written by David Steffen
I read thousands of fiction guidelines of all genres every year as part of my work at The Submission Grinder, in order to distill those guidelines down into their basic components for market listings. After reading so many guidelines I wish that there were guidelines that editors had to follow when they’re writing their guidelines pages. Writers can be criticized for using tired cliches, but editors would do well to turn that critical eye on their own guidelines. Note that none of these are meant to single out any particular publisher or market, and don’t affect the availability of listings. But are, rather, general impressions I have after reading so so many guidelines.
I wouldn’t have thought the listing out necessities would be a thing that needs doing, but I see important information omitted quite often.
- Pay Rate
Most short fiction sales have a non-negotiable pay rate, and most short fiction markets post the rate right in their guidelines so authors can decide before they submit what level of pay they consider reasonable compensation. It can save both parties hassle in the long run because the authors should have already known the pay rate before the acceptance letters are sent out and that shouldn’t be a point of contention. If you don’t provide information about pay rate you give the impression that you don’t pay. If you really don’t pay, be upfront about it and just state clearly that you don’t pay. If you do pay you should state that clearly also.
- Genre/Style/Subject of story
In the absence of genre information, you might simply mean that you want contemporary fiction aimed at a mainstream audience. You might, or you might not. An author might assume differently than you. Why not just say explicitly what kinds of things you’re interested in? Maybe you want only “literary” style, or maybe you want nothing of that style. If you don’t say something you can’t blame writers for submitting it. If there’s some subject material you want absolutely nothing to do with, whether it’s a heavily used trope like zombies or a real life thing like child abuse, just say so.
- Word Count Range
Some guidelines say that submissions of any length are acceptable, others say that any short fiction is acceptable. But where does it become unreasonable for an author to submit? What is “short” fiction and what is “long” fiction? If you give at least a ballpark of the boundary you’re thinking of, then authors who read the guidelines can avoid sending something you know you won’t be able to use.
- Reprint/Multiple/Simultaneous Submissions
Whether or not you take reprints (stories that have been published already), multiple submissions (more than one story submitted to you from same author at a time), or simultaneous submissions (same story submitted to you and another publisher at a time), just say so. The default guess for most savvy authors will be no on all three, but it’s not like guidelines words are rationed.
- Timeframe for querying
Even if you intend to stay on top of submissions and reply to them in a timely manner, there may be circumstances where you get behind or an email gets eaten by the internet. So it’s important to state a time period after which an author can feel free to query about the status of a submission–long enough so that you are not constantly pestered about statuses but short enough that the author isn’t left hanging for a very long period of time (30, 60, or 90 days are common values).
- Any peculiar specifics
Be sure to list any specific requirements peculiar to your process. Requirement for anonymity and any extra hurdles that requires, file formats, etc.
- Easy to find guidelines
Some sites hide the submission guidelines like they’re some kind of dirty secret. Preferably a writer should be able to find a link to the guidelines page linked right from the home page of the site, marked with a name like “Submit” or “Guidelines” or “Contribute”.
THINGS TO AVOID
There are certain trends that I’ve noticed that may raise my eyebrow about whether a publication is writer-friendly. Think twice about putting these in your guidelines and be aware you are driving some writers away with them.
- Contests that use first rights unpaid
If you have a contest, and you want people to vote on entries to decide which stories win, put it in a private section of the site. Otherwise you are using up the writer’s first publication rights for no benefit to them. If you insist on doing this, at least explain in your guidelines that the writer is giving up their most valuable product without certainty of compensation. Along similar lines, if you claim to be a paying contest, pay for every work that is published. The exceptions often take the form of saying that the winner will be paid and published, and that runners-up will be published with no mention of payment on the latter. If you insist on doing this, make it clear in your guidelines that writers are gambling their first publication rights with a chance of nothing in return.
- “Pay” in anything that is not currency
You can’t pay for groceries with exposure. You can’t pay your mortgage with contributor copies. So don’t claim you are “paying” in these things. If you’re not paying, say so.
- Saying that you can’t afford to pay writers, but also requiring first publication rights.
If you can’t afford to pay writers, it’s worth considering why those writers should give away the most valuable aspect of their story–first publication rights. Do you actually have a platform that will provide them more exposure than posting on their blog or self-pubbing on Amazon would offer?
