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Jay Lake
Date: 2008-08-26 05:55
Subject: [process] Fiction submissions starting at the top
Security: Public
Tags:process, publishing, writing

I was recently in an email discussion about short story marketing, and I mentioned the old “start at the top” theory. This seems like as good a time as any to touch back on that topic, which is a true evergreen in that it evolves but it never dies away.

One thing a lot of aspiring and very new writers seem to do is avoid sending their stuff to the big markets first. I’m here to tell you, you don’t get credit for earning your way up. (And yes, that’s exactly what I did in my career.) You sell to any market because the story is good and it meets the editor’s taste. Hitting a bigger market just means hitting the right kind of good and that particular editor’s right kind of taste.

The thing is, you don’t know. The writer is the worst judge of their own work. Make it as good as you can, send it out, and keep it out when it comes back. You also won’t get demerits for accumulating rejections. The opposite, in fact, with some editors, who may begin rooting for you if they like something in your auctorial voice or style.

So what does “start at the top” mean? The answer is not as inherently obvious as it might seem to be at first blush. I break it down into three axes:

  • Pay rate
  • Prestige
  • Career goal alignment

Pay rate is the easiest to understand, and it’s often where people will begin and end their analysis. The best paying non-invitational market used to be SCI FICTION. It may be Jim Baen’s Universe now, but I’m not certain any more. A number of markets cluster in the $0.050 - $0.070 per word range. This is a very valid way to evaluate markets, and absent other determining criteria, is a perfectly good decision driver.

However, prestige counts, too. A pair of simple examples of markets whose prestige is out of proportion to their pay rate: Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Talebones. If you went by pay rate alone, you might never look at either one of them. Yet if you dip into the year in review and honorable mentions sections of YBSF and YBFH, you’ll see stories from those markets very well represented. They get good critical coverage, and they are read in significant part by an audience of people already working in the field.

Career goal alignment matters, also. Analog pays well and is highly prestigious, but if you want to be an epic fantasy writer, and your short fiction runs toward the lesbian zombie airship pirate subgenre, Analog should probably not be your first choice of markets. The inverse is true of Realms of Fantasy — if your stories clank when they walk, maybe they don’t want to seek RoF as their natural market. This of course requires an understanding of the demographics and positioning of the markets you’re submitting to. The Locus year in review issue is useful for this, as are the aforementioned Year’s Best volumes, but in truth, nothing substitutes for reading the actual markets themselves.

[ ETA: As lordofallfools correctly points out, one of the best markets for aspiring writers is Writers of the Future. That market is by definition a one-shot (well, ok, a two-shot), but it can be real boost in all three senses outlined above. It certainly was to my career. ]

What this all boils down to is that your list of “start at the top” markets will have a lot in common with other people’s lists, but it will vary. As you submit more, and sell, your list will evolve — sending first to an editor who’s expressed interest in your work via a checkbook is both good business loyalty and plain old common sense.

Do you have a different take on starting at the top?

Originally published at jlake.com. You can comment here or there.

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User: lordofallfools
Date: 2008-08-26 13:17 (UTC)
Subject: Top Market for New Writers
You might want to mention Writers of the Future. Pay is professional, it gets lots of critical coverage, and is explicitly aimed at collecting the works of new SF/F/H writers.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-08-26 13:18 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Top Market for New Writers
Duh. And it was a very important market for me, personally.

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User: squirrel_monkey
Date: 2008-08-26 22:37 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Top Market for New Writers
Might violate alignment :)
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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2008-08-26 13:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My only comment is that you're on a roll with the great writing process posts. :)
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Douglas Cohen
User: douglascohen
Date: 2008-08-26 13:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey Jay,

I agree with your post and would like add and/or support a couple of things:

"The opposite, in fact, with some editors, who may begin rooting for you if they like something in your auctorial voice or style."

I agree with this 100%. I know there are certain authors I come across in the ROF slush who have submittied stories in the past that I've rather enjoyed. When I come across new submissions from them, I certainly get my hopes up. I'll still reject these stories if I don't think they're right for ROF, but it doesn't change the fact that I am rooting for the author.

Also, you mentioned pay rate, prestige, and career goal alignment as determing factors in where to submit. I agree with all of this. I would add that circulation levels might influence decisions as well, i.e. some authors may want to submit to the places where the most eyeballs will be reading their work.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2008-08-26 13:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I generally advise people - once they are ready to start subbing their work out at all - to statr at the top, and find what level you can sell stories to. If you start at the bottom, you'll never know whether you could have sold that story for a coulpe of hundred bucks... and you wno't know whether or not you're improving.

