How Long Does It Take to Sell a Story?

From first submission to glorious acceptance, how long, on average, does it take to sell a short story? The answer, of course, is dependent on a lot of factors, not the least of which is the author submitting the story. Since the only author I have hard data on is, uh, this one, let’s take a look at my submission records and see how long it takes me to sell a story.

Below are two tables with ten stories each. The first ten are short stories I’ve sold, which are generally 3,000 words or more. The second table are flash fiction stories I’ve sold, which are always under 1,000 words (mine tend to be right at that limit). A quick explanation of the table. The data points are when the story was first subbed, when it was accepted, and then how many days it spent under consideration with the various publishers I sent it to. Okay, let’s look at short stories first.

Short Story First Subbed Accepted Days Subbed
Night Games 2/2/2013 5/1/2014 387
Caroline 5/17/2014 4/26/2017 278
Paper Cut 9/28/2014 5/28/2016 347
Scare Tactics 11/2/2014 11/7/2015 177
Paint-Eater 11/9/2016 3/24/2019 143
A Point of Honor 12/17/2017 11/20/2018 264
Bites 1/10/2018 3/18/2020 690
The Past, History 8/28/2018 6/10/2020 261
The Back-Off 9/28/2018 10/14/2019 343
Reading the Room 6/6/2019 3/4/2020 146

As you can see, it takes me a while to sell a short story, an average of 303 submission days. Note the actual days differ from the submission days because I may not submit a story for a bit while I revise it, lick my wounds, weep in despair, etc. All the stories above received at least five rejections before acceptance, and four of them hit double digits. That said, every one of these stories eventually sold at semi-pro or pro rates rates in its initial acceptance or as a reprint. “Paper Cut” has the most rejections before an acceptance at 16, but “Bites” took me a lot longer to sell because it was shortlisted twice and held over six months both times, then rejected.

A few of these stories represent how a revision can make all the difference. Take “Paint Eater,” for example. I submitted it pretty steadily in the first year and it racked up eight rejections in that time. Then, I got some good feedback and let it set for another year and half before making a lengthy revision. I sold it on the first try after the revision.

Okay now let’s look at flash fiction and see how I do there.

Flash Story First Subbed Accepted Days Subbed
A Small Evil 5/19/2017 9/30/2019 343
What Kind of Hero 11/19/2017 7/13/2018 171
When the Lights Go On 12/6/2017 9/29/2018 294
Do Me a Favor 6/8/2018 7/6/2018 28
Far Shores and Ancient Graves 6/24/2018 8/29/2018 55
Time Waits for One Man 8/23/2018 4/19/2020 90
Ditchers 12/3/2018 6/28/2019 132
Liquid Courage 3/7/2020 4/1/2020 25
His Favorite Tune 3/24/2020 5/12/2020 28
Outdoor Space 5/4/2020 5/25/2020 21

As you can see, I sell flash fiction quicker than short stories, and all but two of these sold for semi-pro or professional rates. The average number of days these stories spent under consideration is 118 days. Now, that comes with a caveat. I initially tried selling “Small Evil” as a 2,000-word short story. It racked up eight rejections at that length. Then, for a contest, I cut it down to flash length and sold it on the first try in eleven days. So, if we only look at my attempts to sell “Small Evil” as flash, my average drops down to 85 days.

“When the Lights Go On” is a bit of an anomaly because I subbed it to a lot of pro markets that generally publish short stories and only a small amount of flash. I actually think it’s one of the best flash pieces I’ve written, and one of the reasons it took so long to sell is that, like “Bites,” it was shortlisted and held twice and held over five months before receiving a rejection.

So, why the disparity between how long it takes me to sell short stories versus flash fiction? Well, I have some rejecotmantic theories. 🙂

  1. Maybe I’m better at flash. I mean, it’s certainly possible, and I’ve sold four times as many flash fiction stories as short stories. I do enjoy writing flash, and, yeah, I think I’ve got the format down pretty well. So it could be that my success rate with flash is simply a product of a story length that’s more in line with my style, voice, etc.
  2. More pro markets. Running a quick search on Duotrope for pro markets in science fiction, I find 16 pro markets that accept short stories and 16 pro markets that accept flash fiction. Now that’s a little misleading. While many of the markets that accept short stories also accept flash fiction, flash is a more difficult sell to these publishers in my experience. There are really only a handful of true flash fiction markets that pay a pro rate. So, since I start with pro markets and work my way down, my short stories run a slightly more difficult gamut of tough pro markets, which are harder to crack and often take a bit longer to get back to you.
  3. More demand. Many flash fiction markets publish on a weekly or even a daily basis, so they often need more material than a publisher of short stories who might only publish six to eight stories per issue (which is often bi-monthly or even quarterly). In other words, your chances of publication are often better with flash. Not because flash publishers are just taking any old thing, but because, for example, they might take two good stories with a similar theme because they can put ten or twenty or even fifty stories between them, whereas a short story publisher might choose one or the other to ensure they have a broader range of stories within the small number they publish. In other words, some of the reasons good stories get rejected might not apply as much to flash fiction markets.

In conclusion, selling a story isn’t generally a fast process, and for me, selling a short story is downright snail-paced. I’m fine with that, but as I continue to write, submit, and develop my craft, I hope to sell short stories before they rack of ten-plus rejections and two years in submission. 🙂

Thoughts on how long it takes to sell a story? Tell me about it in the comments.

6 Comments on “How Long Does It Take to Sell a Story?

  1. Keeping a submission for 6 months is taking the piss.

    What I’m getting from your post is that these publishers are very poorly organised.

    • Oh, no, that is definitely not my point. It can take a publisher a while to respond for a number of very valid reasons. The big publishers receive hundreds and hundreds of submissions per month and even with three our four first readers that’s a lot to read and it takes time. On top of that, many publishers are small outfits with only a couple of people doing the heavy lifting.

      Also, as I mentioned in the post, getting rejected and resubmitting ten-plus times will definitely add months and even years to your submission time. 🙂

  2. This is a really interesting look into the numbers behind submission, rejection and acceptance. I love your theory on why flash markets might not take as long. It’s definitely got me thinking about my own numbers now. Thanks!

    • It is just a theory, but your chances of getting a story accepted at a market that needs to publish 300+ stories a year has to be somewhat better than a market that only publishes 36, right?

      • It’s a sound theory. Somewhere publishing weekly needs a lot more material than somewhere publishing monthly or quarterly.

      • Right, and again, they’re not just taking anything. They still want quality, and I think most editors at markets that publish bi-monthly or quarterly or even monthly will tell you they have to turn away good stories because there are only so many spots. A market publishing weekly or daily doesn’t have to do that as much.

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