Reading the Competition

Over the last couple of years, I have submitted to a truckload of literary journals. None of them have ever published me and I have yet to win any writing contests. The closest I got was last summer, when I was a finalist for a contest (but not enough of a finalist to see my name in print). This is the life of a writer — you submit and you submit and you submit some more.

At most of these literary journals, there’s a reading fee, a small amount (usually between $2-5) that you pay to the magazine in exchange for having your piece read by a human. These fees go to maintaining their websites or hosting an online submission uploading service. For contests (usually between $5-20), the reading fee generally goes toward financing the prize money. I tend to sigh every time I have to shell out two meager Washingtons (or one Jefferson, if you’re a collector) with little hope of being published.

But there is one tiny perk. One glimmer of reward for letting go of my hard earned gas money.

At most of these lit journals, contest entry fees or reading fees qualify you for a one-year subscription. Regardless of whether they choose my entry — regardless of whether they even like my entry — I get a small paperback book in the mail. It gives me the opportunity to size up the competition.

You see, each thin volume is packed with the words of the people who made the cut. And from studying their techniques, I can start to understand the mechanics that separate the published writers from the rest of us. These small books, printed off by MFA programs around the country, provide a snapshot of the modern-day short story scene. These are the people on the top of the game. These are the people I want to be.

We may not be in direct competition, but there are a limited number of pages out there to be filled. To be counted among the published is a badge of honor rolled up in a coming of age ritual. I want to get there and to make it, I have to understand the marketplace for fiction. It may not influence what I write, but it can teach me what people want to read.

The more journals pile up on my dining room table, the better I’m able to compete. The closer I am to sweet, sweet publication.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and prizefighting storyteller in Tacoma, WA. You can swing a left hook at him in the comments or on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

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