By coincidence, just today I did a stat breakdown against pro and less-then-pro markets, and it's clear there IS something of a divide.

Pro-rate responses: 58. Pro-rate sales: 2.
Less-than-pro-rate responses: 112. Less-then-pro-rate sales: 18

So I sell a touch over 3% of the time at pro rates, and 16% of the time when I aim lower. That tells me I'm good, for certain values of good (a sidebar - eight of my stories have sold at their first market, which I'm given to understand is a pretty high percentage for someone who isn't getting anthology invites or commissions), but I clearly need to be better to get that pro rate percentage notched up higher.

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User: manmela
Date: 2008-08-27 15:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've always taken response time over everything with prestige as a close second. Whilst I appreciate some places get overwhelmed with submissions and need time to go through them all, there are some publications that seem to wear the length of their response time as some sort of badge of pride. Great! If a publisher wants to tell me it'll be 9 months until I hear back, fine... they just won't get any submissions from me.

And it's one of the reasons Lone Star Stories is one of the first places I submit to!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-08-26 14:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thenk yew.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2008-08-26 15:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd add one other thing into the mix. Time. Both response time and writing time. I'd say it's a subset of career alignment.

If you're fast, you start clogging up the top markets pretty quickly and have to either pile up stories on your desk or move down the list--I'm fast enough to have it get ugly over the course of a year or two, but I can't even imagine how the effect worked for you Jay.

If, on the other hand, you're slower and you only produce a story every few months, you will likely have different priorities.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-08-26 15:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's a very good point, and in fact I had a bunch of time-dependent elements in my submission process. I suspect most people don't deal with the kind of inventory I was pushing between 2002 and 2006 or so, but it might be worth elaborating on in a future post.
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User: ext_56672
Date: 2008-08-27 12:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Please do!
This summer there were a lot of very good semi-pro markets that were temporarily closed to submissions. This caused me to feel like I had a backlog when I had only a handful of stories circulating. Seeing your perspective on how to deal with time-dependencies would surely help some of us with decisions revolving around -- do I wait until market X reopens, or do I send it off to a market lower on my list.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-08-27 12:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'll see if I can fit that in this afternoon!
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User: ex_kaz_maho
Date: 2008-08-26 16:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Timely post for me - thanks for the advice and wisdom, as always. I have an agent for my first novel, but haven't written short stories for many years. I sent one off to the 'higher' end of the market last week - something new I'd been working on - and even said to a friend, "I think I'm probably aiming too high with the market..."

I believe in starting at the top, though. I did that with agents, and got my top choice that way. :)
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Mary Dell
User: marydell
Date: 2008-08-26 17:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks, this is a nice breakdown of different ways of looking at it. I also consider response time and feedback, because I'm still in the stage of collecting rejections. If a story is mainly going to be taking soundings of the market for me, without actually selling, I'd rather it gathered a lot of data quickly so I can apply that knowledge to my writing process.
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whafford: belize
User: whafford
Date: 2008-08-26 22:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Very helpful post. I appreciate all the advice and the comments from all the others help too. I'm trying to figure out where to query first and I fear I suffer from the idea that I can't start at the top because I don't have enough published already. Thanks for setting me straight!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-08-26 22:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Happy to help!
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User: lt260
Date: 2008-08-26 23:00 (UTC)
Subject: A Slightly Different Angle
Great advice, Jay. In one sense, what you are advising is to target your story to the best market based on criteria that meet your needs (pay/advancement/notoriety/ego boo). How about a slightly different PoV? To wit:

A) Produce a market list that also includes what stories those markets are looking to purchase.
B) Produce a subset of markets with common denominators.
C) Write a great story that specifically targets those common denominators.
D) Submit the story to the markets on the subset list.

This is not that much different except that the story comes after the market research. I don’t know of a writer using this method nor even if this method would be viable. I suppose that it would be difficult for a new writer because the talent it would take to write to the market is something that is acquired with experience. What is your take on it?

A slight twist on the above would be contests. True, they are one-shot markets -- but isn’t it also true that stories, submitted to contests, can afterwards be sent out to other markets? If so, wouldn’t these stories, written for the specific criteria of a contest, be easier to target to specific markets?
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User: csinman
Date: 2008-08-30 04:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Now that I've mulled this over, I have a question regarding prestige as a priority: Do you know of an easily referenced graph somewhere online of the publications that yield the most Year's Best choices? I read Ellen Datlow's blog, and she lists them of course, but I wondered if someone else had done the dirty work for me and figured out trends in Year's Best picks. My Google-fu has failed.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-08-30 12:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yanno, I don't really know. I just kind of learned what I know by osmosis.

Might be a good project for you?
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