How do you publish a short story?
Most writers start out knowing next to nothing about the publishing side of the writing business. They know they want to have a writing career, but don't know where to start. Publishing seems so intimidating that it's easy to just give up and write only for yourself.
But if you're going to be a short story writer, or be any kind of published writer, you're eventually going to have to share your work with the world.
The process of publishing isn't as bad as everyone makes it out to be, and you have plenty of options in order to publish your short story (or collection of stories).
In this article, I'll walk you through the process of publishing a short story so that this part of being a writer can be easy and not overwhelm you.
The vast majority of writers have gone through the submission process to short story markets. Stephen King famously had a nail on his office wall where he impaled every rejection letter he received.
This seems daunting to a lot of new writers, but this is actually relatively easy compared to writing the story, and is a great first step in your writing career.
Here are the five steps to getting your short story traditionally published:
Step 1: Look for publications
There's a wide variety of short story markets out there, including ezines, literary magazines and literary journals (yes those still exist), and anthologies out there that take submissions.
The “professional” level of these publications varies widely, as does the pay rate.
Don’t expect to get rich off of short stories. The pay rate is often very low. But don’t ignore smaller publications because of the pay rate, either.
Some of those publications might win awards frequently, even if they don’t pay very well. And it never hurts to have your work in an award-winning publication!
Here are a few sites where you can find publications with active calls for submission:
You can also look directly for publications.
Have a favorite magazine? They probably accept submissions. And don’t forget podcasts! I'd recommend starting with your favorites, but Clarkesworld Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and Pseudopod (along with all their branch podcasts) are worth a look.
Take the time to investigate before you settle on that particular publication.
If you can afford to buy at least one of their past issues or anthologies, do so. What they’ve previously published are gems that can give great insight into what they like and don’t like.
If you can’t buy an issue, try to do as much research as possible and read their submission guidelines for insight.
You are researching to see if your piece seems to fit with what the story market normally publishes, but also what their acceptance rate is (that's the chances of publication with that market), what their submission periods are, and what their pay rate is.
Don’t focus all your attention on the larger, more well-known magazines. Your chances of acceptance are better elsewhere (to start) and there’s nothing wrong with the little guys. Along those same lines, paid publications are great, but don’t expect to make eight cents a word out of the gate.
A quick note on payments:
- Generally, $0.06 to $0.08 per word is considered a professional pay rate.
- $0.01 to $0.05 per word is considered semi-professional.
- Some publications pay a flat rate for the entire story rather than per word and some pay in contributor copies (free copies of the magazine or anthology mailed to you).
1. Start your publication search by checking to see if your favorite magazines, podcasts, etc. are accepting submissions.
2. Do research on a publication before you decide to submit your short stories to it.
3. Don't ignore small publications because of lower pay rates.
Step 2: Prepare your submission materials.
The following may seem a bit intimidating, but it’s nothing compared to writing the story. You already did the hard part.
The most important thing to remember is this: READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!
Ninety-nine percent of publications will have specific submission guidelines they want you to follow. You need to read them. Twice. Make sure you follow them.
Some publications will reject you without reading your story if you don’t follow the instructions. And you will most definitely get rejected if you submit outside of the market's submission periods.
You’ve got a couple more things to think about before you can send that manuscript:
The Elevator Pitch
An elevator pitch is pretty much what it sounds like: A one- to two-sentence summary of your story (what you could get out in the time it takes to ride an elevator). You’ll also hear it called a premise, a summary, or a logline.
IMPORTANT: Not every publication will want this. In fact, most don’t. If they don’t specifically say they want a premise, short summary, elevator pitch, etc. in the guidelines, do not send them one.
I do recommend you prepare one at this stage, though. It’ll be easier later on when you’ve forgotten the exact point of your story and you need to have a pitch.
It’s also less stressful to have one prepared before submission.
Again, follow the guidelines for the publication you’re submitting to. Some publications will have their own formatting requirements, but most will use standard manuscript format (Shunn).
I recommend formatting all your stories in the Shunn format as you write them. Tweak them for any specific needs later on. It’s just easier to already have it ready to go.
Don’t use tab or space to indent your paragraphs! That’s an editor’s nightmare. Use the ruler.
The Cover Letter
Ah, the dreaded cover letter. What is it, how do you write it, and what’s the point, anyway?
Cover letters are not nearly as daunting as they seem. They're not a query letter (a letter you write to agents and publishing houses to pitch books). A cover letter is just a few sentences introducing yourself and your story.
You don’t need to fill a page with several paragraphs. In fact, don’t do that!
Editors don’t want to spend more time reading your cover letter than they do reading your story, and they don’t need to know what made you want to write or how many pets you have.
Here’s what you need in a cover letter:
- Salutation [Dear Editor is normally fine if you can’t find the name of the editor in your research.]
- Story title and word count
- Optional: Elevator Pitch
- Writing credentials/previous publications
- Thanks and sign
Here's an example of one of mine, complete with an elevator pitch:
Dear Editor: [Note: use the editor's name if you know it.]
