Guidelines for Short Fiction Guidelines

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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”.



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.

  1. 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.

  1. “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.

  1. 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?

  1. “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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. “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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. “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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.



Negotiating Short Story Contracts

written by David Steffen

The purpose of this article is to talk in more detail about short story contracts.  This is a topic that seems to be rarely covered in most writer’s forums that I’ve seen, where most of the focus is on the writing side and rarely on the business side.  Yet, there are tons of bad contracts out there and it’s very important to avoid the bad ones or at least understand exactly what you’re agreeing to and understand what you can do.

What’s the point of a short story contract?

The point of a contract in many situations is to provide grounds for either side to use in the case of a legal dispute. The amount of money involved in a short story purchase is generally not a huge sum. Even at professional rates for a longish short story, you’re probably talking a few hundred dollars for the transaction unless you’re getting up into novella wordcounts or the publisher has an extraordinary pay rate. The sum is generally low enough that, if there were a dispute between author and publisher, disputing it through the legal system would make the dispute a money-loser for both sides.

But a contract is still worthwhile, because it should clearly spell out what both parties can reasonably expect from the other over the course of this transaction. It can be used as a reference to point to if you feel the publisher is not living up to their side of the deal, and which the publisher/editor can point to if they feel likewise about your behavior. And you don’t just want to consider what will happen in this transaction but what may happen with future transactions with other publishing involving this story or other stories.

I have from time to time had stories accepted by editors who insist on having no contract, and they tend to tout this as a huge benefit, paraphrased to: “We’re all friends here! We don’t need contracts! We won’t sue you, we promise!” While protection from lawsuit is handy, that’s not really the main point. I want to know what to expect and I want to know what is expected of me, and if I don’t have a contract, I don’t have that–you can exchange expectations in an email but the formal language of a contract is meant to remove ambiguity. You can be friends with editors, but when it comes to dealing with the actual transaction, it’s best treated in a professional and businesslike manner by both sides. Just as you don’t need formal training to be a writer, you don’t need formal training to be an editor–a lot of editors are running their publications in their spare time and treat it more as a hobby than a profession–which isn’t to say they don’t publish great work, but some of them want to avoid anything that feels like a real business. I have sold stories to places like this before, and generally things have turned out well, but a lack of contract still makes me wary because I have been bitten by lack of contract or badly worded contracts more than once.


What should I expect in a contract?

Okay, so contracts are important and all that–but what do you do when you get a contract? The goods news is that that short story contracts are straightforward compared to most other contracts–there are a few clauses you should expect, and some types of wording that you should avoid. Most magazines publish their payment terms and some other details in their guidelines–so you usually don’t have to negotiate unless the contract includes an unexpected questionable clause.

1. Don’t sell copyright.

Just don’t. Run away. You won’t be able to ever resell it. It’s not your story anymore if you sign. Most markets won’t ask for this, but some will.  The exception to this is if you take work-for-hire writing stories within an established world–for instance, if you are hired to write Halo tie-ins or Star Wars tie-ins.  In those cases, you are writing in a world that someone else owns, so selling the copyright for the story can make sense (but the pay should also be better).

2. The basics.

Language describing the parties and the story in the transaction by name.

3.Payment Details.

The dollar value, the medium (PayPal or cheque etc), and expectation of when you will be paid (i.e. as soon as you sign the contract, at the time of publication, 30 days after publication, etc) Obviously the payment value should match what you’ve been told in the guidelines ahead of time. The expected timing is important because it gives you a reasonable idea of when you can pester the publisher if you haven’t been paid yet. And some publishers, even ones that you respect, may occasionally miss a step. If they publish your story, they owe you that money. Do not feel bashful about following up if you haven’t been paid when you should’ve been–that’s one of those cases where the contract is very helpful to point at when you’re asking for what’s due to you.

4. Editing Permissions.

Explanation of what the editor is allowed to change about your story. Many say something along the lines of that the editor can make minor formatting changes to fit the style of the publication–I don’t have a problem with that. Others may say that the editor can make small punctuation type changes, I usually don’t worry about those too much. But I have had a few that say that the editor can change whatever they want. I am very wary of this, because I’ve been bitten by that clause before–where the final three paragraphs were left off the story with no consideration given to how that changed the effect of the story. I don’t intend to sign another contract with such a clause.

5. Publication Media.

An exact description of the publication mediums that the story will be published in. Such as a print magazine only, or online only, or online and a podcast, etc. Be very wary of language that is all-inclusive, like “any and all electronic mediums”. A publisher should know exactly what they are publishing in. If you later want to reprint the story somewhere else, the exact details of what the previous publisher is allowed to do becomes very important. Imagine you sell to a print magazine the right to publish in all mediums, and the next publisher wants first audio rights. You can’t ethically or legally sell to the second publisher without querying the first publisher now… and the first publisher may not be obligated to respond.

