How to Get Published And Still Be a Failure

As writers, one of our top goals is always to get published. Obviously we expect fame and fortune to accompany every publication, but oftentimes a mere acceptance will satisfy our desire for literary greatness.

But there’s one major problem with the “I must get published” attitude. Getting published should not and cannot be your endgame. If it is, then there will never be literary greatness in your future. Rather, there will be something several rungs beneath literary mediocrity.

Wait a minute. We have to break through with a publication, right? We can’t be successful writers without being published.


That’s true. No publication equals no success. However, that doesn’t mean we should do just anything to get published. Rather, we should do everything to get published. Everything right, that is. We should write the best damn thing we can, revise it until it’s a hundred times better than the best damn thing we can write, and then submit until the right venue accepts it.

Here’s where a lot of people go wrong. Rather than trying to create the best piece and get that published, they settle for any piece getting published. They celebrate when some rough draft they pounded out in twenty minutes gets accepted by the We Publish Anything Review.

Okay, fantastic! You were published! And every publication is a win, right?

Except it’s not. There are plenty of publications that are losses. Here are the biggest failures you can have when getting published:

  1. Having an inferior story accepted for publication


Are you happy with your story? Is it the best you could have written? If not, you don’t want it published. It will come back to haunt you some day. Maybe a prospective agent will see that horrible story when trying to decide if she should represent your book. There goes any potential book deal. Or maybe your coworkers will discover it when they find out you write fiction. Now you’re the laughingstock of the office. Whatever happens, you don’t want your crap published.

  1. Having a good story accepted by an inferior publication


You know that story you really like? The one you think is the best damn thing you’ve ever written? Yeah, don’t send that to the Piece of Shit Quarterly even if their acceptance rate is 97.843%. Okay, so maybe your story isn’t right for The New Yorker. Maybe it’s been rejected by all the so-called top-tier journals. But don’t give up and settle for a horrible magazine that would embarrass you in front of your mother and everyone else you’ve ever known. There are hundreds of quality publications. Don’t give up until you find one.

  1. Having a story published by a publication you never intend to read


So maybe the publication that accepted your story was a few tiers above the Piece of Shit Quarterly. Congratulations! But what’s the point if you don’t like the magazine or never intend to read it again. Your work belongs in publications you enjoy and that you want to recommend to your friends for reasons other than your story is on page 753.   

  1. Dramatically altering your story for the sole purpose of getting an acceptance


You shouldn’t expect a rough draft to get published. And you shouldn’t expect a 12th draft to be published as is. But you definitely shouldn’t edit and edit and edit until your story fits a particular venue. Here’s what I mean. You wrote a story you’re really proud of, but you know it won’t be accepted by The Best Lit Mag Ever Monthly for some reason or another. Maybe it’s 2,000 words too long. Or maybe it’s the wrong genre or violates some other guideline they have. Well, screw them. They don’t need to publish your pride and joy. I recently had a submitter claim he knocked over 3,000 words off a story to make it fit our word count at Bartleby Snopes. He even admitted in his cover letter that he wasn’t happy with the end result. Well, why they hell would you submit that? This is your work. Bastardizing it for the sake of publication isn’t a win.  

All of this can be summarized in one basic sentence:

Don’t try to get stories you aren’t happy with published by journals you aren’t thrilled to be a part of.

A shitty publication is not better than no publication. The only good publication is one that makes you feel like you accomplished something. And not every publication should or will make you feel that way.


8 thoughts on “How to Get Published And Still Be a Failure

  1. As a poet, I think this is fantastic advice. I never submit to a publication I haven’t read before, and I only submit when I genuinely enjoy what I’ve read. I want to be proud of my publications, not just accepted for the sake of publication. My virtual presence is haunted by my youth of 14 or 15 (being 21 now): I had such poems admitted into “Accept Anything Online Press”. Even though I’m quite fond of where I’ve been published recently, such older works will often surface. Good to know I have much better and later work to accompany it in the ol’ web. 🙂 I’m always happy to hear wisdom from you.

  2. Another traditional problem facing writers is what business people call “opportunity costs:” spending a dollar on beer means that you can no longer spend that dollar on books. If a writer publishes a poem or story in, say, Anew Review (which folds after one unread issue), the poem or story is officially “previously published,” which means almost all other journals will not publish it. Yes, a writer can lie, and submit the same work to a second publication pretending that it has not yet been published, but I suspect that most writers prefer doing their lying *in* their art (art being “lies in the service of truth”) rather than *about* their art. Print zines get trashed, but online publications are immortal. And for those honest writers, when the poem or story finally appears in a book collection, the inferior (perhaps even embarrassing) original journal title will appear on the acknowledgements page. If you apply for a copyright on that book, and don’t like lying, you will have to note which works have already been copyrighted by prior publishers, even if the original publishers automatically returned the copyrights to you, as is usual. Honest and serious writers should strive to get their work published in the best journals that those works deserve.

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