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ann_leckie
So, the scuffle-du-jour is Scalzi's scolding of Black Matrix Press for offering writers one fifth of a cent per word--while launching four magazines at the same time, magazines that cost ten dollars an issue.

Part of the conversation is about whether or not it's worth it for a writer to submit to markets that pay less than SFWA pro rates--that would be five cents a word.

Now, if you want my personal advice, you want to consider two--maybe three--things when deciding whether to submit somewhere. You, as a writer, want money, yes, of course, and you also want eyeballs. You want people to read your work. Usually--not always, but usually--the money is a good indicator of the actual number of readers a particular venue has. There are a few zines where this doesn't match up, where token payments go along with "lots of people read this" and/or the "maybe" third--"this zine has a good critical reputation." Token payment doesn't necessarily mean nobody reads it or it's not worth being published there. Knowing which places those are--well, that requires paying attention to the field, doesn't it? Gotta do your homework.

Which leads me to the thing I actually want to talk about today. Everytime this sort of conversation comes up, someone--often several someones!--argue that newbie writers have to sub to low-paying, tiny markets because that's how you get credits to put in your cover letter, and that's what makes an editor actually pay attention to your story.

No. NO! This is wrong. This is so wrong, I'm not sure the English language is able to express just how wrong it is.

Look, I read slush. Here's the bottom line: The thing that makes an editor pay attention to your story is a kick-ass story. Period. The End. It doesn't matter if you have good credits, or any credits at all.

Now, it's true if you have good credits you can sometimes jump the slushreader. It's true that if you have good credits, an editor will start reading with the expectation that what she's about to read is not, in fact, going to be the sort of headdesky slush that gives the slushpile its name and reputation--a reputation, I might add, that is thoroughly deserved.

But its also true--I am telling you this on my honor, I swear this is absolute truth--that if the slush reader rejected you, jumping the slush reader would not have helped you. I swear it. If JJA rejects you, over at F&SF, I swear to you on my sainted grandmother's grave, Gordon would have done the same if he'd seen your story.

And it is absolutely true that if your story totally rocks, if it's compelling, the editor will sit up and take notice. She will pay attention. Whether you have credits or not. No, really. The editor does not actually care about your credits. She cares about the story.

Now, as I said, "good" credits will lead an editor to expect, before she ever starts reading, that your story is at least going to be readable. This will give you a little leeway--maybe a bit more patience with a slow or otherwise dubious start.

But just any old random credits? Will not help you. In fact--and I hesitate to say this, but I'm going to be very honest here--there are credits that can have the opposite effect.

No, I'm not going to tell you what they are. Some of them are just personal to me, zines that might pay decently or have a good reputation, but I have rarely been bowled over by what I've read there. Others...well. When I read a cover letter that tells me the author was published in "Fairly Reputable Journal of Stories Ann Doesn't Like" and/or "Tiny Zine That Pays Nothing and Ann Doesn't Really Like Anything They've Published" I find myself not quite so enthusiastic about reading the sub. And when a cover letter claims credits from ten to twenty small zines and maybe I've heard of one of them*...I am not particularly impressed.

Those credits will not get you a better shot with the editor. They just won't.

Now, I read every story anyway. Because that's what the job is all about. And I pass up the stuff that needs to be passed up, no matter what. Credits are irrelevant.

There is no point in submitting to a tiny market for no pay just to get a credit you can put in a cover letter. That credit is useless to you. If you are being relentlessly rejected by well-regarded publications, it's not because you have "no credits," it's because you need to step up your game. Seriously.

There's a slim chance that you're consistently being bounced by the slushreader because you are a genius who is ahead of your time, or because the sort of thing you do just isn't in style even though your work is utterly brilliant.

There's also a slim chance that you could jump out of an airplane with no parachute and survive.

Where's the smart money?

Aim high. Those 4-the-luv markets aren't your first stepping stone on the way to the pros. If the pros are what you're aiming for then for pete's sake, aim for the pros.

That said. When you run out of high-pay, high-reputation places to send your story, by all means, move down the line. Myself, I'd rather get ten dollars for a story than nothing at all. Though of course I'd rather get ten dollars from somewhere that I know people read, and I personally don't submit to places that as far as I can tell don't have readers to speak of. Your personal cutoff may be different, and that's fine. I'm not here to tell you who to submit to, and who not to submit to.

