Literary Magazines: Where Writers Get Book-Jacket Credits

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers, For Readers

Literary magazines are a great way to build your resume. What? You didn’t know you needed a resume? Yes, you do, but not a resume of the traditional sort.

You’ll need a cover letter to approach agents or publishers, and if that letter includes a strong record of publication, then it’s more likely the agent or publisher will take a look at your synopsis and first chapter.

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Literary Magazines Are Eager To Find New Writers

Many writers, me included, land their first publications in literary magazines. Though publishing in a lit mag will, most likely, not bring you any cash, publication brings other rewards.

  • You can legitimately claim you’re a published author.
  • When you sit down at an agent’s pitch session, you can say something besides, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel, and here it is.”
  • The stories or essays you write for literary magazines may wind up in a collection. Wendell Barry is a good example of an author who has done this.
  • Psychologically, you gain confidence. Writing a novel takes a long time, and you’ll need an infusion of energy to keep you going.

If you can publish six or seven stories, essays, or novel excerpts, you’ll have plenty of writing credentials to put in a query letter or on a book-jacket flap.

If you’re not in a writing program, you may not realize that magazines can be quite selective. And what sort of thing are they looking for? Well, the big name lit mags are housed in universities with Creative Writing departments. Typically, those who graduate from MFA programs have a batch of short stories they’ve fine-tuned. These are literary short stories, meaning they’re stories that pay attention to sentence structure, voice, characterization, and story development.

That’s not you? You’re writing a bodice-ripping, romance novel? Don’t worry. Grab a chapter and see if you can make it a stand-alone. Then try Black Fox or one of other romance magazines listed on the Duotrope site. But, more on that in a minute.

What Is A Literary Magazine?

Literary magazines fall into four categories:

  • university-based lit mags;
  • lit mags run by volunteers or literary arts organizations;
  • lit mags that are self-sustaining financially, such as Glimmer Train, Zoetrope, or Narrative.
  • genre specific magazines, such as those specializing in horror, adventure, sci fi, or romance

Lit mags in the first two categories generally don’t charge to read your work. If they do charge, you’ll pay a small fee to cover administrative costs. In many cases your readers will be graduate students or recent graduates of creative writing programs.

The three lit mags in the self-sustaining category (and a few others) finance their operations through contests and reading fees. You should definitely read these magazines to see how your work measures up and what’s currently in vogue. Otherwise, don’t waste your money.

Some magazines have their own submission portals, but many are now using online submissions’ managers such as Submittable.

If you’re a reader and would like to explore the landscape of literary magazines, a good way to do that is through Journal of the Month, a service that delivers a lit mag at an interval of your choosing. I’m pretty sure this will be eye-opening. Most folks have no idea that there are so many magazines out there, and that there are thousands of new writers eager to see their words in print.

But what about The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire or Harper’s? Can’t I send a story to them? Yes, you could, but you could also mail a snowball to the Panama Canal. All it would do is melt.

Though well known, the glossy magazines above do not publish nearly as much fiction as they once did. Unless your name is Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, or David Mitchell, you have zero chance of getting published. This is because you’re not famous and you don’t have an agent.

Top-flight magazines do not want to read “unagented” fiction. But don’t worry. There are plenty of editors who would be thrilled to “discover” you.

Improve Your Chances

Shorter submissions (1500 to 3000 words) have a better chance of being selected by lit mag editors. Online magazines prefer shorter submissions because readers don’t want to wade through a long story.

Also, you should know that editors of print magazines often factor in the cost of printing. If their budget is lean, they’ll take a short submission over a longer one.

Think of an overcrowded bus. You’re trying to elbow your way past a lot of other eager passengers. That’s what you’re facing when you submit.

Lists of Places to Submit

In the old days (before online magazines), I used to run to the bookstore when a copy of the Best American Short Stories or the O’Henry Prize Stories first appeared. An index in the back of these annual volumes listed magazines that published the “best” stories. The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly always made the list.

Naively, I sent the big name magazines my work, and occasionally I’d get a form rejection with initials scribbled on the top. I’d try to match them with a name on the masthead. Most likely an unpaid intern from one of the Ivy League colleges had glanced at my opus before tucking it and the form rejection into the return envelope.

