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How to sell your fiction

…and other sentences that are easier to say than they are to accomplish. But on the other hand: it’s also not hard to sell your fiction, not in this golden age1 of short fiction publishing. At the end of the day, there are a lot of places that can publish your fiction… depending on what kind of market you’re willing to let publish you.


1 Nota bene: I say “golden age,” but the markets themselves might disagree.


Pick What You Value Before You Start

What do you really want to accomplish with your fiction? Figure that out now — here are a few potential options:

  1. Get paid at a professional rate
  2. Get paid anything
  3. Appear in prestigious markets
  4. Get a publishing credit
  5. Have people read my work2

If all you want is to have people read your work? My friend, there are plenty of places to post for free, such as Wattpad and Archive of Our Own. You can even self-publish fairly easily and likewise for free through a variety of distributors like Lulu, Smashwords, or Amazon. If all you want is to reach the masses, the masses are out there waiting for you.

Likewise, if you want just a writing credit, any credit at all, from someone other than yourself– there are markets out there that can’t afford to pay their writers but are hungry for content.3 If it seems scary to approach the big-name mags, or if you’re trying to get into the swing of writing and submitting fiction regularly, these can be good places to send your work. You might even get on the ground floor of an up-and-coming wunderkind, or at the very least a place that promotes you well and is great to work with.

Now, me, I value getting paid at a professional rate, followed by appearing in prestigious markets, followed by getting paid anything. That means that for me, I’m likely to prioritize sending my finished fiction out to the big-name magazines first, though I keep an eye on the smaller zines that don’t pay particularly well (or at all), but which have a strong editorial eye and are well-respected by the field.4 If I can’t make it to one of the big-names, or a well-paying anthology, then I trunk the story for later — but that’s because I know what I value. Figure out what you value, and you’ll have a game plan for the next steps.


2 You’ll note that none of those are “become hugely famous” — that’s not a goal that you can predict or easily reach. The others are.


3 But beware the markets that can’t afford to pay you but instead require that you pay them, as well as ones that request you sign predatory contracts. Some good reading on this topic: John Scalzi’s post “Yog’s Law and Self-Publishing,” and SFWA’s entire Contracts information page.


4 How can you tell if a smaller zine is worth watching? Check where “best of the year” stories are coming from, as well as ones that are nominated for awards. You might find markets that don’t pay but that are clearly worth shooting for.


Get Thee a Spreadsheet

I recognize that this makes me a pencil-pushing square, but– a spreadsheet keeps you sane and keeps you focused on your fiction instead of your submission queue. The more ways you can delegate or automate the business side of creative work? THE BETTER.5

Here’s a dead simple spreadsheet to get you started — first, open up your favorite spreadsheet program or pull out your Grandpa’s accounting ledger, and label the columns of the top row like so:

  • Title of your story
  • Name of market
  • Date you sent it out
  • Date you heard back
  • Notes

Make the assumption now that you will definitely get rejected from the majority of places you send each story out to. Keep track of the dates, and the peculiarities of each market. Do they say not to contact them until six months have passed? Put a note to yourself in the note column about that, and schedule a reminder with your favorite reminder thingy. Did they reject you, but with a really nice note — or better, with editorial suggestions? Put that in the note section!6

Every bit of information is useful. Or it can be, once you separate the business side of fiction from the creative side. And if nothing else, it creates a kind of diary of your publishing career… and a handy way of making sure you don’t submit the same story to the same market by accident.


5 The entirety of this section should come with a huge “this works for me, but not necessarily for you!” warning. Not everyone would benefit from a spreadsheet. But if you’ve never tried a spreadsheet, hey– here’s how to do it. Might be something useful for your toolbox.


6 Can also be used for the dark art of rejectomancy. That, however, is a separate blog post.


Cultivate Your Market List

When you think of potential places to send your fiction, you may well have a short list of markets already in your head, and you submit to them first. I know I do– and for me, before I started really knuckling down and using my spreadsheets, I’d go through three or four markets… and then run out, because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to send my story.

