Submission Guidelines: Check ’em Twice

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve no doubt heard me go on and on about the process of submitting a story. Well, most of that has to do with one very important factor: following the submission guidelines. I’ve written a bunch of posts on the subject, but I thought I’d put all that basic info together as a checklist. This is essentially the checklist I use when considering if my story will be a good fit for a particular publisher.

Here’s the list:

  1. General Info
  2. Story Length
  3. Sex, Profanity, and Gore
  4. Rights
  5. Payment
  6. Response Time
  7. Multiple and Simultaneous Submissions
  8. Manuscript Format & Submission Method
  9. Other considerations

The content and order of this list is specific to me and how I research markets before I submit a story. Other authors might place more or less importance an any of these factors (or include some I haven’t).  My list breaks down into three tiers, loosely based on how important they are in my research process.

  • The first tier (1-3) tells me if my story is something the market would even publish. Is it the right genre? Is it the right length? Is the content appropriate for the audience? If my answer is no to any of these questions, I move on.
  • The second tier (4-6) are things I consider if the story passes the first tier. That’s not to say the second tier is less important. Not at all. In fact, things like rights and payment are incredibly important, but I probably won’t bother reading about them in a market’s guidelines if my story is off genre or too long.
  • The last tier (7-9) are conditional considerations or considerations that aren’t likely to factor strongly into my decisions to send a story.

Okay, let’s get into the specifics with some examples.

1) General Info

Most publication have offer a general statement about the type of stories they want, and it’ll often tell you if your story is a good fit. Here’s an example:

We publish flash fiction in the genres of speculative fiction, specifically science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, super hero, or any combination of these.  We are looking for stories that are engaging to our readers in such a short word count.  Please take note of these factors (pun intended) when submitting stories to us.

This is a really thorough general want last, and it tells me a lot. We get general story length (flash), genres (sci-fi and fantasy), and even some sub-genres they’re interested in. This short statement tells me, for example, a 3,000-word horror story is not going to work here. That saves me a lot of time, and I’m sure it cuts down on the number of inappropriate submissions the publisher receives.

2) Story Length

Some publishers put their story length requirements in the general submission info. Others call it out elsewhere, so always look for that extra detail. Here’s an example:

Maximum word length is a firm 7,500 words. Anything more will be auto-rejected.

I find that most genre markets have maximum word lengths of between 5,000 and 7,500 words. Plenty of words for most short stories. Obviously, don’t send stories that are over the market’s maximum word length. This market even tells you what happens if you do. You’ll get auto-rejected, as you should. Don’t screw yourself right out of the gate by not following simple instructions. If you write short-form fiction, like flash or micro, you should check the minimum word length in the guidelines too. Not all markets publish the short stuff, and word count minimums between 1,000 and 2,000 words are not uncommon.

3) Sex, Profanity, and Gore

This one is higher on my list than it may be on yours, largely because I’m a horror writer and profanity and gore often appear in my stories. Sex rarely does, but that’s more personal style than anything else. If your stories tend to contain this kind of material, it’s a good idea to see if the market in question mentions their tolerance levels in the guidelines (most do). In other words, don’t send your F-bomb-laced slasher story to a market like this:

Please note: [publisher] does not publish explicit sex or violence. We are a little quirky about language as well: obscenity is fine in moderation, but profanity is not. (In short: We will not publish the f-word, and if your story invokes divinity, we ask that it actually be invoking divinity…)

Don’t waste their time and yours by sending the aforementioned slasher story to this market. It’s not cool. You’re just gonna get an auto-reject and make the editor question your reading comprehension skills. There’s no reason to do that when the vast majority of genre markets have guidelines that look like this:

Sexual Content & Language: We are okay with foul language and sexual activity within a story, provided it fits the story well. We do not publish erotica.

You’ll see the same kind of guidelines for gore, with “fits the story” being the key phrase. Sure, this is a little vague, mostly because when these elements are overused, it’s just something you feel and it can be hard to quantify. That said, my stories feature a fair amount of profanity and gore, and I’ve been published by markets whose guidelines read like the example above.

4) Rights

Now that you’ve determined the market publishes both the genre and length of story you’re submitting, and they’ll tolerate all your F-bombs, what happens if they do publish your story? Well, they’re going to acquire certain rights to the work that will look something like this:

We require first print and electronic rights for your story. We require exclusive rights for one year from the date of publication.

This is a pretty standard, in that I’ve seen these specific rights requested quite a bit in guidelines. I’m not going to give you any legal advice here, mostly because I’m woefully unqualified to do so. I’ll just say it is very important you understand what these terms mean, so do your research. There are a lot of reputable sites that can break down all the rights a market might request. To get you started, here’s a great article on the subject by Marg Gilks called Rights: What They Mean and Why They’re Important.  

Most publishers put the rights they’re acquiring in the submission guidelines, but not all. Sometimes you’ll only find that out after the story has been accepted. In my experience, those publishers will ask for something pretty similar to my example, but it’s important you understand what you’re giving away before you sign on the dotted line.

It’s rare, but I have passed on a market because the rights they wanted to acquire were not ones I wanted to give up.

5) Payment

I’ve yet to encounter a publisher that doesn’t list the monetary compensation they’re offering in the submission guidelines, even if they’re offering nothing. Here’s an example:

Fiction is paid at a rate of eight (8) U.S. cents per word based on our word processor’s word count and excludes title, author information, etc. The minimum payment for a story is sixty (60) U.S. dollars.  Payment is made no later than the date of publication via PayPal.

