Slush Pile Lessons, Part Three – Math is Hard

This is the third installment of my posts about lessons learned from slush. You can read the other two parts here: Part One, Part Two.

We read a lot of slush. We’ve written a lot of stuff. Sometimes we see bad habits that we realize we’ve been doing all along. These posts are about lessons we’ve learned.

Short recap of disclaimers:

  • I hate canned advice.
  • There’s a reason that advice exists.
  • This is skewed towards short fiction editors because I am one.
  • You can’t account for luck, but you can make choices about your fiction. This is about those choices.

Playing with Numbers

I'm not a mathematician, I just make shit up on the internet.I like numbers. I think they can give a sense of scale, even if they depress the hell out of me sometimes. Or a lot of times.

You could be thinking, “How hard is it to get an editor to read your story to the end and like it?” I mean, I talked a lot about trying to avoid pitfalls. But how hard could it really be to keep an editor’s attention?

As I go through this, it’s worth noting that we typically look for stories 500-8,000 words long. It’s a typical range for short fiction. Markets may vary significantly, but it’s good enough for government work. (I’m a government bureaucrat. I would know.)

Also worth noting is the financial cost. For those not hip to the jargon, a “token paying market” pays less than 1-cent/word. A “semi-pro” market pays at least 1-cent/word, but less than 6-cents. A “pro” market pays at least 5- or 6-cents/word.

(For those wondering, “If you get paid for doing work, doesn’t that make you a pro? Who decided that 6-cents is ‘pro’?” The answer is: genre-specific professional organizations like Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. 6-cents/word is the minimum pay for a short story to be considered professionally published by SFWA. Which is one of the ways you can become a member. This makes pro-paying magazines that much more appealing to submit to. Horror Writers Association is 5-cents/word for professionals, but they have lower tiers of membership available. Romance Writers of America appears to no longer have that requirement.)

Volume (Pump It Up?)

For this last Kickstarter, we received 242 submissions. This was the largest volume of submissions we’ve gotten for an anthology. Twice as many stories as our previous record. We were also paying twice as much: 2-cents per word.

How does this compare to pro-paying markets? The info I could find for pro-paying anthologies was pretty sketchy. Comparing it to a pro-paying magazine seemed dubious, because there are different environmental factors between an ongoing magazine and a one-time anthology.

So what about comparing MSJ‘s regular token paying slush pile to a pro-magazine’s slush pile? From looking at Duotrope and Submission Grinder, there are 20-50 times more submissions to pro-paying markets reported than there are to our token-paying magazine. The numbers vary so wildly between the two sites that I don’t think I could give you an adequate comparison of payment vs. volume of submissions.

But if you’re willing to assume at least 20 times the submissions, you’d be looking at a minimum of 3,500+ stories in the last year. About 300 a month. A good deal more than our recent anthology, but also monthly. (This assumes they are open year round. Some markets close periodically, which means that the content is redistributed to the open months.) That’s the conservative estimate. They have about a 1% acceptance rate, which seems to fit with their publication rate.

Time Is Not On Your Side

Not everyone included their word count for their story, so I can’t give an exact number, but we could easily have had a million words worth of fiction submitted. That’s more than twice the length of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s comparable to the length of the entire Dark Tower series.

Google tells me that the average person reads 200 words per minute. With a range of 500-8,000 words, each story takes an average person 2.5 to 40 minutes to read. For a million words, that’s over 80 hours of reading.

Larger markets will often have a first tier of slush readers, so that load would be distributed among multiple readers and filtered before they get to the editor. It’s still a lot of reading.

Bringing it Together

A publication can only accept so many stories. Usually this is limited by word count. When they pay by the word, their budget for authors limits how many words you can buy. If there’s a print edition,  they may have a printing budget as well.

When you submit an 8,000 word story, you have a steep climb. You’re asking for 40 minutes of someone’s time, and you need to keep them interested that whole time. It’s in their best interest to give up early. For a 2-cent/word market, you’re also asking for $160 from them. And in a 100,000 word anthology, you are asking to take up 1/12th of the book.

