How hard is it to publish in a top scifi/fantasy magazine?

When writers submit a story to a science fiction or fantasy (SFF) magazine, they all have the same hopes. The magazine accepts the story quickly and pays handsomely. The story wins a Hugo or Nebula award and appears in one of the Year’s Best anthologies. J.J. Abrams, thumbing through the anthology while waiting for Robert Downey at the Brentwood Barnes & Noble, calls you from his cell phone and asks what you want for the movie rights.

Yet grim economics implies that few journals will be like that. If word got out about a magazine that could put Will Smith in your story (Robert Downey never showed), 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 sci stories really look like?

Let’s look at the numbers

Let’s look at the numbers. Eric Schwitzgebel has published a list of the top scifi and fantasy outlets, ranked by number of prizes and appearances in major anthologies. He describes his system as follows:

I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a HugoNebulaEugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the DozoisHortonStrahanClarke, or Adams “Year’s Best” anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list.

There are 46 magazines on Schwitzgebel’s list, but their scores are far from equal. Just four magazines—Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed—account for over half of the points in Schwitzgebel’s list, and the next four magazines—Strange Horizons, Interzone, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies—account for another fifth. The rest of the list contains less prestigious SFF magazines like Lady Churchill’s or Terraform, as well as top literary magazineslike The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, or Tin House—that print a SFF story once in a while.

How hard is it to get into these magazines? In the Duotrope database, authors have logged 7,140 submissions to magazines on Schwitzgebel’s list. 103 of these submissions have been accepted, for an acceptance rate of 1.4 percent.

Acceptance rates by pointsThe acceptance rate is about 5 percent for journals near the bottom of the list, and between 0 and 1 percent for the four journals at the top. In the second tier, Analog offers the best author value, with an above average acceptance rate of 5 percent but a venerable name and as much visibility as a more exclusive magazine like Strange Horizons.

SFF magazines are very responsive. Nearly all respond in less than three months, and the very top magazines respond in less than a month. That may not be as fast as authors would like, but it’s darn good compared to top literary and mystery magazines, whose average response time is closer to four months. The slowest magazines on Schwitzgebel’s list are not SFF magazines. actually literary magazines that dabble in SFF.

Days to decision by points

Seventeen outlets pay a “professional” rate of at least 5 cents/word (e.g., $250 for a 5,000 word story). Four outlets pay 1 to 4.9 cents/word, and four 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 improves.

Payment Journals Percent accepted Days to decision

(<1 cent/word)

4 2.3 24
Semipro (1-4.9 cents/word) 4 2.9 33
Pro (5+ cents/word) 17 0.8 18

If you have an eye for detail—and many scifi writers do, though I’m not sure about fantasy writers—you’ll have noticed that there are nowhere near 46 publications in this table, or in the graphs above. That’s because 19 of the publications on Schwitzgebel’s list do not have statistics in Duotrope. About half of those have simply ceased publication (e.g, Jim Baen’s Universe or Realms of Fantasy), or merged with a more established publication (e.g., Fantasy‘s acquisition by Lightspeed). The other half of the missing journals I don’t have an explanation for; they’re just not in Duotrope.

Overall, SFF looks like the best market for short fiction. The acceptance rate is no higher than it is for mystery or literary fiction, but the turnaround time is much faster. For the same amount of writing, SFF writers will get faster exposure, or at least faster feedback, and that can only be good for their development.