Game Changers: Literary Magazines as the Gateway to Your Career

by
Laura Maylene Walter
12.14.22

A few years ago while I was teaching at a writers conference I met a young woman who wrote poetry but was otherwise unfamiliar with the world of writing and publishing. She tracked me down one afternoon to ask the question shared by so many aspiring writers: “How do I get published?”

It was a broad question, but I was game. I launched into an overview of the literary magazine landscape and submission process, including where to research journals, how to prepare a submission, the inevitability of rejection, and so on. The poet nodded along politely until I paused, at which point she clarified that she wasn’t interested in literary magazines.

“I want to publish a book,” she said. “How do I do that?”

For a moment I was at a loss. I wasn’t sure how to address her question while ignoring the existence of literary magazines and their place in the development of writing careers. That’s not to say that literary magazines absolutely must serve as a proving ground for writers (although in many cases, they do) or that prior publication is a prerequisite for a book contract. But the reality is that submitting to and publishing in literary journals serves as an excellent education for creative writers while offering a sturdy platform upon which to build a promising career. Let’s take a closer look at exactly why and how literary magazines can be so important.

 

Know Your Rights

First things first: Publishing individual poems, stories, or essays in literary magazines won’t hinder your ability to later include those same pieces in your own book. In fact, establishing a track record of such publication can only help, not hurt, your writing career.

“There are large benefits to publishing in literary magazines,” says Dani Hedlund, editor in chief and art director of F(r)iction, a literary magazine published by the Brink Literacy Project in Denver. “The first is craft—learning how to write incredibly good short form makes you a better long-form author. But it’s also a great way to integrate into the writing world, make connections, learn how to be professional, and build a better platform.”

If you scan the acknowledgements page in a collection of poetry, short stories, or essays, you’ll likely find that at least some of the individual pieces were first published in journals. (The Literary MagNet column in every issue of this magazine focuses on the literary magazines that first published an author’s work that now appears in a book.) While most literary publications accept only unpublished work (meaning the story, poem, or essay has never before been published anywhere, including on personal blogs or social media), after publication the rights to that work should revert back to the author, meaning the author once again has the right to publish it in a book, anthology, or a journal that accepts reprints.

Most contracts for print journals in the United States will require First North American Serial Rights, which grants a journal the right to be the first to publish your work in North America. Online journals may request “first rights” or “worldwide rights,” since work published online can be accessed anywhere. In either case the contract should specify that rights revert to the author after some specified period of time. Some magazines may require a period of exclusivity for a few months after publication to ensure the work doesn’t appear in competing markets at the same time, but that’s common practice so long as the timeframe is clearly defined. Red flags—which are rare, but I have seen a few crop up in my own career—include any contract that asks for “all rights” (this includes everything from reprint to film and audio rights, effectively cutting the author out of the creative decisions and financial compensation for all future deals involving the work), for rights “in perpetuity” (meaning the magazine or publisher will permanently control the rights to your work), or that designates your writing as “work for hire” (which indicates that the publisher will outright own the copyright to your writing).

As Hedlund points out, writers should always retain as many rights to their writing as possible, though in the case of an acceptance from a market splashy enough to alter the course of your career, you might make allowances. Some high-profile publications may require all rights to a piece, and each writer must consider whether the prestige and scope of that publication is worth it. In any case, read your contract carefully, and know that it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions. If you still have concerns, you can join the Authors Guild, a professional organization that defends authors’ rights, to receive a contract review and legal assistance. (An annual membership starts at $135, or $35 for students.)

“Don’t be afraid of a contract,” Hedlund says. “Take a deep breath, have a cup of coffee, and go through it.”

 

Building Community

Publishing in a literary magazine is about more than your individual byline—it’s about entering into conversation with editors, other contributors, and potential readers.

“If your larger goal is to have a book published one day, and you’re submitting poems and getting a handful of them published, you can build a readership and promote excitement about the book itself,” says Jason Harris, a poet and editor in chief of Gordon Square Review, an online biannual published by the nonprofit Literary Cleveland.

“Building those networks is vital for selling a book, but it’s also just vital for being a creative,” adds Hedlund. “We’re all introverted weirdos, and we need to be around other introverted weirdos so we don’t become accountants.”

Even if you do work as an accountant by day, building the confidence to persist in the writing world, which is famously rife with rejection, is no small matter.

“I didn’t start submitting until years after the MFA because it was a scary thing. It felt so vulnerable, and it was an emotional hurdle at first,” says Yalitza Ferreras, who is the 2022–2023 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. But when Ferreras got her first story acceptance, from the Colorado Review, the experience was transformative. “I reached at least one person—the editor—with my work, and it felt really great. It felt like, Okay, I am a professional writer now.”

As validating as it is to receive an acceptance from a journal, some writers enjoy the freedom and immediacy of posting their work on a blog, personal website, or social media. How does that fit in with the literary magazine landscape?

“It depends on your goals,” Ferreras says. For writers who seek agents, acclaim, and a larger readership and community, literary magazines are the better path. “But if you’re prolific and have stories to spare and want to put some on your website, then great,” she says.

“Consider the lifespan of what you’re about to publish,” says Harris. “If you’re writing because you have something urgent to say and you don’t care if it gets published by anyone else, that’s what I would reserve the blog platform for—whereas if you’re drafting and redrafting a poem multiple times, and if you believe in it and envision it published at certain places, then think twice before putting it on a personal blog.”

Be advised that posting a piece of creative writing on your blog or social media is considered “previously published,” even if you later take it down. So when in doubt, don’t post.