Please consider my 2,300-word, previously unpublished story, “The Legend of Crimson Ivory”, for publication. [Always include the word count. These publications have limited space and that comes into consideration when they're accepting submissions.]
Cash finds a legendarily sinister demo at a used record store and decides to play it despite his friends' warnings. [This elevator pitch is not always wanted. Don't include it if the publication doesn't want it.]
My writing has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, most recently, UNREALIPOLITIK, Crescendo of Darkness, and the bestselling The Edge: Infinite Darkness anthology. [Note for unpublished writers: just skip this paragraph.]
Thank you for your time and consideration.
1. Read the submission instructions and follow them carefully.
2. Follow standard formatting if the publication doesn't have specific guidelines about formatting.
3. Keep cover letters short and simple.
Step 3: Submit!
Most short story publishers take email submissions. Some use other forms of online submissions, like forms on their site, Moksha, Hey Publisher, or Submittable. You’ll find where and how to submit your story in the publication’s guidelines.
Pay special attention to the guidelines. (I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I can’t stress this enough.)
Paste your cover letter in the body of your email. This is the standard way to submit, but make sure that’s how your chosen publication wants it.
Most likely, unless your story is a piece of flash or you’re submitting poems, you will attach your story to the email.
Make sure you take note of what kind of file the publication wants. Some are okay with a simple DOCX format, but some want an RTF. You can change how the file is saved in the SAVE AS menu.
Make sure your story is attached before sending the email! (Seems ridiculous, but I’ve sent emails without attachments several times.)
If the publication requires a “blind read,” make sure you don’t have any identifying information on the document.
Make sure you have the correct email subject line typed. (Guidelines, again.) If you don’t, it might get lost in a spam filter. If there are no specific guidelines regarding the email subject, go with: SUBMISSION — Your Story Title — Your Last Name.
Proofread your email. After you’ve done all that, take a deep breath. It’s time.
1. Make sure to read the guidelines and follow them.
2. Double-check that your manuscript is attached to the email.
Step 4: Wait
After you’ve sent off that email or pushed the submit button in an online form, what do you do?
First, make sure you record your submission somewhere. Whether it be on an online site like The Grinder, a spreadsheet, or a notebook, you need to keep track of where you send.
Now, you will wait and wait. And wait.
It’s not a quick process. Most guidelines will tell you when their expected response time is, so you should have some idea of when they’ll get back to you.
But they’re often late. So be patient. Have some understanding. They’re reading hundreds of submissions from writers and, not only weighing them against each other, but also weighing the amount of space they have in the publication. It’s not an easy job.
Submit your story to another publication if they allow simultaneous submissions. You can do this right away. I often send out the same story to a half dozen publications at once.
Trust me, you don’t want to wait months for a response only to be rejected and have to find another place to submit. You’ll never get published that way.
A quick terminology lesson:
- Simultaneous submissions allowed simply means they allow you to send your story to other places while they’re considering it.
- Multiple submissions allowed means they will take more than one story from you at once.
- Unsolicited submissions means submissions that weren't specifically sought out. Some anthologies don't take submissions from the public, but search out specific authors. If that's the case, they would then say they don't take unsolicited submissions.
The easiest way to ease the agony of waiting is to go write another story. Don’t stop with this one.
1. Send your story to multiple publications at once if they all allow simultaneous submissions.
2. Be patient as you wait for a response from the editor.
Step 5: Rejection or acceptance.
Eventually, you will hear back from the editor. If you have not within a reasonable amount of time, say six months, you can email to check-in.
Do not do this if anywhere in the submission guidelines they say not to. Often, the publication will give an estimated response time plus a time when they deem it reasonable to reach out for a status update.
If you get rejected, you will most likely receive a form letter from the editor. This is completely normal and is not a commentary on your work.
It is very rare to get a rejection letter that says why your story was rejected. Mostly, this is due to time.
Again, these editors have huge slush piles and have to send out hundreds of rejections/acceptances. They simply do not have time to make personal notes on each rejection.
You shouldn't respond to the email for any reason. Just mark it down as rejected on your submissions tracker and move on.
It hurts to be rejected, but don’t give up! Send it out again. Write another story and send that one out. Remember Stephen King's nail and use the rejections as fuel to keep going.
If you're accepted, do a happy dance, and then inform any other publications where you submitted the story that you will need to withdraw. (This is why you need to keep a record of your story submissions.)
Do this immediately. There is nothing more aggravating to an editor to sift through a slush pile for weeks and then end up hearing from an accepted author that the story was accepted elsewhere.
After an acceptance, the publisher will send you a contract informing you of the rights they are buying. Read this thoroughly, but don't take a long time before signing and sending it back.
If you have questions about the contract, you are free to ask the publisher.
