Writers spend a lot of time surfing the intertubes for magazines and agencies. Numerous websites exist that aggregate submission calls, including NewPages.com, Duetrope’s Digest and various freelance market listings. The most important page you’ll see on any magazine or agency site is the guidelines.
The short story market has shrunk from what it was years ago. Competition is fierce, and screeners look for reasons to reject submitted material. Pieces that don’t fit the guidelines are the first to go.
You have to tailor your submissions to the magazine itself. If you’re writing articles, it makes sense to know you won’t be able to sell something about finance to American Cowboy, unless the article is about economical ways to board horses. It has to address what the publication is looking for. Same with an agency; you wouldn’t query a weepy historical romance to someone who is looking for crime thrillers or young adult fiction.
Fortunately magazines, literary journals and agents let writers know what type of material they seek. Most websites have a page titled “Submissions” or “Guidelines.” Read that page and then do what it says. They use this information to screen submissions. If yours doesn’t fit the guidelines, they don’t’ have to waste time reading it. Too many pages, too many submissions to read and coddle each one.
Lots of agencies these days won’t even respond if they’re going to reject your work, so you might see something like “If you don’t hear from us within four months, assume we aren’t interested.” Pretty clear, if you ask me.
I’ve seen literary journals whose submission instructions are so vague it sounds as though they are open to anything, but usually they’re not. In those cases, read the journal if you can. If the material is online and subscription only, go to the bookstore and find a copy. You can sit at Barnes and Noble and read it; just don’t spill any coffee on it or you’ll be buying! University libraries might have copies of literary journals also.
Guidelines do more than filter material. They tell screeners if you can follow directions. Think of it like answering a job advertisement. You wouldn’t want to work with someone who can’t follow basic instructions, and neither do they.
Don’t assume each agency or publication’s submittal process is the same either. Check! Look on the website. Very few don’t have websites now. A lot of agents and magazines are going green and have switched to accepting email submissions and queries. Remember, AN EMAIL QUERY IS STILL A BUSINESS COMMUNICATION. You must take the same care with your letter as you would if you were mailing it.
Here’s a great post from Rachelle Gardner’s agent blog about why guidelines are so important.