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A Glance at the SFF (and H) Publishing Industry
by Arley Sorg

Question: Do you have to know someone to get a short story published? Is the game rigged?

Answer: …maybe.

Culturally we absorb a lot of information through television and movies. Often that information is wrong. We learn bad stereotypes about people or develop assumptions about places because we saw things in a show. This goes for our understanding of publishing, too: there are many romantic images of writers transmitted via flicks like Wonder Boys or shows like Sex and the City.

Spoiler alert: Very few writers have big houses and fancy lifestyles, unless their significant other (or day job) foots the bill.

Many people develop an idea of a close personal friendship existing between the writer and their editor. And when newer writers struggle to sell work, they come up with a narrative: They can't sell to a particular magazine because they don't know the editor; or because they are an unknown writer.

Conversely, many editors argue—loudly—that they love being the ones to discover new authors, to launch careers.

It's nearly impossible to tell who actually knows who in the publishing industry. But! What we can find out is this: How many previously unknown authors did the Top 3 SFF magazines1 publish in a given year?

For our purposes, I've picked the year 20192, since it's a complete but recent year at the time of this writing. Also, I've broadened the question a bit: How many authors published in 2019 in one of the Top 3 SFF mags could call it their first pro sale, or at least, a significant career landmark sale?

The answer: roughly…19.

This seems good until you realize that collectively the three mags published 253 fiction pieces in 2019. Analog led the pack: 12 career landmark stories, but also led with overall stories, running 120 pieces of fiction. Asimov's had 2 out of 67, and F&SF had 5 out of 66.

While 2019 saw 19 fairly unknown authors get published in those mags, a handful of established authors appeared repeatedly, such as Julie Nováková with four stories in Analog, Suzanne Palmer with two stories in Asimov's, Matthew Hughes with three in F&SF; and a rare few who landed at multiple venues, such as Adam Troy-Castro and Marie Vibbert, each appearing in both Analog and F&SF, Rich Larson in Asimov's and F&SF, and Nick Wolven in all three.


Magazine Analog Asimov'sF&SF
Novellas 3 10 3
Novelets 26 23 21
Short Stories 91 34 42
# of Fiction Authors 101 57 62
Career Landmark Sales 12 2 5

Table—By the Numbers: Breaking-into a top 3 magazines
as a landmark sale for 2019 publication3


Confession time: I'm interpreting the data with leniency. Feel free to disagree with me. For example, I'm including Susan Pieters, editor of Pulp Literature, because as far as I can tell, this sale was significant to her career as an author; as well as Louis Evans, who had a prior sale to Escape Pod. I'm including Joshua Cole, for whom this is his first landmark fiction sale, despite that he has a slew of articles in Dragon Magazine. Jo Miles had a prior sale to Diabolical Plots; and Christian Monson had a sale to Daily Science Fiction. Phoebe North and Diana Peterfreund both had books out but not much in short stories; but I'm excluding Maggie Shen King because of the powerful notability of her book An Excess Male. I'm including certain folks because I think, despite priors, the sale to the Top 3 was probably fairly significant; whereas I've excluded other people who have already had a handful of sales to top tier markets or similar landmarks.4

Well. Let's be honest: Many would call their first sale to a Top 3 a landmark, regardless of prior sales.

Even at 19 people, the data suggests that it's really difficult to break into the Top 3. But beware, reader: Dangers lie in the interpretation of data. Are all 200 authors who sell to these markets really best buds with the editors? Or, are they simply more attuned to what the editors want? Maybe their taste lines up with the editorial tastes of the Top 3 mags. Perhaps the editor, having enjoyed a given author's work in the past, is slightly predisposed to liking the next submission.

It could also mean that these authors have honed their craft to a level which many newer writers have yet to achieve….

This doesn't mean new writers shouldn't submit to these magazines. But manage your expectations. And make sure you are sending your absolute very best.

So. How many folks really, really, really had a career breakthrough sale at a top three mag? Not being lenient? In 253 fiction pieces, four people were pretty much brand new to the SFF fiction game: Allison Mulvihill had "Empty Box" in the Nov-Dec Analog, which Rich Horton5 called "quiet and effective"; Rammel Chan had "Tourists" in the Mar-Apr Asimov's, which Horton called "slickly written"; Amanda Hollander had "Madness Afoot" in the Sep-Oct F&SF—Horton praised Hollander's subsequent F&SF sale, "A Feast of Butterflies," as a "real standout" with a "deliciously subtle conclusion"; and Rebecca Zahabi had "It Never Snows in Snowtown" in the Nov-Dec F&SF, which James Van Pelt called "truly disturbing."

These four6 prove that it can be done; it's just extraordinarily tough. These are stories you should go read. Learn from them, and figure out how they stood out in the slush pile. These authors deserve our congratulations, perhaps even our admiration, followed by the inevitable questions: How did you do it? How can we do it?

The editors of all three mags would undoubtedly reply: Write a truly fantastic story.


*   *   *


The fine print:

1  "Top 3" is a known industry term for Asimov's, Analog, and F&SF, and is used casually in this way; it is not an actual judgment on my part.

2  2019 may or may not be similar to other years. I just might compare it to another year at some point.... You'll have to keep reading the column to find out!

3  Data comes from the Locus Magazine Summary combined with other Locus write-ups. Author info comes from ISFDB, Google searches, and author websites.

4  The full list! My "19": (Analog) Allison Mulvihill, Christian Monson, Dan Reade, Frederick Gero Heimbach, Freya Marske, Jay Cole, Jo Miles, John Edward Uth, Joshua Cole, Louis Evans, Phoebe North, Susan Pieters (Asimov's) Kofi Nyameye, Rammel Chan (F&SF) Amanda Hollander, Andrej Kokoulin, Diana Peterfreund, Eliza Rose, Rebecca Zahabi.

5  Rich Horton's reviews are at Locus; James Van Pelt's review is at Blackgate.

6  Kofi Nyameye had "The Lights Go Out, One By One" in the Mar-Apr Asimov's, and was a contender for the Annual Reader's Award. I initially listed him, but Geoff Ryman says in his Strange Horizons interview, "Later I helped Nyameye, now writing as Kofi Nyameye, place that story with Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine…." Tricky. Nyameye's first landmark sale, but Ryman is definitely well-known. I kept Nyameye as one of the 19.



Arley Sorg is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, where hes been on staff since 2014. He's associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He also reviews books for LocusLightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.

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