Here's what you can expect to find in an average contract and what the publication is requesting to buy:
- First time worldwide digital and/or print rights (a podcast will buy audio rights). This means they're buying the right to print your story for the first time. Most contracts are for worldwide rights now since Amazon and other digital platforms are how these indie publishers are operating.
- An exclusivity clause. This is the amount of time you must wait before sending your story to other publications as a reprint, providing free copies on your website, or any other distribution. The publisher is the only entity that has the right to publish the story for this amount of time. Normally, this clause is for three months to a year.
- A grant to the publisher to use your images and/or biographical information (you provide this) for promotional purposes.
- Author's warranties, which is essentially you saying that you're the owner of the work, it's not plagiarized or libelous, and it's not public domain. This clause is the publisher making sure they don't get sued for something you did wrong.
- A reversion of rights clause that states in what circumstances the rights revert back to you. This is normally if the publisher doesn't publish the work within a set time period.
- A termination clause, which states under what circumstances the contract can be nullified.
If this sounds intimidating, I get it. Any kind of contract is a bit intimidating.
However, most publisher contracts are fairly standard and you can look up samples online, some from the publishers themselves. Podcastle, for example, has their sample contract right in their guidelines. You can take a look here.
1. You can reach out for a status update on your submission if it's been an appropriate amount of time.
2. Rejections happen. Don't give up!
3. If you're accepted, read the contract thoroughly, ask questions if you have them, but don't procrastinate with sending it back.
Self-publishing isn't just for full-length books. Short story writers can get in on the action as well. Personally, I've had short stories accepted in traditional publications and I've self-published. Don't be afraid to do both!
Here's how you should go about self-publishing a short story:
Step 1: Choose how you’re going to publish
These days, it’s fairly easy to get your work out there on your own. You have a few options when it comes to self-publishing.
Publishing is simply sharing your work, and you can choose to do that in a simple way via your blog or email list, or a more public way via Amazon/B&N/Google Play/Apple Books, etc. It’s easiest to use KDP and Draft2Digital to make sure you hit all the online markets.
Step 2: Proofread
Not everyone is a grammar whiz, and you certainly don’t need to be in order to be a writer. But you do need to try your best to make sure your story is as clean as it can be.
If you feel really in doubt about your skills, there are professional editors out there who will proof your short story.
Just do research on them before you agree to work with them.
Step 3: Design (or pay for) a cover
Normally a short story doesn’t require a professionally designed cover. If you’re really terrible at design and have some cash to burn, you can hire someone to do your cover design. The Write Practice has a preferred list of contractors here.
You can also use a free tool like Canva to design your own cover from scratch or use a pre-designed ebook cover to get you started.
Step 4: Format for publication
This is the part that causes the most frustration for people. Luckily, things have simplified lately and it’s fairly easy to format your manuscript.
First thing: make sure you don't use the tab button (or the space bar) to indent your paragraphs. Use the indent ruler to make your indents.
If you use the space bar or the tab button to indent, you (or your editors if you're traditionally publishing) will most likely have to remove those spaces and tabs during the formatting process in order for all the works in the collection of stories to have consistent formatting, or for the formatting to work properly on a single story.
If you’re simply sharing your story to your email list or on your website, you can just save your document as a PDF. You can upload PDFs to your site, but you cannot attach PDFs to your email list (if you’re using a professional service like MailerLite).
In that case, you’ll redirect your readers either to your site or to another site where they can download the PDF, like BookFunnel. If your story is short enough, you can simply put it in the body of the email.
For Amazon and all the other online publishers, you can use simple DOCX format, PDFs, or EPUBs. The type of file they take will be listed, and it’s normally a matter of going into your word processor, clicking FILE and then SAVE AS to change the format of a file.
For Amazon specifically, you can use Kindle Create for free to format.
NOTE: Amazon doesn’t like super short content and won’t allow it to be published.
They don’t say exactly how short is short, but the consensus seems to be a minimum of 2,500 words. A lot of authors I know choose to publish collections of stories rather than individual short stories. This avoids the weirdly secret Amazon word minimum and also gets a backlog of shorter pieces out there.
Step 5: Upload your manuscript and hit publish.
It’s time to get your story out there! The final step is the most likely to make butterflies swirl around your stomach, but you’ll be so excited when you get your story out there.
Don’t worry about the online publishers. You can always update your manuscript at any point (say if you catch some typos).
Keep on publishing!
Publishing your short stories is much simpler than what most people think.
It also can be an important part of your author career, not only as a stepping stone when you're getting started, but also as a way to keep your name in front of your readership and the writing community.
Polish up a short story and get publishing!
What steps do you take to publish a short story? Let us know in the comments.
Before you can publish a short story, you have to write one. Today, take fifteen minutes to write a short story.
You can write any short story you like. Need a prompt to get you started? Try writing a story that could be a good fit for one of these publications based on their names:
- Horror Tree
- Dark Markets
- Diabolical Plots
When you're done, share your story in the practice box below. Then, leave feedback for three of your fellow writers on their stories, too.
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.