Publish (In Literary Magazines) or Perish?

David Burn
4 min readDec 1, 2022

I recently had the chance to ask the editors of a prestigious literary magazine what they were looking for in a short story. Their reply, “We don’t know,” left me wanting. Given that the magazine in question is harder to get into than Harvard University — which accepts just over three percent of its applicants — I figured the editors might have a clear idea about how to get into its pages.

As it happens, I have their latest printed edition in my hands, so let’s see…it looks like you need to be an established voice on the literary scene, a.k.a. the author of notable new books. Same as it ever was.

Does it sound like I’m complaining? In this examination of what a writer needs to write well, Margaret Atwood (a favorite writer) reminds me to refrain:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially, you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

So, I won’t whine. Instead, I will report that over the past 18 months of submitting to literary titles, I’m currently batting zero for 17.

Maybe it’s my writing. I have to consider that. I also have to consider that only one piece in a hundred gets published by most small presses.

Where Does All the Unpublished Writing Go?

I asked another hard question of the editors that evening. I wanted to know if they frowned on a writer who uses his or her personal website and social media accounts to promote their work.

They do.

The following text is from AGNI, but it could be from any number of similar titles:

We will not consider writing that has already been published in English, whether in a book, magazine, newspaper, or on an app, a website, a social media feed, or a publicly accessible online community.

I recognize the rule, but I don’t understand how a personal website or social media feed competes with a literary magazine. The lit mag wants to be the source of origin for the printed piece. Great! We want (some of) the same things. What I don’t want is a backlog of work that’s never been seen or shared with readers.

Grab A Chainsaw!

Do it yourself. It’s the pathway that makes the most sense for many writers today. My friend Derek Slaton, for instance. He doesn’t waste time with gatekeepers. He writes another new book in his zombie series, promotes it on social media, and sells it on

Writers in the BBQ room, Valentina’s Tex-Mex, Austin, TX

Writer and filmmaker, Don Roff, is on Derek’s side:

We often wait for that knock of opportunity, though I’ve found it’s better to just grab a chainsaw and cut open your own fucking door.

Since the dawn of the commercial Internet, I’ve been on the DIY publishing page too. As soon as I learned to code basic HTML and put up a live page in 1999, I saw the new possibilities for writers. The publisher’s tools and distributor’s reach were all of a sudden made readily available, and I dove in deep.

So why pull back now? Why attempt to return to the traditional way of doing things, when that way is slow, dense, and largely closed off to me and so many others like me?

Perhaps there’s a middle ground here where I continue self-publishing to the Web, and promoting my work there, while also appealing to the lit mags for space in their precious pages. Maybe I make a rule that after X number of rejections over Y period of time, a poem, essay, or story goes up on my personal website.

I like the notion of a self-imposed time limit, and I like the idea that I can write my way out of the problem. Theoretically, the more new pieces that I produce and send out, the better writer I become. Also, if I’m shopping two dozen pieces or more to dozens of lit mags at the same time, the numbers game starts to work in my favor.