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.

— 30 —

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!

Published by Jonny Eberle

Writer, photographer, blogger and filmmaker in the City of Destiny. You can find my blog at

4 thoughts on “Reading the Competition

  1. When asked what aspiring filmmakers should do, David Mamet said, “Watch Movies, Write Movies, Make Movies.” That’s pretty much our trade. We read others not just for enjoyment but to see how they do what they do and pick up any tools we might notice along the way. They’re not just competition. They’re also our teachers. Someone in the 1990s asked Steven Tyler if he had a problem with bands trying to sound like Aerosmith. He said something to the effect of “No, man. Back when we got together we were trying to sound like the Yardbirds. That’s how you learn.” We read. We learn. We write. Repeat.

    I have nothing against literary journals but haven’t spent much time submitting to them in recent years either. Between the Internet and companies like CreateSpace, the big wall that was becoming a published author is quickly disappearing. With a little effort (and cash) an author can hire a content editor, copy editor, cover designer, and whatever else you might need to create a professional looking book that’s available in bookstores and online. Joshua Swainston’s Tacoma Pill Junkies is a good example.

    Don’t get me wrong, being published by one of the big publishers does have its perks. My friend Lance Weller got sent to France along with an paid for book tour for his book Wilderness. And big publishers have built in distribution deals with booksellers that are more than a little useful. It’s just not the route I’ve chosen.

    1. That’s good advice, Jack. I think you’re absolutely right that we have a lot to learn from people who have “made it” in any field we want to become proficient in, be it writing books or making movies. I also think you raise a good point about the lowered barrier to entry as a published author nowadays.

      Self-publishing has really hit its stride and its a great way for writers to get their work to readers without bureaucracy and elitism of the traditional publishing route. I’m choosing to keep it old school for now — mostly since a lot of my stories are on the shorter end and work well with the lit mag model. But I also think I might try to self-publish or put out an ebook. The great thing about writing today is that there are so many ways to publish and be read.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  2. Totally agree: To be a good writer is to be a good reader, and reading the work of your peers is the best way to improve while supporting the community. Jonny, I love your use of the term “prizefighting storyteller”…keep throwing those punches!

    1. Thanks, Tessa! I’ve always believed that reading and writing have to go hand in hand. You can’t write if you don’t know what else is out there. And you’re free to borrow that title if you want.

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