Recently a friend who is just starting to send out their short stories sent me a story to find out what market(s) I would suggest for it. I gave that person my theories, and then I thought, well, this might be generalizable. Perhaps other people could use this too. So here we are.
First, your method is going to be different if you write a lot of short stories than if you only write a few. Someone who writes a short story a year or so can make their own total ordering of markets if they want to, and just go down that list, skipping any that don’t happen to fit the sub-genre of the story at hand. But if you write a lot of short stories (hi! welcome to the club! we have cookies!), doing that will give you a lot of down time for any given story, when really good editors who might like your work and give you money and a platform for it aren’t looking at your work. (Also some of us are allergic to total orderings.)
For those of us with a few more short stories in our system, I really recommend a more ad hoc approach, but the focal questions are still, “Of available markets, where would I most like to see this story published?” and, “Where does this story fit better than anywhere else?” You can focus the first question on money, response time, size of audience, prestige among people whose opinions you value, whether they’ve published you before, how much you like the editor, how much you like the art department, how much of a PITA their submission process is, reliability of publication time, how many q’s are in the names of the members of the editorial staff. Honestly I think the most sensible approach is to combine these questions for your own answers. I have a friend whose list is entirely, strictly based on how much the publication would pay them, and if that fits my friend’s needs, that’s great; I feel like you can write more stories, so waiting so that the person with the best pay rate sees everything first creates an unnecessary bottleneck between you and readers. I also think that if I have two stories to send out and one of them is a hard SF story, that’ll go to Analog or Nature first, while the other goes to markets with a broader focus. But if you write mostly or all hard SF, that’s a different question for you.
Another question you have to answer for yourself is whether you have a floor on your markets. Your time is worth something–time spent scouring the web for the fortieth market that will pay you $5 is time you aren’t spending polishing another story. It’s also time you’re not spending playing with the dog, building something out of Legos, or perfecting your flip turns in the pool. So you may find that some markets are just not worth your time at a particular point in your career. On the other hand, you may find one quirky amazing editor whose work you love but who is only offering $5 for your story, so I’m not saying that you absolutely have to set a dollar minimum (or a response time minimum or whatever). I’m just saying that it’s worth counting the costs as well. And while I haven’t put individual unpublished short stories up on Amazon, I have put some up for free on my website. Both are options. If a magazine isn’t run by your best pals, doesn’t pay you even the pittance we’re used to in this field, and isn’t going to get your work in front of more eyes than you can get for yourself, it’s time to stop sending it around.
There’s a lot out there. There are lots and lots and lots of options for publishing short stories, and it can get totally daunting to sort through them. I understand that it would probably have been easier if I’d just said, “Clarkesworld. They’re really fast, so always send to Clarkesworld first. Second, if it’s open….” But this is really one of those things you have to use your own rules of thumb for.
I know that it can get frustrating when editors say, “Read the publication to find out what we want,” but sometimes it really does help, and also reading broadly in a field you’re working in is good for your work. The caveat I have here is that you can’t always tell whether they’re not publishing things like what you’re sending them because they don’t want them or because they’re not getting them. Shimmer is probably not panting for your David Weber-homage space opera story, but in general, if guidelines say “all different kinds of speculative fiction,” I say believe ’em. I’ve sold stories when I was absolutely sure I was just checking off a box so that I could say I tried, so don’t pre-reject yourself. Prejection sucks for everyone.
Last thing: if an editor goes to the trouble of telling you that they don’t want a particular kind of story from you, believe them. An editor who is a friend of mine told me that there was a particular category they just were not into and probably would never buy. This helps me not to waste my time and theirs! I sent this editor a story in a different category, and they bought it, and I have every hope that this will happen again someday. But hearing, “I want to see more of your work, but not such-and-such,” is doing you a favor. Accept that favor with thanks if it ever comes your way.