When you submit a story to a mystery journal, you probably have the same fantasy that I do. The magazine accepts the story quickly and pays handsomely. The story is reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories. A Hollywood producer, reading Best Americans while on vacation in Mexico, calls to buy the option and asks if you would be okay with Joan Cusack in the starring role. You tell them you’ll think about it. You saw the lead as more of a Sandra Bullock type.
Yet grim economics implies that few journals will be like that. If word got out about a magazine that could put Joan Cusack or Sandra Bullock in your story, that magazine 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 mystery stories really look like?
Recently I asked this same question about literary stories, and the picture wasn’t pretty. Top literary journals—the journals whose stories get reprinted in the Pushcart Prize anthology—have an average acceptance rate of 2.1 percent. Two-thirds of them don’t pay, and among those that do pay, two-thirds pay less than the “professional” rate of 5 cents a word ($250 for a 5,000 word story). Paying journals accept just 1.5 percent of submissions and take an average of three months to decide. Non-paying journals take an average of four months. Much of the work that appears in top literary journals is by authors with some personal connection to the editor. Strangers tossing work over the transom don’t have the same chance.
My friend Tom Barlow wondered if the situation was better at genre magazines. Tom’s had zero luck with literary journals, but has published about 80 stories in mystery and science fiction outlets. In 2013, his Waffle House mystery “Smothered and Covered” was even reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories. (I remember Tom bringing “Smothered and Covered” to our writers’ group. I loved it. Everyone else thought it needed work.)
It seemed to Tom that standards for genre fiction are clearer, and the decision to publish or pass is less unpredictable and arbitrary than it is for literary fiction. It also seemed to Tom that the mystery market depends less on personal connections. Tom’s a homebody and has met few of the editors who have published his work.
Let’s look at the numbers
Let’s look at the numbers. John Fox has published a list of the top mystery outlets, ranked by number of appearances in Best American Mystery Stories between 2011 and 2015. Stories that are reprinted in the anthology get 3 points, and stories that are only mentioned get one.
There are 96 publications on Fox’s list, but they’re far from equally represented in the anthology. Just three magazines—Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and The Strand—account for a quarter of all appearances in Best American Mystery Stories. The other outlets are a mix of mystery/noir magazines that are not as popular—Needle and Thuglit rank #5 and #6—as well as top literary magazines, like the New Yorker (#4) and Kenyon Review (#10), that publish a mystery story now and then.
How hard is it to get into these magazines? In the Duotrope database, authors have logged 8,155 submissions to magazines on Fox’s list. 105 of these submissions have been accepted, for an acceptance rate of 1.3 percent. The acceptance rate is about 3 percent for journals near the bottom of the list, and between 0 and 2 percent for the few journals at the top. There are a few outlets that offer good author value, like Mystery Weekly, which has good visibility and an acceptance rate of 9 percent, presumably because weeklies need to publish more stories. Ellery Queen has a higher acceptance rate than Alfred Hitchcock, with similar prestige and circulation.
There is no relationship between a magazine’s prestige and its speed. Between the two journals that appear most often in Best Americans, Alfred Hitchcock’s median decision time is nearly a year—longer than any other mystery journal. But Ellery Queen‘s median decision time is less than 4 weeks; only three publications decide faster. Decision times also vary dramatically among the less visible journals.
Fourteen outlets pay a “professional” rate of at least 5 cents/word (e.g., $250 for a 5,000 word story). Seven outlets pay 1 to 4.9 cents/word, and 15 journals pay less than 1 cent/word, if they pay at all. As the pay rate goes up, the acceptance rate declines, but the days to decision do not.
|Payment||Journals||Percent accepted||Days to decision|
|Semipro (1-4.9 cents/word)||7||0.8||45|
|Pro (5+ cents/word)||14||0.3||70|
If you have an eye for detail—and most mystery writers do—you’ll have noticed that there are nowhere near 97 publications in this table, or the graphs above. That’s because two thirds of the publications on John Fox’s list do not have statistics in Duotrope. There are several reasons for that. Some journals, like The Strand, work only with famous authors and don’t provide submission information on their website. Some journals, like Needle, have stopped publishing. But among the mystery journals with numbers in Duotrope, the numbers don’t seem any more favorable than they are for literary journals.
I shared this with my friend Anna Castle, who has published in both Alfred Hitchcock—one of the most prestigious magazines on the list—and Mystery Weekly, one of the fastest and most open. She confirmed that Alfred Hitchcock took a year to accept her story, and also thought their standard contract demanded too many rights, without being clear on when rights reverted to the author. That concerned her since her story involved a series character and she planned to re-use it to promote her book series. Still, she was able renegotiate the contract and they paid exceptionally well. Her story brought in $600 which was about 10 cents/word.
Anna also confirmed that Mystery Weekly decides quickly, within 3-4 weeks, and publishes in a few months. “They do awesome covers!! They expect you not to publish (or give away [as a promotion]) that story for one year. Their contract was perfectly reasonable.” On the downside, they only pay $25 per story.
I also shared this post with my friend Tom Barlow, who has appeared in Best American Mysteries. Tom thought the comparison of venues was interesting, but pointed out that different venues have different tastes. “For example, Switchblade runs very edgy, hard-hitting noir, while Ellery Queen favors a wider variety of more mainstream stories, including cozies, but shies away from the more overtly sexual or violent story. ” So taking something gritty to Ellery Queen might not be worthwhile, and taking something cozy to Switchblade might not bear fruit, despite its higher acceptance rate.
 There are supposed to be 100 publications, but Fox only lists 98, and two publications (One Story, Best New England Mysteries) appear twice.