Surviving the Shortlist

Right now, three of my stories have been shortlisted for publication: two pro markets, and one semi-pro. This is great! But it’s also incredibly stressful.

One of the major sources of stress is uncertainty. Short story submissions are always uncertain, but being on the shortlist means the stakes are higher. Obviously there’s nothing I can do now to increase my odds, but is there something I could’ve done, should’ve done? Some element of my story that makes it more or less likely than its excellent competitors?

The two pro markets have each given me an estimated acceptance rate from their shortlist: one is 30%, the other is 50%. No data from the semi-pro, but based on my experience with the market, I’ll guess a rate of 33%. (Remember, these are rates for already-on-the-shortlist. Total acceptance rates run about 1/4/15%.)

Why bog down so much in the probabilities? Because for me, it helps to look at this stage of the process like a numbers game. From the editor’s side, it’s not stochastic; they’re making judgments based on all kinds of factors. Some are even semi-quantifiable: if you had to rank a set of stories by “prose quality” you probably could (even though your list would differ from the next reader’s). So, in theory, it’s possible to know which story is more likely to get selected.

But there are also a host of factors that are completely unknowable. Is your story too similar to another one? Or do they have parallel themes in a way that’ll make the issue/anthology stronger? Have they read too many robot romances lately? Or do they crave something more science-fantasy this week? All these things depend on the whole suite of submitted stories, and the editors’ tastes and moods. From the writer’s side, unpredictable. Might as well be stochastic, really.

So at this point, forget worrying about how good your story is. Doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all blind statistics, inside the black box of the editorial world/brain.

I find it quite liberating to know that I have a 73.05% chance of getting at least one of these three published soon.

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