Happy Monday! The following will probably be of interest only to unpublished short story writers. If you want to skip it and go straight to the comments for hot coffee and conversation, I'll understand! :)
For some time, I've wanted to raise a particular curtain to give unpublished writers a glimpse behind the publishing curtain. They may be agonizing over not getting their short stories published, when in fact, it is harder to do than they even know.
If you're a short story writer and you've done any market research at all, you already know there aren't many paying, reputable markets for printed short stories. (I'm not talking about "flash fiction," or any web-based publishing. Just traditional print.) What you don't know, however, is that some of those markets aren't open to you and never will be until you cross the Catch 22 threshold of being published.
Printed short stories are generally published in just two venues: magazines or anthologies.
New writers have a chance at some of the magazines. Some, such as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, actively encourage and look for new writers. (That's where I got my start, in their "Department of First Stories.")
Anthologies (and some other magazines) are a different story, pardon the pun. Most of the writers--if not all of the writers--in a short story anthology have been invited into it. For instance, a few times a year I'll get an email telling me that such and such publisher is going to publish a collection of short stories, and that some well-known author is going to be the big name on the front of it, and would I like to submit a story to it? Who decides whom to invite? Sometimes the publisher picks the invitees, but often it's the author who "fronts" the collection. Why do they invite me? Because they know me. How do they know me? Because I have a publishing history, and sometimes because we're friends or acquaintances. Just as you always suspected, sometimes it really is who you know.
New writers have few chances to get into those anthologies, because anthologies don't sell many copies, and so the publishers need all the "names" they can get. (The "names" often aren't actually very big, but they are at least known professionals.) Now and then an opportunity arises for newbies to compete on an even competitive field with oldies, but not all that often. For instance, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) publishes an anthology a year. Half of the stories are by invitation only, but the other half are open submissions. I judged one of those competitions this year, so I can tell you they're truly blind submissions. I had no idea who wrote the stories.
What good is this information to you? Am I telling you this just to depress you even more? No, I'm telling you for a couple of reasons. One is so that you won't be so hard on yourself if you're having a hard time figuring out how to break in. You literally can't break into some publications because they're by invitation only. It's not your fault. It's also not a case of unfairness, because, as I said, it's about the economies of publishing anthologies. The other reason I'm telling you is so you will know that once you DO get short stories published, that may open up to you an anthology market that you may not have known about, or didn't know how to get into. Once you're published, if you do want to get into anthologies, it will be very helpful if you get to know people in your particular genres. Go to conventions, and get active in the organizations, so that you will make friends with people who create anthologies, so that you'll hear about them in advance, and so you'll qualify for anthologies that may sometimes be open only to the members.
In the past couple of months, I've written several stories. Here's where and why they're being published: I sent two of them to Ellery Queen, because I have a history and relationship there. I can email the editor and query directly. Two other stories will go into hardcover anthologies. One invitation came from a best-selling author I don't know, and the other one from an author I do know. I don't know for sure why the first author invited me, but I assume it's because I have a reputation as a short-story writer. The second author invited me because I practically got on my knees and begged my way into it, because I love the theme of it so much. I first heard about the anthology over lunch, at a convention. I also have an invitation from another magazine, but I haven't written anything I think is right for them.
So that's how it's done, from the inside.
Any questions? If any of you published authors who are reading this have had different experiences with this kind of thing, let us know.