s Daughter”, interestingly enough), would be somewhere between 3.5 and 6.5 years (“The Shoemaker’s Daughter” took 3 years). So should I give up on traditional publication after 3 or 4 years if a story has been rejected by every magazine that pays $15 or more? Maybe. But at my current level of unknown-ness, I think that getting published in even the most obscure magazines gives me a better chance of being discovered by a new reader who decides to look for more of my stories than self-publishing does.
Because traditionally publishing a story in a magazine doesn’t rule out self-publishing later. When you sell a story, the magazine doesn’t demand exclusive rights to it forever. Once the contracted period of exclusivity has ended (anywhere from 0 to 18 months after publication, in my experience), you can go ahead and self-publish. You just can’t do it the other way around, usually, because most magazines don’t pay much, if anything, for previously published stories. And that includes self-published.
I agree with Dean Wesley Smith that if an author is likely to make $12.50 per month from each short story they publish, it’s smart not to keep it on submission to magazines for too many years. But I also think it’s unwise, if you’re a new author, to assume that you’ll be making that much. And if you write short fiction, new magazines are starting up all the time. Don’t rule them out just because they didn’t exist 15 years ago. Self-publishing as we know it today didn’t exist 15 years ago, either.