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. The credits that will give you a (slight) edge are precisely those professional markets you're trying (and failing) to impress. And no credit in the world will make up for writing that isn't up to standard.

Don't worry about credits. Just write better.





*I troll ralan and duotrope just like every other writer. I pay attention to the conversations going on in the community. I know what stories, and what publications, people are talking about, and hence reading. If I haven't heard of it, chances are not many people are reading it. This is not an infallible rule--but it's held up well over time.

Hear hear!

My cover letter stated "I have no previous professional sales" and it certainly didn't affect the editor's decision to buy. He bought.

Unless you're an up and coming name and can list out that you were in several 'cool kids' pubs already, it's best to just pick one or two of your better-paying acceptances OR to list a pub that is similar to the one you're subbing to.

After all, a sale to Analog is not going to help me sell to a fantasy market.

Oz

Well, except. Analog is a big enough venue, and hard enough to get into, that a given editor can expect a certain quality from someone who managed to sell there. Will it help you sell? Probably not. But it might, if you're submitting something slow-starting, or odd, give a reader reason to keep going to see if it pays off. That's the slight edge you get, for that credit. :) Unless the editor you're subbing to hates Analog's picks...but there's nothing anyone can do about that sort of thing.

Hi! I'm a stranger here, but was directed to your awesome post on this kerfuff and I Could Not Agree More.

I think that the source of this misconception comes from print journalism. In print journalism, one good way to get a story assignment from $Big Paper has traditionally been to present a bunch of clips of your stories from $Small Paper, which you got assignments for by presenting them with a bunch of clips of your story from $Tiny Paper.

Of course the two situations aren't actually comparable, but I think that the conflation of them is the source of this persistent canard.

I am now seeing this in the novel-writing sphere, where people appear to believe that the easiest way to "break in" to the field of publishing novels with big trade publishers is to self-publish a novel, then parlay that into small press publication, then parlay that into a big contract from Random House or Penguin. Equally if not more ridiculous.

Ah, I don't think you're entirely a stranger to me, I think I've seen you around in various comment threads. :)

You might be right, about non-fiction writing, that makes sense. Ditto on the self publishing.

I suspect, also, that conventional job-hunting advice affects people's cover letters--a fair number of people try to talk up themselves or the story, as though that's going to affect anything. But that aspect of cover letters is a whole other rant.

Thank you for your insight. I recently ran a story through some higher paying markets, and then submitted to a token market because the story fit the niche market and it was a market I appreciated. However, I in no way perceived that sell as a "stepping stone" in terms of creditials to bigger markets, but just as a little reward, and a home for the story. I plan to continue to improve in my writing and submit to higher paying markets in the future. Whether I use my token market publication in my cover letter will depend on who I am submitting to.

Yes, completely. I am a firm believer in finding a home for stories! The best sale, IMO, is one to a venue that you're happy with, where your story fits and is appreciated.

One of the things that's bothered me about some of the discussion is the, in some quarters, repeated insistence that they certainly never sub to markets that pay less than pro, and no one else should either if they take their writing seriously. But there are all kinds of interesting places that chose neat, interesting stuff that you don't get to see in the big mags, for whatever reason.

Thanks for this whole post in general, but specifically for this. My first ever fiction sale was to Pseudopod, a market which I adore and pays semi-pro. I couldn't be happier with making that first sale to *that* market. Especially these days.

It's important to aim high and it's important to find markets that excite you as a storyteller.

(Deleted comment)
Yay! Aim high! If you aim high, you might end up hitting low--but maybe not.

If you aim low, you'll only hit low.

"That said. When you run out of high-pay, high-reputation places to send your story, by all means, move down the line. Myself, I'd rather get ten dollars for a story than nothing at all."

I have a slightly different take on this point, only because I've found that it's not a choice between $10 and nothing. There's a third option, which is to set the story aside for a while. Sometimes new markets will open up. Other times, I come back to the story a few years later and I'm able to see things I can change to make it better. I've sold several stories to good-paying (for SF/F) projects that way.

"Don't worry about credits. Just write better."

Yes. Also yes, yes, and yes.

Yeah, I agree, there's a point that you come to, wherever that cutoff is, when it's better to put things aside and wait to see what might come around. Mine isn't actually ten dollars--or, my calculation isn't strictly based on money, as I said above. I was oversimplifying that a bit.

