by Caren Gussoff
I’ve sat in a lot of panels — and eavesdropped on a bunch of conversations — lately, in which genre writers have asked, debated, and/or mused about crossing over from SFF magazines and journals into straight-up literary fiction ones. Seems to many, and I agree, that the notorious snobbery and befuddlement of the lit fic world towards anything science fiction or fantasy (save those authors whose work was romanticized/tokenized as “magical realism) has softened tremendously. And of course, we have several-decade-long precedent of writers who’ve quite successfully moved between genres or “snuck in” work so obviously informed by genre into the literary markets (I know I don’t have to name names here).
I actually came from literary fiction — my first novel and collection were literary, though the publisher, Serpent’s Tail, is a SFWA-qualifying market — and then moved into SFF. So, I have seen and experienced what movement between and across lit and SFF feels like. Much of the terrain is familiar: like submitting to any genre mag, you should read the submission guidelines and, when in doubt, defer to standard formatting for your manuscript. There are some differences, however, you should be aware of between spec fic and lit fic markets. I’ve condensed the top five:
- You won’t get paid much, even by the pro mags
Many literary magazine do not pay, except in copies. Some pony up for a subscription as compensation, but many do not. In the spec fic world, pay is a standard of the professional — and even the semi-pro — market (as we all know, Bob, minimum pay rate is the key requirement for any SFWA-qualifying market). In lit fic, this is not the case at all. Pro mags are mags which carry prestige, have extremely high rejection rates, and are read for awards. Pay is, at best, a tertiary consideration.
There are notable exceptions, of course. The New Yorker offers a high per-word premium, as well as an obvious return-on-investment in terms of visibility and validation. Glimmer Train pays between $500 – $700 (which usually works out to a high per-word pro rate), and some of the university-affiliated journals pay between $30 – $50 per printed page (which are ~3/4 of a manuscript page).
- The slush pile is a waiting room and you may never hear back
You think you have seen slow responses? You ready to query regarding status after 90 days? Ha, I say. There are lit mags that do respond within a few months, and, if you submit to a contest or a themed issue rather than straight into slush, you are more likely to hear something in a reasonable amount of time. However, many mags, staffed by grad students, volunteers, and professors with publishing demands of their own, function on a more geologic time scale, rather than a human one. Waiting 2 years is not unheard of.
Piggy backing that, some literary magazines (and most will note this) simply do not respond at all if they are not interested. Polite magazines will tell you how long to wait before giving up; some make you guess. Although the response times, as stated, are glacial, I think you can safely assume if you have not heard a word after a year (unless otherwise spelled out) then it’s a “no, thanks.”
- Most are cool with simultaneous submissions
The upside is that most literary magazines are completely fine with simultaneous submissions, and the ones that aren’t provide either faster-than-usual responses or offer enough prestige to ostensibly make it worth your while. The submissions guidelines will state if they do not allow sim subs. If they say nothing at all, assume safely sim subs are a-OK.
- Reading fees are not frowned upon in the same way
Most literary mags do not charge reading fees for anything but contests. However, as many of them are university or non-profit affiliated and have their budgets slashed, I have seen more and more changing a few bucks for each submission. Or they may require you to buy an issue or a subscription in order to submit.
This is a BIG RED FLAG in our community, most of the time…Yog’s law, etc. However, in the lit fic community, this has never been seen as a barrier or big deal. Eyebrows only raise if the fee goes over, say, ten or twenty bucks. It is not pay-to-play: just because you pay the money does not give you an editorial edge. Nor will you necessarily see that money back when you do get accepted (see #1 above). Reading fees are seen as a legitimate way to help the mag offset expenses and stay open.
- They have reading periods
Indeed, many of our SFF mags do as well. However, SFF mags seem to open and close to submissions based on having enough or too little inventory. Lit mags are often subject to the duration of a school year or a specific time in which they have access to readers. These reading periods are regular and predictable, and should always be clearly stated in the submission guidelines.
If I haven’t scared you off, head over to part two, when we move to level 102: what makes a piece attractive to lit fic magazines. What is literary fiction, anyway?
Science fiction writer Caren Gussoff lives in the Pacific Northwest with two cats and an artist. Her third novel, a post-pandemic apocalyptic little story, actually has a car chase. Publications, awards and mutterings are available at www.spitkitten.com