Start at the Top.
You can debate what successful, published or writer means (do self-published writers count? do exposure markets count?), but I’ll define it very simply: a successfully published writer is a writer who makes money from her writing. Simple as that. So how do you achieve it?
Start at the top.
That’s it. Start at the top. Start by pitching your top market, the best paying one, the one that responds the quickest, the one which has the most readers, or favorable reviews, or chocolate chip cookies. Doesn’t matter how you define your top market. Just find it and start there.
Why? Because 1 percent of something is a million, billion times better than 100 percent of nothing.
And yet, most writers won’t submit to their top market. They’ll throw away their chance at achieving their dream before they even try. I know, I’ve been there. And I tossed away a lot of chances before buckling down and sending out to top markets. And getting published. And if I can, you can, too. Here’s how.
The First Thing Stopping You
Submitting to a crap market can always be waved away. “It’s not important.” “It doesn’t matter.” “I’m only practicing.” Those are excuses, and they’re excuses for “I’m too scared to try something that does matter.”
Trying something that feels important, and has a large risk of failure[note]Top markets are tough. To name one: the Atlantic accepts 0.28% of submissions reported on Duotrope, and that’s from a lot of pro or semi-pro writers.[/note], is scary. But the thing is, you’ve got nothing to lose.
Editors don’t care about bad manuscripts. They’ll reject them and press on. They won’t remember that you had a spelling error on page 7 (likely they won’t even read to page 7), or that your character looked just like Han Solo. They won’t remember your failures.
They will remember your successes.
That’s what editors are looking for, that story that moves them. And you’ve got no idea what will move them. You don’t know them. Even reading their magazines and anthologies you won’t know them. At best you’ll have a general idea what they like, and even that changes over time. The only way to find out what they want right now is to submit to them.
So don’t self-reject because you’re afraid. Try for your top market and see what happens.
How to Cheat on Finding Top Publications
Chickening out is so much easier when you’re just browsing. If you don’t know what markets you want to aim for you’ll settle for the the market that you found, instead going for the that best matches your criteria of “top market”.
Some writers say that you need to have a complete list, starting with the top market in your genre and going down. Then you start submitting at the top.
Using somebody else’s sortable list I can set up criteria for what constitutes top markets for me. Right now it’s pro payment[note]That’s SFWA pro rating, meaning 6 cents per word or more[/note], high profile and quick response time. If I’ve got two markets that are equal I’ll choose the one with the shortest response time because that lets me get rejected fast so that I can send it out to the next best market.
So figure out whether you want your own list[note]Figuring out won’t do squat – you’ll need to build it as well.[/note] or whether you’re OK with setting up a set of criteria and using somebody else’s. But do figure out what’s important to you, and find the markets that match it.
Why You Should Love Rejections
Rejections hurt, but they’re like pulling a band-aid. If you get used to it you won’t feel it as much later. You’ll build callouses on your soul and you’ll stop being afraid of rejections. Right now I’ve got 125 rejections in my tally, plus a number that I didn’t count, because I was too scared to count my rejections when I started out, and let me tell you, the 1st one hurt a gazillion times more than the 125th one (which I got 6 days ago). For this I’ve netted 12 acceptances.
Most of my rejections are from the last year-and-a-half, when I stopped talking about writing fiction and started actually writing, and sending it out. Most of my acceptances are from before I started submitting to top magazines – but most of my money (except for $5) is from the last six month, the period after I started targeting top publishers. So I’ve got a lot of rejections, meaning that I still got a whole bunch of stories that are spinning around in the slush piles, waiting for the perfect match.
Yes, I’ll get a lot more rejections now. And I’m happy with that, because I get acceptances that matter. Having a small shot at a top magazine beats having no shot. And if you submit to a small, unimportant or low-grade publication you won’t have your rights left to submit that story to a top publication. Congratulations, you just wasted your shot at the big leagues.
Why do the editors’ work for them? Let them reject you, don’t self-reject yourself.
How Many Rejections Does It Take to Succeed?
Many. A lot. I don’t know. I’m just starting out, and I’m saving them for baking cake later.
What I do know is this: the acceptance ratios for top publications are low. The highest I’ve seen is Nature Futures, with a 5% acceptance ration. That means that Nature rejects about 95% of all submissions. So, on average, you’ll have to send them 20 submissions before getting one accepted.
Of course, you could hit the nail on the head and get accepted the first time. Or you could send out 100 submissions and never catch the editor’s fancy. There are no guarantees, except one:
If you don’t submit to your top publications, you’ll never get published there.