Being published in the New Yorker is pretty awesome. You get a few million potential readers (assuming each copy has more than one reader) and they also pay pretty well. But there are a lot of things in life that are pretty awesome: book deals; Stegner Fellowships; cloudless summer days; etc…and, for whatever reason, being published in the New Yorker has never been one of my particular daydreams.
I think this is mostly because I don’t read the New Yorker. I have literally never opened an issue of the New Yorker and read the short story inside it. I’ve never watched a story go from being in the New Yorker to being on the tip of everyone’s tongue—I just don’t have the same positive associations with it that I have with Asimov’s or F&SF or The Year’s Best Science Fiction.
But ever since entering this MFA program, I’ve learned that getting published in the New Yorker is an obsession in the literary world. Many MFAs subscribe to the New Yorker. Even more MFAs read it. And almost everyone is familiar with what is published in it. Over the last six months, I’ve had countless conversations where someone said the words, “Last week, I read in the New Yorker…”
There’s nothing wrong with that. The New Yorker is a great magazine. And even when it’s not great, it’s still very influential. The New Yorker’s readership makes it the definitive place to publish a short story. It is the only place where general readers might encounter a contemporary short story writer.
So if you write short stories and love short stories and want your short stories to be culturally relevant, then by far the best place for them to be is in the New Yorker.
So, before I go on, let me stress that I am a guy who is very much on the outside of the publishing world (particularly the world of literary fiction). With one exception (my story in the Diverse Energies anthology), I've only ever sold stories through open submission systems (and I have the 982 rejections to prove it). Although I take on a pretty definite stance in this post, everything within it is based on observation and supposition--it's entirely possible that a bunch of it is wrong. However, when you're on the outside, supposition can be all that you have.
So here is where the chain of supposition begins.
It appears to me that if you want a short story in the New Yorker, there are two ways to do it:
- Submit directly to the fiction editor (i.e. bypassing the regular slush pile) through some personal contact. I imagine that this personal contact takes one of three forms:
- Direct networking – meeting her and making her acquaintance.
- Being put in touch with her through a mutual friend or one of your teachers.
- Being a staffer (an editorial assistant, proofreader, secretary, copy-editor, etc) at the New Yorker (a la Nell Freudenberger)
- Have your agent submit the story on your behalf.
Note what I left off this list: submitting through the online submission form. There’s nothing wrong with the online form, but even if it was possible to sell through it, then the odds (assuming they buy 1 story a year from the slush) would be 1 in 40,000. That’s such a low probability that, to me, it’s not even worth fantasizing about.
However, there is also substantial evidence that it is completely impossible to sell to the New Yorker through the submissions form. The previous fiction editor of the New Yorker, Bill Buford, never bought a single story from the open slush during his eight-year tenure. The current editor, Deborah Treisman, is a bit more cagey, but, in interviews, she has never named a single person whose story she’s selected from the online submission form. She does name unagented and unsolicited authors she’s published, but it feels entirely likely that all of those stories were submitted through connections. And when she’s asked how to get a story into the New Yorker, she basically says, “Through your agent.”
Thus, it’s possible that the last time the New Yorker published a story it got through the open slush was sometime in the mid-90s.
Now I’m not here to piss and moan and wail about that, since I don’t really care. But if it is your ambition to be in the New Yorker, then you should stop fantasizing about the online submission form and start thinking about how you’re going to make your dream come true.
You might try to leverage whatever contacts you have.
You might try to make some contacts that might be leverageable.
You might try to go to one of the MFA programs whose students tend to publish in the New Yorker: Iowa, Syracuse, Cornell, etc. (On the theory that these programs have some kind of pipeline to the magazine).
You might move to New York and try to get a low-level job at the New Yorker.
All of these things are absolutely worth doing. But they’re all murky and chancy endeavors. It’s very difficult to tell who might be willing to open that gate for you: people who have that power are unlikely to advertise it.
However, there is one relatively easy and unambiguous way to get in the New Yorker. The editor herself told you how to do it. Get the right kind of agent.
Now, plenty of agents don’t really accept clients through unsolicited queries. But many actually do. I think it’s more common than not for agents (or at least someone at an agency) to at least glance through the queries and think, “Might we want to represent this person?”
The only way an agency can stay in business is by finding an author whose work might sell. And good work does sometimes come in through the transom. Furthermore, it’s often a lot easier to network with and make personal contacts with an agent, since: a) there are more of them; and b) as middlemen, they are, almost by definition, somewhat approachable.
As an author who wants to be in the New Yorker, you have to do two things:
- Find out which agents are capable of placing something in the New Yorker.
- Find a way to make those agents interested in representing you.