Ann, I agree with nearly all of this. Most of the time, credits on the letter don't make any difference. And absolutely, you should aim as high as you can to start with. ("High" = "Markets that publish work you admire.")

I would push back a little, though, on the (implied, probably unintentional) notion that the quality of writing is a linear scale, i.e., "Just write better." Sure, the mechanics are linear: either your grammar is secure or it isn't. But flavor of the imagination, the type of character people like to see in a given situation, the amount of surprise vs. predictability in the plot, "plausibility" of the premise, type and variety of language, voicing choices, etc. -- these are heavily subjective. Thus a writer may receive, as I have received, a rejection letter full of praise from Pro Market X for the same story that got a form-letter ding from Pro Market Y, and exactly the reverse for the next story.

Consequently, much as a slush reader might be sympatico with the EIC, there are bound to be places where the first 350 words just don't resonate sufficiently with the slush reader to make him/her turn the page, but might so resonate with the editor. (I hear you, I hear you, about John & Gordon etc. But it can't be a 1.0 correlation or even a 0.8 correlation; it just can't.) Thus, having an external reason for the slush reader to turn that second page ("I graduated from Clarion", "I published in XYZ mag," etc.) is a good thing, because maybe, when s/he gets to the third page, s/he'll be hooked. Natch, somebody like Mike Resnick will see such a credit and snort derisively, unless it mentions a Hugo Award. But not everyone.

For example: Duotrope says that F&SF accepts roughly one out of every 400 submissions, and that's probably optimistic. Of those rejections, probably 80% or more never get past the slush readers. Further, F&SF publishes 95% of its stories from established writers. What this means, inevitably, is that solid stories by strong writers are going to get slush rejections. Anything that can better the odds, it seems to me, is a plus.

Nothing in this comment contradicts anything you have said, or I don't think so. But the fact is that most new writers, even new superb writers, are going to experience dozens, maybe hundreds of dings at the Analog-Asimovs-F&SF-SH-Fantasy-Clarkesworld-Interzone level, and "aiming" for them is realistically a matter of "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's Heaven for?" Of course, I do exactly that -- but I do it with the expectation of being rejected, and so I get all excited when I get even one of those praiseful letters, and I fell out of my chair Friday when I got an acceptance. Otherwise, if I had anything resembling expectation, I would have been discouraged long ago.

I would push back a little, though, on the (implied, probably unintentional) notion that the quality of writing is a linear scale, i.e., "Just write better." Sure, the mechanics are linear: either your grammar is secure or it isn't. But flavor of the imagination, the type of character people like to see in a given situation, the amount of surprise vs. predictability in the plot, "plausibility" of the premise, type and variety of language, voicing choices, etc. -- these are heavily subjective. Thus a writer may receive, as I have received, a rejection letter full of praise from Pro Market X for the same story that got a form-letter ding from Pro Market Y, and exactly the reverse for the next story.

Yes, absolutely. I don't mean to imply that there's only one kind of good story. Indeed, one of the reasons there are different magazines to begin with is because they value different things and their editors have different tastes. This is a good thing. I don't mean to say at all that if you never get past JJA or whoever is slushing for Asimovs, or wherever, you're no good--but if every time you send something to a market you consider desirable or reputable (your list likely differs from mine, everyones does I imagine) it's not because you don't have credits or don't know the right people or...whatever.

ut the fact is that most new writers, even new superb writers, are going to experience dozens, maybe hundreds of dings at the Analog-Asimovs-F&SF-SH-Fantasy-Clarkesworld-Interzone level, and "aiming" for them is realistically a matter of "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's Heaven for?" Of course, I do exactly that -- but I do it with the expectation of being rejected, and so I get all excited when I get even one of those praiseful letters, and I fell out of my chair Friday when I got an acceptance. Otherwise, if I had anything resembling expectation, I would have been discouraged long ago.

Congratulations!

And yes, I don't mean to encourage expectation. I mean to encourage persistence and ambition. Aim high and you probably won't hit--but aim low and you certainly won't.

Thanks for the congrats!

I'm always trying to remind myself that "prestigious" markets, "well-paying" markets, and "markets in which I'd feel proud to publish" are three different things.