 

From Anthologies to Agents

Yalitza Ferreras’s publication in the Colorado Review led to an unexpected windfall when her story, “The Letician Age,” was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2016—a career-changing honor available only to writing that first appeared in literary publications.

According to Hedlund, many journal editors will fight for their authors by nominating their work for awards and anthologies. F(r)iction even sends copies of the journal to literary agents and highlights which contributing writers are not yet represented.

For prose writers especially, publishing in literary journals can indeed attract attention from literary agents. Earlier in my career, multiple agents who read my work in journals sought me out. While there’s no guarantee that publishing in journals will be a direct pipeline to your dream agent, it’s a start, and even preliminary conversations with agents about your work can be illuminating. At the least, publishing in magazines helps build your résumé and puts you in a stronger position when you’re ready to query.

“With a really well-run journal, the author is also learning how to be a professional,” Hedlund says. “It’s often the very first time they get edits. So you’re learning your craft, interfacing with an editor, and learning how rights work. That will help you prepare, in a lower-stakes environment, for something with bigger stakes—like a book deal.”

Finally, while it’s not a glamorous benefit, submitting to literary magazines teaches writers how to weather rejection, an essential survival skill in this industry.

“Earlier in my career, I would get really down if I got rejected. I would start to spiral and think, Maybe I’m just not as good as other writers,” Harris says. “I’ve learned that a poem may get rejected thirty times, but that doesn’t change how I value the poem. Rejection has also taught me the importance of revision and being able to see the poem in a different way—but also to see myself in a different way because it builds a tougher skin.”

 

Practical Tips

Thousands of literary magazines are published today, from glossy print periodicals to niche online journals, with more being launched every year. With such a wide variety of markets available to writers, the submission process can seem daunting. Poets & Writers, NewPages, Duotrope, the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, and Submittable offer lists of markets, and Harris also recommends chillsubs.com, which offers a search tool, a submission tracker, and an online community for writers. On Twitter, writers can access submission tips, deadline notifications, and other resources directly from editors and fellow writers.

“Social media is a great way to find information [about publishing],” Ferreras says. “The only reason I’m on social media is to learn about some of these things.”

After researching journals, the next step—and definitely don’t skip this one—is to actually read work in these journals to learn what will be a good fit for your own writing. You don’t have to read every issue of every magazine—that would be impossible—but read enough of a selection that you get a taste of the publication’s aesthetic and see how your own work measures up.

“The No. 1 mistake I see from writers is they don’t read the journals they’re submitting to, so they don’t understand whether they’re a good fit,” Hedlund says. F(r)iction gravitates toward “extraordinarily weird” work, she says, which makes it all too clear that the writers submitting grounded-in-reality stories or quiet vignettes have never read the magazine.

Submitting work that isn’t a match might not be a crime, but it wastes your time and the editors’ time. Not only are you more likely to receive an acceptance from a publication you already read and love, it’s also much more meaningful.

“Only submit to places where you actually want to be published,” Ferreras advises. “If you’re not excited about being in there, don’t do it.”

Next, be sure to follow each journal’s specific guidelines. As Harris points out, if a publication requests no more than three poems per submission, don’t send five. To an overworked editor, those extra poems are a burden—and the competition is so steep that it’s best not to give an editor an easy excuse to reject your work. Research appropriate manuscript formatting, submit only in the requested method and during the journal’s open submission period, and be prepared for a potentially lengthy wait. (Submitting to journals also teaches writers the art of patience.)

And when it comes to the cover letter, don’t overthink it. It is simply a place to say who you are, why you are submitting to this journal, and briefly list any relevant publications and honors. Hedlund reminds writers to make sure they spell the editor’s name correctly and be careful not to misgender an editor. Don’t try to be too clever or too familiar in a cover letter. When I worked as an editor, writers sometimes tried to exaggerate a connection we might share, or worse, they’d attempt to cut the queue by tracking down my personal e-mail address and pitching me that way. These tactics might feel a bit desperate at best, intrusive or irritating at worst. Don’t fabricate details in the cover letter, either, whether it’s about your credentials, if you’ve ever actually read the journal, or anything else. Lastly, never explain or summarize your poem, story, or essay in the cover letter. Let the work stand on its own. Most of all, make sure your work is as polished as possible before you hit Submit. Give yourself the best chance of connecting with an editor who just might open the door.

When that happens, celebrate your accomplishment—but then keep submitting new work. Literary publishing is incredibly rewarding artistically and personally, but it won’t bring immediate riches or fame.

 

Discovering Beauty

While publishing in literary magazines might not be remunerative, the experience can offer broader, more intangible benefits for writers.

“Publishing has taught me about myself and the things I want to write about,” Harris says. “I never would have made some of those connections if other people in the writing community hadn’t said, ‘Hey, I notice you write a lot about trees. Have you read this book? Have you read this writer?’ I started to figure out who I am as a writer and a poet.”

Harris’s words make me think of that poet at the writing conference. I hope she found her own way to engage with poetry and a writing community—whether that’s publishing a collection with a small press, entering chapbook contests, or submitting to literary journals. If she still doesn’t have any publications to list in her cover letter, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a gift, because editors love publishing new voices.

“It’s pretty much the best high we have as editors,” Hedlund says. “People love to discover something new and beautiful.”

The world of literary magazine publication is all about the new and the beautiful. Literary journals introduce us to up-and-coming authors, allow writers to develop their craft, and, if we’re lucky, swing open the gates to bigger, brighter literary careers.

 

Laura Maylene Walter is the author of the novel Body of Stars (Dutton, 2021), an Ohioana Book Awards finalist and a U.K. Booksellers Association Fiction Book of the Month selection. She is the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow at Cleveland Public Library, where she hosts Page Count, a literary podcast.