Submission Tetris: An Analytic Approach

by Laurence Raphael Brothers

Introduction

Short fiction submissions can be challenging. There are many factors to juggle in deciding what to submit, and where. “Submission Tetris” is the game of matching your available stories with magazine and anthology slush calls.

Markets and Market Lists

The two leading short fiction market and submission trackers are The Submission Grinder and Duotrope. Both cover most of the same markets, but the former is a free service that doesn’t suffer much in comparison to the latter, which requires a paid subscription. These sites not only enable market discovery, finding new magazines, anthologies, and contests, but also provide valuable data that can be used to prioritize your submissions. 

Criteria for Submission

Many (but not all) of the leading story markets prohibit simultaneous submissions. The choice of where to send a story next can be daunting because you might be locking it up for months only to receive a form rejection. The following elements (among others) may play into your decision:

  • Payment
  • Response Time
  • Acceptance Rate
  • Prestige
  • Story Fit
  • Publisher Politics
  • Submission Fee
  • Editor Relationship

Everyone’s weighting of these factors varies, and they’re not all independent, either. In decision analysis, it’s useful to reduce all factors to monetary values. This isn’t because money is the be-all and end-all, but because that way you can compare them numerically.

Let’s say I’m considering submitting a 2,000-word near-future science-fiction story to Clarkesworld, Analog, Interzone, and Terraform. Here’s my analysis.

 

Clarkesworld Analog Interzone Terraform
Payment $200 $160 $20 $400
Response Time 4 days 137 days 34 days 30 days
Acceptance Rate 1.0% 5.5% 1.6% 1.2%
Prestige Very high High High Medium
Story Fit High High High High
Politics Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable
Submission Fee None None None None
Relationship None None None None

 

In the above table, Response Time and Acceptance Rate were taken from The Submission Grinder; these values naturally change over time. Terraform doesn’t return rejections, so after 30 days I count them as a no if they haven’t responded. Prestige is of course a personal assessment; yours may vary. I never submit anywhere with a Submission Fee myself, but there are some prestigious literary journals that do charge fees.

From this chart, I delete the rows that don’t have value to me or that are the same for all the magazines, and assign dollars based on my personal assessment of their value or cost.

 

Clarkesworld Analog Interzone Terraform
P1: Payment $200 $160 $20 $400
T: Response Time -$2.00 -$68.50 -$17.00 -$15.00
A: Acceptance Rate 1.0% 5.5% 1.6% 1.2%
P2: Prestige $2,000 $1,000 $1,000 $500

 

In this table, I’m setting the cost of Response Time at $0.50/day. Your own formula may vary. Similarly, the dollar value I attribute to Prestige is a wholly personal assessment.

The relative value V to me of a submission based on these factors is going to be:

V = A x (P1 + P2) – T 

This is because the positive factors of Payment and Prestige only pay off in the event of an acceptance, whereas the negative factor of Response Time is incurred regardless. For me, this calculation yields:

 

Clarkesworld Analog Interzone Terraform
Value $20.00 -$4.70 -$0.68 -$4.20

 
The dollar values here are meaningless as absolute numbers, but they do have meaning relatively.

So for this submission (and probably in general) I should submit to Clarkesworld first, Interzone second, Terraform third, and Analog fourth. Your own rating of the various factors associated with acceptance or rejection are almost certainly going to differ from mine and will be no less legitimate.

Submission Windows

Aha, you say, but the Tetris part of Submission Tetris comes from the fact you have to manage submissions over time with magazines that aren’t necessarily open just now. There’s certainly an Operations Research component to the problem here which is beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but a simple approach to deciding whether to hold a submission for a future window is to add the amount of time you have to hold the submission to the expected Response Time for the magazine to compare its value to other possible immediate submissions.

Simsubs

But what about magazines that do allow simultaneous submissions? As a rough estimate, you can treat them all as one aggregated market, averaging most of their values, but taking the maximum of their Response Times and coming up with some combined factor for acceptance rate. Technically this is 1 – the product of all the rejection probabilities, but you may prefer just to spitball it with an estimate.

Conclusion

Needless to say, the decision-analytic approach of weighing all the factors and collapsing them into dollar values modified by probabilities is not the One True Approach to managing submissions. But even if you don’t do this for every submission, going through this exercise at least once can help you determine your own personal relative values for the various market attributes.

Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and a technologist with 5 patents and a background in AI and Internet R&D. More than 30 of his short stories have appeared in magazines such as Nature, PodCastle, New Haven Review, and Galaxy’s Edge. His WWI-era fantasy novel Twilight Patroland his romantic noir urban fantasy novella “The Demons of Wall Street” were both just recently published. Follow him on twitter: @lbrothers or visit laurencebrothers.com/bibliography for more stories that can be read or listened to online. Pronouns: he/him.

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