27 June 2015

Fee or Free?

I was talking to a beginning writer the other day (a writer of short stories, since most of what I do is the short stuff), and she said to me, "Yeah, I want to get published--but the main thing is, I want to get paid."

Hard to argue with that. All writers--including me--want to be paid for what we produce. And while I didn't tell her that she shouldn't aim for that (I'm dumb but I'm not stupid, and neither is she), I did tell her that there are times when she might want to also consider publishing something for which she's not paid. At least not in dollars.

Here you go, buddy--no charge

Let's say you're an aspiring writer of short stories, and let's say I'm a teacher who's smarter than I really am. What I would tell you is, I believe it can be helpful to a shorts writer, especially when starting out, to occasionally submit something to a magazine or anthology that pays only "in copies"--which means they will send you a least one copy of the issue containing your story, sometimes called an "author copy" or a "contributor's copy." This gives you a couple of things besides just something to put on your coffeetable and brag to your friends about. It gives you (1) a publishing credit and (2) exposure.

Well, whoop-de-doo, right? Credentials and exposure won't pay the rent--they won't even buy you a burger and fries, or a stamp to put on your next snailmailed submission. But, hey, if you build up several respectable credits that you can use later in your cover letters and bios, or if a publisher or agent or another editor happens to see your story in, say, a non-paying university litmag, and likes it . . . well, that's not a bad use of your time and your effort.

The same thing goes for speaking engagements. Most writers are regularly asked to visit libraries, schools, senior centers, civic groups, book clubs, etc.--any venue that needs someone to come in and teach a quick workshop or fill a program slot. These places will sometimes reward you with a payment or cover your travel expenses or both, and when they do, that's great. But sometimes they don't, or can't. IF they don't, or can't, why should you do it? Well, if you're Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, maybe you shouldn't. But if you're me, and probably if you're you, there are times when doing these events can be a good move. For one thing--as mentioned earlier--it's exposure. It lets you get your name and your work out there in front of more readers and potential customers. Once again, this kind of goodwill gesture won't pay the light bill--but it can pay off in the long run. And free events often lead to fee events.

On the other hand . . .

Show me the money!

There is a second school of thought--and the longer I write, I find myself inching more and more into that camp--that says "If I'm creating a product and providing a service, I expect to be paid for it." Those who take this approach insist that it's not only sensible but time-saving. It involves less research and fewer submissions. You just concentrate on the publications that pay, and avoid all the others.

While there aren't a ton of paying markets these days, there are some, including  AHMMEQMMThe Strand Magazine, Over My Dead Body, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and Woman's World. And a good many more if you consider anthologies, and the so-called literary markets that are sometimes receptive to mystery/suspense stories: Zoetrope, The Sun, Thema, The Missouri Review, Harper's, The Saturday Evening Post, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train Stores, Pleiades, Tin House, and so on. We've talked many times at this blog about what it takes to make a story "literary," and the fact that crime fiction sometimes fits into that category. My friend and fellow Mississippian Tom Franklin's short story "Poachers," which won an Edgar Award and appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, was originally published not in AH or EQ but in The Texas Review.


If you're a writer of short fiction, what's your opinion on this kind of thing? Are you ever willing to send your work to a non-paying publication? If so, which ones do you prefer? If not, under what conditions might you be willing?

Also, what paying mags and anthologies do you submit stories to? At which of these have you been successful, and which ones might you recommend? What do you think about fee vs. free speaking/teaching engagements?

This little piggy went to market . . .

In closing, here are some Web resources I've used in the past, to find possible homes for my work:

Ralan's Webstravaganza -- This isn't just for SF/fantasy stories (even though it says it is). The big mystery magazines, for example, are included. It also lists anthologies.

My Little Corner 

The Short Mystery Fiction Society Blog 

Mystery Readers International


Fiction Factor 

Those last two sites might be a bit dated, but there are still some good listings and good tips to be found there.

Another place--and a great print reference--that lists pay and no-pay markets is Novel & Short Story Writers Market (WD Books). A new edition is printed every year, and it features a "genre index" section that lists those places that consider mystery submissions. And sometimes the best approach is the simplest: Forget the market listings altogether and just key something like "short mystery markets" into Google and check out the resulting links.

Wherever you go and however you do it . . . good hunting! Or, to paraphrase one of my boyhood heroes: Write long and prosper.


  1. John, I think you bring up some good and provocative points. It used to be – a long time ago, in the ancient 20th century – that a writer could make a fairly decent living selling short stories to various markets. But as we know that is no longer the case. What I would tell someone is to have more than one story to put out there. Try the paying markets first, then the more prestigious, and there are some, non-paying markets. But if you do have more than one story, several, you just keep rotating them around and hope eventually they all get picked up.

  2. You're right, Paul. For years now, I've kept lists of my stories with possible markets written beside each. And I try to keep a lot of different stories out to editors at any one time--when one gets rejected, I send it someplace else and send another story to the place that rejected it. Really long response times make this kind of thing even more important.

    Another thing I try to do is watch for "calls for submission" by anthologies. The good thing about anthologies is that those calls always have a deadline, and if you can write a story or have an existing story that you can submit during that sometimes-narrow window in time, your odds of getting published are better than they might be with a regular submission to a magazine. One obvious advantage is that there are always many authors who don't take the call or who don't even hear about it.

  3. Quick correction: The six places I listed when talking about "paying markets" are paying markets for MYSTERY fiction. (And of course Woman's World buys romance stories as well.)

  4. Great post and, as always, great information!

  5. John, long ago, I came to the conclusion that you have to decide if you are writing to make a living, or if you are writing to get readers. I write with the hope that many people will read and enjoy my short stories and novels. If I can make a little money along the way, that's terrific. But it's secondary.

