I strongly advocate that all new fiction authors begin their career with writing and selling a short story. I’m not saying that a short story is a good warm up before you start a novel – as I believe that a short story is an entirely different animal from a novel, but what I am saying is that it is imperative to your author-resume (and subsequently your potential success as an author) that you have publication credits. This is an industry that everyone is dying to break into, and you need something in the bio section of your query letter in order to distinguish you from the crowd. In addition, selling your work to a magazine may also qualify you to join one of the mega Writing Associations such as SFWA, RWA, or whichever one applies to your genre. Being a member of one of the Writing Associations is also a resume booster.
I’m not trying to work the system just to obtain resume boosters; joining SFWA is a legitimate goal of mine, and their conditions for membership are a great road-map for launching a career. Once you are a member, even more networking, resources, and opportunities become available to you, so it is a worthwhile milestone to achieve. And one of the ways to get a publication credit for membership is to sell an original short story to a qualified magazine (as shown here for SFWA: http://bit.ly/Q4jmBQ).
How much money can I sell my short story for? It all depends on what the magazine offers and the length of your story. The minimum seems to be 5 cents a word (offered by places such as Apex magazine and Lightspeed Magazine), and they also seem to prefer stories around 5,000 words in length. So that amounts to $250! That’s more than enough to cover a Writer’s Association membership fee! (No money out of pocket!) Other magazines such as Tor.com offer 25 cents a word… that’s $1,250 for a 5,000 word story! (However, Tor.com just happens to be WAY behind on reviewing their submissions as they are still reading ones from last year). Be sure to check the submission guidelines of each particular magazine to see word length requirements as some do accept stories above the 5,000 word threshold.
So what happens when you sell the publication rights to a magazine? Often times they are purchasing First World publication rights, which means that if it has been published before, it is an automatic rejection. They also want an Exclusivity period, so that no one else can publish that same story during that time. I’ve seen the exclusivity period last anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. Following the Exclusivity period is the non-exclusivity period, meaning that you can publish your short story in other places like your website, anthology, another magazine, etc. (Remember, after it has been published for the first time, your ability to sell it again to a different magazine will dwindle close to nothingness as they usually want First World and exclusive rights, which is no longer available after the first publication). So if you tried to sell it elsewhere after the first publication, you would be trying to sell your reprint rights. Reprints offer a very small amount of compensation ($25 flat fee at Apex, and 1 cent per word at Lightspeed). In addition, they limit the amount of reprints that they publish in each issue because the magazines favor publishing new original content, which is also made evident in the fact that they don’t seem to accept unsolicited reprint submissions. Lastly in the contract, the magazines want the option to publish your story in an anthology, and there are additional royalties that will be paid to you in that case. Here are two sample contracts so you can see for yourself: http://bit.ly/NtUpNd (Lightspeed) and http://bit.ly/NvuuSs (Apex).
After I had reviewed the contracts, I still had questions… but I did get answers. Here is my email correspondence with John Adams, the Publisher/Editor from Lightspeed Magazine:
1) If you publish a short story that I have written, am I allowed to post it on my website 6 months after the publication date?
2) If you publish a short story that I have written, am I allowed to enter it in writing contests during the time that it was published?