6. Language.

I have seen contracts that specified all languages, which would effectively block me from reselling it in translated fashion to a German publication (for instance). There are international translation markets for science fiction. I have not pursued any of them, but they are there and I want to keep that option open.

7. Exclusivity Period.

This is the period of time after publication when you’re expected to not allow the story to be published elsewhere. Some magazines require no exclusivity period–so you could theoretically publish it somewhere else the next day (though I usually give at least 3 months as a courtesy to editors). Six months or a year is pretty common. Be wary if they ask for too long an exclusivity period–I’d look askance at anything above a year for short fiction.

8. Publication Duration.  

Period of time when the publisher is allowed to publish the work.  This will vary a lot depending on the medium.

9. A drop-dead date.

The contract should spell out a time period after which, if the publisher hasn’t exercised their publishing rights, you get all your rights back anyway. This is usually on the scale of a year or so. If the publisher has paid you by this date, you should be able to keep the money with no further obligation. This is one that’s most often omitted from contracts, look for it.

10. Company Closure Provision.

This is similar to a drop-dead date in that it specifies when you can get your rights back–but in this case it’s meant to immediately release your story to you if the magazine officially shuts down. As long as there’s some kind of drop-dead date, this one isn’t necessary, but it’s a nice thing to have.

11. Miscellaneous.

Read every sentence very closely (it helps that most short story contracts are pretty brief). Watch for too-broad language. Watch for anything that would make you nervous if taken exactly as it’s written.  One example of this that I’ve seen is a too-broad demand for the author to participate in promotion–of course an author should want to spread the word about the book but there’s a difference between “something an author ought to do” and “something an author needs to be contractually obligated to do”.  The writer has already done the work by writing, and presumably they want to get back to the business of writing some more, so at some point you have to consider when other demanded obligations become unreasonable.


What if I don’t like the contract?

1. Ask other authors.

Considering asking someone with experience with short story contracts about the language.

2. Query the editor about it.

Ask for a change, explain why you think the change is important. If you know other people who got contracts from them around the same time, consider discussing with them your concerns and if more than one person pushes back at the same time that sends a stronger message.

3. Consider the editor’s response.

They might write up a one-off contract just for you. They might consider changing the contract they send to everybody. They might say they’re not going to change. I’ve seen all of these reactions. Most big professional editors will probably already have a reasonable boilerplate. New editors/markets are more likely to be wildcards with unfriendly wording–but these new editors may also not realize that there’s bad wording and may be very willing to change it.

4. If they give you a new contract and you’re satisfied.

Sign it and celebrate!

5. If they don’t want to revise,

I’d at least try to get a layman’s explanation of what they meant by the problematic language (though keep in mind that if that doesn’t match what the contract says the contract with your signatures on it is going to hold more water than an email exchange)

6. If you still don’t like the contract

Consider very carefully what you want to do. You can sign it anyway. You can say no. What feels right? How prestigious is the market? How generous is the pay? If you sign the contract anyway, just be aware of the risk you’re taking, such as the risk of a story being legally tied up indefinitely if there’s no drop-dead date, and make it a calculated risk that you walk into with your eyes open. If an editor takes a hard stance on a clause that you don’t want to budge on (like no-drop-dead-date or selling copyright) then maybe that’s not a person you want to enter a professional relationship with.


Can I break contract?

So, you sign a contract with a one-year exclusivity. It gets published, gets rave reviews. Ellen Datlow drops you a line and asks to publish it in a Best of the Year anthology. Now what?

Anything in a contract can be waived if both sides agree to it. So, just consider whether your publisher would benefit from whatever you’re suggesting. If they wouldn’t, then maybe you should forget about it. If they would, then you’ve got a sales pitch to do. Best Of anthologies, especially ones by well known editors like Ellen Datlow, are a common case where contract exceptions are made (and often even are explicitly allowed in the body of the contract). Getting a story in there gets a lot of recognition for the original publication’s editor.

There might be other things that you could convince an editor to agree to as well. Maybe you have an idea to cross-promote a publication by publishing it on a podcast–that can be beneficial too. Just ask.

What’s Wrong With My Readers?!

written by Ben Hallert

The 2016 Escape Pod Flash Fiction (anonymous) writing contest had been going on for weeks, I was trapped on the wrong side of the glass, and I was convinced my critics were broken.

