Award-Winning Editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, The Best Science Fiction of the Year, and More

Category: writing

Short Story Cover Letters

 
Let me preface this post by saying:

  • These are my preferences for cover letters when submitting a story to Clarkesworld Magazine or one of my anthologies. This is not a standard, though other editors may feel the same way.
  • Most cover letters are awful, so I read them last. I don’t want them influencing my opinion of a story before I’ve even read it. I’ve never rejected a story because of the cover letter.
  • This post will be updated as necessary. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments.

How to address a cover letter

You can skip Dear Neil, Dear Mr. Clarke, Dear Editor, Dear Editor and first readers, etc. It doesn’t have any impact. Simple mistakes here can sometimes work against you. For example, “Dear Sheila” tells me you either meant to send this to Asimov’s or they’ve already rejected it. Every editor I know has had this sort of thing happen to them. Some hate it. Some find it amusing. I couldn’t care less, so just skip the niceties and dive right into the substance.

What should be in a cover letter?

There’s a few things that might have me view your story in a different light.

  • if there’s a particular aspect to this story that pulls from your professional experience (for example, physicist, historian, astronaut, musician, etc.) or personal experience (cultural, regional, temporal, etc.)

You don’t have “write what you know” but if you happen to know, it’s good that I know you do.

  • if you are a non-native English speaker

I have immense difficulty learning other languages, so I’m not going to hold a non-native speaker to the same standards for spelling and grammar. Your approach to storytelling might even be a bit non-standard to an native English speaker. This is important to know for the evaluation and (if accepted) editing phases.

  • if you are under 18 years old

I’m impressed. I never would have done something like this at your age. Like the non-native speakers, I’m going to cut you a little more slack on the grammar and spelling. (Not that I’m particularly hung up on that being perfect to start with.) It does, however, have an impact should we choose to accept your work: your parents or legal guardian will be required to co-sign the contract.

Since I read the cover letter last, think of the above items as having the potential to make me go back and read a bit further. This even applies in instances where I haven’t been the first reader. (Editors and first readers often stop reading a story when they no longer think it will work for a publication.)

  • if you are previously unpublished

I’m not buying names. I’m buying stories. What you’ve sold previously (or not) doesn’t mean this story will be any better or worse. That said, every editor I know loves to be the first person to publish an author’s work. It’s something that should be celebrated and I often don’t find out until after the story has been published. Telling me up-front helps avoid that.

  • if you are submitting a translation

You should be tell me where the story was originally published (if it was), what the original language is, your relationship to the story (author or translator), and whether or not you have the approval of whoever holds the rights on the original (sometimes this isn’t the author or their estate).

  • if you are submitting a reprint

We don’t accept reprints at Clarkesworld, but this does to any of the reprint anthologies I edit. I need to know where and when the story was originally published and if there are any restrictions (usually time, region, or language-based) in place.

  • if you aren’t the author

Yes, there are legitimate reasons this could happen. The most common is that the person submitting the work is the author’s agent or otherwise represents their estate. It also common with translations. We will verify this before issuing a contract.

  • if you selected “other” for genre

Since it doesn’t fit in one of the categories we’ve listed, please let us know what genre you think it is.

If none of the above applies to you, then a simple “Thank you for considering my story” is more than enough.

What shouldn’t be in a cover letter?

  • Our submission system already asks for title, genre, word count, and email address. Repeating them here is pointless
  • Mailing address (should be on the first page of the story) or phone number
  • A laundry list of everyone that has ever published you. Never include more than three, but honestly, you should just skip this information entirely
  • Bank or PayPal information
  • A summary of your story

 

Ultimately, I prefer your cover letter to be very short. If your cover letter is long (for reasons other than those positives I’ve mentioned), you’ve likely done something wrong.

Hard Sells

Over at Clarkesworld, our submission guidelines provide a list of stories that are very difficult for an author to sell us. The list has evolved over the years, but we haven’t had to add many in recent years. That said, we still receive a lot of submissions from authors that have either not read the guidelines or think their story will be the exception. (Stares directly at the authors submitting stories about zombies. You’re wrong.)

For years, we’ve received stories that have attempted to violate every one of those hard sell criteria. My own sons–under pseudonyms–have even written and submitted them. I can see how the combination might make for an interesting writing challenge, but I can’t imagine the finished product ever selling. I suspect the authors know this as well and are submitting them more out of the humor value than any hope of publication. Still, it seems I should be more up-front about that…

I just added it to the list.

Beyond Rejection Responses

Among other things, my previous post commented about the rude, obnoxious, or even threatening responses I sometimes receive after sending rejection letters. Privately, someone pointed out that there’s a second tier of authors that choose to share their cranky thoughts via blogs, forums, and conventions. It’s not all that surprising. I’ve been hearing them for years thanks to Google alerts, Twitter search, and word-of-mouth.

These typically aren’t in the same class of rude as someone who emails an editor directly, though sometimes it can be. Being frustrated about rejections is natural and definitely not restricted to new authors. It becomes problematic when it turns to anger and hate, makes up outrageous claims, or wishes harm to someone. My favorite of the lesser claims is that “they don’t actually read submissions.” [This is typically a criticism of fast-response markets. Newsflash: Longer-response markets spend the same amount of time on your story. For all that extra time, the story is just sitting there in their pile.] The worst I’ve seen? Some mean-spirited things said about my heart attack, not long after it happened.

