Bunfight at the SF corral

There’s been much discussion on the internet over the past couple of weeks about pay rates for short stories. John Scalzi, author and respected member of the sff community, pointed out in this post that people who are serious about building a career as a writer shouldn’t virtually “give away” their work to low-paying or “for the love” markets unless they are getting some other advantage from the deal.

Some of the semi-pro magazines have experienced editors who can bring out the best in a story, for instance. Some of them get a lot of critical notice, leading to awards or inclusion in best-of anthologies. Some just cater to a particular niche that might fit a story that wouldn’t find a home elsewhere. All of these could be good reasons to forgo the big dollars – though with five cents a word counted as a professional pay rate, no one’s going to make their fortune on selling short stories.

Some leapt to hot defence of their beloved non-pro magazines, seeing slights where none were intended. The resulting debate has been enlightening.

Yes, I can see how people are happy to submit anywhere, just to get into print. I’ve done it myself, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s a great feeling to be able to say “I’ve been published”, even if it’s in a magazine that only the other contributors have heard of, like my ZineWest publication.

And yes, it may be good to experience the whole submission/working with the editors thing. It’s fun and it can be instructive, depending on the editor. And at least your work gets some readers rather than languishing in your drawer, though obviously not the wider exposure a big-name mag can bring.

But if you’re trying to build a career, people like Ann Leckie and Patrick Neilsen Hayden – people who ought to know – are saying not only are these minor credits not helping, they may actually be harming your efforts.

Obviously not all publication credits are created equal. Editors may be inclined to take a closer look if I can say I’ve been published in Asimov’s, whereas telling them I’ve been published in ZineWest means nothing. So much I knew. What I didn’t realise was that listing a string of unknown credits may actually put the editor off. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says in comments “speaking as a sometime short fiction editor, I find I’m much more encouraged by ‘Here’s a story, hope you like it’ than ‘Here’s a story, here are 25 mediocre small-press publications I’ve managed to eke out sales to over the last eight years thus making it highly unlikely that I am an undiscovered genius, hope you like the story.’ ”

Making it as a writer isn’t like climbing the ladder of promotion. You don’t get points for “serving your apprenticeship” in the smaller mags and working your way up. This from Ann Leckie: “I’m just telling you, if you’re submitting somewhere only because you think it’s necessary to have some credit, any credit! on a cover letter, that any credit at all that you can scrape up will make an editor pay more attention to your story, you’re absolutely dead wrong … Don’t worry about credits. Just write better.”

Which leads to the point somebody raised (sorry, I can’t remember who, I’ve read a lot of comments all over the place) that getting published in the easier markets may lead to complacency. “Hey, they think I’m good enough to publish, so I’ll send more stuff to them”, rather than striving to improve enough to make it at the big end of town. Again, not a problem if your goal is the fun of seeing your work in print, but if you want to be published by the pros you have to learn to write at pro level.

So the take-home message is: if you want a writing career, submit to the pros first, and move on to the semi-pros if you get rejected by the pros (unless you have some particular reason for aiming at the semi-pros, as discussed earlier). Aim high and keep working to improve your writing. I’d heard this advice before, from Jay Lake, but I have to admit I haven’t been following it. I guess I hadn’t thought it through properly. I’ve just been sending things out rather randomly, without formulating a proper plan of attack.

That needs to change, and I’ve found some recommendations of good markets through all this discussion, as well as discovering the amazing website http://www.duotrope.com/. I’m ashamed to say I’d heard of it before but never got around to looking at it. It’s a fabulous tool for a writer looking for places to submit.

Time to get serious!

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