Last updated: 8/4/20
I’ve recently written a couple of real salty twitter threads about the issue of short story venues–I mostly mean magazines, but anthologies can count, too–and their complete lack of transparency regarding just how much of their content they actually take from the slush pile versus how much is solicited.
A little background if you’re a new writer finding this:
Solicited Story: The editor contacts you personally and asks you to write a story for them. This may or may not come with the guarantee of publication.
Slush Story: You send your story cold into the slush pile and hope that the editorial staff will like it enough to buy it from you.
Backdoor Submissions: The venue says it’s closed to submissions, but a select group of people have been told that it’s still fine for them to send in stories.
Secret/Private Submissions Portal: The venue says it’s closed to submissions, but a select group of people have access to a submissions portal, for which the URL is not public.
And yes, all of the above things happen. All the time. I’m sorry to break it to you, new writer. This is something that it took me YEARS to figure out, when I was working to break into short stories. It sucks. I spent a lot of time looking longingly at anthologies and wondering how I kept managing to miss the submissions call. Well, the answer is that there are plenty of places that never issue a call for submissions because they know exactly who they want in their anthology/magazine, and it’s not someone who’s still trying to scrabble to the top of the slush pile. When I figured this out, I felt real fucking lied to, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did, too.
While you’re filing your teeth to razor points, I want to try to inject a little nuance into this. Because this isn’t intended to be a grand indictment of the practice of soliciting submissions–as much as it sucks for those of us who never or only rarely get invited–so much as the fact that there’s so much secrecy around it. I don’t know if this thing being an open secret that new writers have to figure out for themselves, like it’s the Westing Game except instead of an inheritance you get a potentially fatal blow to your ego, is an intentional snub. In all honesty, I have a feeling that this is just The Way It’s Always Been Done, starting back from the days when there was a relatively small collection of writers and they were almost all white cis dudes publishing each other in a congratulatory circle jerk and occasionally smugly noting how women and non-white men obviously didn’t write scifi instead of honestly understanding that when you’re a white dude and all your buddies are white dudes and therefore everyone you invite to your parties are also white dudes, that literally precludes anyone else getting a piece of the action.
Being an editor in general is a gatekeeping practice, filtering stories through taste and life experience and desired final product; soliciting stories is an even more direct act of gatekeeping because by its nature, it excludes the new and unknown. Again, I’m not here to say this is in any way inherently or necessarily evil. In my threads of salty saltiness, I came up with a multitude of examples where this power can be used for good, such as, say, soliciting stories from a few big name authors to drive sales of an anthology, and then slipping some new or less well known authors in so they can get more visibility. But I think not being open about the practice is also incredibly disingenuous, if not outright dishonest depending upon how one’s product is advertised.
My problem begins and ends with the lack of transparency. That’s the thing that, I feel, hurts the most when you’re standing on the outside and you cannot understand what’s preventing you from getting in. Yeah, it sucks to be told “this isn’t a venue for you; we’ll call you when we want you”–but then at least the expectation is set and understood. You know not to waste your time or emotional energy on a useless want.
But unfortunately, that’s not how things are done, for the most part. There are venues out there that run almost exclusively on solicited stories or only allow backdoor submissions, and the only way you’d know is the whisper network, which while useful, is something I always regard with a little bit of skepticism. And yeah, you bet I’ve heard stories about which venues do what, which has only fueled my salt levels; the reason I’m not naming them is that I sincerely hope they’ll be honest on their own, but also because I don’t feel comfortable making into assertions of fact that which I’ve been told (if multiple times) as rumor.
Everyone that’s said one way or another [that I know of] is in this twitter thread. (Other factors may affect the way the slush is handled at different magazines; I do not know how individual magazines handle these factors, and I did not ask because it was beyond the scope of this inquiry. But for example, writers who have sold to that place before might get passed along automatically, or award winners, etc. Slush isn’t a pure meritocracy, but it’s a way to edge your foot in the door.)
Again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with soliciting content. If you’re honest about it. If you’re willing to tell writers what their odds actually are. If you’re not building your reputation on the appearance of being open to the new and untested while not following through. The whole point of this, other than my residual anger at yet another stupid, unwritten rule of the business, is that I don’t like it when people waste my limited time on this planet, particularly since most SFF venues don’t allow simultaneous submissions. If you only buy two stories a year from your slush and it’s going to take you six months to get to my inevitable rejection, at least have the basic fucking courtesy to let me judge what my odds really are.
Trying to get anything published is a hard enough task when you already know what to expect. It’s at times an incredibly demoralizing slog. The lack of transparency with regards to how much slush actually makes it through only makes this worse. Because those of us on the outside can feel that something is wrong, even if we don’t understand what, and the instinct of the writer is often to blame it on ourselves, or on our stories–when in fact the reason for what we sense is that there was never space for us to begin with.
So once again, I call on short story markets to be transparent about how much of their content they actually take from slush. Don’t leave writers to figure it out on our own. And if you do solicit most of your content and don’t want to say, maybe you should aks yourself why that is.
Appendix: Responding Venues (summarizing responses in the thread that starts here)
Analog SF – 100% slush with the sole exception of one story for the 90th anniversary issue
Asimov’s – 100% slush
Apex Magazine – 90% slush for regular issues, 50/50 on theme issues.
Apparition Lit – Ficton all slush, will solicit nonfiction and guest editors.
Arsenika – Other than issue 0, all slush
Augur Magazine – At most 1 solicited piece per issue
Beneath Ceaseless Skies – >90% slush
Cast of Wonders – Bulk of episodes straight from slush, solicit 2-5 reprints per year
Clarkesworld – With the exception of the 100th issue, all slush all the time
Crossmass Infinities – Currently 100% slush, may consider soliciting 3 stories a year
The Dark – 100% slush
Diabolical Plots – All slush except for one piece that was a rush replacement
Escape Pod – Originals 100% slush, reprints 85% slush
Fantasy & Science Fiction – 100% slush
Fireside Fiction – At least half of every TOC is from slush
Fusion Fragment – Has solicited one reprint; vast majority will always come from slush
The Future Fire – 100% slush
Ghostwood Books – Anthologies filled from slush first; stories are solicited after if the slush is insufficient.
Glittership – 95% slush; solicits tend to be special cases.
Hexagon Speculative Fiction Magazine – 100% slush
Jellyfish Review – 1-2 pieces per year solicited, everything else slush
Kaleidotrope – All slush
Lackington’s Magazine – Solicited for first issue, all issues since have been slush
Metaphorosis Magazine – Ceiling for solicited content is 23%; at least 77% of magazine content is from slush. All themed anthologies are “private.”
Podcastle – Originals are slush EXCEPT for the Christmas and Eid specials. Sometimes will solicit reprints.
PseudoPod – Similar to Escape Pod, but with “a somewhat lower percentage of our reprints from slush”
Strange Horizons – Regular issues are 100% slush. May solicit for fund drives or special issues.
Timeworn Lit – 100% slush.
Translunar Travelers Lounge – 100% slush
Truancy Magazine – After first 3 issues, all new stories from slush with solicited reprints and 1 poem.
Uncanny Magazine – Solicited authors are listed on each year’s kickstarter. (Back of the envelope calculation by me looks like that comes to 4-6(?) pieces solicited per issue between short story, poetry, and nonfiction.)
Wizards in Space – All slush