This market is offering a (very good) professional rate of 8 cents per word. They also give you helpful info about how they calculate word count, the minimum you can make for a story, and how they want to pay you. If you don’t have a PayPal account, get one. A lot of publishers prefer to pay this way.

Payment is generally broken down into four tiers. I’m using Duotrope’s definitions here, which seem to be pretty standard across the industry.

  • No Payment: Sometimes called “for the love of it” publishers, these markets do not offer any monetary payment. They might pay you with a subscription to their publication or author copies of the issue in which your story appears.
  • Token: These markets pay under 1 cent per word, and that’s usually a flat fee of some kind. For example, they might offer a flat payment of $10.00 for stories up to 5,000 words, which will work out to less than 1 cent per word in most cases.
  • Semi-Pro: These markets offer at least 1 cent per word, and that minimum of 1 cent is pretty common in my experience. The bigger, more established markets at this tier are usually around 3 cents per word. These markets sometimes offer a flat payment too, something like $100.00 for short stories up to 5,000 words. When you do the math, it’ll usually work out to somewhere between 1 cent and 5 cents per word (usually on the lower end of that scale).
  • Pro: These markets offer 6 cents per word and up. I have seen flat payments offered at this tier but not often.

I do consider payment when I send out a story, but it’s important to understand that payment isn’t always commensurate with a market’s prestige or reach. For example, in the genre market there are semi-pro magazines that are as well-regarded as the pro magazines and a few brand new markets that offer professional pay. On the other end of that spectrum, my lit-fic friends tell me that some of the most prestigious markets in that space sometimes offer no payment.

6) Response Time

How quickly a market responds is a fairly important consideration for me, and, I admit, I tend to shy away from those that take six months to send a form rejection. It may not be as big a consideration for you. Most publishers will list their expected response times in their guidelines, like this:

Response times will vary depending on volume, but may average twenty-four hours (or less!). Query after one month (include title and date submitted). Please do not respond to rejection letters, for any reason, otherwise.

This is from one of my favorite markets, and they mean what they say. They are fast. According to Duotrope, they average 1.7 days for a rejection and 8.3 days for an acceptance. They also tell you when it’s appropriate to query, which is very useful info. Lastly, they ask that you not respond to rejection letters. There’s really no reason to respond to a rejection letter anyway, and that goes double for a market that specifically asks you not to do it.

7) Multiple & Simultaneous Submissions

This is an important one if you’re a writer who likes the shotgun approach to submissions. Some quick definitions. Simultaneous submissions are when you send one story to multiple publishers. Multiple submissions are when you send two or more stories to the same publisher. Generally, a publisher will address both in their guidelines:

We will not consider multiple submissions. Submit once and wait for a response before sending anything else. We will not consider simultaneous submissions. 

Pretty straightforward, right? In my experience, there aren’t many genre publishers that accept multiple submissions, and the ones that do are generally markets for flash fiction. Simultaneous submissions are more common, especially if it’s a market that takes a little longer to get back to you (usually 60 days or more). The market in this example is super-fast, so no sim-subs is a perfectly reasonable position.

8) Manuscript Format & Submission Method

Almost every publisher will tell you how they want you to format your manuscript and which file types they prefer, and that’ll look something like this:

Submittable is our preferred method of submission. We accept most file types as well. Please use standard manuscript format for your story (although headers and footers are not needed). 

In my experience, most publishers want manuscripts prepared in standard manuscript format, sometimes called Shunn standard format. If you’re not familiar with this format, get familiar with it. Occasionally, a publisher will ask for standard manuscript format with some slight alterations. This market, for example, says you can omit the standard header and footer. Other markets might ask for a different font or ask that you not underline words meant to be in italics and simply use italics.

The majority of publishers ask for the most common file types, with .doc, .docx, and .rtf being the most popular. If a publisher asks you for a specific file type, I recommend you send them that file type.

Like I said, most publishers want something resembling standard manuscript formatting, but not all. Some will ask you to paste the story directly into an email or a submission form through one of the submission management programs, like Submittable or Moksha. (It’s not a terrible idea to create a (free) author’s account for these two services. I’m seeing them a lot more in submission guidelines.)

Should the requested manuscript format and file type be a consideration when you send out a story? In my opinion, no, unless you simply cannot comply for technical reasons. I’ll admit, some manuscript formatting guidelines can be a little, uh, unique, and that can be time consuming, but it’s never kept me from sending a story to a market I thought might publish it.

9) Other Considerations

This is kind of a grab-bag of miscellaneous considerations that are largely conditional. Here are some I might look for.

  1. Reprints: I do on occasion submit reprints, which are stories I’ve sold and the rights have reverted back to me. Not all publishers accept them, and if they do, I generally start at the top of my checklist and see if everything else is a fit.
  2. Publication format: Are they publishing in print or digital? Will the story be available to read on their site for free? Most of the time this is a marketing consideration for me. If the story is online and available as a free read, I can use my blog and social media to send folks directly to it. This doesn’t always appear in submission guidelines, and I’ve yet to come across anything that would keep me from submitting a story.
  3. Submission method: The overwhelming majority of publishers want work submitted through email or through a submission manager (Submittable, Moksha, etc.). I might balk a little at a publisher that only accepts snail-mail submissions, but, honestly, I can’t think of one that does that.

That’s my general submission guidelines checklist. Did I leave something off that you always take into consideration? Let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Submission Guidelines: Check ’em Twice

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