When I published my first short story, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. What happens after you get your acceptance email? How long will it take? What if the editor is really slow to respond–should I go into hysterics and assume they decided not to publish me? Or, um. Maybe not?

I’ve published four short stories and placed in two contests, so I’m definitely not an expert. But I’ve got a pretty good idea how this process generally goes, and that’s what I’m going to share.

So here goes!

1. Step 1: The Acceptance Email

One of these days, you will get the most wonderful of gifts: An acceptance email.

By this point you’ll have seen a ton of rejections. You’ll be used to the pleasantries, the “Thanks for submitting”s, and the “This isn’t right for our publication”s. But one of these days, it’ll be different: They’ll thank you for sending the piece. They’ll tell you that they really like it. They’ll say they want to publish it.

OK, so, uh… Now what?

(OK, so the right answer is “celebrate.” But what about afterwards?)

2. Step 2: Getting the Contract

Nothing is final until you sign the contract.

Short story contracts are very simple. They tell you what rights the publisher is taking, how long they’ll hold onto those rights, and what they’ll do with them. Every contract is different, so you will definitely want to read yours.

I don’t pretend to understand contract law, but you should be able to understand most of what you read. Google (and your friendly neighborhood writing communities) can help with the rest. Some questions I look for are:

  • Do you have to wait before re-submitting the story anywhere else? Weirdly enough, you can submit your short story–even one that’s been published–to multiple places. You just have to look for places that accept reprints. Your contract will probably explain how long you have to wait before doing that.
  • What rights are they claiming? All of mine ask for the one-time, nonexclusive, world, electronic, English-language rights for some period of time. This is the important stuff. Google anything you don’t understand.
  • When and how will they pay you? If this is a paying market, the contract will explain when and how you’ll be paid. Most of them will pay you after the story is published.
  • Does it mention any way the contract can be voided? Sometimes you’ll see clauses explaining that the contract can be voided if something goes horribly wrong. For example, I’ve seen some saying that they have to publish the story within a year or I have the right to ask for the contract to be nullified. Another said they could void the contract if we couldn’t agree on edits.

But honestly, short story contracts are very simple. Novel contracts are a big deal, and you’ll often see people pouring over their contracts, identifying poor language, and renegotiating for better terms.

Short stories aren’t nearly as complicated. You should definitely understand what they’re asking. But unless you find something super nuts in there, you’ll probably just read it and sign it.

Step 3: Sign the Contract!

When you’re ready, sign that baby! Each place does it differently. I had one ask me to print it, scan it, and sign it. Some take e-signatures. Whatever. The editor probably told you how to fill out the contract when they sent it to you.

So sign that. Sent it in!

Step 4: WAIT FOREVER

And…. now what?

Probably nothing.

The thing is, the contract is signed. You’re good. It’s out of your hands. Now you just have to wait for the thing to be published, and that might take months. And unless you have edits to do, you’re done. It’s over.

Now, if you’re a crazy-pants worrier like me, you might be tempted to get anxious. What if the publisher doesn’t respond again? What if the publication is months away? Is there a chance they’ll decide not to publish me? Could they have lost my emails? Could anything go wrong? Do I need to check in periodically?

And no. No, no, no. You’ve signed the contract. Unless the publisher goes out of business or cancels the issue, you are pretty much guaranteed to be published. Cool your buns and wait.

(As a side note, though, you can probably start telling people you’ve sold a story. You’ve signed the contract. It’s a done deal! You could wait until it’s actually out and published–because at that point people can buy and/or read it–but that’s up to you.)

Optional Step 5: Edits!

Of course, sometimes you won’t just be waiting around. Sometimes you’ll have edits!

In this case, the publisher will have their editor work on your story. This is very standard stuff. You’ll work with their editor. You will be courteous and kind and open to their feedback. You will work together harmoniously and end up with a story everyone is happy with.

Optional Step 6: Biographies!

And sometimes they want you to write a short biography, too. Those are fun!

Optional Step 7: BUT THEYRE TAKING FOREVER and they didn’t respond to my contract and maybe it was lost and now theyre not going to publish it and its been months oh god

STOP IT

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about small presses, it’s that they’re slow. Slower than you would ever imagine. They are very busy companies run by a tiny number of people, so please. Have some sympathy. Have a lot of patience. They are going to be slow, slow, slow.

This means they may take forever to respond to your emails. They may not acknowledge they got your contract. You may toss your edits at them and never hear back, ever. These are all maddening, obnoxious things for a writer, but you have to let them go.

Of course, it’s OK to follow up if you have a big question, the publication date is looming, and you aren’t sure everything is ready. You can definitely send a polite question. But sometimes you’ll just have to trust that it’ll happen. It’s out of your hands.

You signed a contract. You’ll be published unless something goes horribly wrong. Just run with it.

Step 8: Publication!

Finally, your story will actually be published. And that’s when you can cheer, celebrate, read your own work a dozen times, and/or glory over your free copy of the book. Send the link around! Put it, without fear, in your future queries! “I’ve previously published short fiction at [Name of Publication.]” Heck yeah! You have!

You have a publication credit. Congratulations!

Optional Step 9: Get Paid

If this is a fee-paying publication, your last and final step will be getting your check or PayPal payment. But you might have to wait a bit. The contract says they’ll do that after your publication goes out… But, being a small press, they might be slow about that, too. Just stay on the ball and follow up as necessary.

All in all, it’s a slow but delightful process. And while nothing is set in stone until the moment the story’s published, you honestly don’t have much of a role in this. Sign the contract, do your edits, and wait. It’ll be nervewracking until the day you see yourself in print (or e-print), but believe me: It’ll be worth it.

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