  6. Thanks, Dale. Market listings are like umbrellas and flashlights: the more you have, the better.

    One thing I didn't mention. Sometimes stories in "free" markets pay off in after-the-fact recognition. Our friend Liz Zelvin published a story in Mysterical-E (a non-paying e-zine) that was later shortlisted for an edition of Otto Penzler's The Best American Mystery Stories.

  7. Melodie, I think that's smart reasoning, and a good arrangement of priorities.

    Also, as with speaking engagements, free writing gigs can eventually become fee writing gigs.

  8. Hi John,

    A very helpful blog! When I started writing, I really didn't think of being paid for poetry and short fiction. At that time it was about building credentials. I've also spoke at a number of library events for free and donated what I earned from sale of books to the Friends of the Library. However, I am at a time in my career when I do expect to be paid for my work unless it's a charity. And so I look for paying markets. I agree with you that starting writers shouldn't worry about being paid in cash immediately. More important to build a reputation.

  9. Thanks, Jacqueline! I think your progression has been typical--as we write more and more we tend to concentrate on paying venues rather than non-paying.

    We also tend, as Michael Bracken has said (at this blog and elsewhere), to write more stories already tailored to specific markets, rather than writing a story first and then searching everywhere to find a market that it might fit.

  10. I decided when I started writing fiction that I would never wreite for free - except for charity. A few years ago I decided my rock bottom was one hundred bucks, although I have occasionally gone lower on spec - meaning that the authors were paid on royalties. Of course, the occasional fiction of mine that has appeared at SleuthSayers is unpaid work, and worth every cent.

  11. Great post, John. I'm still submitting everywhere I can, to both payinng and non-paying markets, even after having over sixty stories placed. My bottom line is, I want to be read. Being paid is a nice bonus, when it happens.

  12. Great advice, John; a very worthwhile piece all round. I set a high value on my fiction, though I'm a little more reasonable than Rob--fifty dollars; no compromise. No way they're getting me any lower than that...probably. No sir, I don't think so. At least as it stands now. Firm. Yep.

  13. Lots more experience here than mine. But, I've done both. Mostly paid, but some free stuff, especially if it's a story that I know would be otherwise really difficult to place. Thanks for all the listings - I subscribe to My Little Corner, and it's great. BTW, one thing I do is read anthologies, and look up in the index where stories I like got published - and then go check out that market.

  14. Rob, your self-imposed rule is obviously working, because you publish regularly in fine markets. As for SleuthSayers (and Criminal Brief too), yes, our unpaid work there has always been fun.

    Thanks, Jan. Good to hear from you! Yes, the main thing is to get our writing in front of readers, and another point is that you and I both have published occasionally at some non-paying markets because of our close relationship with certain editors. Joseph DeMarco at Mysterical-E comes to mind--I'll probably always continue to submit stories to Joe because he's been so kind to me over the years.

  15. Many thanks, David. Based on your track record at EQMM, you could give lessons on writing marketable fiction. On that subject, a writer friend of mine is fond of saying his short stories provide him an income in the low double figures ($10, $20, $40, etc.).

    Eve, I agree that Sandra Seamans has always done a great job with the My Little Corner blog--I've pointed a lot of folks in her direction. And GOOD POINT, on using an anthology index to find possible targets for submissions. By the way, it's surprising how many award nominations (and wins) seem to come from stories first published in anthos. It's a market writers can't afford to overlook.

  16. Thanks for the mention, John. :) We're at opposite ends of the spectrum for short story output. Since I write so few short stories, I care most about getting every story placed. My formula is payment, prestige, and high circulation if I can, zilch, respect, and however many readers they can get me if I can't. I write novels too, and there's currently consensus that most novelists aren't making a living either. I've heard $11,000 a year mentioned as the average or maybe the mean or the median. I was also a published poet for thirty years and never got paid cash, not even for my two books from a well established small press. All payment was in copies. I did once get a $5,000 grant from a state arts council, in 1983, along with fifteen other poets. I've never been in a roomful of such radiant smiles on so many faces, not even at the Edgars. :)

  17. Liz, I bet you poets WERE grinnin', about that grant. I sold a poem once to Farm & Ranch Living for $80--the most I ever made from a piece of my light verse. Here it is (ready for this?): We had a horse when I was born / we used the horse to plow the corn. / We never ate the corn, of course / we used the corn to feed the horse. Can't believe the Pulitzer people weren't calling me about that one.

    I agree with you: when I finish a story I usually try to place it at the best market possible. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. I do remember how pleased I was when you submitted a story to an anthology I edited several years ago--a charity publication for which none of us were paid. You made me look good!

  18. I'm late to the party, but I'd like to mention one more time when it might make sense to send a story to a non-paying market. Like several others here, I generally submit only to paying markets or to anthologies that benefit charities (or, once, to an anthology that was supposed to generate royalties but never paid me one cent). When my first novel came out this spring, however, I sent a very short story to King's River Life, an online magazine that doesn't pay fiction writers but does allow them bio notes--and also, apparently, reaches a fair number of readers. I built the story around a character from the novel, mentioned that fact in my bio note, and hoped some readers would like the character enough to buy the novel. Did it work? I have no idea. I got some nice comments about the story, though, and plan to send another story about that character to King's River Life soon.

  19. Good point, Bonnie. I had a story in KRL too, a couple years ago, and though it wasn't a novel tie-in or anything, I got some good feedback on it. Another thing is, many of these non-paying markets are open to reprints, which again is good exposure.


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