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The Paradox of Publishing in Literary Magazines

The accumulation of rejection letters from publishing houses and literary magazines is an infamous rite of passage for authors. The writing world is full of stories of heartbreak, stories of quitting, and stories of wearing rejections proudly like a badge of courage. As I myself have recently started collecting rejections, I’ve been giving some thought to their implications on our writing.

In the past few months, I’ve started submitting my writing to literary magazines with nothing but rejections to show for it so far (admittedly, my sample size is small). But one of the magazines from which I’ve recently been rejected indicated in their letter that they had accepted work from only 2% of authors who submitted work for that issue.

A 2% acceptance rate is a number that stops me in my tracks.

Just to put a 2% acceptance rate in context, the year I was accepted to MIT (2008) they had an acceptance rate of 11.9%. And with a 12% acceptance rate, I considered myself extremely fortunate to have been accepted to MIT.

Getting submitted to a literary magazine is an order of magnitude more difficult than getting accepted to MIT.

Well ok, these days the MIT acceptance rate is down to 8%, but still.

And unlike MIT, where qualifications are at least more-or-less based on measurable achievements and performance (grades, courses, standardized tests, extracurricular engagement, etc.), literary magazines are in the business of grading art and art is unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) a matter of not just quality but also of taste. Which means that as authors our work is judged not merely on merit, but on the vagaries and whims of editorial taste.

I think we can learn a couple of things from this staggering statistic:

1. No really, do your research.

Editors often like to tell writers to read the magazine before they submit. Because acceptance rates are so small it’s very important that the submitted pieces actually be a good match to the tastes of the editors in charge of the publication.

If you submit a piece to a journal that doesn’t fit the “ethos” of the journal, your chances of acceptance are less than zero. You’re really just wasting everyone’s time.

2. If you don’t feel like doing research, submit everywhere.

This is the shotgun approach and I’m naturally not inclined to this sort of approach because it’s so inefficient — but it might also be your best bet if you just want to get published and don’t particularly care where. After all, if a literary magazine has a 2% acceptance rate and you submit your piece to 100 qualified markets you’re likely to get two acceptances.

There are however a few problems with this approach: there may not be one hundred qualified markets for your piece (likely there aren’t) and you have to do all the overhead of finding the markets, writing cover letters, etc. for each submission.

3. Submitting to literary journals might not be worth your time.

I don’t really know the answer to this because I haven’t been published in a literary magazine, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suppose that 90% of literary magazines have a very small readership and that those that do have a significant readership are extremely hard to get in to (of order 1-2% acceptance).

Because of this, it may simply not be worth your time to polish and submit pieces for publication in literary magazines. If your goal is simply to get your words in front of an audience you may do better with a more grassroots approach utilizing platforms with a lower barrier to entry.

4. Don’t take your rejections personally.

With such low acceptance rates, a rejection really has no bearing on the quality of your submission. Significantly more submissions were qualified for acceptance than were actually accepted for any issue.

This means that your piece was most likely rejected on grounds other than merit and you shouldn’t feel disheartened by your rejections.

Which all adds up to what, exactly?

Here’s what I’ve concluded for myself, (but feel free to draw your own conclusions!).

Literary magazines and story contests are an inefficient way of building a platform for fiction writers.

I think there are lots of free ways to get your words in front of readers with a much lower barrier to entry than literary magazines (places like Wattpad or Medium.com, using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, etc.). Although, with that said, I have no actual experience with how effective these platforms are so please correct me if I’m wrong.

I think that submitting to literary magazines is kind of fun

I particularly like writing pieces for magazines running themed issues! Because I think it’s fun, I will likely keep submitting work at the rate of a piece every few weeks. I don’t expect to see any positive result from this for at least the first year, and I don’t think it’s a great use of my time except that once those pieces have been rejected I can take them elsewhere: I can publish them on my own site or on another platform.

I won’t be taking the shotgun approach to literary magazine submission.

I hate researching markets and forever rewriting form cover letters and I would derive no joy from the process. The shotgun approach might yield results faster but I wouldn’t enjoy the process, so I’m not going to do it.

I think the only real argument for submitting to literary magazines at all is that it grows your credibility as a writer.

And growing your credibility as a writer is awesome — just don’t count on literary magazines as your primary route to platform building.


What do you think? Do you submit your work to literary journals? What strategies have you found most effective for building a platform? Let me know in the comments below!



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