Why I Like to Publish Short Stories Online

This is why:

5:06pm, September 3, 2008: Complete short story entitled “Denise Jones, Super Booker.”

5:09pm: Submit it to Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press.

5:15pm: Bill Schafer buys the story.

5:16pm: Payment for story arrives in my Paypal account.

5:19pm: Story is posted at Subterranean Online.

Total elapsed time from completion to publication (including payment): 13 minutes (actually 12 minutes and change, but let’s round up).

Note also that Bill did not know the story was coming, i.e., this is not a coordinated stunt. It’s just how business (can) get done online.

Any questions?

71 Comments on “Why I Like to Publish Short Stories Online”

  1. Interesting….
    Not to be a complete cynic/PitA, but I wonder how long it would take if the person submitting said story weren’t a certain J. Scalzi (or insert the name of another well-known/badass writer here)?

    Oh, and yay you :)

  2. Still less time than the weeks-long submission and payment schedule elsewhere, I would imagine.

  3. Tkay beats me to it, but please John you have a long working relationship with Subterranean. How long it took for payment to arrive for your first submission would be more informative.

  4. Actually, we aren’t open to unsolicited submissions, generally. The last unsolicited piece I bought was a 10,000 word story that was read, suggestions for edits sent to the author, and bought within an hour.

    The story was “Air and Angels” by Beth Bernobich, a fine writer, but not yet a household name.



  5. Ian M:

    Actually, Subterranean’s first payment to me (for Agent to the Stars, which it published in Hardcover in 2005) was similarly quick. Subterranean’s promptness in payment is one of the major reasons it’s the first stop for a lot of my fiction. The second reason is because it pays better than most.

  6. Okay, I’m having a pretty bad day, so that was a badly-needed laugh. Great story. (Ironically, the book I’m reading over dinner this week is a collection of shorts about super heroes… that story would have fit right in.)

  7. Yeah, I’ve got a question: Am I the only one who initially read the title of the short story as “Denise Jones: Super Hooker”?

    Do I need a mental enema?

  8. 5:51pm: One of your readers (me) finished reading the story and liked it very much.
    5:53pm: The same reader (me, again) posts on this thread to say thanks for the story!

  9. John,

    They were able to read Agent to the Stars in 6 minutes? Or did they perhaps like Old Man’s War?

    My point is that this story is not likely to be repeated by new or lesser known authors. The title of the post is why *you* like to publish online. I get that. But the last sentence somewhat generalizes the scope of your point. If you add the words “for me” to the end of the last sentence, I have no problems. But right now, it looks like a claim that business online is generally this fast.

  10. Ian M:

    I don’t suspect that Bill was able to read Agent in six minutes, no. But on the other hand, when he asked if he could buy it, and I said yes, the time it took for Subterranean to send me money was refreshingly brief.

    You write: “If you add the words ‘for me’ to the end of the last sentence, I have no problems.”

    Well, I rather suspect that the title of the entry took care of this problem, since it makes it abundantly clear this is about me. Nevertheless, I’ve added a conditional in the sentence to make it clearer.

    I don’t suspect business online will generally be this fast all the time with everyone. But the point is: It can be done a lot more quickly than it got done before.

  11. Hah! Great story. Beautiful job setting up and violating expectations. If you haven’t watched “The Venture Brothers”, I’d imagine you’d enjoy it, as it mines a similar vein.

  12. Ian M., I think the point was that Subterranean Press accepts stories sent through the Internet, pays the authors through the Internet and publishes on the Internet, so everything can go very quickly.
    With a magazine that requires for stories to be sent via traditional mail (obviously on paper), and for payment to be done via cheques or money transfers, and for then for the magazine to printed and sent via traditional mail to the subscribers, the process will require weeks even for an established writer with a preexistent working relationship.

  13. First off you can get that under 10 minutes. I know you can…


    A: Oklahoma City actually just put The Invisible Avenger under retainer.

    Q: I thought he was in Seattle.
    A: He was. Oklahoma offered him better terms. You know how it is. City gets ambitious. So not Oklahoma City. ”

    Oh ouch… I mean first they take out basketball team and now they’ve grabbed our superhero? We’ll get you OK City! (shakes fist).

    Oh and third? Nice story!

  14. I love that story!! I was talking to my sister on the phone when I read this post, so I read the story out loud to her. I had to take laughter-breaks two or three times while reading. We were both in stitches.

