When I first got serious about sending short fiction to literary magazines, I didn’t realize the difference between getting a story accepted and actually having the story published. Those were callow days.
Before electronic submissions, you printed a copy of your story for each prospective journal. Each copy needed a cover letter. You had to remember to change the journal name on each letter and put the right letter into the right envelope if you didn’t want to embarrass yourself.
Each mailing contained a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the reply letter. You carted off your stack to the post office. If you were productive, the trip could be expensive.
It felt good to get a bundle of stories out. That feeling faded as the waiting game began. Still, walking to the mailbox every day held a little extra drama. There was always a journal that responded quickly, with words that meant: we didn’t bother to read your story; nonetheless, we’re sure we didn’t like it.
Over time, the rejections trickled in. They were terse, rarely requiring a full sheet of paper. Some editors scribbled a note in the margin to make it seem more personal, but rejection was rejection. NO was enough.
I began expecting all SASEs in my mailbox to contain rejections. One day I was opening a rejection when the strangest thing happened: I couldn’t find the word NO. The letter said Yes, as in, Yes, we would like to publish your story. It wasn’t a famous magazine, but few literary journals are. I put the letter on the refrigerator to show the world (or the part of it that passed through my kitchen) my success.
I knew it would take several months for the publication of the story, but it would be worth the wait.
I waited, and waited, and waited.
After several months, I emailed the editor. I got no reply.
I sent emails to everyone associated with the journal. Finally, someone replied. The magazine didn’t exist anymore. The non-profit publisher ran out of money. They wouldn’t be publishing my story, no longer having a vehicle for publishing stories.
This disappointment was superseded by other events . I got another story accepted and published by the first journal to which I sent it. They worked quickly and did an excellent job with the presentation.
Then I got a story accepted by the journal of a well-respected university – a name everybody would recognize. The story was published in a timely manner, but the presentation made me hesitant to hand out copies to everyone I knew.
They’d requested an electronic copy. When they converted it to a different format, some punctuation appeared as random symbols. They didn’t catch this, and it was printed with the odd symbols.
Soon after, a story was accepted by another university journal. It wasn’t a big name, but I was still happy to celebrate any success. That story has never been published. It never will be. I can’t tell what happened to that journal. It just sort of disappeared.
I don’t submit to journals anymore. Not because of the uncertainty or the disappointment. I stopped because of the modern ease of self-publishing. In 2011, I gathered my best short fiction: stories published in literary journals; stories accepted but never published; stories never accepted; and stories never submitted. I put them together and self-published the book: A Smile Through a Tear.
It was a great experience. I controlled the content, the timeline, and the appearance. It’s a modest endeavor, but it’s all mine. I hope to add many more books to my little self-publishing catalog. But if my projects fail, at least I won’t have to wait months for somebody to tell me about it.