Assuming the writer wants to save the money that these services charge, and also assuming that the writer has the time to put into this process—there is no denying that it is time consuming—all he or she really needs is a little guidance.
So, how does this work?
1. Write a Story. This is the first step, okay? Don’t worry about the rest of it until you’ve completed this step. You sit at your desk or in a coffee shop or the library or someplace and you write a story. See “How to Write a Short Story.”
2. Write a Cover Letter. At first you’ll worry about this letter, but it’s really no big deal and some magazines won’t even read it. Basically all it says is, “Here’s my story.” Don’t explain the story (although contrary to this advice there is one magazine I’ve submitted to that wants a summary of the story in the cover letter). If you have publication credits, list a few of the best ones; if you don’t, don’t worry about it. That’s it. Don’t make grammar or spelling mistakes. Proofread and fix all typos. For each magazine you submit to you will modify this letter as appropriate but it’s comforting to have this template.
3. Do Market Research. That is, figure out where you will send your story. This is both difficult and fun and this is where the outfits mentioned above do provide a valuable service, although doing your own research will pay off in the long run.
a. Look at one of the print digests of literary magazines (like Novel and Short Story Writers Market or one of the online digests like Duotrope.com to identify magazines that publish the genre and length of your work.
b. Take into account the relative prestige of the magazines. Almost every magazine will publish work by emerging writers or first-timers if the work merits it, but it’s easier to publish in lesser-known magazines. One measure of prestige is the number of awards the magazine’s stories have won. I have compiled a ranking of magazines based on Pushcart Prizes and Special Mentions for fiction that seems to me to be a reasonable proxy for prestige. It excludes the “slicks”—high profile magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s that are by definition also of high prestige. [Other factors may be important to you, like circulation or payment, so you should include those items in your calculus.]
c. Consider whether the magazines you’ve targeted are a good fit. The best way to do this is to read the magazine. Can you see your work appearing alongside the work they’ve published? Is there a discernible style or aesthetic that also characterizes your work? Does the magazine publish themed issues and does your story fit the theme?
d. Now you have a list of magazines you want to submit to, but many magazines have reading periods and are closed to submissions at other times. It’s important to check the submission guidelines for each magazine. (These guidelines are now mostly on the magazines’ websites; for magazines without a web presence, the guidelines will either be in the magazine or might be available by writing to the magazine.) That will tell you when to submit, and will also tell you if there are special formatting requirements or other unusual instructions. (One magazine I submit to from time to time asks for two copies, for example, and will reject automatically if you send only one.) Guidelines will also tell you if there is a maximum wordcount or page length the magazine will consider.
4. Submit by mail or, if allowed, online.
a. Submitting by mail usually means including your story and cover letter (don’t forget to sign your letter!) along with a Self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with sufficient postage for return. The general practice these days is to ask for a response only (let the magazine recycle the manuscript if they reject it), so that SASE only needs to be a #10 standard business envelope with first class postage ($0.42 as of May 12, 2008). Although magazine guidelines may vary, most magazines prefer that you NOT staple the story. A paper clip is okay, but not necessary, usually. Because the pages will be loose, it’s a good idea when printing the story out to include page numbers and your name and the story title in a header. (Note that a few magazines ask you not to send an SASE because even though they don’t take online submissions they will respond to you by email.)
b. An increasing number of magazines will accept submissions by email or through an online submission manager. The submission guidelines will give specific instructions (such as whether the story should be pasted into an email or sent as an attachment, or what kind of additional information is desired). Obviously no SASE is needed for email and online submissions.
5. Keep track. Whether you scrawl the information on the back of an envelope, or build a spreadsheet in Excel or a database in Access or another program, make a note of the magazine you submitted to, the date, the title of the story (and which version, if you’ve got multiple revisions) and leave room to make note of the date on which you get a response. My database includes columns for notes and other bits of information that may be pertinent to future submissions to that magazine.
6. Repeat until published!
That’s all there is to it. Do you really need to pay someone for this?