I attended a webinar the other day -- if attend is the right word when you’re sitting at home in your jammies -- by author Jacob M. Appel who writes, among other things, short stories.
From his website:Jacob has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch. He has won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer's Digest "grand prize" twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also won annual contests sponsored by Boston Review, Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Briar Cliff Review, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Writers' Voice, the Dana Awards, the Salem Center for Women Writers, and Washington Square. His work has been short listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Essays (2011, 2012), and received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013.
His numbers were pretty interesting. He’s been writing for 20 years, and has accumulated over 21,000 rejection letters. That’s 1000 a year or 3 a day.
He writes 10-15 hours a week. (He’s a physician at Beth Israel Hospital but also has many other degrees, law being one.) He also does one hour a day doing what he calls the business of writing. In other words, answering e-mails, promoting his work, and making contacts. He’s not a big Twitter or FaceBook person, but he does have a website, and although it’s not fabulous, it does the trick.
He sold 30 stories last year. He claims for every story he sells, he will get 30 rejections. Every time he gets a rejection, he sends out two more stories. If he gets a particularly painful rejection, he sends out 10 stories that day. On occasion a magazine will say to him that his story wasn’t a good fit, but “What else do you have?” For this purpose, and also to keep his submission numbers up, he has a stash of about 400 stories that he can dip into. And he keeps adding to that pile. His advice is to keep your stories fresh. Stories from 10 years ago when he used to wear a beeper, and so did his characters, are going to be dated today.
His technique is process based as opposed to project based. In other words he doesn’t concentrate on one piece of work or one particular magazine, or even one genre, but works on many different types of stories.
His view on submitting simultaneously is he won’t do it with magazines he has a relationship with, but he feels it is an unreasonable request for magazines to ask him to sit on stories for months waiting for an answer. He submits no matter what the guidelines say. It’s a numbers game. Be relentless. Volume matters.
He always uses a cover letter. He suggests you be open to feedback, as flexibility also matters.
Someone he respected once told him, “If a magazine turns you down three times, don’t submit to them again.” (He’s talking about magazines where he’s done the research and knows what kinds of stories they are looking for, but his subs still got rejected.) He believes this is bad advice. Editors change, consumers changes, the magazine’s needs change constantly. Your stories might not have been right at the moment, but could be right in the future.
He suggests you be a good literary citizen. By that he means: subscribe to magazines you wish to be published in; agree to mentor new writers; give blurbs when you can; attend events of other writers and be supportive; patronize bookstores; visit libraries; and send thank you notes when applicable. Not an e-mail, a nicely written, personal thank you note.
He let it slip that the New Yorker pays six digits for some of their stories. Not that it’s very likely an unknown will get one of those spots, but that’s a hell of a contract.
His said if you’re considering pubbing your own collection of short stories the way to do it is to count the words not the stories. His idea of a decent marketable collection is around 40,000-45,000 words. His stories range in the 6000-8000 word area, so his collection would contain about 6-8 stories. If you self pub and can sell 5000 books in 1-2 months, publishers will pay attention.
If you want a list of the top 200 journals (magazines) get hold of The Best American Short Stories anthology (library) and in the back they provide that list. These magazines are where they pull their collection from.
And finally a hint about submitting to magazines. Submit early in the submission period. In other words if a magazines takes submissions from October to March, don’t wait until March. The readers at the publishing house will be eager and rested in October. Not so much in March. This also works for contests. Try to find a themed magazine, or contest, as there won’t be as many submissions. He suggests you consider entering contests. Unlike submitting to a magazine, in a contest someone HAS to win from the group submitted. Your odds are better than a random submission to WW who gets thousands of stories per month to the point where they can just glance at them quickly before sending out a rejection letter. Not so with a contest. Every submission is read. Agents keep their eyes on contests and contracts are not uncommon for winners.
So, that’s it. He was interesting. I learned a few things, and I was wowed by his numbers. I'm not sure I could handle three rejections a day but if you want to run with the big dogs, you have to pee in the tall grass.