When you’re struggling through the endless lists of literary publications, trying to figure out which ones you should submit to, you’ll probably go looking for a little advice on which are the most read and the most respected. Determining which are most read, or the most widely purchased publications…that may take a little more digging, as this information qualifies as sales data. I imagine these numbers are probably stockpiled behind a paywall somewhere. If you’ve got a friend who can afford a subscription to Publisher’s Weekly, let me know.
But if it’s a list of the tippy-top best lit mags you’re after, there are a few people around the web who have compiled their own lists. While each list is wonderfully informative, you’ll want to pay attention to the different methods that have been used to rank publications. No two are exactly the same in that regard, and besides, a good deal of determining which literary publications are the best comes down to a subjective assumption of what quality is.
In this post, I have taken a look at three of the most visible such lists available online and what makes them tick. So when you are considering doing a round of submissions and you want to separate the tops from the middlins’ and the unknowns, look at all three of these lists, compare their rankings, and do some estimations of what they each mean to you.
In the article that introduces the rankings on Every Writer’s Resource, it is noted that they used about 20 data points to form their definitive list, and that the three most important data points were:
- Date of founding (how long a publication has managed to stay in business, which is related to how many people know they exist and how steadily they have maintained their reputation)
- Number of national anthologies publications (Published collections of their greatest hits…I’m really not sure how this objectively demonstrates quality. Are we to assume that the magazines that have released anthologies did so because knew they had enough readers for the anthologies to sell? Lots of questions there, I’ll see what I can find out.)
- The quality of work and the names of any “passed” greats who’ve been published in the magazines. (And, again, I don’t know what metric they’ve used to measure what they deem “quality”.)
The article states that Every Writer’s Resource was the first website to ever publish a list of the top 50 literary magazines, and that their list has been copied and disseminated elsewhere countless times. If you were to ask me whether or not that serves as clear evidence of some solid reliability in their methods, or if it’s just evidence of lazy click-bait writers taking whatever help they can get by copy/pasting this list right next to their ads for fat-burning pills and self-pub services, then I couldn’t give you a certain answer other than that…I think it’s probably a little of both. A deeper dive into their methods should be on your schedule if you want to use their rankings in your submissions process. The other lists in this post both use number of literary awards won as their main judgment criteria, so that is at least a bit more demonstrably objective-ish.
This rating system was created by an author and ex-lawyer named Clifford Garstang, and he bases his ratings on how many Pushcart Prizes have been won for each lit mag by stories published in their pages over the previous ten years.
If you’re not familiar with the Pushcart Prize, it’s basically an award that is given exclusively to writers of literary fiction (no genre fiction allowed) that has been published by only small-run magazines or small publishing houses. So Mr. Garstang’s list of the most frequent winners among literary magazines doesn’t include “magazines of general circulation”, like The New Yorker or Harper’s.
Now, personally speaking, I read the last Pushcart Prize anthology of winning stories, and I was not blown away. That’s because The Pushcart Prize values the experimental, the cerebral, and the most complexly and culturally meaningful stories they can find. In short, it bored me. I thought 90% of the anthology was dry as a three-day-old dog turd. But, I think I’m in the minority, as most of Pushcart’s readers seem to be involved in academia and value the awards with great enthusiasm. It is worth noting, however, that The Pushcart Prize has been criticized for ignoring small publications that are published only in digital formats. They are print-loving traditionalists, and they’re not ashamed to admit it.
Bookfox is run by an author named John Fox, and his criteria for judging which are the top 100 literary mags is quite straightforward. He ranks magazines based on how many times their stories have appeared in an annual anthology called The Best American Short Stories. While Fox does point out that judging a publication by how many awards it has won can be a bit silly, he acknowledges that it is still helpful to authors who need to decide where to submit.
The Best American Short Stories anthologies have been coming out for over one hundred years now, and truly some of the most beloved American short story writers have graced its pages. But, can it be said that there is one authority on what is truly “the best”? No, and I don’t think that any of the lists or publications mentioned in this post presume otherwise. But people have put a lot of faith in this particular collection of anthologies for a good many years. You could do worse than to pay attention to which lit mags originally published the stories reprinted within its pages.
BookFox.com also has a rankings list that is based on which literary magazines receive the most web traffic, so that is definitely worth checking out as well!