Cover of Literary Journals: Not All Are Created Equal

Literary Journals: Not All Are Created Equal

Getting published in a literary journal can be a daunting challenge. Competition is stiff and acceptance rates are generally low, especially among the more prestigious, high-paying magazines. After being turned down by top-tier publications time after time, you might feel tempted to send your stories to just any old place. Lord knows there are more than enough little-known magazines and literary blogs which might have a spot for your work. But proceed with caution: not all journals are created equal, as I found out.

Lowered Expectations

Once you’ve given up on the prospect of being paid handsomely for your short fiction or poetry, your next goal will probably be to build some publishing credentials, paid or not. So you look up every literary journal under the sun and submit to any which seem to fit the bill in terms of style and word count. They call this carpet-bombing: increase your chance of hitting the target by making the target as large as possible. And it works! You soon get an offer from an upstart journal and hungrily accept, gratified that someone has finally shown proper interest in your work.

And this is when the problems can start.

Acceptance Can Hurt

The other year I had a long story published in a new online journal. After several rounds of back-and-forth with the editor I was confident in the way things were shaping up. The editor had devoted much time and energy to the revision process, nitpicking over minute details. The piece was given a nice treatment with artwork and a head shot of me. My story was getting the sort of exposure I thought it deserved, finally. And then the journal went under two months later, taking my story with it into online oblivion.

In another instance I sent one of my better stories to a print journal I’d never heard of, responding to a call for submissions I’d seen on a website. Print journals carry a greater impression of legitimacy in my mind, especially one run by the English department of a university. My story was accepted in February for that year’s spring issue, and then I waited…and waited…and waited for months, with no update, no response to my emails, until I finally got my contributor’s copy of the Spring issue. In September. Which would have been bad enough, but then I opened the issue to find my work full of errors which hadn’t been in the draft I’d sent: misattributed dialogue, missing punctuation, and an entire section of text which was duplicated for no reason. It was all I could do not to throw it straight out the window.

Whose Rights Are They, Anyway?

Bear in mind that most journals only want first rights to a story or poem, and you can only sell first rights once (even if you sell them for nothing). Which means if you impulsively send your best work to a third-rate journal, you might miss the chance to have it printed in a paying market, or a journal with a larger readership. Once your story is published it is effectively out of commission. You will most likely retain reprint rights but only a small percentage of magazines are interested in purchasing those. This is extra incentive to choose the right journal the first time.

Narrowing the Search

Vetting a prospective market for your work is imperative. I suggest starting with the obvious:

  • Go to their website and see how it looks; an amateurish or poorly designed website is a red flag. Ask yourself if this is how you want your work presented.
  • Read some of their back issues to check for sloppy editing and the overall quality of submissions.
  • Send a simple question about submission guidelines via email. If it takes several weeks to get a yes/no reply, just imagine the wait time for more in-depth inquiries about your submission.
  • Note when they were established. A magazine which has been running for decades offers a more stable platform for your work than a website which has been up for a few months.

Following some of these steps could have saved me a lot of aggravation.

The Bright Side

If all this sounds discouraging, take heart. In my limited publication history, good experiences outweigh the bad. Editors have encouraged me and given valuable feedback into improving my craft. And while I have yet to crack the magazines on my A-list, rejection has a silver lining: It has allowed me to keep polishing those submissions and my best stories are better for it.

Naturally, nothing is perfect. Errors happen. Journals go belly-up. You can’t predict these things. You can, however, be selective about where you send your creative writing so that you can feel proud of your publications. If you truly believe in your work, make sure you also have reason to believe in the places you’re sending it to.