  15. …let me just say that, sitting at my desk in Tempe, I’m glad my employer has its own superbeing contracts.

  16. Thanks for the peek behind the curtin. Very interesting.

    Cyborg cats? Ka-Ching! ;)

    As someone who lived in Tempe for several years, LOL!

  17. Word missing?

    “…with a certain number contractually-agreed-to nights and evenings in which…”

  18. Minor nitpick. Andorra has no prime minister but a head of government. Technically it’s a principality jointly held by the Bishop of Urgell and the French President.
    So I’m telling you on your website that you must, must I say change this horrific error.

  19. Ah, but the real question is how long the money takes to go out. If you are like me, the dryer will now go on strike.

  20. 7:40 story appears on my RSS reader
    7:44 story read
    7:45 responded to author on his personal webpage

    This future, man. It’s pretty ok sometimes.

  21. I would have laughed out loud when I came to “Extraordinary Man” but wanted not to wake my sleeping daughter. Because she and her sister (they’re 10 and 12) have watched The Incredibles more than once, they’ll already have the perfect context for them to enjoy this story.

  22. Is this the same Bill Schafer of Night Ranger fandom fame? If so, we are behind you. Don’t let that annoying Scalzi harsh your buzz.

  23. You know, I totally agree. That’s how it CAN work on the internet. However, as someone who exclusively submits stories electronically, that is not how it DOES work on the internet. In fact, the timeline for submitting stories to most electronic publishers is not significantly different from print.

    If I submit a story to, for example:
    Clarkesworld, the response period is 50 days.
    Zahir, it takes 4-8 weeks.
    Strange horizons the response time is one month to 70 days.
    The list goes on.
    And I can’t, for the life of me, figure it out.

    I send a story electronically. It goes into a cue. It takes two months to get a rejection? What?
    I simply can’t understand 1. why so many publishers don’t accept electronic submissions and 2. why those that do take so goddamned long to respond.

    Yes, the slush is big–but you read a paragraph or two, it sucks, you fire off a rejection email. If it’s good, you bounce it up to the next level, same process. I don’t know about you, but if I’ve got the time I can burn through a good 300 pages of prose a day (if it were my job? double or triple that).

    All I can imagine is that, for most publishers, someone’s doing it wrong.

  24. That was fun story. I just read it for myself and immediately turned around and read it aloud to my family. They loved it.

    So, thanks!

  25. I love how you managed to include bacon in your short story, Scalzi!!!

    And I loved the story… a laugh–the best way to end an unbearably hot day!!!

  26. “Villainocracy.”

    What a lovely word!

    The rest of the story was very good, but “villianocracy” was the icing on the cake. And the ice cream. And the fudge. And – well, let’s not extend the metaphor too far.


  27. Loved the story, but there so needed to be a mention of the super’s getting gigs playing in corporate/charity sporting events.

  28. I wonder if the buying of the story had anything to do with the inevitable fact that if purchased and published (even slowly) it would get linked from Whatever. Not sure what the per word rate is for you John, but even at $1/word that’d be a pretty awesome ROI for website marketing…

    Loved the story, but I’m just saying that your 40k daily readers here might also have something to do with it :).

    That said, I think this further bolsters your point about doing business online. SubPress wasn’t just buying the story, for an online-aware company they were buying your subscribers too. Smart move Bill.

    Scalzi, if you have ever have a short that doesn’t sell in the pro markets, I’ll buy it for my SciFi blog. Seriously, I will. That’d just be cool. :)

  29. Now I want to know why Denise Jones, Super Booker, was answering questions. Was it a media interview? Is she being deposed for one of the lawsuits mentioned? Is she in Phoenix explaining why Tempe got eaten six times?

    I loved the story, and I want *more*!

  30. I’m offended that the story was described as “corrupt”.

    ElectroBot was supposed to be Emeryville’s secret weapon against the restaraunt takeover robberies plaguing the San Francisco area East Bay these days, though. The Bay Street Merchants Association has had him… er, it… on retainer for a month now. You’ve just ruined the entire …

  31. Well, at least that explains why Tempe is always in such a scary situation… I suppose if it wasn’t for that snafu a certain heroic cab driver would be out of work.

    Excellent job on that story. One of my friends just grabbed me with the words, “You have got to read this and see what it says about your home town!”

    I enjoyed.