If I recall correctly, F&SF has a higher acceptance rate than you're indicating, IIRC. However, that's including submissions from known and worked-with authors. For pure slush, it may well be worse…

I don’t think you’re correct about the relationship between slush readers and editors. At least in the relationships I’m aware of, slush readers pass up anything that looks like it has potential for the market, however slim. Ann frequently passes things to me with a note like “This is boring and the ending flops, but the prose doesn’t suck…” There will still be exceptions where an editor would have kept reading where the slush reader left off – there always are – but they’ll be rare, because slush readers are being very generous.

Well, being generous within the specifications of their market. I mean, we’ve all had that experience where a story will get a low-level form in one place and then be a critical success elsewhere. I once had a story that got a low-level form from JJA and ended up in a year’s best antho. But I don’t think that was a problem with JJA as a slush reader – that story would never have worked with F&SF. Even reading as a generous slush reader, there was no reason to pass that on to Gordon.

Also, I don’t think anyone’s saying you shouldn’t load your cover letter with things that might give you an advantage. But not just any credit will do that. A good credit is like getting a good recommendation letter. Poor credits are usually like being recommended by your mom – it’s good that she likes you, but unlikely to affect the editor. But a genuinely bad credit can actually nudge the reader against you, in the same way that a good credit can nudge her toward you.

I think that’s the situation Ann is addressing. People seem to think that any credit, even from the worst place, will get them a boost, but that’s not true, and it’s worth letting people know that. There’s no need to work with markets that you don’t like only so that you can get editorial approval. Not only won’t it get you what you’re looking for, but it might do the opposite.

Now if you wanted to work with the market for another reason, then that’s fine. But don’t do it for editorial attention, cuz it won’t really help.

I know that what you're saying is the right thing to hear for most of the people reading it.

But.
You're falling into the fallacy of "good", as if there is one way for a story to be "good", everyone will recognize it, and the solution is always to be "better". This is an implicit enforcement of cultural norms; by treating them as objective reality, it sidelines anything that challenges them, and encourages stories that fit an extant mold for which there is a pre-existing sense of good.

I know this doesn't matter to most newbies; most of the time editors will reject a story 'cause it's boring or incoherent or something -- large flaws that are (more or less) cross-culturally agreed on.

But there is also editorial taste and (often ignored) editorial blinders. Being silent about that is especially discouraging to people from minority/oppressed groups, people whose voice is often inherently not considered valid in the field. We keep being told we're inferior when sometimes? We're just different.

I point you to this rejection letter and this speech as challenging the notion of a single objective "better".

But there is also editorial taste and (often ignored) editorial blinders. Being silent about that is especially discouraging to people from minority/oppressed groups, people whose voice is often inherently not considered valid in the field. We keep being told we're inferior when sometimes? We're just different.

I totally agree with you, actually, and the thought did cross my mind. It's one of the reasons I don't advise what I've seen some folks advise lately--to only ever submit to pro-paying markets. Because...yeah, long discussion there, but yeah.

That's part of why I was careful to specify "reputable" and not "pro paying" because at least to me, that's a larger set. I don't want to imply, for instance, that anyone who fails to sell to Asimovs or F&SF or Analog is not "good enough" because my set also includes, say, Strange Horizons, not to mention the various semi-pros that have picked up amazing stuff that the big three haven't.

I hope that makes sense.

I completely agree with you about the reputable markets. (And in fact there are semi-pros and even token-paying markets that rank higher than F&SF and Analog on my list, for the simple reason that their publications are significantly more to my taste.)

It's the unqualified use of the word "good", a word that presupposes objective qualities and takes focus off cultural differences, that bothers me. Talking about "writing better" without any mention of inter-cultural intelligibility, especially to new writers, seems dangerous to me.

I'll be honest, it's an issue I'm not sure how to address in this particular circumscribed context--but it's one that absolutely interests me.

The issue of what's "good" is of course very fraught. It's really easy for a given editor not to recognize that their idea of what's "good" is bound up in their own cultural expectations. Add to that, of course, that every writer has to discover her own "good," that thing in her own writing that's....honest? When I think about it to myself I use the word "honest" but I'm not sure that's really the best.

And I'm not, at the moment, sure what word to use other than "good" which I know has been used as a sort of...a roadblock? A toll gate? Those aren't working for me...for work that doesn't fit certain cultural expectations. But at the same time, one can be more or less skilled at doing the work one does, and when I say "write better" what I mean is that a writer needs to work to improve her skill and her...the thing I use the word "honesty" for but it's not, not entirely, not the best word for what I mean. In all likelihood, that'll mean certain editors won't consider your work to be "good" but others will.