The length limit: 500 words maximum. If you could tell a story in less, go for it, but too much leftover room usually isn’t the problem with these. My first draft clocked in around a thousand and every single one of them was absolutely vital, but I started hacking and slashing. I’m a novice writer and it didn’t come easily, but the more I read out loud, the more I could find to get rid of. I’d re-organize things, remove others, and occasionally I’d even ADD things in a wild-eyed craze because I knew they were needed. Then, of course, the knives would have to come out again.

It hurt, but I couldn’t quit because somewhere along the way I’d decided that when I grew up, I wanted to be a writer. That I was almost forty years old didn’t help, but I knew that the only way I’d ever get any better was to actually write something where people could comment and then hopefully learn how to suck less. I had to enter the contest.

By the submission deadline, I’d been working on this story for a while. For days, I’d been chiseling tiny pieces off and molding others. I don’t have the natural talent the pros do so it felt like I had to fight for everything until finally, exhausted, I clicked The Button. My story was out of my hands. After that, the waiting started. A new batch released for judging each day with no sign of mine until near the end. Finally, it was time to get some feedback. When people started to critique it, though, something happened and I became… unstuck. I found myself falling backwards in time to a different century, state, and even career. I was back in Santa Monica, it was the 90’s, and I was back in software development.

A couple decades ago, I was getting my first exposure to software usability testing. This is a thing where we would give folks off the street some cash to come in and do tasks from a list while we watched. We’d ask them to talk their way through what they were doing too so we could understand why they decided to click certain things or type others.

Basically, what we wanted to know was “Can normal people use our software?”

Task: Turn off the firewall temporarily
Task: Create a network rule to allow Netscape Communicator
Task: Check for product updates

Stuff like this, we’d give them a basic task to complete and then we’d watch through the mirrored-glass (exactly like you’d find in any number of spy or law enforcement movies) and take notes.

I’d been working with this program for months and I knew it inside and out. I KNEW we were ready to go, anyone could use it and it was a really straight-forward interface so in my mind, this was a formality.

As people started doing the tests, things started to fall apart and I began to question the criteria used to pick them. Were these actual adults who could hold normal jobs and wash themselves? Why were they having all this trouble? I couldn’t understand how they messed up SO MANY THINGS.

“Why doesn’t he click the button RIGHT THERE?” I’d ask someone next to me after watching a tester spend a couple minutes hunting for an option.

Later, another new member to the team shook their hands over their head. “I don’t get why she doesn’t drag the icon into the folder! Has she even USED a computer before? Just drag it!”

“He’s in the wrong screen! Why does he think he can make a firewall rule HERE?! I think this is a prank. Nobody could be this thick!” I said to the other team member. They nodded. We were agreed, this was nonsense.

The seasoned developer in the room, waved at us to quiet down. “Just listen to what they’re saying”, she told us. “This is why we’re doing this.”

Finally, the person running the test asked us to quiet down because they could hear us through the glass. When we stopped talking, we were forced to listen, and when that happened we began to actually hear what this quiet developer had been talking about. No, it wasn’t obvious that they needed to drag something into a folder. Creating the firewall rule in this screen might make sense if they expect this part of the product to work like that other part they tried earlier. That button… I knew that button would take them to the option needed, but that was because I’d played with the product for months. Slowly, I grew to appreciate these tests because they showed me what we needed to do to make our products better. As I matured into my job, I started being able to see some of the problems ahead of time, early in design, and that saved us money and schedule time. I grew to be better at what I did and eventually started to look forward to these sessions.

Back in 2016, reading the responses to my story felt like I was riding an emotional time machine. I was that younger version of me again. Instead of a mirror-wall, it was the anonymity of the contest and the need to not post (because of the danger of revealing which story was mine) that separated me from the readers. “No”, I wanted to post, “that’s not what I meant at all! The character is supposed to be like XXXX, not YYYY. You’re wrong!” “That’s not it at all, that was on purpose!” I wanted to tell another poster. After reading a couple responses and yelling at my monitor, I heard that voice from my past again and this time, I paid attention more quickly.

“Just listen to what they’re saying”, that developer murmured to me from the 1990s. I hadn’t spoken with her in years, but I could still hear that advice like I was back in Pre-dotcom-era Santa Monica. I paused. If I was going to become a better writer, I couldn’t expect to hand-hold my audience. My story would need to be self-contained, if it needed explanation then I’d screwed up. “This”, I could hear her say in my mind, “is why we’re doing this”.


BenHallertBen Hallert is an airplane pilot with an IT habit. He’s active in the Maker community, has an extremely patient family, and like to shoot frickin’ laser beams at things for fun. His story ‘Life Sentence’ was published in Escape Pod 426 in December 2013.