  32. I’m just glad that my own old home town (San Jose) finally has its own super. The West Coast is underserved by superbeings anyway (Buffy and… who else, exactly?), and San Jose is the awkward overgrown child among California cities, so it’s perhaps not too surprising.

    I do hope that Mr. Garcia has decent transportation-related abilities (teleportation or flying, perhaps, or–ooh! Ability to packet-switch!), or that he gets a hefty transportation stipend in his contract. If he can get from San Jose to Fresno in an hour, though, it sounds like he’s doing well (AND doing good) navigating the South Bay’s suburban sprawl.

    Imperviousness to smog would also be handy.

  33. This story reminded me of a novel I listened to last year, in podcast form – a very funny and unconventional superhero story:


    Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty

    “Keepsie” is a 3rd-level superhero whose only power is that no one can take anything off her. Which turns out to be surprisingly important when the real superheroes and supervillians come into her life.

  34. Great little piece, John. Thanks! I was reading and smiling to myself, until I got to Bryan Garcia and whatever makes him happy and I LOL’ed and woke my dozing wife (was reading in bed).

    Thanks again, and thanks Bill for buying and posting it for all. That’s just classy.

  35. Tempe indeed deserves its fate.

    I get to pick up “Soon I Will Be Invincible” tomorrow, so this was an awesome lead-in to the superhero theme.

  36. No questions, but I think that’s fairly bad ass – it’s the sort of radical paradigm shift that has print media everywhere wondering why this newfangled “internet” thing appears to be kicking their ass in one or another area where they used to excel.

    Also, the story made me grin several times. Danke.

  37. Cool. I followed your link from Twitter and read it immediately. (Poor Tempe!) It made a nice break from NPR Twitter updates reporting horrible things said by Republicans, two lines at a time.

    Meanwhile, you had a walk-on part in the battle between new and old media today, in Borders on Oracle Road in Tucson. See, I was thinking that whereas the online version of Writer’s Market is bound to be (and to stay) more up to date than the 2009 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, I should stop buying the dead tree version and just resubscribe to the web site. But I couldn’t resist looking at the book. There was an article in there, “Blogs Writers Should Be Reading,” by John Joseph Adams. Guess whose blog was the first one listed? The guy called Whatever “one of the best blogs period.” (You may have mentioned this listing, but since I’m not here daily I”d have missed it.)

    Between that article, an Elizabeth Moon interview and the weight of tradition, I bought the book anyway. (I will also do the online thing.)

    If the blog article is online, I don’t want to know about it.

  38. William @4: It’s not nice to tease us with that last “generally” 8-(

    If you’re not interested in unsolicited works from otherwise yet-unpublished authors, that’s fine… I’ve read slushpiles for educational purposes, it’s not a fate I’d wish on anyone…

  39. Unrelated random thought… Perusing around some of the online submission guidelines reminds me of the “We’re not interested in…” lists of plot/style elements that magazines don’t want to see.

    Am I the only person who thinks that writing actually good stories with a lot of those elements in them would be a great amusing contest for fun and beers (or cokes, for the alcohol-avoiding among us)?

  40. As a superhero-addicted comic collector of 45 years standing, I found the story hilarious – up there with “The Incredibles” and “Mystery Men”.

    Quis custodiet custodies?

  41. New story read off phone whilst, er, working on the novel.

    Bloody marvellous. I love living in the future.

    I’ve got a Favourite Client who generally pays me within minutes over the Intertubes, too. They’re great – worth their weight in organs for sure.

    It’s actually an interesting counterpoint to your article on supporting oneself as a writer (or other manner of freelance creative) that when you get a Really Good Payer, then for the love of gh0d hang onto them with both hands and do not let go! Over the years, I’ve had tonnes of clients who fall into the categories of:

    1) The Hand-To-Mouth (You get paid when the end client pays us. Funny how nobody ever says that before the gig starts).

    2) The Changeoholic (We’ll pay the invoice just as soon as you re-do absolutely sodding everything that we’ve already signed off on).

    3) The Post-Invoice Whiner (Yes, we know everything’s great with the work, we just don’t like giving away money).

    And my personal favourite:

    4) Finance Department Bums (You have to sit through another 90 day cycle until the Finance Department issues cheques again. No, that’s just how it works).


    So when anyone who generates their own revenue finds a client who’s a Prompt Payer, that really helps with the omnipresent spectre of Cashflow, who’s second only to the Demon Murphy for any freelance thing-maker. Love the Prompt Payer. Cherish the Prompt Payer. Nuture the Prompt Payer.