A publication that might actually give you a more usable submission list is the annual volume of stories from The Pushcart Prize. Small magazines, meaning literary magazines, can select four candidates from among the stories they’ve published that year. The Pushcart Prize judge makes the final determination of what goes in the volume.

Using the sources above, I developed an Outlook database with 700 plus entries; but, I wouldn’t recommend that strategy to new writers. Putting together such a list is a time sink. You’re better off looking at the online resources below.

Online Sources for Lit Mag Info

If you want to see where writers with MFAs might think about submitting, go to Poets & Writers. You will need to join the site to search their database of literary magazines and publishers.

A much better source for information is New Pages. On that site, you’ll find an overwhelming amount of info, and you’ll have to go through their “big list” item by item. The short descriptions of magazines may help you figure out which ones match your writing style or story.

If you can’t quite tell whether the editors prefer screwball comedy or suburban angst, then take advantage of the highly subjective reviews in The Review Review. This terrific site will give you one reviewer’s take on a single issue of lit mag, and the site lets you search for either print or online formats.

The Review Review is an essential source for one other reason. It will tell you whether the magazine is highly competitive or not. Magazines that have been around a long time (like Prairie Schooner or Nimrod, let’s say) fall in the “highly competitive” category.

Online magazines are often, but not always, startups. Your chances might be better, but if the founder of the site loses enthusiasm, then your story vanishes into cyber-space.

Try to rank the places you’re thinking of submitting. I use Tier 1, Tier 2, and so forth. That way you can send to the best places first.

Insider tip: You can dramatically increase your acceptances if you send an essay or creative nonfiction.

Nonfiction is hot right now, but make sure you know whether the editors prefer creative nonfiction (meaning nonfiction that uses fictional techniques, such as scenes) or essays (meaning the traditional Montaigne-type essay or a modern variant, such as “Consider the Lobster,” an essay written by David Foster Wallace.)

Memoirs often fall into a separate category. Some magazines publish them. Others don’t.

Insider tip: Start by identifying 50 magazines that might publish your work.

For genre fiction (fantasy and horror, steampunk, sci fi, Westerns, gay-lesbian, YA, romance, zombie stories, or mysteries) and for literary fiction, the single best source of information is Duotrope.

At one time, the founders of the site ran it on a donation basis. I’m glad they’re charging fees. The work they’re doing on behalf of writers has no equal. They showcase over 5,000 places to publish, and this includes paying and non-paying markets.

Tracking Submissions

What makes Duotrope super valuable is that they also have a submission-tracker. Lit mags take ages to respond. Some editors don’t read “simultaneous submissions.” Be sure to say in your cover letter that you are submitting to more than one magazine. Of course, if the editor specifically forbids multiple submissions, you’ll want to honor his/her request. But, in my experience, if an editor knows the writer has submitted elsewhere, the editor may be more likely to make a speedy decision, rather than wait to see what else comes in over the transom.

Make sure you update your submission-tracker if you hear a yea or nay. By using Duotrope’s tracker, you’ll be helping other authors discover when a magazine has gone dormant. That’s a big issue for anyone submitting work. You can easily wait six months for a response, but if you haven’t heard back in nine months, then query the editor to see what’s going on.

Respect the Literary Magazine’s Reading Period

One other tip. You can improve your chances by submitting at the beginning of a magazine’s reading period. Lit mags run by universities typically open their doors in the fall, meaning September and October. By November and December, the editors are dismissing many worthy stories, simply because they do not have space.

I use my Outlook Task Manager to alert me to start dates and to remind me about contest deadlines. Those change every year, so I always have to see if a magazine has money to run the contest they ran in previous years.

Contests can be a good way to earn a publication credit. Typically, the pile of contest entries is smaller than the pile of non-contest submissions. I guess people don’t want to pay the entry fee, but if your story is good enough, clicking the Paypal button could be a wise investment. The odds are better than PowerBall.

Literary Magazines Open to New Writers

To help you get started, I’ve put together a report on “Lit Mags Open to New Writers.” If you’ve never had a story published, start from this list and go for it.

Click Here And Receive “Lit Mags for New Writers”


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