Memorization Trick

written by David Steffen

It’s not uncommon for new story ideas to pop into my head at the most inconvenient times–often while I’m running errands and don’t have anything to write with. I don’t want to just discard the ideas while the ideas are flowing, so I’ve worked out a trick to try to remember such things, even a bunch of them that aren’t related.

For each idea, an important part for me is to boil each idea down to one syllable reminder of the idea–an associative hook that when you think about it can expand into your full memory of the idea. Maybe it’s an idea involving an alien hive mind. “Hive” might be suitable for that idea. If more ideas come to mind while you’re thinking on it (and they often come in big groups for me) then if another idea comes that doesn’t easily follow from the first, boil that down to a single syllable. It works best for me if the multiple trigger words flow into each other, either by sounding like a common phrase or if they rhyme, and you can change a word as long as you can think of another good association. So if you thought of a second one that involved a trinity of some kind, you could choose the word “three” for it, and then change “hive” to “bee”. So far you have the words “bee three”–it rhymes and it sounds like a Battleship play, makes it easy to remember.

Then I repeat the phrase in my head whenever my attention is not otherwise occupied–soon it sticks and when it sticks it usually sticks for a day or more so I have plenty of time to write the whole ideas down. I’ve strung together a half dozen or so trigger words that when typed out into full explanations gave me more than a 1000 words into my idea file. It’s very handy for making sure you don’t lose the gem of an idea you thought up in the cereal aisle at the grocery store.

Defining Goal Themes vs Goals

written by David Steffen

This post is in part based on ideas picked from the brain of my good friend Rachael K. Jones–credit where credit’s due!

I’ve talked in previous posts about the difference between goals and milestones. But on the subject of goals, I thought it’s worth breaking that down further into what I’m going to call goal themes vs goals.


Goal Themes

By goal themes I generally mean things which describe ideals you want to support in the whole of your long-term career in writing. Rachael’s list of goal themes are something like this, and I think most of these can apply to most people with maybe some alterations:

1. Improve my craft

2. Try things outside my comfort zone

3. Move toward positive change

4. Honor the people who’ve helped me

5. Look for chances to pay it forward

Note again that these are all related to goals, not milestones, because they are things within your control. You can do all of these things without it depending on the actions of other people. There’s a focus on improving craft, but not on sales or writing income, because those latter things require an editor to actually choose to buy your story. But the idea is that by improving your craft you’ll be setting yourself up to make more sales, and so on.

And the paying it forward and making positive change are great because they don’t just focus on personal success but in applying yourself to make the world a better place in some way (which you might be able to be more effective at if you have more personal success, mind you).

Your list of goal themes is something I’d expect not to change too much from year to year, because these are large scale pursuits that aim at general ideals.



Goals are specific aims that you are working on right now, and are best if they relate to one of your goal themes (because that’s how you pursue those ideals). Note that although some of the goals here are from Rachael, I also added in some others as examples of how you might pursue the goal theme.

1. Improve my craft
–exchanging story critiques
–workshops with your favorite authors
–writing more words

2. Try things outside my comfort zone
–public speaking
–guest hosting of podcasts

3. Agitate for positive change within my profession
–working with Women Destroy SF
–Supporting diversity with donations to diversity-supporting publications, volunteering

4. Honor the people who’ve helped me
–writing stories in honor people
–jam or other personal goods for your friends

5. Look for chances to pay it forward
–sharing info with new writers
–introducing people
–read, share, and celebrate stories you think are awesome by friends and new writers


Game Theory in Writing Part 3: Why Money Should Always Flow to the Writer

written by David Steffen

This is the second article in a series considering the applications of game theory on writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making. I won’t get into the mathematics of it, just high level concepts. The first article in the series discussed differentiating between goals and milestones. The second article in the series discussed ways for writers to keep score on their submissions that will encourage them to reach their goals.

An oft-quoted phrase in writing circles is known as “Yog’s Law”: Money always flows to the writer. I don’t really care for the name, since it’s not a law in either the legal sense or the scientific sense, but it’s an important guideline to keep in mind to help new writers avoid vanity publishers and publications that charge fees for submission.

What does it mean?

When I hear “Money always flows to the writer” out of context in the company of people who are not writers, I always wonder what those writers think. Do they picture the writer as Scrooge McDuck swimming in a vault full of money they never spend? Do they picture the writer’s landlord demanding rent to which the writer will reply “Money always flows to the writer” and slam the door in the landlord’s face?

Obviously writers spend money on goods and services as anyone else does. Yog’s Law refers only to interactions in pursuit of publication. That is, a writer shouldn’t pay submission fees. A writer shouldn’t pay publication fees. The writer is providing value in the form of their writing, and the writer should be paid for that writing.

