Literary magazines have served as gatekeepers for new writers since the first one was published in 1684 (Nouvelles de la république des lettres). Some writers, such as T.S. Eliot, were first discovered through publishing in a literary magazine, and most well-known writers have published in them at some point.
From webzines to university-funded publications, to The Paris Review—literary magazines have only increased in popularity over the past few decades, especially with the growth of online publishing. As a periodical devoted to literature, literary magazines (also known as literary journals) typically publish essays, poetry, short stories, interviews with authors, letters, literary criticism, book reviews and more.
Why writers should publish in literary magazines
As we mentioned before, many great writers have either gotten their start or increased their publishing opportunities significantly through publishing in literary magazines. Publishing in a literary magazine—especially if it's a well-known one—significantly increases exposure of a writer's work and will open up other publishing opportunities, as well. Additionally, many literary magazines offer contests, allowing new or un-agented writers the opportunity to get their work out there and earn credibility in the publishing world at large.
First things first: Find the right literary magazine
With a wide scope of literary magazines available, most have a niche market as their readership, and look for a very specific genre or format of writing to include in their publication. That being said, one of the first steps you should take to ensure better odds of getting your writing published in a literary magazine is to find the right one out of the hundreds available. Some cater to very specific crowds (like mothers of young children or green living enthusiasts) while others have wider audiences. Some publish only a few times a year, while others publish quarterly.
There are several online resources available to help writers sift through what's available and find the literary magazine(s) that best suits their intended submission. Although it's a paid service, DuoTrope is another great resource to help writers find everything from the best literary magazines to publish in for their specific niche or genre to agents interested in potentially representing their work. With this narrowed scope, writers have a much better opportunity of getting published in the literary magazine of their choice.
Second: Follow the rules and don't submit blindly
Literary magazines are generally very good about being specific regarding the exact type of writing they want, how to submit it, and what to expect. Following the publication's rules regarding submission plays a big role in increasing the writer's chances of getting accepted. Many literary magazines are run as a side project, which means their editors often don't have time to sift through manuscripts that don't follow submission guidelines or don't sync with the publication's overall feel and purpose.
Most respected literary magazines and webzines provide detailed submission guidelines on their website. Some allow email submission of a manuscript while others want a hard copy and SASE (self-addressed return envelope). Some literary magazines will charge a submission fee, as well, so it's important to look at all of the submission guidelines before making a choice regarding which ones you want to submit your work to.
Next, learn the lingo
Next, it's important to learn the lingo of the literary magazine market. Here are a few terms you might encounter in your search for the right publication for your work:
- Simultaneous Submissions – Simultaneous submissions are when a writer sends out his or her work to several magazines at once. Literary magazine editors will vary in their rules about simultaneous submissions: some will allow it while others are very clear they don't want a writer to do it. There are multiple reasons why an editor might not want simultaneous submissions, including issues of publishing rights, which we'll cover later in this article. If submission guidelines advise against simultaneous submissions, don't be tempted to do it anyway. Many editors know other editors within the world of literary magazine publishing, so you don't want to get started on the wrong foot with any of them by not following this request.
- Withdrawal – This is the process you will need to go through if simultaneous submissions are acceptable and a literary magazine decides to publish your work. Usually, you can submit withdrawals of your manuscript via email or online, but some literary magazines have more formal ways of doing it. Refer to a magazine's submission guidelines for more details about their preferences.
- Reprints – While most literary magazines prefer to be the first to publish a particular piece, some will offer publication of reprints, or work that has been previously published elsewhere.
- First Serial Rights – First serial rights are the rights held by a publication to publish a piece for the first time. After publication, the writer may then resell the piece to another publication.
- Non-exclusive / Exclusive Rights – Non-exclusive rights are rights held by the publisher to publish your work while acknowledging that your work can also be printed elsewhere. Exclusive rights are the opposite, in that the literary magazine or publication owns exclusive rights to your work and it cannot be published anywhere else, including on your author website.
Know the slush pile and how to get out of it
Brigid Hughes, former Executive Editor of The Paris Review, stated in an interview that the publication receives between 15,000 to 20,000 submissions in a year. Considering these numbers, it's important to understand the dreaded "literary magazine slush pile" and what to expect of it. The slush pile is the pile (whether literal pile of paper or digital pile) of unsolicited manuscripts sent in by writers wishing to be published in the literary magazine or webzine. Especially for the most well-known and exclusive publications, this slush pile is not the editors' primary concern, and will often take a while to get to any manuscript within it. Further, the larger publications have readers who go through the slush pile, which means the editors might never see your manuscript in the first place.
To end up in the non-slush pile for these exclusive publications, you'll need to either have been solicited from the editors to submit your work, have an agent, or have published with the magazine before. But since most writers seek first-time publication in these literary magazines, it's important to a) be patient as your manuscript makes it through the slush pile process and b) follow submission guidelines and magazine content style to the letter to increase your chances of surviving the slush pile. Simply put, busy slush pile readers might pass over great writing simply because it's not formatted correctly, doesn't fit with the publication's scope of content, or wasn't submitted following submission guidelines.
If your work doesn't get accepted—keep trying
With so many literary magazines and webzines currently in print or online, getting published in a literary magazine has never been easier. However, most editors of literary magazines have a very specific type of piece or writing style they're looking for. If your manuscript is rejected—or worse, you just don't hear back at all—take heart in knowing that the more manuscripts you send out, the better your chances are at getting accepted for publication in a literary magazine.
Another benefit to querying multiple publications (that are likely to reject you) is you'll have several different opportunities to receive feedback on your work from experts in the industry. This type of feedback is invaluable for a writer and should always be received graciously. This is especially true since some editors will simply reject your work without explaining why, while others will give you a general excuse, such as: "Your work does not fit our publication's goals at this time."