The Year in Slush: 2016

Recently, an author on twitter asked me what the point of submitting to Clarkesworld when the acceptance rate is around 3%. Two things immediately came to mind:

1. If you pay attention to the odds, you’ll go insane

I keep finding myself having to explain quantitive vs. qualititive processes. If you think of submissions as a quantitative process (believing slush pile stats to be your odds of being published), then the skill or talent of the author and the story itself have absolutely no value in the decision. The selection process might as well be a lottery that assumes every story is equal to the next.

I have data that confirms a minimum of 15,000 different authors submitting stories to multiple markets over the past three years. Even with the short fiction market as over-saturated with venues as it is–an argument I make based on the size of the reading community that can sustain it–there aren’t enough slots for every story written. No one is guaranteed a spot.

While every story is given the same chance to prove itself, getting published involves a qualitative evaluation for those few open slots. That evaluation will be different for every editor and their rejection or acceptance of a story is an assessment of that story’s value to that specific market at that specific time. Sure, chance can play a role in being rejected–for example, when an editor already has a very similar story in inventory–but being accepted always requires talent. (Being rejected does not imply the inverse–a lack of talent.) If you believe you have talent, ignore slush pile statistics. They are the devil on your shoulder telling you to give up/you’re not good enough.

Oh and if you have a hard time believing you are good enough, volunteer to read slush somewhere for a while. Aside from gaining some interesting insights into writing and the state of the field, you’ll quickly discover how much better or worse you are than the majority of authors submitting stories. I haven’t met anyone who ended up thinking they were worse.

2. His rejection rate was wrong

Ok, if you are an author and still reading, I think we’ve established that you are potentially self-destructive.

The rate of 3% has never been true at Clarkesworld. That’s closer to the percentage of people who receive the near-miss top-tier rejection letters. If you get one of these, we’ve seen something in your work that makes us think you have a good shot at being published with us some day. If you’ve received multiples, you are skating around the edges of what we want and need to shake things up a little. If you get a lot of these, I’m probably now recognizing your name in slush and will inevitably try to push you in the right direction.

The actual acceptance rate for 2016 was 0.41%. That’s up slightly from 2015, but we saw some late-year declines in submissions that appear to line-up with the presidential election. December had the highest monthly acceptance rate: 0.83%. The lowest was September, which had none. Combined, the authors of the stories we accepted in 2016 accrued 434 rejections over their entire history of submitting stories to us.

Slush Pile by Genre

39.54% Science Fiction
26.57% Fantasy
9.22% Horror
8.80% Fantasy/Horror
7.23% Science Fiction/Fantasy
5.26% Science Fiction/Horror
3.38% Other

Accepted Stories by Genre

76.47% Science Fiction
1.96% Fantasy
15.69% Science Fiction/Fantasy
5.88% Science Fiction/Horror

What does this mean? Essentially, it’s a snapshot of the types of stories that most appealed to me based on what I received in 2016. I’m always hesitant to post data like this because it can cause an unnatural shift in the submissions we receive. If I suddenly declared “I love robot stories,” I’d inevitably get flooded with robot stories and find myself hating them. Unfortunately, the inverse is not true. I can scream “DON’T SEND ME ZOMBIE STORIES!” to some people’s faces and they’ll still do it. That should say something about writer psychology, but I’m not sure what.

In the end, don’t write what you think I want. That’s a likely path to boring me. Write what you want, throw it at my wall, and I’ll see if it sticks. Don’t let the numbers psych you out. If you’ve made it this far, they probably don’t apply to you.

10 thoughts on “The Year in Slush: 2016

  1. Feliza says:

    It’s sort of fascinating that there’s an “Other” category. When I read for a lit mag, we often got submissions of things that we didn’t actually publish – is that mainly what’s in the Other category?

  2. Leo says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this!

    I’m frequently intimidated by the quality of material and qualifications of the writers Clarkesworld publishes—but I would still love to join their ranks one day and will keep trying 🙂

  3. Sara A Codair says:

    “Ok, if you are an author and still reading, I think we’ve established that you are potentially self-destructive.” I laughed when I read this line. It’s so true – sometimes I obsess about submission stats. I don’t let them stop me from writing, though. In about a year in a half, I’ve gone from all rejections to getting accepted to non-paying markets to semi-pro. I know if I keep at it, sooner or later, I’ll break into a pro market. The barrage of shorts I’ve been sending has slowed since I’ve temporarily shifted my focus to novels, but sooner or later, I’ll be back to my monthly presence in your slush.

  4. Samuel MB says:

    “I haven’t met anyone who ended up thinking they were worse.” It is indeed true that we haven’t met! I have read a lot, lot of slush. I simply do write that poorly. Alas. Fascinating article, and numbers, thanks for sharing them.

    • Neil Clarke says:

      🙂 I don’t count editors in that statement. You’ll notice that I don’t have any published fiction. That said, there are days that the slush pile makes me think I could.

  5. Eddie D. Moore says:

    I am one of those who looks at the acceptance rates, incorrectly, as my odds. I’m always reading something or listening to audio books. Writers like Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan always leave me with a burning desire to write. However, there are times are read something, shake my head, and think ‘I can do better than that.’

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