What Is A Literary Magazine?
Literary magazines fall in three categories:
- university-based lit mags;
- lit mags run by volunteers or literary arts organizations;
- or, lit mags that are self-sustaining financially, such as Glimmer Train, Zoetrope, or Narrative.
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 last 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 to what’s currently in vogue.
Some magazines have their own submission portals, but many are now using online submissions’ managers such as Submittable. If you’d like to explore the landscape of literary magazines, and good way to do that is through Journal of the Month, a service that delivers a lit mag at an interval of your choosing.
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. 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.
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 these annual volumes listed magazines that published the winning stories. The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly always make the list, but your odds of having your work appear in their pages is nil. You need an agent.
A publication that might give you a more usable submission list is the annual volume of stories from The Pushcart Prize. They, too, have a list of small magazines that have sent them entries. 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 using the sources 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, but you’ll have to go through their “big list” item by item, and figure out which magazines might 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.
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. Other’s 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 so glad they’re charging fees; the work they’re doing on behalf of writers has no equal. They have over 5,000 places to publish on their site, and this includes paying and non-paying markets.
What makes Duotrope super valuable is that they also have a submission-tracker. Lit mags take ages to respond, so just 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 please query the editor to see what’s going on.
To help you get started, I’ve put together a report on “Lit Mags Open to New Writers.” Get your copy now.