Simplify Your Submissions to Literary Journals

Today’s guest post is by John Sibley Williams (@JohnSibleyWill1).


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

After reviewing market directories and calls for submissions (in places like Duotrope or Poets & Writers), I place all journals I’m interested in submitting to into three prioritized categories.

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.

Posted in Getting Published, Guest Post.

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.

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Paula Cappa

This was quite helpful, John. I am a published short story writer and always submitting to magazines and literary journals. It’s a long and tedious road to strike it right for sales and publication. One thing I wonder about is the “no simultaneous submissions” policy with a number of magazines. Many of these journals take 3 to 6 months to read and reply (some do not reply at all) and it’s seems quite unfair to authors for a magazine to insist on exclusive reading rights as a blanket policy. Honestly, I cannot support it. I think the more we writers… Read more »

Laura Becker

Thanks for this post, John. I’ve been wanting to submit to literary magazines for some time now, but have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities. I like your “3-tiered” approach and will try to adapt it to my needs. I also like avoiding those that do not accept simultaneous submissions; I also think that is unfair. I’m going to work on my own 3-tiered approach right now! Thank you! 🙂

Kaye Curren

John, thank you for a new view on submissions. I have been doing this studying of publications and you are right. My writing time is so limited by it. The pieces I have had published were accepted without any studying at all. I’m going to try your way for a while. It appeals to my gambling sensibility.

Jefferson Carter

Please, let’s stop deluding ourselves. Our motive for submitting our work for publication is NOT wanting to ensure “literature” survives, but to ensure the survival of our fantasy that we’re going to be America’s next writing rock star. How else to explain the fact that so few people read poetry and even fewer buy it?

Jane Friedman

Interestingly, poetry book sales are seeing growth—both poetry for adults and for children. It’s not being driven by literary journals or MFA programs, though. It’s the Instapoets. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2019/03/instapoetry-rupi-kaur-genre-rm-drake-rh-sin-atticus-hollie-mcnish

Rupi Kaur, probably the most famous Instapoet, had 2 of the top 10 bestsellers in 2017 (based on Bookscan sales), both poetry collections.

Diane Elayne Dees

I mostly agree with you, except that—in the case of poetry—there are still editors who don’t want to see formal verse, so if you are submitting formal verse, that’s one thing you do need to check before sending the work. Also, with poetry, some magazines publish a style (some of which I don’t even understand) that simply does not match with my work at all, so I avoid them. I haven’t written short fiction in a long time, but I remember submitting fiction a bit more freely than I submit poetry. And yes, if you believe in a piece, keep… Read more »

Thom
Thom

I couldn’t agree more. Just submit as much as you can and everywhere

Carolyn Adams
Carolyn Adams

The most important thing is to be SURE to read the journal’s submission guidelines. The guidelines usually state the editor/s’ preferences in topic and approach, and tell you their rules (such as not submitting to more than one category at a time if they accept multiple types of writing, and the number of pieces to submit at one time, etc.). Like John, I also generally avoid journals that don’t accept simultaneous submissions. Some top-tier or otherwise attractive journals fall into that category, though, so I make that decision on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the journal’s stated response time.… Read more »

Tyrel Kessinger

This is what I’ve been saying forever and I’m glad someone with authority had the courage to be honest about it. So sick of all that other “submission tips” crap others peddle ad nauseam.

Rebecca Vance

Hi, John. Thank you for the article. I am trying to write my first novel and I’ve been working on it for years. I seem to have a really hard time actually writing it. I have planned it and it’s all I think about yet when I try to write I’m stuck. My roommate said maybe I should try short stories. Do most literary journals work with emerging writers? I do have a short story published in an anthology and do not have the same problem with writing short stories. Should I write more short stories before attempting a novel?… Read more »

Marisa Garau

Hi Rebecca, I recognise your story. Years ago I planned a historic novel, but I just couldn’t write it. I then, totally disillusioned, started another historic novel, without any planning, and actually completed it after five years of researching, writing and rewriting. I discovered that I must not know what’s going to happen, like the reader, and just be open to how the story develops by itself. It was so exciting to write, and have the story tell itself to me, taking me to very unexpected twists and turns. I wrote this novel with such positive energy, that it has… Read more »

diana rosen
diana rosen

WHAT ARE your thoughts about fees? I realize that journals are being dunned pretty heavily lately by Submittable, a monopoly if there ever was one (hint hint, entrepreneurs) and the sheer numbers of journals charging when they never did before is astounding. I have seen $2-3 numerous times, but $10 is not rare anymore. The irony, of course, is that few journals pay, so it’s not a gamble, it is indeed a fee-to-enter which I find insulting. As both a journal editor and a poet, your viewpoint would be interesting to note.

