It’s a Brand New Universe Out There

Over the past few years my writing has become more speculative. Much of the reason has to do with my rather unrestrained imagination, or as my wife often says when reading my work, “How the heck do you think of this stuff?” (There is, admittedly, a note of terror in her voice when she says it.)

The speculative, even when written in a literary style, isn’t too popular among literary journals. There are a few venues that lean in that direction, but most of the hundreds of journals I’ve become familiar with in the past decade prefer stories that seem relationship-based, or sociological in nature, rather than science-based.

And so I’ve decided to move away from literary journals and focus on submitting to speculative publications. I started researching this alternate universe of publishing a few weeks ago. When I say, “alternate universe,” I’m not kidding. Here’s some of what I’ve discovered.

  • They pay: One of the biggest complaints writers have about lit journals is that most of them don’t pay to publish work. I always knew that wasn’t the case for spec lit, but I never knew just how big the difference was. Using a series of Duotrope searches for research, I’ve come up with the following percentages of journals that pay. Figures are based on 1059 literary journals (some of which may be speculative) and 523 speculative journals (that’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror). I can’t account for duplication of titles within these genres and other factors, so this is not a completely scientific experiment. It’s just to get an idea.
    • 15% of literary journals provide a token payment or more
    • 9% of literary journals provide professional or semi-pro payment
    • 52% of speculative journals provide a token payment or more
    • 24% of speculative journals provide professional or semi-pro payment
  • They don’t charge you to submit: Perhaps the biggest advantage of the speculative universe is that very few of the publishers charge writers to submit. In fact, free submissions seems to be something of a cause among them. The submission engine of choice among spec lit publishers, Moksha, says this about submission fees: “We understand that some journals and magazines use submission fees as their primary source of income, and we at Moksha feel this is an unnecessary burden placed on writers. As such we do not have plans to ever support it.” As a writer who has spent perhaps $300 to $500 per year on submissions for the last several years, that’s something I can certainly live with.[1]
  • They make a decision on your work quickly: Here’s perhaps the biggest surprise. Many of these journals do not accept simultaneous submissions, but they promise to get back to you within a reasonable amount of time, which can be anywhere from two days to a week. As most writers who submit to literary journals know, many take months to respond, sometimes longer, and sometimes never respond at all. (I’m still waiting for American Short Fiction to get back to me on a 2016 submission.) I’m eager to see how well the responses work in the speculative world.
  • Even the Shunn manuscript formatting system is coming around to reality: I’ve always been leery of spec lit journals’ requirement to use Shunn, which is based on a 70-year-old model of editing that uses monospaced fonts and underlining to indicate italics. I always thought it strange that a genre that purports to deal with speculation about the future remained so locked into the past. But the most recent iteration of Shunn allows for Times Roman font, in addition to the dreaded Courier, and includes several more modern editing practices. No more need to shun the Shunn!

So off I go into this new and relatively unexplored universe. I expect I’ll be writing more later about those exploits.

[1] Full disclosure: As publisher of Tahoma Literary Review until late 2017 I did promote a business model that collected fees for submissions. Unlike most fee-based journals, however, we used almost every cent to pay our writers, and provide customer service in the form of critiques and responsiveness.


5 Replies to “It’s a Brand New Universe Out There”

  1. What a series of revelations, Joe! Quite frankly, that literary magazines charged fees for submissions is something I was totally unaware of–they certainly didn’t used to, which tells you how long it’s been since I bothered with submissions to print magazine and journals. Thanks for all the facts–now if only most spec. lit. was up to the literary standards of old novels like “Frankenstein” (the original by Mary Shelley) and even Dracula (Bram Stoker, of course), writers and readers both would have no complaints!

  2. Yes, that’s the other side of the spec lit equation—finding venues with serious literary chops. I’ve sampled about a dozen journals so far, and only a couple even approach creative writing competency. My first reaction was, “wow, this will be easy,” but that’s not true at all, since they’re obviously publishing what they believe is good writing, even if it doesn’t match my standards. I am toying with the idea of starting something new that marries the best of both the literary and speculative worlds.

  3. Welcome to my world. :-\

    Though I haven’t submitted speculative short fiction in YEARS…I have talked with those who do (one of the reasons I’d decided to indie pub my work–tired of the rejects, when crappier work–IMHO–were the only works being published in magazines). Yeah, it’s never the way it should be. I also found most of the writing sub par. Perhaps I’m no Joe Ponepinto, but I’ve always striven to marry the best mechanics of the literary with the imagination of the speculative. I’ve begun to market myself as “upmarket.” Yeah, right, like that will help me. But I, too, have found it hard to make a dent into any market for which I’ve written.


    If you do end up creating a mashup platform, I’d love to submit! I hope you’d take prepub’d work, because I have some cool stuff from my indie anthology I’d love to get out there beyond my meager circle-of-infulenc…za. I have been told that I write “…like a hot-rodder heading toward a brick wall.” Love that quote! And, yes, my wife has also expressed the same “concern” (and looks) to me. High five.

    1. I know what you mean about the sub-par writing. I’ve researched a few speculative venues and have been really surprised at the level of writing in some of them. What really started me thinking about making the switch (aside from years of dealing with the unimaginative literary world), was reading Ted Chiang’s stories. Here’s a writer who believes in putting the science into science fiction. His grasp of the scientific concepts behind his work is stunning. That’s the kind of story that really grabs me—one that forces a reader to ask questions about what he believes. And it’s the kind of story I like to (try to) write. I’m searching for knowledge, not (like so much that gets published) trying to reinforce what I already believe. If I do decide to start something, that will be the founding principle. And if I do I’ll certainly let you know. Thanks, Frank!

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