08 September 2020

Playing the Numbers

I like to think the process of getting a short story published is a numbers game—submit enough stories to enough publications and sooner or later at least one of them will be accepted—but it isn’t.

The stories in these publications beat the odds.

The process starts with the story, which must be well-written, competently proofread, and appropriately formatted. Accomplishing this is difficult enough, but additional factors impact a story’s salability.

For example, genres run hot and cold, with markets expanding and contracting. A pretty good story might sell if there are a dozen potential markets, but likely not when there are only two potential markets and all the top writers in that genre are also submitting to them. In that case, pretty good might not be good enough.

Additionally, targeted stories—stories written for specific open-submission calls—have an advantage over old manuscripts tossed into the submission queue just because they vaguely meet the requirements. On the flip side, though, a story written for a specific open call that doesn’t make the cut may be more difficult to place elsewhere if it’s too obviously a reject from that project.


Still, the numbers are important, so let’s look at a few.

Stories currently under submission: Seventeen.

Stories not currently under submission: Thirty-five.

It frustrates me to have so many unsubmitted stories lounging about the house doing nothing to entertain readers, pay bills, and advance my career, but there are good reasons why some of them keep hanging around. They can be classified into three, easily identifiable groups:

1) Stories I wrote for the confession magazines. For much of my writing career I was a frequent contributor to magazines such as True Story, True Confessions, True Love, and the like, and when the last two confession magazines ceased publication a few years ago, I was left with about two dozen unsold confessions. Though I placed a few of them in romance anthologies, most of the stories that remain are not romances. I also placed a few with small-press pulp magazines, but most of the small-press pulp magazines want crime fiction, science fiction, and the like, not confessions/women’s fiction.

2) Stories I wrote for Woman’s World. Several years ago I made a run at Woman’s World but failed to sell WW any of those stories. When I stopped trying to break into the magazine, it was purely a financial decision: I was selling every confession I wrote, and I calculated how many WW stories I would have to sell relative to the number I wrote to earn as much as I was earning when I spent that time writing confessions. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was somewhere around one in ten, and I wasn’t selling any. Over the years I’ve placed a handful of the unsold WW stories, but, as with confessions, I’ve not found many markets open for the short romances I wrote.

3) The last group of unsubmitted stories is a mish-mash. Some were written for specific open-submission anthology calls and didn’t make the cut. Some were written for once-hot genres that have grown cold. Some were written with no specific market in mind. Some were written in genres where I’m not as familiar with the markets. So, they lounge about the house, taunting me with their failure to connect with the right editor.

What all of these unsubmitted stories have in common is that I haven’t given up on any of them. Every few weeks I spend quality time with my favorite search engine, seeking markets—open-call anthologies, new periodicals, webzines, and so on—looking for potential homes for one or more of the unsubmitted manuscripts. When I find potential homes, I send my darlings off to visit editors. It’s their job to convince editors of their worth.


Of the seventeen stories currently awaiting decisions from editors, eight are on first submission; four on second; one on third; one on fourth; one on sixth; one on seventh, and the final one is a previously published story being offered as a reprint.

Of the thirty-five stories awaiting submission, thirteen have been out and back once; twelve have been out and back twice; seven have been out and back three times; and three have been out and back four times.

Based on past experience, most of these stories will sell...eventually. And this is where the numbers game comes back into play: The only way to sell a story is to put it in the hands of an editor who wants to publish it, and sometimes that means putting the story in the hands of many editors before finding the perfect match.

Because, if your stories are well-written, competently proofread, and appropriately formatted, and if you submit enough of them to enough publications, sooner or later at least one will be accepted.

My story “I Would Do Anything For You” was published August 31 at Pulp Modern Flash. This is one of the shortest stories I’ve ever written.

Breaking News! I will soon open for submissions to two new anthologies: Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties and Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Vol. 3. Learn more at http://www.crimefictionwriter.com/submissions.html.


  1. Like you say, Michael, genres run hot and cold. And it's really hard to be ahead of the curve. So unless one is writing for a specific-themed anthology or the like I think it's best to just write what you like and hope someone else will, too.

  2. The key is persistence, a word often heard when giving advice to writers but not used here. I like the description of stories not sold and why, and what to do about it. You have an original perspective.

  3. Michael, these behind-the-scenes glimpses are always fun. And yes, persistence is the key to publishing.

    In your bookcase I see at least eight anthologies that both of us are in. I always like that because your presence adds a little respectability to my stories! (I also admire you for keeping those in one place--mine are scattered all over the house.)

  4. Paul, I'd be happy to stay right with the curve and not have a genre where I'm doing well suddenly dry up and leave me with unsold stories. Sometimes I get lucky. When the genre starts heating up again I may have finished stories ready to submit.

    Susan, persistence might be more important than talent. I've seen talented writers stop writing because they weren't willing or able to do the non-stop grunt work necessary to build a career.

    John, I don't know how much respectability my presence adds to anything, but we do seem to appear in many of the same places.

  5. Robert Allen said his first book was shot down so firmly, he set himself a goal to find a publisher by his 50th try. After every rejection, he'd say, "Thank you! I'm one more closer to my goal of 50!" He said it took damn close to 50 submissions before his first acceptance. I'm not so sanguine, but it's a clever anecdote.

  6. Interesting post. It got me thinking about the numbers game. I'm nothing if not persistent. Your post made me curious, and I checked my records. I had one story (that I had a lot of faith in) that found a market on it's 64th try. Is that a record to be proud of? (Or a record of which to be proud?) I'm not sure.


  7. That may be a record, Bob. I don't think I've ever submitted a story that many times prior to a sale. On the other hand, “I Can’t Touch the Clouds for You” (Sun, July 25, 2005)—spent thirty years visiting slush piles before publication.

    Leigh, it looks like Robert Allen set his goal too low. Apparently, 64 submissions should be the target.

  8. Sending out a story is a form of gambling, Michael, a topic with which I know you're well acquainted. Good writing increases your odds, but even a great hand doesn't always beat the house.

  9. You can't win if you don't play, Craig, so it's a gamble I'm always willing to take. I'm more of a grinder, anyhow: rarely a big win, but usually in the money (when playing poker and when submitting stories).


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