Nancy Nau Sullivan

Diana, I feel the same way about fees. I don’t submit to those journals either. And I do agree with John that the best policy is to submit, submit, submit–but not blindly. I like to check out the editor and write directly to him or her, read the info on the website (and if it’s a crummy website, forget it), and, definitely follow the guidelines. Competition is tough so whatever the writer can do to get a leg up helps. I’ve had success with my formula,,,Thanks for the good ideas.

Dave Malone

Great piece, John. And I’ve enjoyed everyone’s lively comments. I would encourage all of us to submit to literary journals with regularity—in whatever ways we are comfortable. For me, one of the greatest benefits of submitting to literary journals is a lesson in craft. Suddenly, my work might be loosed unto the world. Shite! Therefore, each individual poem has to be the best it can be—it has to deal with the “embarrassment factor.” If the poem is too personal, for instance—or if the poem is too sarcastic (one of my recent poems addressed the topic of a person who broke… Read more »

Patricia Martin

Thank you for this article, John, and I appreciate the conversations and shared resources and opinions.

Amanda Kassner

Excellent advice! I also like what you said below in the comments: “It shouldn’t be why we write, but it’s why we submit.”

Rebecca Ruark

Great site and post! Just stumbled on you. I love Submittable and submit using their service–it makes it easy (and therefore more competitive) but it’s nice to have some help keeping track of where and when I submitted.

Judy Reeves

Most difficult for me is creating a schedule, making the time, putting it on my calendar and then following through. I always put “submit” on my weekly to-do list, and have a “commitment” to submit at least monthly, but actually following through and doing the work of submitting often doesn’t happen.

Carolyn Adams Roth

Learned some new information from this article. Thank you

Susanna
Susanna

I really enjoyed this post! I too just keep sending and sending. But here’s a question. I know a couple of people who, when they have a packet of poems ready to go, send it out to about 40 journals. Regularly, and more or less successfully. I have been way too coy to do it this way. It seems extreme, like carpet bombing. And I can’t quite imagine getting in touch with the 39 other journals when I have to say a piece has been taken elsewhere. I wonder what others think of this form of “extreme submitting.” Caveats or… Read more »

Randy Kraft

Wish I’d understood this years ago… but never too late. I do think some journals have a style and that needs to be considered but reading guidelines carefully reveals much
Your strategy is spot on. Many thanks.

Chris Cantor
Chris Cantor

Thanks John. As a new writer I had just about given up submitting my short stories because of trying to match them to the journal. Mine don’t seem to match any journal I’ve looked at. Possibly because they are no good – or different – or something new of merit. Time will tell which, but you have motivated me to return to submissions.

Daisy Herndon
Daisy Herndon

I agree. This submission labyrinth has been one of the things that has held me back. It’s good to have ideas about how to organize submissions. This will help me get on track to finally summit my work for publication.

Christie
Christie

There is so much truth behind this article. For years I was submitting in the most professional way I knew how: one at a time so I wouldn’t burn any bridges. Then one day I realized the polite game wasn’t working and I decided to take a chance and now I submit my poetry to multiple journals at one time.

Maren O. Mitchell
Maren O. Mitchell

John, thanks so much for this honest and detailed description of how you submit. Makes me feel great, as it is close to the way I submit my poems, and it works! It took me a few years to come to these views and actions, and is well worth the time and errors I invested. I think you probably stick with your “rules” better than I do, so you are inspiring me to be consistent. I am forwarding your advice to my poet friends.

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[…] your work, whether to publications or agents, is part of the writing life. John Sibley Williams simplifies submissions to literary journals, Shana Scott reminds us that it’s okay if we are not yet ready for rejection, Janet Reid says […]

Eros
Eros

Hi John, I believe we met at the Orison bookfair table at AWP. You happened to find the table abandoned and I stopped by for a chat while you were there. Sorry, I couldn’t stay to here you read at Orison’s offsite event. Thanks for your info about submitting! It was very helpful! It convinced me to start submitting to a wider variety of literary magazines.

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[…] reblogging the start of this from John Sibley Williams. To read the whole, click here. I found this useful. […]

Robert Detman

Great piece! Here’s my take–and this was advice given from a very successful author: always simultaneously submit, even when they say not to. They will never know, and in the case that you get it picked up, you can always withdraw it for whatever reason. No one has to know. No one has your name on file, double checking that you are a simultaneous submitter. Just do it. As for submitting to 40 journals simultaneously, also? Why not (though I’m more likely to keep it to maybe 20)? If someone takes it, I’m more than happy to pull it from… Read more »