Note that there are cases that seem to fit this description that aren’t really a problem–especially in self-publishing where the writer may pay for an artist to make cover art or a copyeditor to help them proofread. That’s because in the case of self-publishing the writer herself is also wearing the publisher hat and so the traditional roles are shifted.


So, why, from a Game Theory perspective, does the money need to flow to the writer? One of the important things I’ve learned from Game Theory is that a system or “game” is that the rules of a game should be designed so that the desired behavior results from everyone acting in their own selfish best interest. If the system is set up in any other way, then you have a conflict of interest that’s going to set the writer in conflict with the publisher rather than putting them together on the same team.

In a traditional sale to a magazine, the publisher will pay the author a one-time fee for publication rights and then the publisher will distribute the magazine either charging for readers to read the issue or taking donations and providing the content for free to recover the costs of paying for the story and other expenses, (and ideally will turn a profit on the deal to sustain the magazine). In this case, both the editor and writer have the same goals from the transaction–to get the story ready for publication as quickly as possible, to get it packaged up in an issue, and getting in front of as many readers as possible.

In traditional book publishing, similar idea, but on a larger scale and with royalties.

But let’s consider a vanity publisher which charges editing fees of the author. It’s in the publisher’s best financial interest to drag that editing process out as long as possible–if you’re determined, you can always find something to fiddle with, but that’s not a publisher you want to work with, sucking away your money in an endless stream of nitpicks that the editor never has an incentive to end. The editor doesn’t have an incentive to get the book in a publishable format in a timely fashion because edits are where the money is at.

Consider next a vanity publisher that charges publication fees. It’s in the publisher’s best financial interest to rush everything to publication, regardless of quality, and to not bother supporting it in any kind of marketing or any other fashion in the future. The revenue stream maximizes by maximizing the number of titles that are published in such a low quality format that probably no one but the author’s family is going to buy. Although this publisher will naturally tend to get stories to publication, they are making money regardless of the quality of the publication and so do not have an incentive to help the writer make the product as good as possible.

Consider a magazine that charges submission fees. The author, in that case, is paying a fee (often on the order of $3 but sometimes higher on the range of $20) to, in all likelihood, get a form rejection. Guess how much effort it takes to send a form rejection? If the system is set up efficiently, probably one or two clicks. The magazine maximizes their revenue stream from that by not bothering to read the slushpile at all, publishing stories they solicit directly and just rejecting the rest.

Note that in these cases, I’m not saying that all publishers who adopt these practices are scammers, or that they have the result I suggest. But with those flawed plans in place, there will be constant pressure toward practices that are directly detrimental to the writer, and a writer would do best to avoid them entirely.


Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process

written by David Steffen

This is the second article in a series considering the applications of game theory on writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making. I won’t get into the mathematics of it, just high level concepts. The first article in the series discussed differentiating between goals and milestones.

Much of focus of Game Theory centers around “gamifying” everyday decisions, giving them a goal and a way to keep score to determine how well you’re meeting that goal. One thing that writers can struggle with is keeping stories in circulation–you can’t sell stories if you don’t submit them–so for this article I’ll be considering ways to keep score that encourage the behavior you want.

The Wrong Behavior

Some rules that seem entirely sensible can actually encourage the wrong behavior (“wrong” as in contradictory to the behaviors you want to pursue). For instance, I know some people who use acceptance percentage. Sounds good, right? A newbie starts with 0%. You might imagine that a big name might have, I don’t know, above 50% (I’m not saying that’s actually a reasonable number, but one might imagine it is).

But consider the consequences. When you’re a saleless newbie, no problem. If the fraction is 0/1 or 0/2 or 0/100, it all comes out to 0% acceptance. But someday you get a sale, let’s say it’s your 100th resolved submission. Calloo! Callay! You have raised your acceptance ratio to 1%. Wonderful news!

But what happens next? You want to keep submitting other stories, right? So you can sell more, get your stories to more people, crack all your favorite magazines, right? But… you think to yourself, what if that submission gets rejected? Then my acceptance ratio would be 1/101. What if the next 99 are rejections too? That would bring your acceptance ratio to 0.5% and you’re now half as successful as you had been. So, maybe you’ll just wait until you see a submission opportunity that you’re certain you can nail with no risk.

Look what your scoring system has gotten you. Now you’re reluctant to take risks. You can’t sell without submitting–never up, never in. You can’t get those big sales without submitting to markets that have very low odds. Avoiding risks will ensure stagnation of your progress.

The Right Behavior

So what should you pick for gauging your progress then? Total # of acceptances (rather than acceptance ratio). Total number of professional-paying sales. You can pick something that fits your values, but just consider what behavior it will encourage before you really stick to it.

