Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Writing Tips Tuesday: The Power of Market Research by J.W. Alden

Welcome back for another Writing Tips Tuesday! Today I'd like to welcome a fellow short story writer, and someone I really look up to, Mr. J.W. Alden! This guy just keeps landing stories in markets that I desperately want to break into. Daily Science Fiction? He's been there. Unidentified Funny Objects? Yup. Fantasy Scroll? Darn Tootin. I mean, the guy's been published in Nature! I'm a scientist by day and I've worked with plenty of world renown researchers who've never managed to get a paper into Nature.

So, how does he do it? J.W has been gracious enough to stop by and share some tips on selling short fiction. In fact, he ended up with enough material that I'm breaking it into a two-parter. So be sure to come back next week for the second half!


The Power of Market Research for Short Fiction Writers

That is some finely manicured facial hair.
Selling short fiction is hard. Every time I sell a story, there's a small part of me that says, "How did I do that?" Sometimes it even feels like I must have tricked that editor into buying my story, somehow. Those of you who've been at this writing thing for a while are probably hearing your Anti-Insecurity Alarms going off on my behalf right now. ALERT: IMPOSTOR SYNDROME, right? Right. But the reason this particular flavor of Impostor Syndrome has legs is because sometimes you can trick an editor into buying your story. Well . . . kind of.

Trick is the wrong word, because it implies dishonesty. There's nothing dishonest about effective market research, which is what I'm really talking about. With the right approach to research, it's possible to discern the tastes of the editorial staff and write a story that connects with them by design. In my experience, most writers don't take this approach. Most writers finish a story, and then go looking for a market that fits. I do that too. Sometimes the story just comes first. But as often as I can, I try it the other way around: write the story with a particular market in mind. I don't have the longest list of publication credits in the world, but every pro-rates sale I've made so far, I wrote to market this way. My most recent sale to Nature I even stubbornly sent to a few other markets first because I didn't want to trim it down to meet their word count requirements, even though I wrote it with them in mind. After getting a couple of rejections, I realized the error of my ways and made the necessary cuts. Voila, it sold.
Does this mean you'll sell every story you write this way? Of course not. There are a lot of factors that determine whether or not an editor buys your story, many of which are out of your hands. But even if you don't make the sale, and now you have to shop that story around to markets you didn't have in mind when you wrote it, it still helps tremendously if you're familiar with which markets are buying what.

So, how do we do that? There's a ton of markets out there, from print magazines to online publications to anthologies. It's pretty much impossible to keep up with them all. Here's a few strategies that I fine helpful.

Find the Markets

The most useful tools for this first step are online listings like The Submission Grinder. The Grinder has a huge database of fiction markets. You can search with specific parameters such as genre, wordcount, and payrate. Better yet, it also serves as a submission tracker, so you can keep track of how long your stories have been out in the wild. Duotrope is another website with similar functionality, but they charge a fee. If the listings are all you're after (and you write SFF), you might also try Ralan.com, one of the oldest listings of SFF markets on the web. Using a service like these can help you build a list of markets that you think are worth aiming for. This will be your research list.

Another great way to find out about new markets is to join an online writing community. There are a lot of these out there, whether it's message boards, facebook groups, or subreddits. The first big writing community I joined was Absolute Write, which has a huge message board full of writers exchanging ideas and information, including market info. The community I spend most of my time in these days is Codex, an online writing group for "neo-pro" SFF writers like myself. You have to make at least one pro sale or graduate from a major workshop to join, but the discussion within has been invaluable.

Read the Markets

Surprising amounts of writers I've talked with don't bother reading markets before submitting. But there's no better way to get a feel for a market than by reading the stories they're buying. After a while, you start to notice little commonalities here and there. Susan McEditorpants tends to buy a lot of stories written in first person, while John P. Editsalot tends toward third person. That's the sort of thing I mean, though it's not always so obvious. Keep a notepad or word document to write down observations like these, and before you know it, you'll see patterns emerge. That's why it's important to read as much as you can. Bonus: reading a lot makes you a better writer!

Of course, there's a reason many writers don't do this. As I mentioned above, there's an overwhelming number of markets buying short fiction these days, thanks largely in part to the rise of electronic publishing. There's just not enough time in the day to read them all. So how do you manage all that content? Well, the first step is to resign yourself to the fact that you're not going to be able to read every issue of every magazine cover to cover. If you're like me, your first instinct is to try, especially if it's a magazine you're paying for. But you just won't have the time. The overall goal here is to read as many different publications as possible. For those released monthly, I tend to read about half of the issue before moving on to the next market, sometimes even less. If I'm trying to crack a particular market, or I just plain love what a certain publication publishes, I might read more. But for the most part, I try to keep it as manageable as possible. If I come to the realization that a market doesn't publish the sort of thing I write, I have no qualms with taking it off my reading list for good. And if I do end up submitting to a market that's not in my regular reading cycle, I'll still make a point to look at their most recent couple of issues before submitting, if possible.

Another potential speedbump is the subscription fees some of the big print markets charge. Not everyone can afford (or is willing) to pay for them all. If that's the case, take a trip to your local library. Many keep a magazine section, and you'd be surprised what you can find there. This is how I read magazines like Asimov's and Fantasy & Science Fiction growing up. Some publications are also willing to send writers a sample issue at a reduced price, and reading one is better than none. You can also sometimes get free or cheap issues at literary conventions, though this is hit or miss, obviously.


Seriously folks, there are some top level nuggets of wisdom in there.  Be sure to stop by next week for the exciting conclusion!


  1. Good post.I like the article.I bookmarked this post for my writing.You can share any post and writing tips with me.


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