Submission Protocol: Lengthwise

I’ve been writing this blog since 2015. In that time I’ve dispensed a lot of advice on how to handle the various aspects of submitting a story, usually in a series called Submission Protocol. In the last five years, however, my understanding of the submission process has grown, and as I look back at some of the old Submission Protocol posts, I realize that a) my stance on certain things have changed, and b) I’m just, well, more knowledgeable. Therefore, it’s time to revisit and update some of these topics, and we’re gonna start with something easy: story length.

Every single set of submission guidelines you read is going to tell you what length of story the market publishes. This should be one of the first things you check in the guidelines It’ll usually be listed as minimum and a maximum, like so:

Word Limit: 1000-5000 words, no exceptions

Pretty straightforward, right? The publisher will consider stories as short as 1,000 words and as long as 5,000 words. They will probably auto-reject any story that drops below the minimum or exceeds the maximum. Most publishers calculate word count by excluding the title, byline, and any contact information in the manuscript and count only the words of the story itself. So there’s no excuse not to count them yourself before you submit. It is NOT okay to submit a story even a little over the maximum or under the minimum, thinking the publisher won’t mind. They will, you’ll get a rejection, and you’ll end up looking unprofessional. So don’t do it.

Often times a publisher will list a word count range they will consider, but might have preferred story length. That looks something like this:

We want short stories between about 1,500 and 6,000 words. The sweet spot is around 4,500 words which is close to 30 minutes of story.

You’ll see guidelines like this fairly often. In this case, the publisher is an audio podcast and the preferred length of story has a lot to do with the preferred length of the podcast. It’s not that you shouldn’t submit a story that’s longer or shorter (as long as it’s within the range they publish), but it’s important to understand it might affect your chances. It could be a better idea to try and find a market that caters to your story length or even prefers it.

Flash Fiction, Novelettes, & Novellas

These three story lengths special cases, and there are things to consider even when a market will accept them.

Flash Fiction

These are stories under 1,000 words (though some publishers might set the limit at 750), and there are a number of markets that publish this length exclusively. There are also markets that technically publish flash, but it’s not their bread and butter. In my experience, selling flash to markets that don’t publish it exclusively is more challenging. It can be done, and I’ve done it, but I think markets that publish primarily short stories look at flash fiction as a novelty or even something to fill space or round at an issue. As such, they might only publish one flash piece per issue, reducing your chances of getting the story accepted.

Novelettes & Novellas

A novelette is a story between 7,500 and 15,000 words (generally), while a novella is usually between 15,000 and 40,000 (again, generally). The definitions of these two lengths vary from publisher to publisher, but there are a fair number of markets, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, that consider stories of these lengths. But, like with flash, these are generally outside of the typical story a market publishes, and they may only publish one per issue (or less). A lot of publishers are very upfront about this, though. For example:

While we try to have one longer work of 15-20,000 words in every issue, that is only one story out of a dozen.

So, like with flash, your chances of selling a novelette or novella are simply reduced because even markets that accept them might only publish one per issue. Unlike flash, however, which benefits from markets that publish sub-1000-word stories exclusively, there are no markets to my knowledge that do this for novelettes or novellas. So if you’re going to write longer stories, this is something to keep in mind. That said, some traditional book publishers will consider novellas, usually around 30,000 to 40,000 words, so that does give you another avenue to sell works at that length.

To sum up, one of the first things you should check in the submission guidelines is the length of story the market accepts. Your story should conform to those guidelines without exception because the first rule of submissions is we ALWAYS follow the submission guidelines. Right? Right.

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