To encourage me to submit I have found Dean Wesley Smith’s submission scoring system to be extremely valuable in motivating me to keep stories in submission. It’s pretty simple. For every short story you have submitted right now, you get 1 point. For every novel you have an excerpt out for, you get 3 points. For every complete novel manuscript submitted right now, you get 8 points. Submitting the same story to multiple venues simultaneously does not get you more points. When you get an acceptance or rejection, you lose the points associated with that submission.

The great thing about the system is that it encourages you to not mope when you get a rejection–if you find a new market to submit that story to, then you can keep the score up. And it encourages you to write more stories–your maximum score is the number of stories you’ve written. I intend to incorporate automatic scorekeeping using this system into The Submission Grinder at some point, because I believe in it.

So, writers out there, do you have any score or statistic that you follow to help motivate you in your submitting? Your writing?

Game Theory in Writing Part 1: Goals vs. Milestones

written by David Steffen

This is the first of a short series of articles about applying Game Theory to writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making, a field of study made most famous by mathematician John Nash (which the movie A Beautiful Mind was based on). I won’t be getting into the math of Game Theory, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss some applications of strategic decision making in the writing/submitting/publishing process because I’m both a writing geek and a programming geek. A discussion mixing the two topics lights up all kinds of synapses in the geek centers of my brain.

So, for this installment I’m going to talk about the importance of differentiating between goals and milestones. What does this have to do with game theory? Well, much of the focus of game theory is based around “gamifying” ordinary activities by defining scoring rules and ways to determine your level of success in the game, and thus defining ways to look at a scenario that will encourage the outcome you want. By choosing carefully how you determine your own level of success you can exert some control over what behaviors you encourage. Choosing well can generate energy and momentum to drive you to bigger and better things. Choosing poorly can leave you disheartened and weary.

But what are goals and what are milestones?

Goals are things you can accomplish which you have complete control over (or at least as complete control over as you have over anything). In writing, some goals might be:

  • to write every day
  • to finish writing a novel in 2015
  • to write 5000 words a week
  • to never trunk a story
  • to write every other story in a character unlike yourself in some major way
  • to submit to pro-paying markets only

Milestones are things which would laudable and worthy of celebration, but which are not under your direct control.

  • to sell a story for the first time
  • to become eligible to be a member of SFWA
  • to sell a story to Asimov’s
  • to be nominated for a Hugo
  • to get a positive review from Lois Tilton

In some ways goals and milestones are very similar. You can fail or you can succeed to reach goals or milestones, and they are both kinds of ways to measure success. Both are things worthy of celebration if met. So what’s the point in differentiating between them. The primary difference is in how you can best react to NOT meeting them.

Because goals are entirely under your control, you can react however you want to not meeting them. Maybe the goals were too ambitious for your lifestyle or skills–that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have pursued them, and there certainly can be things outside of your control that may have blocked you (personal illness, death in the family, change in career, eviction, etc). If you don’t meet them, maybe they still helped you reach higher than you otherwise would have, or maybe you need to aim lower to avoid discouragement. However the goals motivate you, run with it. I find that setting goals of daily butt-in-chair time combined with goals that maintain a quick turnaround of a story to another market after rejection have served me well to keep rejection from getting me down and to make sure I sit down and actually produce. (I’ll talk more about setting good motivating submission goals in a later article)

Because milestones are not under your control, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. You can write an amazing story and Asimov’s might reject it for any number of reasons. You can’t control how people react to your stories, and if you beat yourself up for it, that’s a quick route to discouragement and disheartening funk. If you’ve chosen your goals wisely, they will be setting you on a path to try to reach your milestones and that will let you exert your control as best you can, but at the end of the day those milestones still depend on other people and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for what other people do. Milestones are things to be celebrated, and you can even set up structured ways to celebrate them, such as the Bingo Card that Christie Yant uses, but it’s important to remember that they’re still out of your control.


Songs in the Key of Rejectomancy

introduced by David Steffen
songs written by Amadeus X. Machina

I had never heard of the musician who calls himself Amadeus X. Machina until I went to WorldCon in Chicago last year and stumbled across one of his performances. He is a musician of the most eccentric variety, eschewing the commonplace for his own forms of expression. He laughs at the traditional definitions of “audience” or “distribution”. If you so much as mention iTunes, he will slap you so hard your teeth will rattle (I learned this the hard way). He has an avid fanbase of people who devote large portions of their lives to figuring out where he will play next, and failing to do so. I have yet to speak to anyone who has seen him play twice, and the first time always seems to be a random coincidence, though he seems to appear at times of need.