    Wow, I went on a bit there. Sorry.

  42. @52 Inasmuch as I adore Buffy I don’t know if I’d want her to be my local superhero since I don’t cotton to living on a hellmouth. Just a thought.

  43. I think every writer has certain publications that are the “dream” goal for publication. I certainly had a list, and when I started out every single one was a print magazine. As I submitted and submitted though, I have to admit–I was never disappointed in the online publications that accepted my work and in fact began to prefer to submit there. Scalzi is right – part of it is because it is faster (For me, quite a bit longer than for you, but still faster than paper subs to print magazines.) The work can be seen for a lot longer and by more people. It’s affordable for readers that might want be willing to read something for free or close to free.

    It just works.

  44. That was a truly marvelous story. It kind of reminds me of Superguy Listserv, a humorous superhero fiction writing circle that was founded back in the late ’80s and kept going strong up ’til the late ’90s when most of the active writers had graduated college and gotten real jobs. There was a lot of drek, but a lot of really good stuff, too.

    Superguy is still around (as are the complete and searchable archives), just experiencing a lot less activity these days. Though if anyone wanted to change that, new writers are always welcome.

    “Denise Jones” reminds me of Superguy at its best.

  45. JimR wrote:

    >Strange horizons the response time is one month to 70 days.

    Our minimum response time used to be about 11 days. These days we’re further behind on our slush reading, so it takes longer.

    Our average response time is about 45 days right now, but that’s a fluke; the average (not minimum) held pretty steady at around 30 days for the previous couple years.

    >Yes, the slush is big–but you read a paragraph or two, it sucks, you fire off a rejection email.

    I can’t speak for any other magazines, but at Strange Horizons it doesn’t work that way, for three main reasons:

    1. A massive increase in submission volume over the past couple years has left us struggling to keep up; at the moment, unfortunately, we’re about four weeks behind on reading. We’re working on various approaches to fixing that, but catching up after falling behind is pretty difficult (given that new stories arrive every day).

    2. Because one of our magazine’s goals is to support newer writers, we almost always read more than a paragraph or two. Our approaches vary, but we generally take an average of 5-15 minutes to read or skim a given story these days, plus a couple minutes to write a summary and comment (for our internal records) for each story.

    3. We have three editors, so we want to give other editors a chance to “rescue” a story before we reject it.

    Of course, in addition to reading slush, we’re also doing things like editing forthcoming stories, answering queries, entering and tracking stories in our database, writing rejections (see below), reading stories that the other two editors marked as maybes, discussing which stories to buy, and so on.

    Oh, yes, and dealing with the rest of our lives, ’cause we’re all three volunteers who do this in our spare time. I mention this not to complain, but to explain why we can’t spend 8 hours a day on this. I spend roughly 20 hours a week on assorted magazine tasks; that includes roughly 6-8 hours a week reading and commenting on new slush, and another 3-4 hours a week reading and commenting on stories that my co-editors have read and want us to consider.

    Whenever we have time to do so, we go through and reject stories that are waiting to be rejected. Sending a form rejection takes only a few seconds; writing personal comments can take anywhere from a few seconds to half an hour. So sometimes if we’re short on time or energy, we put off writing personal comments, which can increase response time.

    So … it would be possible for us to streamline this process in various ways, and I would love us to get our average response time back down under 30 days. But for the time being, given the volume of submissions we’re seeing, it’s gonna take a while for that to happen.

    And given the number of editors we have and the volume of submissions, and various other quirks and idiosyncrasies, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll ever have a minimum response time of less than a week.

  46. >>If I submit a story to, for example:
    >>Clarkesworld, the response period is 50 days.

    I agree. 50 days is too long.

    Up until July, Clarkesworld used personalized rejection letters. This created a bottleneck. When I stepped in as editor last month, we made the switch to form letters. I’m also in the process of signing up some more slush readers. Combined, these changes should greatly improve our response time.

  47. The timeline for Fantasy Magazine is basically one month, though with the addition of four slush readers two weeks ago, the goal is to get it under ten days for most submissions. There is certainly a “process” for us, at least, in that a reader must evaluate first, and then if it’s of interest bounce it up to the co-editors, who then discuss the submission at some length . . . but editors are usually doing a lot more than just reading through slush, as Jed points out. There’s not enough time in the day, after all.

%d bloggers like this: