For literary writers—especially those focused on poetry and short stories—consistently submitting to and being published in literary journals can be a crucial step in being taken more seriously by book publishers. The reason for this is two-fold: it proves that you are a serious author dedicated not just to your craft but to the publishing world, and it proves that journal editors have already vetted and vouched for your work.
You may also end up making solid, sometimes personal, connections with editors (who may publish your work regularly, invite you to participate in readings, or request interviews) and other authors (who may share your work on social media and even endorse your next book).
Although our shared literary world may seem dauntingly vast and diverse, it’s actually a rather close-knit, interrelated community of impassioned individuals doing everything they can to ensure the power of the written word not only endures but thrives across generations.
Now, we’ve all repeated the mantras “Rejections are par for the course” and “It’s all about patience and persistence,” both of which are essential reminders of our precarious creative endeavor. But how does one go about submitting? Despite the subjective nature of editorial preferences, there are solid strategies to increase journal acceptances.
The Commonly Accepted Strategy
We’ve all been told that an intimate knowledge of literary journals is essential to securing acceptances. Most writers and publishing professionals recommend that you to read a few issues of a journal and submit only once you feel confident your work matches their creative vision.
This strategy seems intuitive and straightforward, and I’d recommend it, too, if we lived in an ideal world with ample free time.
The Truth about Submissions
But let’s be honest. It’s nearly impossible to read issues of every magazine you submit to. There are hundreds of literary journals, and you may have hundreds of poems ready for the world. If you read every journal, would there still be time to write?
Added to this, literature is inherently subjective. There is simply no way of knowing if a certain editor will accept a certain poem. Personally, I can attest to having hundreds of poems accepted by journals that, on the surface, don’t seem to publish work similar to mine. But I submitted to them anyway, and it worked. Why?
At their core, submissions are just a numbers game.
Most magazines receive hundreds, in some cases thousands, of submissions per month. Many have interns and volunteers sifting through submissions, only sending a limited number up the editorial ladder. And of those the editors actually see, a select few will be chosen for publication.
So how does an author surmount that mountainous obstacle?
Submit. Submit. Submit.
- Submit continuously. Submit everything to everyone and wait until your pieces begin to stick. They will. You just need the right editor to read them, and you never know who will be the right editor for each piece.
- Look past rejection. Don’t worry if a piece has been rejected by countless magazines. if you believe in it and are diligent with your submission method, it will find publication eventually.
Editors call this the shotgun approach. They warn against it, and I don’t blame them. But the simple truth is, it works.
Having taught dozens of submission-focused workshops, I’ve found that the expectation inherent in the commonly accepted strategy actually deters emerging writers from submitting at all. It’s been drummed into them that “real writers” must carefully study every journal, and they have neither the time nor the industry knowledge to do so. So they feel like unprofessional outsiders and end up fearing the submission process.
Telling my students that they should simply submit, regardless of their familiarity with each journal, has met with such surprise and enthusiasm. There’s a freedom in recognizing submissions aren’t some black-and-white, ivory tower art form.
Many editors may react negatively to this strategy. As a journal editor myself, I understand why, not least because going through unsuitable submissions takes time. However, let’s consider the only thing that really matters: ensuring literature thrives. I’d rather have to look at extra submissions that obviously aren’t right for my journal (we know those works right away and reject quickly) than demand everyone study us before submitting.
My Submission Strategy
The top tier is composed of the top 20 literary journals. The middle tier is composed of other well-known and reputable magazines. The final tier is composed of smaller magazines without national reach.
- I submit what I consider my best pieces to the top tier.
- For the middle tier, I submit those pieces I am confident in but don’t feel are my “best.” If my best pieces are rejected by a substantial number of top-tier magazines, I begin submitting them to the middle tier as well.
- I approach the final tier if I can’t gain acceptance from the top tier and/or middle tier.
I always have all unpublished pieces simultaneously submitted to at least five magazines. This ensures at least five editorial sets of eyes will see the work, greatly increasing my chances of publication. As soon as a rejection comes in, I submit those same pieces to another journal. To keep my submissions flowing smoothly, I try to avoid magazines that do not accept simultaneous submissions.
And that’s really it. What it lacks in romanticism it makes up for in productivity and success rates. I currently have 1,500 poems published, many in top-tier journals. I usually receive a few acceptances every week, along with a dozen or so rejections.
Each rejection equals another submission. Each acceptance equates to an increased chance to publish with that journal again. Multiple acceptances can blossom into an ongoing relationship. And relationships are as crucial in literature as in our personal lives.
What’s your submissions strategy? How much do you study the publications you submit to? Let us know in the comments.
John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, The 46er Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.