If you’re looking at a pro-paying market that puts out a monthly magazine, they have a shorter word count limit. Glancing at a few pro magazines, I’m seeing 3-4 stories a month. One magazine appears to have about 20,000 words of fiction for that month. So this hypothetical 8,000 word story would cost at least $480 for a story that could take up almost half of their fiction budget for that issue.

Looking at it that way, can you tell your story in fewer words?

On the flip side, a 500 word story only takes a few minutes to read. It’s easier to take a gamble on finishing it if you’re only taking an extra minute. When you’re trying to hit a specific word count, really short pieces are great for filling in those final gaps. It pays $10 at 2-cents/word and $30 at pro rates.

And you can take more stories if they’re all shorter. Which means you can talk up how many awesome stories your publication has when you go to market it. Unless they’re a writer, telling someone a book is 100,000 words long doesn’t mean much. Page count, when applicable, might tell more. But saying the number of stories? 12 stories doesn’t sound as awesome as 24 stories. Which doesn’t sound as awesome as 36 stories.

Added bonus: If a book has 36 stories, it could have 36 authors who will share news of their publication to their audience.

But can you tell a satisfying story in that space of 500 words? It’s hard to do. There’s a reason I don’t write flash fiction. Some people are great at it. It ain’t me, babe. It ain’t a lot of people. Babe. Sometimes it can work without much of a plot. We’ve published dating profiles and brochures that were super short just because the concept was delightful enough that it was worth the two minutes of reading.

More often, though, they’re just incomplete stories that end abruptly and we don’t know what we just read. Sure, it only took us two minutes to read. But it ended with us throwing our hands up in confusion. That isn’t a great reaction to inspire.

These numbers are what you’re fighting against when you submit a story. Your challenge will be to catch that interest, do it well, and leave the editor satisfied with what they read. And even if you do everything right, it may still not get accepted. Because, seriously: 1% acceptance rate.

Beyond the Numbers

Okay, let’s recap.

Peter Quill saying, "Then bring it down hard."

Over three posts I’ve spat out a whole bunch of stuff. Numbers and tips and sophomoric philosophy. How does this all fit together?

When we evaluate stories, we try to balance out a whole bunch of factors that went beyond just whether we thought the story was well written. These included things like:

  • Length: For all the reasons above. We’ll give a shorter story more of a shot than a longer one just because it’s less of a time commitment. And we’re more likely to buy a shorter story because that means we can accept more stories overall. (And we have to tell less people “No.”)
  • Who the author was: Were they a returning author? Familiar faces are fun to work with. A big deal name we couldn’t believe submitted to us? That could sell a few more books. A newer author that we could help along? We’ve been the first publication for a lot of authors, and that’s a great feeling.
  • Reflecting our values: Stories impact how we shape the world, so we want to know that we’re publishing stories that shape things in a positive way. Is this a story that we want to stand beside and champion? I’m a social justice bard, so this influences me a lot.
  • Adding something to the mix: For the anthologies in particular, we want a good range of stories from a good range of authors. Some of this ties into having stories that stand out, and not wanting to have the exact same story 20+ times. But we also try to have a broad range of themes and tones. Even if the plots are completely different, we are probably not going to have five stories about airship pirates in a book that is not explicitly about airship pirates.

This is not to say that these things offset the need for a well-written story that we enjoy. It’s always heartbreaking to get a story that is everything we want to publish, and we don’t think it’s good. Those items above can turn a soft yes into a strong yes.  And they can break ties when we just really don’t know.

Our priorities are not going to be the same as other markets. But I’d like to think there’s some overlap. Some of these you can’t do anything about. You can’t change who you are. You can’t always know what you’re going against.

But hopefully knowing these things can ease the sting of rejection. As an editor, these choices are painful to make. The difference between choosing or rejecting a story can be just a hair’s worth of difference.

In the end, all you can do is use some perseverance metaphor to keep going.

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