At first, resist the urge to mail your newly conceived into the world. Spare your wallet the $3 on postage or tip jar (if you’re submitting online there may be online submission fees), and give your work some time to settle. Spare the editors who deserve something that no longer has an open fontanelle, but has matured to the point where it may at least step into the world without the extension of you.
If you’re not new to this game, but you’re eager to explore other genres, then you likely have an idea of what I’m talking about. Have you done the 2-3 feet stand-back, the 6-10? Am I now mixing metaphors of your newborn with an oil painting? Absolutely. Regardless, you get the idea--things can easily get messy. You want to have time/distance, as much objectivity as you possibly can.
If you’re in a writing workshop that you respect (and why should you be in anything other, unless I suppose it is foisted upon you because you are collecting a degree where you are required to participate), then you’ve brought this piece for comments, listened to said comments, determined whether they are genuine/useful, and/or incorporated some of these edits into your piece.
So you’ve determined that you’re ready to send your packet of poems (usually 3-5) or a story out, how do you select a market? Without knowing your work, I can’t give you a blanket answer, but I can give you some tips on figuring out this process for yourself.
1. Writer, know your work and yourself. Be honest about where you fall in the game of publication (yes, it is much like a game and it includes odds). If you are a beginner, you will likely need to start with beginning markets. This means not sending your work off to The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, etc. Think of this as building your credits, not as “Oh, my misunderstood genius.” If you really are a genius, you will be discovered--though it may still be posthumously--and be o.k. with that, too.
2. Start locally. Go on a hunt to find as many zines, little lit mags, college-affiliated journals, or start-ups and read them critically. Do they publish work that looks like yours? Do they favor formal/prose/lyric poetry? Are they into cross-genre? If you can’t answer this question about your own work--start getting an idea by comparison.
3. Flip through the acknowledgments section of your favorite authors’ books. Note which pieces of theirs resemble yours and then make a list of the journals where these were initially published. This may be more of a long-term strategy for those of you just entering the world of submissions, because your favorite authors will likely be published in places that are too much of a stretch for you, but sometimes you’d be surprised. There are many generous authors who throw a poem or a story to a small lit mag when solicited, so this is a good way to start generating a list of potential markets.
4. Get lost online, but productively so. You can literally spend hundreds of hours online researching journals, playing leap frog from one blog to another and at the end of these hours be left with nothing but exhaustion and a deeper questioning of your own worth as a writer. While I will continue to encourage you to be honest about your work and your intentions, I’ll also warn you not to fall into this trap. Set a goal for your online research and follow it. If your goal is to find all the small publishers within your state, then get out a spreadsheet and start compiling that information in a way that you may return to it another day (ie make columns for links, editors' names, contact info., submission deadlines/requirements, etc.)
5. Ask your writer friends where they first published and what their experiences with these journals were like. Did they wait over a year to receive a form rejection addressed to the wrong name? Did they receive a response that defied time-space boundaries? Were they encouraged and when their piece went to print how did it appear?
Granted we all make mistakes as editors, get a title slightly wrong or a worse sin—spell the writer’s name wrong or leave out a stanza or two. Though this is ultimately unacceptable, it does happen—we’re human—so the question would be, how did the journal handle this mistake when it happened? Did they apologize and reprint or correct the formatting online or did they ignore you or say they were going to fix it and in the end leave you without your closing stanza? These are good things to know before submitting. But be prepared, it will happen to you at some point and try to be gracious and roll with it.
6. Attend small press/zine fairs. Again, support your local markets. Go meet the folks who want to believe in you and your work. Believe in them. Do more than browse through their booth, buy a copy of everything you can afford. Consider it a resource and use this resource in your cover letter when you do submit. Tell them (sincerely so) how much you love the story on page 63 of Issue 3—be specific, name the author and say it would be an honor to have your work appear in their journal. If this isn’t so, don’t submit to them.
7. Pick up a copy of the latest Poetry Market/Story Market/Nonfiction Market. Once you flip through this 50 or more times (or hopefully you learn more quickly than I) you’ll be familiar enough with submission guides, names of journals, so you won’t likely need to buy a new copy every year. Make sure you always double-check the information online, because editor names change regularly and so do submission windows. This is just a good paper reminder that you’re on your way to getting your work out there and that it often comes with good tips on how to format/submit your writing professionally.
8. Don’t fall into the trap of vanity presses that prey on your ego and tell you that you are an award winner and they will publish your piece, but you will need to pay for a copy of their anthology. This is not legit, folks. Any place that requires you to pay to be published (and I’m not talking about paying as in a tip jar or a submission reading fee) isn’t a place where you want to build a credit.
9. Join a local chapter of a writing group whether through Meetup or Poetry Society etc. and share resources. If there isn’t one, consider spearheading your own.
10. Ignore, in part, what I said above. Choose at least 1-2 reaches every few months and send to these, because it’s good to push yourself. (Early on in the process of submitting, I earned one of my best publication credits at a journal that accepts less than 1% of submissions. I was also rejected from journals that were accepting far more than this. So, sometimes you may surprise yourself, pleasantly so.) Just don’t be heartbroken if these reaches don’t come through for you at first.
11. Remember why you’re writing in the first place. It will take time to get your name out there and even if you’ve been published in 50+ journals, you may not ever be well-known, so get good with your intentions. Why is publication so important to you? What are you trying to achieve? And whatever you do, don’t get so distracted by the urge to be published that you stop writing. Keep writing for you and if publication is meant to happen, it will, and it will take persistence.
3 Writing Resources:
New Pages reviews new lit mags and offers a pretty comprehensive list. Great resource for both beginning and growing writers.
Offers information regarding turn-around times on journals, other submission tips.
Most of you will know this, but it can be a useful reference and it showcases new journals to watch.
3 Lit Mags (New and Old) That I Think You Should Know
Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine (established in 2001)
These editors are incredibly supportive and they regularly nominate for Best of the Net, Best of the Web, Micro Award, Pushcart Prize, Best Creative Nonfiction, and storySouth Million Writers Award.
Fourteen Hills Literary Magazine (established in 1994)
This journal has an ever-changing editorial staff as connected to their MFA program, but they consistently generate a quality journal and extraordinary readings in San Francisco.
The Blueshift Journal (established in 2014)
Don’t overlook this group of highschool and young college editors. This is an incredibly determined collective that has already demonstrated a great capacity for publishing.