I happened to come across one of his private performances in a ground floor men’s room bathroom at 5:30 in the morning on Saturday morning in the Chicago Hyatt. I was suffering a bout of insomnia, and found myself wandering the hotel to avoid waking my roommates. Somehow, from inside his bathroom stall, he was managing to sing, and to play an accordion an autoharp and a guitar simultaneously, and all in perfect pitch. The song was one about an epileptic monkey pirate who wished upon the morning star to be turned into a whale so he could forever cavort with his beloved Baluga mistress, Frita. It was a beautiful song that you should listen to if you ever have the opportunity. I could not do that beautiful song justice so I will not even try.

Mr. Machina and I got to talking at length about music, and art, and writing. Mr. Machina is a writer himself (under a pen name which he refused to divulge), and he sang me a few of his songs that he had composed while waiting for editors to respond to him. He was gracious enough to grant me permission to post these here on Diabolical Plots for all the writers out there to enjoy.

I asked Mr. Machina if I could give his email address for his fans to reach him. He said that he prefers to conduct all of his personal correspondence by Post-It notes left in hotel bathrooms (both men’s and women’s) where science fiction conventions are being held.


Twisting in the Wind
by Amadeus X. Machina (to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”)

How many reads must the slush reader do
Before my submission is read?
Yes, and how many times must I check my email
When I should be writing instead?
Yes, and how many sleepless nights have passed by
Since my Grinder has turned bloody red?
The author, my friend, is twisting in the wind
The author is twisting in the wind.


Dashing Through the Slush
by Amadeus X. Machina (to the tune of James Lord Pierpont’s “One Horse Open Sleigh”)

Dashing through the slush
In a one-horse open sleigh
Writer’s hopes I crush
Laughing all the way

Best of luck to you
Placing this one elsewhere
For Lightspeed it won’t do
And certainly not Nightmare

Jay Jay Ay, Jay Jay Ay,
Jay Jay all the way!
Oh what fun it is to read
And respond in just one day!

* only after 7 days have elapsed


The Ballad of Shane
by Amadeus X. Machina (to the tune of Paul Henning’s “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”)

Come and listen to my story ’bout a man named Shane
Software engineer but he lived his life in pain
He wrote a little story just to buy his family food
But seventeen weeks later he got totally queued
(Slow queued, that is. Limbo. Cooling his heels.)

Well the next thing you know old Shane tried agin
“Write another story” said his pals and all his kin
He knew that selling fiction is a long hard slog
But he never reckoned on being bludgeoned by a log.
(Analog, that is. Trevor’s tar pit. The black hole of Quachri).

Well now it’s time to say goodbye to Shane and all his kin
They would like to thank you folks for kindly dropping in
You’re all invited back again if you’ve written a story
And join us in this lovely place that we call purgatory
(Y’all come back now, ya hear?)


Slush Little Story
by Amadeus X. Machina (to the tune of traditional song “Hush Little Baby”)

Slush little story, don’t say a word
Papa’s gonna send you to Clarkesworld
And if Neil gives you the brush off
Papa’s gonna send you to Asimov
And if Sheila won’t buy you
Papa’s gonna send you to Trevor Q
If you don’t meet his current need
Papa’s gonna send you to Lightspeed
If Jay Jay Ay says that you’re junk
There’s room for one more in my trunk


Check, Check, Check Your Mail
by Amadeus X. Machina (to the tune of traditional song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”)

Check, check, check your mail
As often as you can.
Primarily, primarily, primarily, primarily,
Your inbox just has spam.

Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_2When not checking his email, Mr. Machina enjoys spelunking and recreational trepanation. His autobiography, Wake Me If There’s Sex, is eagerly anticipated by his many fans.

Interview: Dean Wesley Smith

interview by Carl Slaughter

Most people who comment on the changing publishing landscape concentrate on the problems. Bestselling author and blue chip workshop instructor Dean Wesley Smith has a can-do make it happen attitude and concentrates on solutions. And unlike self proclaimed experts, he’s a proven success. The business model he blogs about on his website and teaches in his workshops isn’t theory. He sells books with that business model. Lots of books. At a profit. In this interview with Carl Slaughter, he plays myth buster for writers who have reservations about making the transition from print publishing to electronic publishing and from traditional publishing to self publishing. At, he dispels conventional wisdoms on a regular basis.


MYTH: How can an author sell books without the massive marketing apparatus of a publisher? It’s logistically impossible to make contact with bookstores all over the country. Nor can they afford advertising in national magazines.


