Make a List: It's Good for Your Literary Life
Chris Haven | March 2004
You've been good: you've researched the literary journal markets. You've browsed the stacks of the libraries, and made suggestions for acquisitions. You've requested sample issues. Occasionally, you've bought one at the newsstand. When you could, you've subscribed. You know where you'd like to see your work, where your aesthetic matches the market. Now you need a plan.
You probably already know that if you send your work out, you will receive rejections. The key is in knowing what to do in response. You don't want to sit and sulk. You need something that will remove the emotion from the moment and give you a clear indication of what your next step should be. You need a list.
I love lists. I have a clipping from an old issue of the Writer's Digest Fiction Fifty issue, which had an "Editors' Choice" of twenty five periodicals that "should be at the top of any writer's wish list." This was valuable to me at the time because it gave me a starting place. Since then, I have made several versions of personalized lists so that, when the rejected story returns, I will not have to spend time researching the next market. I can just put a copy in an envelope and get it right back out in the mail.
List-making certainly has its flaws, especially if the contents are taken as an indisputable value judgment. Any list-even your own-should be viewed with a modicum of suspicion. A list will be most useful as a point of departure, a way to focus your goals.
Even so, I wanted my list to be as objective as possible, so I attempted to quantify what was most important to me. First, I collected titles of literary journals. I narrowed the possibilities by considering only those publications listed in either Best American Short Stories or The O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories. While you probably can't name an award I wouldn't be happy to receive, landing in one of these anthologies is at the top of my wish list. While that desire shaped my list, I still had to eliminate those publications whose editorial objectives didn't correspond with my work. In the end, I listed a group of around 180. For your own purposes, you might want to narrow that field even further, or you might want to cast the net wider yet. In the end, though, you will need to gather a pool of titles. Next, it's time to rank them.
In order to create a list with a ranking system, I had to quantify and compare features. I had to come up with a list of categories. I settled on the following, in ascending order of importance. I give an idea of the scales I used, but I encourage you to develop your own system that weights your priorities accordingly.
Circulation. Not only do I want to see my stories in print, I'd like others to see them as well. Circulation can be a good indicator of exposure. However, figures you might find online, in The International Directory of Literary Magazines and Small Presses, the various Writer's Markets, or elsewhere are estimations at best. Often the stated circulation includes copies that are distributed to newsstands, but go unsold and are subsequently destroyed. In other cases the figures may be deliberately trumped up in order to make for a more impressive grant application. Other figures may be bloated because they include a subscription as an incentive for a contest entry. Still other publications may have no real idea what their circulation is, or they might not have bothered to update their entry for quite some time. Because of this uncertainty, for this category I created a scale with only slight incremental differences, assigning points ranging from ten for those with circulations ten thousand and above, to three for those below five hundred.
Affiliation. This is a tough one to gauge, but I wanted a category that would help ensure that the more established publications would rise to the top. I created a ten point scale where the highest ranking went to a recognizable organization, such as the Atlantic, and zero points to an unknown group with no verifiable history.
Longevity. Conventional wisdom might suggest sending to a newly established publication so you might get in on the ground floor, or because the odds of acceptance might be more in your favor. This may or may not be true (in fact, many inaugural issues are almost exclusively solicited), but I advise caution in sending to newly established markets. A few years back I published a story in Press, an attractive, widely distributed journal that published several award winning stories. While I remain happy with the experience, Press has since ceased publication. As a result, I have had some problems verifying this publication for certain grants and applications. In certain instances there is good reason to send to a new venture, but even so, if a publication has been around for less than five years, I give it zero points. This is the main reason a high-quality but beginning publication like Tin House does not appear higher on my list. I'm also taking a wait and see approach with DoubleTake which, if not for their recent difficulties, would rank #11 on this list. The publications that have been around the longest, such as North American Review (established 1815!) receive twelve points. Of course, it must be acknowledged that longevity does not assure a publication's continued existence, as we've seen with Story,Ohio Review, and recently the Partisan Review.
Payment. Whenever possible, writers should be paid for their work, so I heavily reward the handful of paying markets. $1,000+, ten points. $500-$999, nine points. $100-$500, seven points. $50-$99, five points. Below $50, three points. Occasional honorarium, one point. Contributor's copies only, zero points. Sometimes it's hard to compare rates because the payment is listed by the page. I took ten as an average page count, so if a publication pays $10/page, I rated it the same as a flat $100.
Report Time. This category was the primary reason I decided to create this list. If you've ever submitted, I don't have to tell you how excruciating it is to have your work out for six months, eight months, and longer. If the goal is to maximize your opportunities to land a publication, then you should favor those which respond quickly. I have kept detailed records over the fifteen years I've been sending out manuscripts, and I averaged the response time to get a personalized idea of how efficient each publication has been with my work. If a publication has lost a manuscript (which has happened several times), I counted that as a 365 day response time. For those markets I have not yet personally submitted to, I used their announced response time. My scale ranges from fifteen points for a response in twenty days or less to zero points for a response time that exceeds eight months.
Qualification. In order for a publication's stories to qualify for the annual awards, the editors must include the anthology on their subscription list. For some reason, not every publication sends to every anthology. I gave eight points to those titles who appeared in a single anthology's list, and sixteen points to those appearing in both.
Award Stories. If the journal landed a story in one of the two aforementioned anthologies in the last five years, it received two points per story, with one point per honorable mention. Not surprisingly, it's this category alone that gives the New Yorker an insurmountable lead. So, even though the Atlantic and Harper's have responded to my work faster, the New Yorker's dominance in placing stories in the yearly anthologies puts them at the top of my list. Ploughshares and Zoetrope have also had remarkable showings over the last five years, while venerable publications like Sewanee Review and Boston Review, oddly, have been shut out.
Having a list of ranked markets does not take the place of using good common sense about the kind of work that market will likely be interested in. I use the list below as a guideline only. Editors change, and markets change. Certain publications such as GQ and Grand Street do not appear because according to the latest information they are not accepting unsolicited fiction. Some publications like Mississippi Review have devoted themselves to publishing contest winners. This list also does not include excellent publications in niche areas such as Callalloo,Zyzzyva, or Calyx. If you have a story appropriate for a specialty market, don't hesitate to depart from your list. As always, the first criterion should be matching your work with the most appropriate market. Finally, even though these are listed as a discrete one through fifty, there really isn't much difference in the quality of the publications if you go five spots either way.
1. New Yorker
26. Tin House
So there you have my personal top fifty markets for fiction. In spite of the acknowledged limitations of the list, I believe keeping one has had a positive effect on my writing life. I feel like I know the markets to the best of my ability. I feel like I'm working as efficiently and effectively as I can for my own work. Psychologically, it has helped a great deal. Spending the time creating the list has allowed me to gain control of the marketing aspect of my career so I can focus more of my time on the actual writing. And because I would be happy to appear in any one of these markets, I no longer look at rejection as failure but rather as an opportunity to test the next market. This has helped me gain a degree of control over the process. And in an enterprise where all of the decision making is out of your hands, feeling any measure of control is a good thing.
Chris Haven's fiction has appeared in several journals and anthologies including Threepenny Review, Massachusetts Review, Press, Hawaii Review, RE:AL, and Phoebe, and is forthcoming in Confrontation. His first novel, The Disappearance of Hope Trimble, is currently on submission to publishers in New York City. He teaches creative writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.