The first aim is accomplished easily enough. You just need to comb through the New Yorker and find a hundred or two hundred authors who’ve recently published in it. Some of these authors might’ve gotten into the magazine through other means, but most of them probably got there via their agents. And when you see a novel excerpt in the New Yorker, I think the likelihood is fairly high that it was placed by an agent.
Then take your list of authors and compile a list of their agents. Agents whose names appear two or more times in your list of authors are, in my opinion, highly likely to have some connection to the New Yorker.
So now you have a list of agents who you’re going to query.
All you need is something to query with.
In order to interest an agent, there has to be at least a chance that your work is going to make some money for them. And the only kind of fiction that really makes money is novels. Even short story collections by really, really famous writers often sell pretty poorly. Maybe once in every five years,** there’s a break-out story collection that becomes a best-seller, but yours is unlikely to be that collection. Agents will sometimes rep collections, but it feels like that often occurs when an author already has some buzz (usually because they’ve already published in the New Yorker) and the agent wants to lock them down and extract a novel from them. No agent in the world is excited to see a short story collection show up in their inbox.
On the other hand, I feel like novels at least have potential. Some random MFA student’s novel could turn out to be the next Lovely Bones or Everything Is Illuminated. It probably won’t happen, but at least the odds are a bit better.***
Actually, if you’re really set on hooking an agent, then probably a literary-type memoir might be an even better bet.
So yeah, the hard truth is that the aspiring New Yorker author should write a novel. I feel like that’s unwelcome news, because I think that part of the reason people want to publish in the New Yorker is to somehow make the transition to novel-writing a bit easier. If you publish in the New Yorker, then the world will want your novel. It’s very possible it’ll get sold before you even write it.
But that’s completely backwards. Publishing in the New Yorker in order to become a novelist is like buying a house because you want a secure place to do your laundry for free. It’s like killing your baby in order to get it to stop crying. It’s like getting elected President because you want free security for life.
Selling a novel is much easier than getting published in the New Yorker—the New Yorker only publishes 52 stories a year, whereas the Big Five (and the big independents) publish many more literary novels than that. Furthermore, there’s much less competition in the novel arena, since fewer novels are written (although the competition is still very fierce).
The reason to publish in the New Yorker is not because you want to publish your novel. The reason to publish in the New Yorker is because you want people to read your short stories. Publishing in the New Yorker is one of the very few ways for a short story writer to achieve any kind of visibility in this country.
So, yes, if you want to be a successful short story writer, then you should write the novel first and then use it as leverage to get what you want for your stories. When the agent calls you up, all excited about your novel, ask them if they’d be willing to place your stories in the New Yorker. After you sign with them, send them a story and ask them to do it. If they hedge and refuse, then fire them and find another agent.
Obviously, following my advice would be incredibly difficult. First you’d need to write a novel that could excite an agent who sees a thousand novels a month. Then you’d need to write a short story that could believably appear in the New Yorker. And then a dozen other things would need to line up in the right way.
But your odds of success would be a hell of a lot better than one in 1 in 40,000.
*Looking on the acknowledgements page of one of their books is usually a pretty good way of doing this—for instance, I just looked through my copy of Prep: Curtis Sittenfeld’s agent was Shana Kelly, at William Morris.
**In the last fifteen years, I can only think of three story collections that’ve been best-sellers: George Saunders’ Tenth of December; Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies; and Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing;
***My understanding is that it's much easier--in the literary fiction world--to get an agent if you have some decent short story credits. And it's definitely worth trying to get those. In any case, your MFA program will likely require you to produce 12 or so short stories, so you're going to end up with some product that you'll need to try to unload. But you don't need the New Yorker to impress an agent--I'm pretty sure that stories in some of the snazzier reviews (Kenyon, Boston, Missouri) would be enough. But even if you do have those credits, an agent will still, most likely, turn you down if you don't have a novel.
As a final P.S., if you want more answers on how to navigate a career as a writer of literary fiction, you really can't do much better than Mary Anne Mohanraj's FAQ page. I read it years and years ago, before I ever even began to consider an MFA, and it really set me straight.
Okay, between you and Les Edgerton, I feel better every day about writers being willing to speak uncomfortable (and/or snarky) truths about the publishing biz instead of flinging empty platitudes like “just keep trying!”
Yes, “keep trying” is obviously the ultimate truth. But once you accept that, I think there’s still a tiny bit more that’s left to be said.
Wow. They run a slush pile and never, hardly ever, buy from it. But why would they do that? Oh, wait . . . Wow.
I don’t know. Maybe partly out of tradition and maybe to keep wannabe writers reading. Although if its the latter, I have to wonder if the additional sales really cover the cost of the staff time that’s spent dealing with the slush
That’s what I was thinking. But you’re right running slush must be expensive. Very strange.