- “Send only work of great quality”
Writers can’t judge the quality of their own work accurately, so don’t ask them to. Often as a writer develops in skill their opinion of the quality of their own work will actually lower as they come to understand how far they have to go yet–probably in part due to Dunning-Kruger effect. Presumably this statement is put in guidelines in an attempt to decrease the volume and increase the quality of slush. But it doesn’t work and might, in fact, have the opposite effect. You’re an editor, do your job and handle the slushpile (either by yourself or with slushreaders)–if you don’t want to do that then perhaps you are in the wrong occupation.
- Condescending language
Even if you don’t like romance, or you don’t like literary, or you don’t like science fiction, or you don’t like whatever else, there’s no need to talk down about it in your guidelines. Keep in mind that there are many writers who write in many different genres, and some might write well in both genres you prefer and those you don’t. Talking down about “genre fiction” is especially telling because “literary” is also a “genre”–everything fits into one or more genres, and speculative fiction can be literary in style.
- Nitpicky formatting requirements
Guidelines often refer to “standard manuscript format”, but since there is no centralized source of standards, there are more than one “standard” you’ll see. Some will specify that you use a different font, different spacing, tell you to set Word to indent your paragraphs instead of pressing Tab. For a short story writer to make sales they have to continually send and resend their stories to different magazines. This takes time, but what would take way more time is rejiggering the manuscript every time it goes back out because different markets have different preferences. If you want something different, as long as you can read the story, any nitpicky formatting can wait until the acceptance is sent out, at which point there’s a clear motivation for making the effort. An obvious exception to this is when there is a clear and immediate need for an alteration, most notably the stripping of author name from a manuscript when dealing with anonymous slushpiles.
- “We can’t pay yet, but we hope to pay someday”
This isn’t generally how the business works. If you treat your writers well, and you pay well for their fiction, and you show that you have good taste in your choices, and you can get the word out about your stories, then you will attract more writers and more experienced writers who have had the time to develop the skill you want to use. This will increase the overall quality of your slushpile and if you choose from that slushpile carefully you will end up with a much better result. If you don’t pay writers then you will only get submissions from writers who are willing to submit stories to you for no pay, which is a much smaller group that is going to exclude most of the best active writers. With lower quality work in the publication, you will have a harder time finding a paying reader base–it’s hard enough finding funds if the quality of the work is high, it’s nigh impossible if the quality is low. So “we can’t pay yet but we hope to someday” tends to hint that you don’t really have a good idea how to run this business, which combined with the lack of pay is not a great sign to someone thinking of submitting.
The things following are things which are not expectations in the guidelines, but if you feel comfortable putting something like them in the guidelines they make your guidelines page especially useful and attractive to writers.
- Sample contract
There can be a big gap between the general terms listed in guidelines and the specific terms listed in a contract simply because the former is conversational language and the latter is formally structured legalese. If you have an author-friendly contract template in hand, there should be no reason why you can’t share that publicly to help authors make an informed decision.
- Diversity Statement
If you want to increase the diversity of the authors and stories in your slushpile, it can help to ask for this in your guidelines–especially reaching out to demographics that have historically been excluded for either the author identity or the content of a story–gender, race, sexuality, culture, religion, neural profile, etc.
- “Don’t self-reject. If in doubt, submit.”
Statements like this are particularly welcoming to writers, because there can be a tendency for writers to self-reject out of doubt because they think they don’t write the kind of stories you buy. Writers are inaccurate judges of their own work–encourage them to let you do your job.
- A bulleted list of important points
A writer new to your publication should read the whole guidelines page before submitting, but a quick bulleted list makes it both more likely that newbies will catch the important points and that veterans will refresh their memory before submitting again.
- A brief list of exemplary famous authors
If you say you want stories that bring to mind Phillip K. Dick, Terry Pratchett, Octavia Butler, Isaac Asimov, or Douglas Adams, these all give useful information to a writer about what kind of aspects of fiction you value most to help them decide what to send to you first. If you truly want everything in every style, leave this list out. And keep the list short–if you have too many authors on it, then trying to distill a meaning from that list becomes impossible.