When I finished writing my story, "They Fell Away," I was certain that it was one of the best things I've ever written. I remain confident in it - but for the sake of keeping it real and properly tempering my expectations - in the hope that it make the process of writing and submitting stories more bearable - I gave some thought to the actual odds of getting an acceptance whenever one sends out a story.
"They Fell Away" bounced last week from a one cent a word market called Hypnos. The respected bi-annual, semi-pro mag gave me a short personal response essentially saying that they had been discussing it and decided not to take it. At least they discussed it - which meant that more than one editor had most likely read it. This was at the top of a long "form" that they send out to everyone - explaining that they can't respond personally because they receiver over 900 submissions per month - which would put it at 5500 submissions per issue - and can accept no more than a few. At best, the usual odds are close to 1000 to one.
I listened to an interview with Jacob Haddon of Lamplight magazine (a 3 cent a word horror market that's had one of my stories for almost 6 months), where he explained that he received approximately 3,500 submissions since his last issue. Since he solicits some of his contents - and like most editors, has regular author/submittors whose work he likes, I guesstimate the odds at Lamplight to be somewhere between 3 and 10 in 3,500 - or somewhere between 350 and 1150 to one.
I can't even imagine where this puts the odds at big name pubs like Asimovs or F&SF. But suffice it to say that even if my publication history and writing skills give me an advantage over 95% of the competition, my odds at a semi-pro like Hypnos probably don't get much better than 10 to one. At a lesser known prozine like Lamplight I might be between 35 and 100 to one. And at a well known prozine, it would probably be at least 250 to one against on every submission. Don't know where this puts the odds of getting picked for a years best antho or getting an award nom. But suffice it to say that the odds are not in anyone's favour and just getting positive responses and establishing some sort of personal relationship with editors is a huge kudo.
Maybe my best stories can (and have) overcome these odds in a heartbeat - but I think every story I write is one of my best stories when I first send it out. It's only as the rejections start piling up that I grudgingly admit anything different.
David Nickle, one of the most accomplished writers I know, pointed out that the odds of selling a novelette or novella to a market that doesn't already know and love me are pretty much off the charts - because they can run three shorter stories at the same cost to them - and increase their readership with a more diverse selection of options. Their odds of running a story that resonates with readers triples by taking three shorter stories over one novellete.
So in the end - anything less than clear and absolute brilliance will require extreme perseverance, lots of strategy, a ton of rejection and a boatload of luck. It gets better once you establish a reputation and fanbase and editors start soliciting stories from you - but that is a process that could frankly take decades. Even solicited stories are only selected for the final TOC part of the time. I've had friends who have had multiple solicited stories rejected before scoring with one.
There was a time when breaking in with short stories was a good strategy. But these days,I've come to realize that our odds of selling a novel are just as good or better than selling a short story. (granted - our odds of getting a reasonable advance are worse than ever).
So next time you see a story collection out there - with half or more of the stories having been previously published - do yourself a favour and buy the damned thing...because the odds that it will contain something brilliant are very much on your side. And when a writer breaks out, like another of my friends, Kelly Robson, with five published short stories in a year - where three or four of them make the best of the year anthologies - I can do nothing but sit back in awe and admiration. As far as I know, Kelly doesn't even have a story collection on the horizon - but as soon as one becomes available...if there was any justice in this world (which I know there isn't), there would be long line-ups at the bookstore from people waiting to get their hands on it.
Achieving that level of success with no more than short stories is an accomplishment than no more than about one in 1,000 writers will ever come close to.