So get fancy with your spreadsheet (or whatever your administrative tool of choice), and just write down markets as you come across them. Collect the links to the guidelines or submission portals. If you want to get really inventive, take notes on any special requirements they have– or any kinds of fiction the editor has mentioned they want to see.7 It’ll come in useful when it’s time to find a market to submit to, and you won’t have to clutter up your brain trying to remember all these little tidbits of info.


7 As a note: don’t drive yourself bananas to find this additional info. It’s more like… if you happen to follow them on twitter, and they say something, make a note and move on.


…And Your Market Listings

A lot of people know about market listing sites8 like Submission Grinder and Duotrope — places that do the job of keeping track of the available markets for you.

Market listings are amazing. They tell you who’s accepting fiction, who’s closed, what length they want, how much they pay– the works. Some of them even have a tracking system you can use to obviate the need for your own records.

But there is no One True King when it comes to market listings — there isn’t one that’s going to list everywhere you might be able to send your fiction. So if you’re one of those people who wants to spread their net wide, or if you write in a very broad range of genres, get out your trusty spreadsheet and start collecting links to those too. The OG SFF list? Ralan.com. Small press listings? Throw Poet & Writers list and New Pages in there. Want some more romance and erotica options? It looks like my link to the list from The Review Review is broken, so hey, I’ll update that and meanwhile pass you this blog post with 40 romance publishers from Book Fox.

Much like your collection of markets, these listings may be old, out-of-date, or defunct when you come back to them later — but when you’re really hurting for a market to send your story to, there might be something lurking in one of these lists that’s exactly the right fit for you.


8 And if you don’t? Congratulations, you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000!


How to Sell Your Fiction? Submit Your Fiction

As corporate motivational speakers like to say: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. And in this case, you get rejected from 100% of the markets you don’t submit to.

Write your story. Edit your story. And then, when it’s done– submit your story. Start working on the next one. When the first one comes back, make a note and then send it out the door again.9 Make yourself a little carousel of story submissions and keep them spinning.

And here, to give you a head start: I’ve put a template version of my personal spreadsheets up for pay-what-you-want10 on Gumroad:

This thing’s got multiple tabs for all sorts of information sorting, with ~humorous examples~ thrown in to demonstrate how to use them, and two tabs containing my real list of markets and market listings. I can’t promise they’re all still up to date, but at least it’ll give you a starting point.

At the end of the day: It’s pretty easy to sell your fiction, if that’s your absolute goal. Be organized, be persistent, and be willing to take rejection like a champ. And, of course: keep writing.


9 This advice has been given many times in the past, but it hit home for me with Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.


10 No really, this is pay-whatever — if you can’t afford a buck, just go ahead and download it. The reward for me is another potential writer out in the world, successfully putting their words in front of my eyeballs.


(Image credit: Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay)

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New short story: “DEMON FIGHTER SUCKS”

I have a new short story out from the excellent Apex Magazine, “DEMON FIGHTER SUCKS“, in Issue 123.

It’s the last story I sold before my mother died, and the first story to get published after she died. For a lot of reasons (particularly apparent if you read it) this work is important to me, and Apex Magazine did a great job with it.

Read more…
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New short story: “They’re Made Out of Corn”

In the middle of everything, it’s strange to give good news, but: I have a new short story out, the first since before some Big Life Shit that went down a few years ago. Enjoy “They’re Made Out of Corn“, out today from Daily Science Fiction, a continuation/pastiche of Terry Bisson‘s “They’re Made Out of Meat.”

Read more…

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Playing the ponies; or “I don’t want to be in marketing, but here I am anyway”

Image by Bhakti Iyata from Pixabay

It’s a rotten time to be a writer. Leaving aside the creativity-crushing effects of indoor monotony, the usual mechanics of the publishing business are showing their fault lines: authors can’t go on book tours, covers can’t catch consumers’ eyes as they perambulate around shops, and while ebook and audio bundles could be a cool thing, I suspect the big houses are concerned about what will happen to all that easy-to-break DRM’d material after the crisis is over — which is what they were worrying about before, but it’s not a good look right now.

Marketing is one of those things that seemed to be broken well before all this, though, so I wanna talk about it briefly.

Creativity is not zero-sum game — ideas are a dime a dozen, every author has a different take, and even if they don’t, the audience may not care (see: stuffman’s Two Cakes comic) — but marketing is. The funds a publisher can put toward advertising creative endeavors is, generally, limited. Stuff costs money, and that money has to get allocated. Publishers make a guess as to what’s going to sell, and allocate money toward that — just like any other company.

It’s all very uncomfortable. Publishing needs content from authors to have any sort of business. Readers, however, are fickle and publishers are not infallible — they don’t actually know what’s going to sell well, regardless of the money thrown at any one project. So there’s incentive there to publish a lot and then see what the reading public likes. But that “publish all the things!” ethos rides up against the zero-sum issue of before: there’s only so much money. So… the publishers make a bet, pick what they think is going to be successful, and hope they’re right. They’ll stack the deck as much as they can — advertising and marketing and whatnot — but again: they don’t actually know how it’s going to turn out. One tent-pole book that sells well because of a heavy advertising push can support publishing dozens of other books… one or more of which may end up being equal or larger successes, because of talent or audience whim or sudden Oprah visitation.

It makes sense, when you look at it from that angle. If, however, you’re the writer on the other end of the equation… it feels a lot like being a content-producing monkey. Or, to put it a more palatable way, vastly underappreciated and overworked for the pay we receive.

A real-life example:

I’ve had one book published (co-authored, published by Tor Books, so there was a Real Publisher with Real Money and a Real Contract), and let me tell you, I was surprised by what I was asked to do. I needed to provide a list of reviewers for them to send ARCs (but why didn’t they have their own list?), and I had to set up my own interviews (but I didn’t know anybody, couldn’t they at least connect me…?).

What I didn’t realize at the time was that another book was coming out in the same genre at almost the exact same time — but it was a three-book deal as opposed to the single one we had, and they already had all three books in hand. So, where does the money go? There isn’t an infinite amount of it — and “money” here includes stuff like the literal hours in the day. Hours spent on our book were hours that couldn’t be spent on that other one.

Do all that math, and what comes out is that other book, and its associated series, was a better bet, business-wise. Gotta put your money on the horse that gives you the best chance of winning. Those books got the major marketing push, and ours didn’t.

(Note: Being able to rationalize it doesn’t actually make it feel better.)

I have no idea what the other book’s sales were like; ours weren’t great. But I had a decent advance that never earned out, so between me and the publisher, technically I walked away the winner. And the publisher didn’t collapse into financial ruins when my book didn’t take off, because that other book — and any of the other better-selling books that came out that year, and the backlist of bestsellers, and the constant promise of future bestsellers — allowed for them to take a loss on mine, and losses on many other future books that they’ll publish anyway on the off chance that one of them’ll be a winner anyway.

I don’t have a solution for any of this. Publishing houses are doing a ridiculous, constant balancing act that absolutely shouldn’t work, just like how “playing the ponies” should not constitute anybody’s idea of a career. It’s a wonder that the whole thing hasn’t collapsed before now.

The reality is, unless I plan to pull an Emily Dickinson and hide all my fiction away in a drawer somewhere — which I’m not — I have to accept that part of the whole writing gig is marketing myself, because there’s never going to be any guarantee that a publisher is going to do it for me. I have to make my own luck, stack my own deck, bet on my own horse.

I just wish that for all the math publishers are doing on their end, they’d do some on ours. Because they have a limited number of dollars and hours to put to a project… and so do I. And if they can’t find a way to pay authors to be both their content creators and their marketing team… well. That’s a gamble that might eventually cost them everything.