Updated: Dec 8, 2022
I write mostly fiction. I’m working on a (ridiculously long) novel, from which I occasionally submit excerpts as short stories to literary journals. I also dabble in flash fiction and other forms, including creative nonfiction. Please forgive me a moment of braggadocio: In the past couple of years, I’ve had my work published in a number of literary journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and many other smaller journals. I’ve been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. I’ve been a “featured writer” for a journal (Open: Journal of Arts & Letters). I’ve had a publisher express interest in adapting a novella from my (ridiculously long) novel. As we all know, getting published in literary journals is hard (or as I say on my website: it’s &$%*!#@ hard), so with that in mind, I feel pretty good about my writing. End of braggadocio.
But let’s be real: my “success” has not been of the monetary variety. Here are the numbers: I write for around three hours a day, Monday through Friday, plus a couple of extra hours on weekends for flash and nonfiction. Over the past couple of years, that comes to around 21,216 hours. During that time, I’ve earned exactly . . . wait for it . . . $390 (mostly from New England Review—thank you “President and Fellows of Middlebury College”!). Simple math tells me that I made around $0.01838/hour, or, for the sake of my sanity, let’s round that up to the nearest penny:
I made around $0.02/hour as a writer in the past couple of years.
Boy howdy, that will not pay the bills! So the question must be asked: What in the heck am I doing? Why do I put so much energy into writing and submitting stories to literary journals when getting accepted is so difficult and the payments, if any, are so low? Let me count the ways:
Get noticed Getting your stories or essays published is a good way to get noticed. You never know who may stumble upon your work. A fellow writer looking for a writing partner? An agent? A publisher looking for a new voice?
I mentioned above that a publisher approached me about turning some of my work into a novella. This novella will be adapted from several short stories (excerpts from my (ridiculously long) novel) that were published in a wonderful journal called Open: Journal of Arts & Letters. Clearly, an opportunity like this would never have presented itself if I hadn’t taken a chance and submitted my work.
Here’s one more example. When I started Submitit over a year ago, I approached writer Erin Rose Belair, whose work I had read and enjoyed in Narrative Magazine, to see if she’d be interested in kicking the tires on this brand-new company. She took me up on my offer. I’ve now helped her get a couple of her stories published (in Southern Indiana Review (!) and Green Hills Literary), with a third story pending. We've also edited each other’s work from time to time and collaborated in other ways. All because she had a story published in Narrative Magazine.
Find an agent or publisher (eventually) For most writers, when you finish your novel or your collection of stories or essays, the first thing you’ll probably try to do is find a literary agent. Disclaimer: I don’t have, nor have I started looking for, an agent (I’m waiting until I finish my (ridiculously long) novel), so, to be clear, I’m no expert. But I’m close to positive that finding an agent will be much easier if you’ve had some of your work published in literary journals, especially excerpts from your (ridiculously long) novel, or stories or essays from your collection. The publishing credits will immediately separate you from most of your competition. Agents, especially good ones, are inundated with queries; anything you can do to get them to take notice of your work is important.
If you’ve never been published and you send a (ridiculously long) novel to an agent, the novel better immediately knock the agent’s socks off. That first page must be amazing. If, on the other hand, you send a (ridiculously long) novel that includes a handful of chapters previously published in literary journals, I suspect the agent will give you a much fairer shake. Maybe your first page need not be quite as brilliant. Maybe the agent will be a bit more open-minded. In short, your foot’s in the door.
The same is true if you decide to forgo the agent gateway and go straight to the small publishing houses. Just like literary journals, small publishers have their slush piles. Publishing credits will likely help float your work to the top.
Encouragement/motivation Writing usually involves hours and hours of work (see above), with little tangible reward (financial (see above) or otherwise). We all have moments of discouragement. I suspect that if you don’t occasionally question your writing, if you don’t sometimes—hopefully only sometimes—wonder if perhaps you should switch careers (I hear there’s work in the tech industry), then you might not be pushing yourself enough as a writer.
My favorite writers all take chances. But this means they also occasionally (or often) fail. Which can lead to self-doubt. Which can lead to . . . well . . . sending resumes to tech companies. Getting your work published now and then is not just a welcome boost of confidence. It can be an essential one. These occasional successes can keep you going.
A(n) (occasional) cure to loneliness
Writing is a lonely endeavor. If you, like me, are not part of a writing group or creative writing program, then you probably spend most of your time alone in a room, with a blank (or when you’re having a good day, partially blank) white screen in front of you. It’s just you, your work, and your thoughts, for months and months. But the occasional acceptance, as I mentioned above, might connect you to fellow writers or editors. It’s a way to feel not so all alone with your writing. (That is, until we sell a (ridiculously long) novel, go on an endless (and endlessly delightful!) book tour, win a Pulitzer Prize, etc.)
Assess (and improve) your writing
Lastly, submitting your work to literary journals is a good way to assess the quality—or at least the appeal—of your writing. Sending a story or essay to ten or twenty literary journals, including several that statistically are relatively accessible (part of any good submission plan), and getting nothing but form rejections may be the kind of feedback you need to push you to develop and refine your writing—that is, to work on your craft.
I want to stress that getting rejected doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with your writing. It might simply mean that your writing is unconventional or inaccessible in some way. For example, if you’re sending out 10,000-word stories, or stories that are spectacularly difficult, or stories that claim, without irony, that a certain someone didn’t actually lose a recent election, etc., you might have trouble finding a home for them, regardless of these stories’ literary merits.
Along these lines, you might also be sending your work to the wrong journals. Writers often target literary journals that are not great matches for their work. (That’s why I started Submitit!) For example, if your writing is experimental, difficult, and sesquipedalian, you probably shouldn’t be submitting to journals such as Michigan Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, or West Branch, all of which score pretty low in these categories (according to my company’s algorithm). Consider journals such as Ninth Letter, Conjunctions, or Black Warrior Review. Conversely, if your writing is character- and plot-driven, and relatively accessible (no words like “sesquipedalian”), then do not submit to Ninth Letter, etc. Knowing where to send your work is a huge part of the submissions game.
But, again, if you’re having trouble getting published (and you’re not alone), this could be a sign that you need to work on some aspect of your writing. Yes, getting rejected can be disheartening, but it can also be an important learning experience.
There are many good reasons to submit your work to literary journals, and none of them has anything to do with making money. Publishing in literary journals is no way to make a living. These little publishing victories should be thought of as steppingstones (and everything else I mentioned above). The worth of getting published is, I believe, beyond monetary.
Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.