How hard is it to publish in a top literary journal?

When authors submit a story to a literary journal, we all have the same fantasy. The journal will accept the story, quickly. It will pay handsomely. The story will be reprinted in one of the big anthologies, like the Pushcart Prize, The O. Henry Prize Stories, or Best American Short Stories. But basic economics suggests that that’s an unlikely scenario. If word got out about a journal like that, it would be flooded with submissions. Its acceptance rate would plummet, its responses would slow. It might reduce its payments to authors.

What does the market for short fiction really look like? What are the statistics on acceptance rate, time to submission, payment, and awards? Does the market offer tradeoffs, where some journals are fast, others pay well, and others dominate the anthologies? Or do a few professional journals excel on all criteria, while other journals, run by part time amateurs, can’t keep up?

Authors have wondered about these questions for a long time, but until recently the data weren’t available to answer them. They are available now. For years Duotrope.com has been collecting data on journals’ acceptance rates, response times, and payment policies. These data come from authors who pay to log their submissions on Duotrope, so the data are not comprehensive or even representative. But the data are substantial: authors have logged 2.2 million submissions since Duotrope’s founding in 2005.

Let’s focus on the most prestigious journals. The writer Clifford Garstang has assembled a list of the 238 journals that have had at least one story reprinted or mentioned in the Pushcart Prize anthology in the past 10 years.[1] Garstang has ranked these journals using a point system that awards 5 points for each reprint and 1 point for each mention in the past 5 years, and half that for reprints and mentions that were published in the Pushcart anthology 6 to 10 years ago.

It’s a pretty elite group of journals—just 8 percent of the more than 3,000 non-genre literary journals listed by Duotrope. But some journals are more elite than others. The top 3 journals (Conjunctions, One Story, and Ploughshares) have more than 50 Puschart points each. The top 10 journals account for 30 percent of all points, the top 20 journals account for half, and the top 30 journals account for two-thirds. Half the journals on the list have 1 point or less; a quarter had just 0.5 points, meaning that they have had one story mentioned in the Pushcart anthology, not reprinted, and it wasn’t in the past 5 years.

Cumulative share of Pushcart Prizes

So there’s a big difference between the top and bottom of Garstang’s list. Journals near the top are regulars in the Pushcart anthology. Journals near the bottom might never appear there again.

Are the higher ranked journals harder to get into? A little bit, but nearly all these journals are tough. The journals with low Pushcart scores accept about 2 percent of stories on average, though there are a few outliers that accept considerably more. The journals with high Pushcart scores accept about ½ percent of stories on average, and there no serious exceptions.

Acceptance vs Pushcart score

These are very low acceptance rates. It’s harder to get into almost any of these journals — even the ones you’ve never heard of — than it is to get into a top scientific journal like Science (with an 8% acceptance rate), Nature (7%) or the Journal of the American Medical Association (4%).

The journals at the top of Garstang’s list are the most selective, but they’re also a little more responsive than journals toward the bottom. Journals with low Pushcart scores take, on average, about 3 months to respond to a submission, while journals at the very high end take more like 2 months, on average. But there’s considerable variability at every level, with 3 egregious journals taking about 2 years, and a few journals, across the Pushcart spectrum, responding within a few days. Given the low acceptance rate of these journals, speed is appreciated. Rejection is easier to take if it comes quickly.

Response time vs Pushcart score

The top journals also pay better. Duotrope classifies journals by pay range.[2] The “Pro” pay level is at least 5 cents a word (or $250 for a 5,000 word story). There are only 26 journals at the Pro level—just 11 percent of the journals in the Pushcart anthology, and 1 percent of all the non-genre fiction journals in Duotrope.[3]

Another 41 journals make a “semi-pro” payment of 1-4.9 cents/word. A handful of journals pay a token level of less than 1 cent a word (less than $50 for a 5,000 word story). And two-thirds of these elite Pushcart prize-winning journals don’t pay at all, or don’t disclose their pay policies anywhere that Duotrope could find.

The journals that pay Pro levels have the best record in the Pushcart anthology, with an average Pushcart score of 18. That’s more than twice the average score of the semi-pro journals, which in turn have over twice the score of the token and non-paying journals.

The pro and semipro journals are more responsive and exclusive. They respond to authors within about three months, on average, and they accept 1.3% of stories. The token and nonpaying journals have acceptance rates that are about twice as high—though still very low on average, at 2.4%—and take an average of four months, rather than three, to decide a story’s fate.

Payment level Journals Pushcart score Response time Acceptance
Pro
(5+ ¢/word)
26 (11%) 18 103 days 1.3%
Semi-pro
(1-4.9 ¢/word)
41 (17%) 8 91 1.3%
Token
(<1 ¢/word)
12 (5%) 3 123 2.5%
None 101 (42%) 3 120 2.4%
Unknown 58 (24%) 4 175 2.3%
All journals 238 6 126 2.1%

These numbers aren’t what authors want to see, but you may feel relieved to see them if you’ve been submitting to top journals for a while. Are you waiting for months? Are you almost always getting rejected? It’s not just you. It’s normal.

Afterword

I showed this article to two friends who have had different kinds of success publishing short stories. One, who’s published nearly 100 stories and appeared in Best American Mysteries, said he’s had “precious little luck” with the journals whose stories win Pushcart prizes. “I’d always blamed it on my…style,” he wrote, “which is too unliterary” and better suited to genre magazines. “But given their acceptance rate, perhaps I just haven’t submitted enough.” Indeed, if an average Duotrope user submitted 100 times to magazines on Garstang’s list, they could expect 1 or 2 acceptances.

Another friend, who has appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology, said the numbers were not “all that shocking, though…still a little depressing.” He went on:

What I think you might also consider is that the decision to publish someone or something in a literary journal is rarely just about a hopeful unknown writer submitting from afar. The chances of getting into a journal are far higher for people who are not submitting to the slush pile.

Editors frequently seek out writers they know and would like to see in their pages. I usually tell [young writers] (especially the ones who live in NYC) not to even bother with the submission game because it can make one so miserable. If one lives in NY, all one has to do is go out to events and have fun, meet people, and, without being wildly aggressive, find opportunities to meet editors, who will then ask you for submissions, probably just in a casual kind of way, once they discover you are an aspiring writer. A submission to an editor you have met is 1000 times more likely to get seen, read, and responded to in a timely fashion than any slush pile submission.

I don’t know how much of the Duotrope data comes from writers submitting to the slush pile, or how much comes from writers submitting to editors they know. But clearly the chances are not the same for every writer, and quality of writing is far from the only reason.

Notes

[1] I’m using Garstang’s 2017 rankings. He published his 2018 rankings after I pulled this data together, but since the rankings use a 10-year window they don’t change much from year to year. The correlation between the 2016 and 2017 rankings was .89.

[2] There are some journals that span categories—for example, paying a flat rate that amounts to over 5 cents a word for short pieces and less for long pieces. In those cases, I went with the lower rate.

[3] There may be other journals that pay a Pro level but are not on Garstang’s list because they have not appeared in the Pushcart anthology for 10 years. I can’t imagine there are many, though. There are genre magazines that pay pro rates, but we’re not talking about genre fiction here.

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