Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] More on fiction submissions, time issues

A few days ago, I posted about starting at the top with one’s fiction submissions. [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ] As a followup, I was asked both in comments and by email what my view was on the time factors. You’ll note my original post glossed over issues of response time and inventory float.

Most of what I have to say here applies to writers with a fair number of stories in inventory, say at least fifteen to twenty. If you’re not putting one or two new, finished stories per month into circulation (ie, working on something like my “story a week” rubric), you probably don’t care so much about timing.

There’s several angles to consider here.

Serial Submission

One is serial submission. Let’s say you have a market which averages a 90-day response time. It’s a major digest, you’d really like to be in it, and it’s at or near the top of your “start at the top” list.

Now, multiple submissions — sending more than one story to a market at the same time, usually in the same envelope — is Right Out in our field. So are simultaneous submissions — sending the same story to more than one market at the same time. (There are exceptions, but I never do simultaneous other than by explicit discussion with an editor, simply because it’s too easy to screw up. And I never do multiple, except once in a rare while by accident.)

Serial submissions (what I sometimes call “pipelining”) are more of gray area. What I mean is, if your target market has a 90-day response time, you can send them a story every 45 days or so, and essentially have a story at two different layers of editorial pile at any given time.

This is risky, but not fatally so. (Unlike simultaneous submissions, which will annoy a lot of editors, and multiple submissions which can probably get you banned from some markets.) Some markets won’t let you serially submit because they have realtime tracking. Strange Horizons is a good example of this. Some markets have a read/buy pattern that is batched, so if you jump past a first reader with two pieces in a row, you risk having both stories on the acquiring editor’s desk at once and this potentially annoying them. Realms of Fantasy is a good example of this.

My view of this was always that it would be a good problem to have if I wound up competing with myself. Back when I was keeping 40+ stories in the mail, if I wanted them to start at the top, I had to serially submit. Not to F&SF, which turns fast, but to all the other majors. I do not recommend this practice, I merely observe that I followed it for some years. You risk annoying the editor. On the other hand, if your fiction rocks them hard enough, they’ll be annoyed enough to send you a contract. Caveat scriptor, homies.

I don’t bother with serial submissions anymore simply because my amount of inventory in the mail has dropped precipitously. Most short fiction I write now is invitational, and most of it sells to the requesting market. Last year I wrote one spec story. Except for some flash, the same has been true this year. I have pieces that bounced from their intended market, or are rattling around from a couple of years ago, and that’s about it.


Let’s say you have twenty stories in inventory. A new one comes into inventory on the average every three weeks. Ideally, you’re selling them back out at the same clip or better, but maybe not. Even with serial submissions (should you choose that path), stories are going to back up waiting to go to your top markets.

I used to keep inventory “float” in place. That was so whenever any market on my list came back with a response (rejection, acceptance, it didn’t matter) I had some stories available to send out. This meant that sometimes a story didn’t go to one of my top two or three markets first, simply because another market on my list opened up.

What float does is allow you to keep all the markets in submission rather than keep all the stories out. This strategy only makes sense if you have a surplus of stories in relationship to your top markets. And it requires that you pay quite a bit of attention to individual submission histories, so story 17 gets back to top market A even after it’s been to C, D and F. This, of course, was one of the purposes of my marketing spreadsheet.

Response Time

A lot of writers agonize over response time. I mentioned this in my previous post. My take on response time, even with notoriously slow markets, is that it doesn’t matter. You might rank a slow market below a fast one (Gordon van Gelder has publicly remarked he responds quickly in order to encourage people to send him new work first), but ultimately, if that slow market is on your “start from the top” list, you’ll wind up there.

The best cure for slow market anxiety is lots of inventory. If you only have one story in the mail, and you don’t send it out again until it comes back, it will take you half a decade to walk through any reasonable version of a “start from the top” list for our field. Every response time cycle will be pulsing agony. If you have four stories in the mail, you’ll have more responses, but it will take forever. If you have forty stories in the mail, trust me, you’ll never know the difference except when you check your spreadsheet.

In other words, response time is a chimera. Markets take however long they take. Write, submit and sell enough fiction to keep yourself from fixating on any single story in any single market, and you simply won’t care any more.


Use a spreadsheet.

Here, let me say this again:

Use a spreadsheet

Or a database, or something. Do not rely on your memory, or sticky notes, or papers in a folder at the bottom of your filing cabinet. Trust me, after three or four years and hundred stories in the mail to forty markets in varying combinations, you will have no idea where a given story has been, whether it’s out right now, and where to send it next.

Even with a spreadsheet mistakes happen, or at least I make them, but you have an audit trail and a hope in hell of catching the errors. The more time-delayed your submissions become, which happens naturally with increased inventory volume and elapsed time, the more confusing and confused the whole situation gets.

(At this point, I’ve run out of columns in my Excel spreadsheet, and need to move to a database, but I’ve been too damned lazy to configure it myself.)

I hope this helps. I’m interested to hear what people reading this think, especially editors and working authors.

ETA: Edited to correct switched definitions of “multiple submission” and “simultanous submission”. My thanks to joannemerriam for catching my mistake.

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

Tags: process, writing

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