A quick and dirty guide to selling SFF short stories

Note: This piece dates from some years ago, so e.g. links may be out of date, or there may be new resources not covered below. However, the basic principles still apply!

These are basic practical tips for people who are not sure where to start. It assumes that you are already writing or planning to write short stories that are speculative in nature. No actual writing advice is given.

The main plank of my approach is this: what you want to do is mechanise your submission process, so that you continue submitting lots without its disturbing your peace of mind, preserving the mental space you need to write.

(1) Make a list of markets. I like Duotrope, which is a search engine that lets you search by word count, genre, etc. It’s paid now, but there’s a free trial. Ralan is the other main resource. ETA: via Kara LeeThe Submission Grinder is a Duotrope alternative that is free and looks like it does some of #5 for you.

You can also look at the websites/bibliographies of authors who write stories like yours, and google the markets they have published in.

You’ll want to compile your own list, to match what you’re most likely to be sending out. My list of markets recorded:

  • Genre
  • Word count
  • Pay rate
  • What editors said about what they wanted or didn’t want to see, and/or any other specific information e.g. peculiar formatting requirements

When submitting, you want to go for markets that pay you (pro, semi-pro and token, in that order) and, ideally, the ones that make stories available for free online. The latter is because exposure is the most important thing for a new writer. You can’t link to stories in anthologies.

(Of course, there are lots of nice things about publishing in anthologies — interesting themes; contributor copies; being in books in actual bookshops; and that glow of excitement when you see the Table of Contents and realise that your story is in the same book as a story by an admired author. *_*)

(2) Write a bunch of stories. I think you should write what you want and then try to see if you can sell it, but if you want guidance on what markets are looking for, reading those markets helps. Other things that seem to help: distinctive prose (poetic or funny works well); a quirky first paragraph with a strong hook. 2,000-5,000 words seems to be the sweet spot in terms of story length.

Tidy up your stories and put them in Standard Manuscript Format. (Better to do this with Microsoft Word styles than to put in tabs or whatever as you go along. If you don’t know how to use Word styles, make a note to yourself to learn — it’s pretty easy, and it’s genuinely a useful writer skill, because it also helps in producing ebooks for self-publishing.)

(3) Decide how many times you’re going to send your story out before giving up or substantially rewriting it. Mine is 10, and then I’ll consider self-publishing, by posting it on my website, sharing it on my Patreon or self-publishing in ebook. It’s not a hard and fast rule — I’ve probably gone over 10 submissions before, and I’ve abandoned certain stories long before hitting 10 submissions. But I find it helps with the brain gremlins to have a figure. “OK, I got a rejection. Two down, eight to go!”

(4) Send your story out! Don’t freak out about cover letters. Here’s a sample cover letter:

Dear Editor,

Please consider my 4,000-word science fiction story THINGS FROM MARS for publication.

[Here I’d probably name my last three publications and mention any awards nominations I’d got or notable writing workshops I’d attended. But it’s fine to put nothing here, and some people think you should put nothing here whether or not you have that stuff to mention.]

Thank you for your time.

Regards, etc.

Some markets will want you to include your bio or whatever. In that case, do what they say!

(5) Start a submissions log. An Excel spreadsheet would work well for this. You want a log of:

  • Stories
  • Markets to which they have been sent out
  • Date on which they were sent to a market
  • Date on which a response was received. I like to make a note of any personalised rejections, as that helps me build up a picture of what is and isn’t working for editors with a particular story.
  • Any comments. E.g. if I shortened a story for a market that required a certain word count, but am now re-submitting the original, longer version, I might make a note of this.

With stories I have sold, I don’t but should probably keep a list of stories that tells me:

  • When it was published/is due to be published
  • When payment is due
  • When payment is made
  • Any exclusivity period, and therefore
  • When I can start sending it out to markets that take reprints
  • Any subrights (i.e. audio and translation rights) sold, whether they were sold on an exclusive basis and if so, what the exclusivity period is

(6) Start a bibiliography. This is optional, but once you’ve got a couple of stories published, I’d set up a website where you collect links to your stories. This is to make it easier for readers to find your stories and read all of them, if they liked one enough to look for more. I have modelled my own short stories page on *koff* fanfic archives. Here is the information I provide:

  • Title
  • Details of publication (plus details of translations and audio versions, where relevant)
  • Word count
  • A brief summary
  • A quote which hopefully imparts something of the feel or content of the story

Sometimes I include other information like awards nominations or whatever, but the above is probably all you need or are interested in as a reader.

And there you have it! Best of luck with submitting.