FACT: Well, that’s a huge myth. Of course any indie publisher can get into bookstores and actually, it’s fairly easy and not very expensive. And no, it’s not impossible to make contact with bookstores all over the country. In fact, it’s easy. One way to even find out about how to do that is just go to the ABA (American Booksellers Association) website and you can download their bookstore lists state by state for free. And by joining the ABA as a publisher (about $300 per year) you can join into their programs such as the different box programs, get electronic proofs to bookstores and so much more. But of course, this takes doing print books as well as electronic. And Kobo will be going into all the indie stores with electronic books shortly. Also, you can get to the major chain stores as well, just takes a little more research. But first a publisher has to get past the myth that it’s impossible. It’s far from impossible.


MYTH: With a SmashWords type strategy, there are editors, no reviewers. No vetting or evaluation process. This means every author could post every one of their stories. With such a massive number of stories available, how can readers find my story, how can my story stand out among so many others?


FACT: It’s a bogus fear. In fact, it’s now easier to find books online than it ever was when readers had to go into bookstores. The key for writers is just to keep writing better and better stories and let the fans spread the word for you. The more quality stories you have available to readers, the more they will find you. But it takes time to build that kind of readership. If you expect it within a year or less, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment.


MYTH: To sell books online, you have to use a credit card or PayPal. These services charge per sale. If one person buys 10 books, that’s not a comparatively steep service expense. But if 100 people buy one book each, you’re paying that fee 100 times. How does that factor into the ebook/self-publishing business model?


FACT: It’s called a “cost of doing business” and it’s very, very minor. And only comes into play if you are selling off your own web site, which most should not do at first.


MYTH: How much can you charge per customer for a short story? 50 cents? One dollar? At that rate, can you make as much as selling the same story to a magazine or anthology?


FACT: You get 65 to 70% of all money from any distributor like Amazon or B&N. And most of the people I know sell short fiction for $2.99 per story.


MYTH: All that time spent formatting your story is time spent clicking on a browser instead of time spent typing on a keyboard. All that time spent on bookkeeping is time spent tapping on a calculator instead of typing on a keyboard. A writer who isn’t typing is a writer who isn’t making money. How do you weigh routine maintenance time against the time spent writing 2, 3, 4 stories?


FACT: This is a serious question that all writers must deal with. Before the electronic world, there was always business time sending off manuscripts and dealing with editors and agents. But the key is always go back to writing when in doubt. My friend, Scott William Carter has a great test when he looks at doing production vs. writing. He calls it his WIBBOW test and he asks it about everything. (Would I Be Better Off Writing?) When you ask that, you tend to do the business and production stuff at odd hours when you wouldn’t be writing anyway.


MYTH: How much are customers willing to pay for an ebook if they know the production cost is only a fraction of print books?


FACT: What does production costs have to do with anything? If you sent a book to a publisher, they must pay overhead, they must pay editors, they must pay copyeditors, and production for the electronic and for the covers. The only production you are talking about is printing and shipping costs. Those are the only things that vary at all. A $15.99 trade paper should have about a $7.99 electronic book. That feels fair to readers and works fine for authors as well. And covers publisher’s costs just fine. It is a huge myth that there are no costs to electronic books. A huge myth. Costs are less, yes, but there are costs.


MYTH: Suppose the next electronic book display technology goes through a revolution and the Kindle type gadgets go the way of 45s, 78s, reel to reel, 8 track, and floppy? Then you’ve got to reformat all your stories for the new technology. If you ¹ve got a publisher, you just keep writing and let someone in New York handle format issues.


FACT: Even if there isn’t a formatting revolution in the near future that renders your current formatting obsolete, doesn’t every website and ever gadget have its own formatting requirements? This question would take an entire class to answer. It’s called staying up with the field of changes. Nature of the beast of being a professional writer. Things are going to change. If you don’t stay on top of the changes, you end up not selling and getting left behind. And also your question assumes that traditional publishers would stay up as well, and that has been proven false in the last three years.


MYTH: Suppose my name isn’t Dean Wesley Smith and I therefore don’t have an established reader base. How do I draw traffic to my site?


FACT: Why would you want to? I tell writers who come to workshops here to have a static web site and only change it when they have a new book or story to tell their fans. That’s all you need. Blogging and all that crap is far too much work.


CARL: Share some success stories. Writers who followed the advice from your blog, seminars, and books and became commercially successful.


DEAN: Oh, wow, I don’t take credit for anyone’s success. Success in this business comes from writing and keeping at it for a long time and working to keep learning. Anyone who got successful from anything I said was because they worked hard and wrote hard. My advice is just more of a suggestion to go in a direction. The writer must go and do that work. And no writer is the same, no career the same. So I would never, ever think of taking credit for anyone’s success.

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.