Respect Yourself, Respect Your Stories

© 2006 by Scott Nicholson

Despite tales of woe about the demise of short fiction markets, a writer has more avenues than ever for placing short stories, especially with the expansion of online magazines. But those new avenues also harbor dark shadows and potholes, since anyone with a domain space and an FTP program can now be a self-labeled "editor." Even the well-established avenues have their share of wrong turns and dead ends.

When deciding where to send your story, you need to make some personal decisions about your short-term and long-term goals. Do you only want to connect with readers? Is money important? Do you want to appear alongside respected authors in the most competitive markets? Are you mostly interested in building name recognition? How patient are you? Do you have any shame?

Many aspiring professionals aim only for the best markets and usually start "top down," sending their stories first to markets that pay the most money per word or are most prestigious. I follow this strategy myself on most occasions. Naturally, this can lead to a pile of rejection slips before you strike pay dirt. You might also aim to sell only to those markets that pay the arbitrarily defined "pro rate" of three-to-five cents per word. While even Ray Bradbury can no longer make a living writing only short stories, the occasional check can help offset your expenses and provide a tangible pat on the back.

But if you choose to give away your story in exchange for exposure, make sure you're getting what you're not getting paid for. Whether it's a print magazine like Precious Literary Prairie that receives tons of earnest submissions or Vampgore's Instant Web of Wonders that accepts everything, take a look and decide whether that's the place you want to be, with all its subsequent associations and implications.

Is it a publication you are proud to tell your friends and family about? Would you be satisfied to list it among your credits? Is the editor's grammar on a sixth-grade level? Can the editor afford a domain name or is it an Angelfire or Topica site? Does the supporting material such as illustrations and non-fiction content promise an enthusiastic audience? Do the graphics constitute what you consider to be pornography?

Once you've set your sights on a market, send it on out there, but you should probably have some sort of priority list. The best cure for a rejection is a dose of gum as you lick the next submission envelope. Have a constant stream of circulating stories so that you reduce the emotional investment made in any one particular submission. Many magazines, even print ones, will now accept e-mail submissions. This makes it easier to submit, but realize that it's easy for all the other writers as well. No doubt some writers have never mailed a printed manuscript, so those markets might be a little less competitive, at least in sheer numbers of submissions if not quality.

You also must decide how you feel about electronic versus print markets, and money isn't the only factor. Again, it all depends on what makes you comfortable. Even if you're giving your stories away, you'll presumably gain a larger overall readership if you carefully dole out reprints over the years rather than leave the story archived at a single location.

A new blight on the landscape is the spread of print-on-demand anthologies. Editors pop up out of nowhere, announce a project, and promise royalties on the resulting sales. The problem is, the sales are infrequent, because the books never appear in stores and review copies cost the so-called "publisher" almost as much as it does the consumer. I have been involved in several, all with wholly unsatisfactory results, and will never do so again unless the editor is Stephen King.

Equally risky is the themed anthology. When the project folds or your entry is rejected, you may have a hard time fitting that story elsewhere. Just ask all the editors who have received cockroach vampire and absinthe stories in the last year. Of course, if you are solicited to write a story, assuming it's a legitimate project with actual payment, then you should jump at the chance because you want to build positive relationships with those who can buy your stories in the future. I rarely send slush submissions for themed anthologies anymore, but when I do, I always have at least two themes so the story doesn't depend wholly on someone else's idea of a good subject. (Next time: submitting with a professional attitude)


In the first part, we talked about aiming for the best short story markets. I suggest taking a professional approach throughout the entire submission process, but that may not fit your psychological needs. You might only want to shout "I'm published!" and go on with the rest of your life. But if you're serious, you want to protect your rights as much as possible. As difficult as it is to write a story, selling one is even harder. And getting it published is even harder than that.

If you're thinking like a pro, you'll want to receive some money for a story's first appearance. You have to decide on your own exceptions, such as benefiting a charity, working with a non-paying editor you admire, or gaining valuable exposure. I've given away first rights to three stories: two were for charity projects and one was for a promotional e-book that has been downloaded several thousand times. On other occasions I've given away reprints to support worthy labors of love.

Once you get accepted, the fun's not over. You should have some sort of contract, even if no money is involved (and we've already established that, barring charity, you do want to make money). The most professional publishing enterprises often have the simplest agreements: "We get first rights to publish your story for X dollars before such-and-such date."

Too many writers neglect their education in the subject area of rights. You should expect the most money for a story's first printing, because that's when it is most valuable. The exception, of course, is when you become a household name and your old stories become rare and sought-after treasures. But you're not there yet.

So grant the publisher first rights, assuming all the other terms are acceptable. If it's a print publisher, you will often grant First North American serial rights, or first rights in whatever territorial region comprises the publisher's primary audience. Most desirable, whether it's the first appearance or a reprint, is to sell "one-time" rights, and to make the appearance non-exclusive if possible. The purpose of this is not to shaft the overworked and under-appreciated editor, but to protect you in the event that something goes wrong with the printing schedule.

Those one-time rights may be even more important in electronic publication. Don't let a webzine try to convince you they only want "First American rights," which I've actually seen in webzine guidelines. They don't call it the "World Wide Web" for nothing. Technically, such rights should be "first world rights in English" unless a foreign publisher is translating your work.

