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The Odds Against Science Fiction

June 9, 2010

The odds might be scarier than the stories

by Paul F. Newman

‘ “…don’t submit articles about rejections to magazine editors. It’s all been said before and there’s nothing new to add on the subject…” [Suzanne Ruthven, The New Writer Nov/Dec 2003].

This is not an article about rejection. It’s more about getting stuck some place in a zone between light and shadow. “Sf”, as the insiders like to call science fiction, appears to be a thriving genre. And it is. The problem is that just about every life form seems determined to write for it. I thought it only fair to pass on my experience of the current odds (in 2004) for getting a short story published in some of the leading monthly science fiction magazines.

Firstly, to define my credentials, “hard” sf has never been my line; I’m much more of a “soft” man myself. That means, like most of the sentient universe, I’m more interested in the fiction in science fiction that the science in it. There are certainly publications that do veer more towards the hard stuff, like the American Analog for instance, whose writer’s guidelines tell you that they prefer “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.”

Well, fair enough. If you’re a rocket scientist I foresee no problems for you there. The Twilight Zone....

But if your mind is whirling more in flights of fantasy than in astronautical units you might deduce you were quarking up the wrong tree with Analog and feel more at home with three other of the market leaders: Fantasy & Science Fiction (US), Asimov’s Science Fiction (US) and Interzone (UK).

Over the last 12 months I sent a different story to each of these magazines in turn. These are the results.

Fantasy & Science Fiction politely declined my riveting story of two men taking an excursion into a sideways world within two weeks. (That is, it was declined within two weeks). In a personally signed letter from the Editorial Assistant in New York I was thanked for submitting it, but regretfully informed that it didn’t grab his interest this time. I had no clue as to whether it might have grabbed his interest at a different time or whether it was complete crap at any time. But I was most grateful for the swift reply.

Britain’s Interzone took four months to reject my next effort. A cheeky little tale of a near future when everyone’s higher selves were visible behind them. The setting was a casino, as it would be of course. To be fair, Interzone never led you to suspect that they would be particularly eager to receive your latest masterpiece in the first place. The small-print paragraph headed “submissions” on page 3 of their magazine baldly stated the required word range and little else, except what they would be unable to do: like reply if there was no return postage or accept responsibility for loss or damage to unsolicited material etc. Without a website to its name (what century are we in?) there was none of the cheery encouragement to writers that I found on the sites of the American magazines.

However I would soon learn what I was up against. The closely-printed rejection form enlightened me that Interzone was now receiving about 200 manuscripts a month. You didn’t have to be an Analog reader to figure out that with an average of just 5 stories published each issue – and with favour obviously going to any known writing names in the field – you had about as much chance of entering the Interzone as entering the Twilight Zone, or of having a sherry with H.G.Wells.

Well probably more chance with H.G.Wells. On a good day his Time Machine might be working.

I was left with the distinct impression that Interzone would be happier if all these people would stop sending in manuscripts and take out subscriptions instead.

I had more or less abandoned all hope of ever hearing back from Asimov’s Science Fiction. My powerful drama of four people on a cruise ship being dangerously affected by the invisible gravitational point at the second foci of the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun and activated (naturally) at aphelion, had probably caused it to disappear from the earth plane itself in mutual sympathy. But my impatience was premature. Seven months later the polite rejection arrived.

Not a signed letter this time but a standard though nicely-worded apology that informed me that unfortunately my piece had “failed to rise above the other 849 seen that month”. Yes, 850 manuscripts a month. That was the figure quoted as being received at Asimov’s from which, the stated figures suggested, only one unsolicited piece might fight its way through. Like a determined sperm I suppose. Why were all these blind hordes writing science fiction stories anyway? I reckon ninety per cent of them must be aliens. It’s obviously all a conspiracy.

But in the end I began to feel truly sorry for the science fiction editors on the receiving end of all this. What an existence. The poor devils, red-eyed and exhausted, doomed to plough forever through an ever-replenishing pile of eccentric bilge. How much more could they take? Being cursed by the gods in Ancient Greece was of nothing in comparison.

I pictured one of these skeletal individuals – I’m talking about the editors, not the ancient gods now – muffled against the storm, collapsing homeward on the subway train. With head swimming through doppler shifts and time dilations, eyes lowered to avoid recognition (in case anyone offers them a new story), their gaunt frame belies a spirit still clinging to the slender hope that tomorrow the number of submissions might actually start to decrease.

A suspicious-looking man in black, obviously a government agent disguised as an old-fashioned ticket inspector, stops before them fumbling with something inside his uniform. Is he going to produce a metal clipper or a ray gun? No, instead he extracts a scrappy sheaf of papers with a menacing flourish and asks if there would be any chance of getting his manuscript published. At this point the sky falls in and the editor, crying “Enough!” crouches submissively to the swaying floor, sobbing and crying like a baby pulverised by meteoric infall…

Paul F Newman

Hey, maybe there’s a story there. “

Paul F. Newman is an astrologer, astrology teacher, writer and contributor to many journals including ‘The Mountain Astrologer’ and  ‘The Astrological Journal’, author of “You’re not a person–just a birth chart” and  “Declination in Astrology The Steps of the Sun” He can be contacted at

1000 words Copyright Paul F Newman 2010

(This article was first published in The New Writer, No.66, May/June 2004)

Annie says – “Thanks Paul for stepping into my place while I’m worked hard on my submission for Chinese Whispering‘s new Anthology.”

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  1. June 9, 2010 3:22 am

    This article is YEARS out of date!

  2. June 9, 2010 6:22 am

    Thanks for popping over and submitting as a GuestWriter Paul. One would hope that there IS light at the end of the tunnel for would -be science fiction writers….

  3. Stephen Frank permalink
    June 9, 2010 11:39 am

    Hmmmm… a 6-yr-old article about the current state of the short story market…

    I was also delighted to read his own appreciation of his submitted works:
    “my riveting story of two men taking an excursion into a sideways world”
    “A cheeky little tale”
    “My powerful drama of four people on a cruise ship”

    One hopes he was being ironic, and not ridiculously self-praising…

  4. June 9, 2010 8:27 pm

    A couple of months ago, I was on a panel at a science fiction convention with a man who had had a science fiction novel and some short stories published in the 1960s; he had also been an editor at a science fiction magazine (oh, the stories he could tell!). He had been away from science fiction for a couple of decades, and was looking to get back into it. As he pointed out to me, the number of mainstream, well known science fiction magazines had dwindled from about a dozen to two or three. This meant, of course, that the market had become far more difficult for new writers to crack.

    Last month, the science fiction reading group to which I belong discussed the first book in what the author had hoped would be a trilogy. (Trilogies are, apparently, the holy grail of science fiction publishing.) The second book had been published, but, according to the author’s Web site, it was unlikely that the third would be written. Why? Although the first two books had sold reasonably well, they weren’t blockbusters and, unlike past times when publishers were willing to let a work develop its audience over time, these days, if you cannot sell a kerjillion copies of your book right away, publishers don’t want to know you.

    That’s the bad news.

    The good news is that the Internet has, to a small extent, changed the equation. There are a lot of online publications that accept science fiction stories, which increases your potential market. Moreover, if you start your own Web site (mine will be 8 years old next September), you can publish to your heart’s content. There will be little to no money in it, but that’s not the point. If you put your work out and publicize it widely, you will eventually be graced with a readership; at that point, you can make money by working your way into the mainstream.

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