I’m not saying you should censor yourself, but you should pay attention to what you say and how you say it. I recall listening to a podcast where an author railed on and on about how we were killing science fiction. He even cited a specific story to back up his claim. Despite this, he continued to send us his work on a regular basis. Was that podcast ever held against him? No, absolutely not. He even managed to get a few of our top tier rejection letters, which would never go to someone I didn’t want to work with. You’re allowed to be critical of a market for publishing something you didn’t like. Although dramatic, he reasonably defended his position and never once stooped to the childish “they rejected my stories, but published this crap” or name-calling that I’ve seen from others. I can respect that.

When I worked at a high school I had to regularly remind students that the Internet is forever and nothing there is truly private. Friend’s-locked posts, email, and private forums don’t provide nearly as much protection as some authors obviously think. Maybe they don’t even care.

Do I track this stuff? Only the worst offenders, which might amount to a few each year. None of them have ever submitted a story good enough for this to have held against them. Their small numbers are why they went largely forgotten in this weekend’s post.

Submissions, Rejections, and Acceptances

I originally started talking about this on Twitter, but as comments came in, I thought perhaps having a more permanent home for this would be a good idea. The tweet that started it all was:

Another day, another profanity-laced email (with veiled threat) in response to a rejection letter. Filed for future reference. #EditingLife

Here’s the thing about short story submissions at Clarkesworld, we see so many–nearly 1200/month–that it is unlikely we’ll remember one we didn’t like. Each story gets considered on its own merits, regardless of how good or bad the previous one was. It doesn’t matter if you are an established pro or a newcomer, all stories are considered equally. This is even the case on those rare occasions that we ask an author to send us a story. I know some markets solicit stories–meaning they promise to buy an invited submission–but we don’t.

If you happen to send a rude/obnoxious response to a rejection letter, we’ll keep it on file. I receive anywhere from one to four of those each month. (There’s one author who has sent me over two hundred.) In eleven years, I’ve only received one apology, and that was from a professional author–yes, they can cross the line too.

Before I send out an acceptance letter to someone I haven’t worked with before, I’ll do a quick search through my email history. None of the authors who’ve sent me those emails have ever made it that far, but should they, I’d have to seriously reconsider working with them. Why would I want to work with someone who is disrespectful and likely difficult? It’s no different than sending rude and obnoxious emails to a potential employer before your interview.

Do editor’s talk to one another about this stuff? Sure, it happens. Misery loves company and together we can laugh about it. However, it is highly unusual for names to be shared. The only cases I’m aware of involved authors who could be considered a serious danger to others. Authorities were involved and fortunately nothing further happened, but those actions led to the author’s name being known to a few editors.

In that Twitter conversation, one person asked if I ever go back and read an author’s older submissions before sending an acceptance. Admittedly, I’ll do that on occasion, but more to see if I missed something in earlier story. More often than not, what I’ll find is a visible evolution in the author’s work or a spiraling in on what we like, which is pretty cool. As I said at the start, each story gets considered on its own merits, regardless of how good or bad the previous one was. So long as you haven’t been an ass in your prior dealings with us, we’re good. Oh and that author who apologized, we’re good too.

 [A follow-up that addresses author rejection comments made on blogs, forums, etc. is here.]

First Rights

Earlier today, I engaged in a Twitter conversation about first rights for short stories/novelettes/novellas. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that it would be nice to have a single page I could link to from the submissions guidelines of the various projects I’m involved in.

There was some debate on this topic, so I will start by saying that I am not the final authority on this issue for anything but the magazines and anthologies I’m editing. This includes The Best Science Fiction of the Year, in which case my definition will overrule that of the editor of the publications I select stories from.

FIRST RIGHTS

In over-simplified terms this means the person/publisher that gets to publish the story first. If there are restrictions (First English Language, First Electronic, etc) then it is the first to publish to that particular subset. NOTE: Obviously unrestricted first rights are no longer available the moment a subset of those rights are sold.

These days, there are many ways to publish a story. It’s not always as clear-cut as appearing in a book or magazine. You have to think of publishing as distribution. There are some obvious situations that make it clear that the story has been published:

  • appearance in a book or magazine (print, audio, or digital formats)
  • money has changed hands (barter too) in exchange for a copy of the work
  • anyone using Google or another internet search tool can find the text of the story

Here are a few examples of situations where a story has been published:

  • it appears in a book, magazine, pamphlet, postcard, etc. (self-publishing and school journals included) that is freely available or sold
  • it appears on your website for visitors to read (no matter what size your audience is)
  • it appears on a publicly available website (like Wattpad or a forum, even one with membership restrictions)
  • it is distributed as a Patreon or Kickstarter reward (money has changed hands, no different than selling an ebook)

Here are a few example of situations that don’t count as publication:

  • story is read aloud at a convention (unless that is recorded and distributed)
  • story appears on private site that exists for the purpose of providing feedback on a story (only editors and writers participating, covers various private critique groups–be wary of groups that allow anyone to join and read your story)
  • story is shared in a classroom or given to teacher as part of a class
  • story is entered into a contest (wins or loses) but is not shared to anyone outside the judges (this is just like a slush pile, a business process)
  • story is purchased by a magazine, but the magazine folds before the story is distributed to readers (in this situation the rights should revert to the author and they can sell them to someone else or use them on their own)
  • a copy of the story is placed on your mom’s refrigerator

REPRINTS

Stories that have already been published can be sold or published again as reprints. (The original publisher may have a fixed period of exclusivity on the story that prevent you from selling reprint rights before a certain date. Some even limit where it can be reprinted. Pay attention to your contracts.)

Publishers looking for first rights or original stories are, by definition, excluding reprints.

When a story is reprinted, the first publication is usually credited (Originally appeared in XXX, edited by YYY, YEAR) so make sure you include that information with any submissions that are open to reprints.

Please ask questions in the comments. I will update the document as additional examples are brought to my attention.

 

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