Is Publishing in Literary Journals Worthwhile?

Yesterday I submitted work to four journals: Word Riot, theNewerYork, Contrary, and Rivet. Submitting work takes time, especially when you’re first starting out. You have to find journals that might like your writing, which means conducting research (there are 4,941 markets listed in Duotrope, an online database and submission tracker service). Then choose, polish, and edit your piece; format your piece in such a way that it meets that particular journal’s requirements; write a cover letter; enter your credit card information (for contests, etc.); submit and track your submission. Rinse and repeat.

The truth is that comparatively few people in the general population read literary magazines, especially printed ones, most literary journals don’t pay anything, and most work that is submitted gets rejected. So why do I bother trying?

Is getting published in these journals about my ego, or is it about connecting with potential readers and fellow writers?

I submitted to literary journals for about a year back in 2011. It was entirely about my ego. I didn’t read any of the journals. I didn’t get to know the editors. I just wanted a credit by my name. I wanted to be legit.

My attitude is so different now, for reasons I will explore in future blog posts.

Although I’m almost always conflicted about how I spend my time, and although I’m still unsure how publication in literary journals will affect my writing life, I do believe that the pursuit of publication in journals can be worthwhile, but only if you do it right.

My Top 10 Tricks for Making Submission to Literary Journals Less Painful and More Meaningful

1. Find writers whose style is similar to yours and see where they’ve published. Many writers list publication credits on their web sites. Also, if an author has published excerpts of her book, you can find out where by checking the book’s copyright page.

2. Submit to online magazines. If your work is published online, you can link to it on your web site and more easily distribute it to your fans. Check out Sarah Manguso’s site – I love it! Many journals also have online versions that differ from their printed ones and are updated much more regularly.

3. Make personal connections. As far as I know, there are no literary journals run by machines (yet). Get to know the people behind the journal. Meet them at events in your town or at writing conferences. Ask them why they started a journal in the first place. Read the books they’ve published. It’s fun to learn about and support other writers. Stop making it a “me” vs. “them” scenario. We all have the same goal—to find, enjoy, and promote good writing.

4. Try a service like Duotrope. I was skeptical about Duotrope because you can search and find lit mags yourself, and you can create your own Excel spreadsheet to keep track of your submissions. So, you definitely don’t need it by any means. But for $5 a month, I find the service worth it. I like having all my submission info, as well as a list of my favorited journals, all in one central place.

5. Actually read some of these publications! Stop thinking about yourself as a writer, and start looking at these journals as a reader. Make thoughtful comments on the site if you can. Email a writer and let her know how much you enjoyed her piece. Be a good reader.

6. Get pickier. If the attitude on the submission page seems snarky or disrespectful, don’t submit to that journal. If you read some excerpts on the web site, and they don’t melt your butter, don’t submit your writing there. Only submit to journals that you actually like. And don’t kid yourself either—it’s fine if you don’t enjoy Mr. I’m So Famous and Well Respected Journal. No one is judging you.

7. Give yourself a time limit and stick to it. Submitting is like writing—it’s never done. You could spend 40 hours a week doing it. So decide how much time you can spare, and don’t go over that time limit. It helps me to do it all in one day. Usually I will spend one or two hours on Sunday morning dealing with journals. Sometimes I just read journals online and don’t submit at all. It is still time well spent.

8. When you get a nice and/or personal rejection letter, keep submitting. I have received fridge-worthy rejection letters that I never followed up on. I might’ve made a personal connection if I’d continued to correspond with that editor.

9. Stop submitting to contests. It hurt my morale to keep paying someone to read my writing. I get that I could win $1,000 or whatever. I get that these contests keep the journals going. But I don’t want to view my writing life like a lottery, and I don’t want editors to bribe me into reading their journal by giving me “free” copies with my entry.

10. Make it not about you. This is probably the best and most transformative advice I can give anyone. I understand why writers sometimes become agents. It’s fun to read and meet and promote other writers. It’s way more fun and meaningful, at least for me, than promoting myself. Instead of asking what the journal can do for you, ask what you can do for it. If you come up with a good answer, then maybe you should submit there.



9 thoughts on “Is Publishing in Literary Journals Worthwhile?

  1. This is a superb post with excellent advice for aspiring writers. I’m reblogging this now. Good luck with your submissions!

  2. I love these suggestions, Jenny. I’ve submitted to so many publications over the course of my writing life–I began submitting at the urging of a wonderful creative writing teacher at age 16 and became inured to rejection. But the submission process certainly does take time, energy, and money. For the excerpts from my first book alone, I made 98 submissions, and only received 3 acceptances. I did do research, though not exhaustive, in the university library and online to see whether my work would be well-matched. Two of the acceptances came after my book had been accepted by the publisher–so they didn’t influence the publication. I feel that there are other ways to build a strong biographical statement in a query letter–I included my then-employment at Richard Hugo House, higher-profile readings, and a few other things–and ultimately, the pitching of the work is most important.

    • Elissa thanks so much for sharing your experience. It’s really helpful to hear. This whole writing and publishing thing can sometimes feel a little lonely like you never know what, if anything, is going to come of it. There is only so much time in the day to devote to all this so it seems like being strategic is a good idea. I was so excited to hear about your book. Will you please come to LA to promote it? 🙂 I actually think your publisher’s office is a mile from my house!

      • I think for this reason, your suggestions #3 and #5 are my very favorites. 2 of my 3 publications of excerpts from my book were in journals run by people I know–beautiful, high-quality journals I am so proud to have my work featured in. It’s especially meaningful to me to have my work in these publications (As/Us and Filter Literary Journal) because I have a strong sense of their readership and how my work fits into their vision.

  3. Hey Jenny–great suggestions! As a fiction writer I submit to journals to get my work out in the world. I know not many journals are widely read, but if I like its aesthetic and there isn’t a submission fee, I give it a try. I think nonfiction writers might have less of a need for them before querying agents. My feeling is, if I have a short story I’m proud of, why wouldn’t I give it my best shot to get it read? I do agree with you about contests and am pretty wary of them. If it’s a journal I admire AND a judge whose work I’m familiar with, then I might submit, but I usually avoid them.

    • It’s so nice to get another perspective on this. Thanks AS! Your comment made me realize that the form you’re writing in matters, too. If you write short stories, then perhaps your form more easily lends itself to literary journals.

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