See, I'm already tangling myself up. Maybe I need to consider writing about what that means, to write better. But basically, yeah, I agree with you, and I oversimplified that bit.

I don't know how to write about it either. It's such a useful little word. Argh :)

One thought is to separate quality from accessibility in general. One has to write well, and write sufficiently accessibly for one's market, to be successful. And take into account that some perspectives are inherently less accessible than others -- and decide for oneself what to do about that, whether to work on accessibility or to figure that the people who get it, will get it.

None of which gets us out of writing what we are writing as effectively as possible, and making sure that it would actually work at least for our ideal reader... and saying it's "good" is just so much less wordy.

When I think about it to myself I use the word "honest" but I'm not sure that's really the best.
I like it. Another friend uses "true", not in the sense of "factual" but in the sense of being part of one's emotional/personal truth. Same sort of idea, I think.

I agree with just about everything you say. 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."

I'm far from categorically negative about small press! If you've sold to (for instance) John Klima, or Kelly & Gavin, that cuts mustard with me. It's not all about mere commerce. But for cry eye, show some judgment in how you portray yourself.

I've occasionally told authors, in my responses to their submissions, "You're better than your bibliography. Keep submitting to me and other prominent publications—don't waste stories on the bottom-feeders."

Of course, some people really have found their level...

You know...I haven't seen many cases where I could send a note like that, but I think in the future, if I do, I will.

Of course, some people really have found their level...

Yeah.

I enjoyed this, thanks for writing it. I have a mixed reaction to the whole conversation. I'm glad that it's happening, but there's such a thing as overthinking it, too, which is why I think you can distill very elegantly the thing down to "write better". But then there's also the question of who the audience is, both for Scalzi's post and the other discussions branching from it.

A lot of the overthinking (I think :) ) comes from not only the notion that there is a "good" (and I think there is and I think you it it well on your next post) but the notion that there is one rule, or one thing that can prove you've "made it", or a list of things that can prove you haven't. There just isn't. One sale to F&SF, one sale of a novel, can be a fluke, and a lot of writers hit that point and stop; it doesn't a rule make. All of these dynamics are probabilities, and there are so many. If you are seeing a pattern, there may be things within your power to change (like getting better). But the conversation evolved to discussing this when it seems Scalzi's basic logical point (to writers, after his publisher point, which started the whole thing) is that you should shutter anything you don't sell to a pro market, which is pretty fundamentally silly. That you should always try harder and move on and write better is a separate parallel point.

This (the listing credits thing, to pnh's point) is also about dressing up for an interview. The cover letter is your interview. If you show up for a construction job interview wearing a Victorian ball gown, you are sending a message to your interviewer -- that you either don't know or don't care, and either one is probably not net positive for you. Sending a story out for publication is engaging in conversation with the market, and when you're having a conversation people like to know that you respect them and are thoughtful and listening.

I'm rambling so this must be hitting a nerve in my brain. :) I will hie myself off to my own blog. :) But again thanks for this post.

"this when it seems Scalzi's basic logical point (to writers, after his publisher point, which started the whole thing) is that you should shutter anything you don't sell to a pro market"

Just FTR, what he says in his most recent post, and which I agree with (and I think Ann does too) is:

If you can’t place your work in the relatively few fiction markets that pay pro rates, then it’s time to look at the ones that pay less and see if they are worth your time.

But for God’s sake, people, show some discrimination. Writers are supposed to be smart, or at least clever. Use those meaty brains of yours and apply them to the business end of this problem. A market that might pay less than the pro rate but which is widely read and edited by professionals of long-standing reputation? Could be worth it. A “for the love” market of specific, limited scope, edited by knowledgeable enthusiasts, in which no one is making a penny off of anyone else (or planning to), but everyone’s having a good time? Might have its benefits. A for-profit market planning four magazines and two book lines, paying its contributors a fraction of a cent per word? Unmitigated fail. That’s pretty simple. Between those extremes, of course, is a lot of gray area.


I think that's a fundamentally different point than how you sum it up.

Yes, he did re-clarify, but I think that's a retreat under the onslaught of reasonable questions (amid many unreasonable ones or attacks). A good retreat, but I should have been clearer that I was responding to his original post, the one that started the discussion. I agree with the revised draft too. :)

"Don't let people exploit you." Always good advice, in any arena.

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