Webzines often want to archive their fiction and sometimes ask to post for an initial term such as three months and then archive for the remainder of a year. Granting a year is usually reasonable, though it should be the publisher's responsibility to remove the material at that time. Again, offering the archiving period as a non-exclusive right is beneficial to the writer and gives you more flexibility later.

Some publishers ask that you contact them when you are ready to have the story removed from the archive, but this places a double burden on the writer. Not only do you have to remember to make the request, there's the very real possibility that the publisher will vanish without a trace, leaving your story posted in perpetuity. I had an early and fairly insignificant story published at a webzine that folded, and it took me about five emails and two years to finally get the page taken down. It doesn't matter a bit that the story was fairly insignificant. It was MY story. I later placed a reprint of that story with a royalty-paying e-book anthology, about the only circumstance under which I would ever go near one of those beasts.

Theoretically, the Web offers an unlimited readership, unlike a paper publication with a print run numbering in the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of copies. If all you care about is having your story available to readers, then it doesn't matter a great deal if the story remains posted. But be aware that you are extremely unlikely to ever sell reprint rights for such a story.

You shouldn't be afraid to ask for contract changes, either. The publishers who wholly object to your concerns will probably be the ones you want to avoid. Many editors are writers themselves and, though they may not accede to your desires, they will at least offer sound explanations. Over time, you will probably find editors who are fond of your work and who prove their professionalism again and again.

Be as specific as you can about the rights you have sold, donated, or traded for copies. If you look at the careers of successful writers, you see many who have published the same story multiple times, often in various print anthologies and in their own story collections. New and unforeseen opportunities also come up, such as those offered by a couple of respected firms that are selling inexpensive downloads of stories for e-book readers. Few people will pay to download a story, no matter how low the price, if it is easily available for free elsewhere.

Keep your options open, and then all you have to worry about is the only part that's entirely out of your control: the publishing.


If you sell a story or article to a webzine, it's usually posted within a few months. For a print magazine or anthology, your risks are a little different, partly due to what is often a longer wait between acceptance and publication. The main threat is that you will sign a contract and the publisher folds before the story is used. While in reality you are probably legally free to send the story elsewhere, there are a lot of gray areas, depending upon whether you were paid up front, whether the magazine or anthology plans on "making a comeback" a couple of years down the road, and whether you can easily place the story elsewhere. I sometimes suspect writers announce they are editing an anthology they know will never come to fruition, just so they can build some cheap name recognition in the market listings or curry favor in awards voting.

Many publishers and editors, especially those in their first enterprise, are notoriously stubborn about admitting they have failed, so you'll have to decide at what point you've lost faith. I feel more comfortable having a two-year limit on the use of the purchased rights, at which time the contract is void with no money due back to the publisher. In other words, if you were paid on acceptance and the publisher never managed to take advantage of her golden opportunity, you can move on, check safely deposited.

What do you do when the project looks dead and the editor won't reply to your queries? You have to establish your own personal rules of conduct. On two occasions, magazines folded after contracting for my stories. In one case, the deal was "payment on publication." I sent an e-mail to the publisher asking to nix the deal when the magazine was finally pronounced dead. No reply, but I went on to place the story elsewhere without any complication besides my irritation over the loose end. In the other case, the payment was "on acceptance." I was never paid, so when the magazine became invisible for over a year, I considered the contract broken because they did not fulfill their commitment of payment. Be sure to keep a record of all your attempts at correspondence.

I have had other stories accepted but never received a contract because the venture collapsed. In those cases, I moved on after a query and a reasonable wait of six months or so. Only once have I not been paid for a published story, but I did receive a nice notice of bankruptcy suitable for framing. On a happier note, a multi-magazine publisher took my story from the inventory of one of its folded magazines and scheduled it for another of its magazines. Great pay and a mere seven-year gap (and counting) between acceptance and publication.

Sadly, the publications that offer little or no pay often give the least exposure and have the least respect for writers, whether through ignorance or malicious intent. Most don't last very long, but they can manage to throw a wrench in the works if they get their hands on your story. They may decide to "edit" it, post it in a dizzying font, or run it with an inappropriate photo or drawing. Such publications look like easy targets for a new writer but they offer little in the way of career advancement, so be sure to inspect any market before submitting.

Have I always taken my own advice? No, but making honest mistakes is the best possible experience. As I've become more confident in my ability to write and sell, I no longer have any desire to settle for less. Even if you can't shape the contract the way you want, at least be aware of potential problems. On the other hand, it's amazing the number of times the whole process goes as smoothly as planned and you're holding both your check and a contributor's copy, or you're watching the hit counts go up on your webzine story.

A writer's life is hard enough when it's just you and the keyboard. You should expect the best from others because you deserve it. Respect yourself and your work. You'll enhance your career and you'll be happier in the long run.

Scott Nicholson is an award-winning fiction writer living in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. His numerous short stories have earned everything from zero to mid-four figures. He's author of the novels "The Red Church," "The Harvest," "The Manor," "The Home," and "The Farm" (with "They Hunger" scheduled for 2007) and the story collection "Thank You For The Flowers." Nicholson's website at features writing articles, author interviews, and fiction.

Copyright © 2006 by Scott Nicholson. This article may not be reproduced in part or in whole, with the exception of a hyperlink to this page, without the express permission of the author.