If you’re writing short fiction then, likely, sooner or later, you will want to sell it to a magazine.
I always recommend starting at the top so you get the most out of your story. However, there are relatively few pro magazines and the majority of stories are going to end up in a second (or lower) tier market.
The vast majority of said markets are well-meaning, some may be less organized than others. However, every so often you might come across a problem market. Here are a few red flags to look for when reading submission guidelines.
Agreeing to Something on Submission
A good market will explain what rights they want. These days, that usually means First World Rights for original stories. You may occasionally still see regional rights, but in the days of the internet, most markets want to be able to sell or display the story in all countries.
They may even include their exclusivity period in the submission guidelines. (Note that most markets will give an exemption if a story is included in a Year’s Best or similar).
What you need to watch for is language like this: You affirm that you are the original writer of this text and that you give non-exclusive publication rights to X to edit and publish this content.
Sadly, I pulled this from actual submissions guidelines, I redacted the name in the hope that the market concerned will eventually back down.
This literally says that if you submit, the market can publish and edit (in any way they choose) your story. Meaning that you can’t negotiate with them on the terms of a contract. This also means that if they never respond, you can’t actually submit the story to somebody else. Often they promise to give you your rights back on rejection…but again, what if they never respond?
The big issue is that you have just agreed to a contract you can’t negotiate…and one which may not be binding anyway. Guess who has the power in this case.
This is also a common problem with contests, and sometimes they will go right ahead and publish you without pay.
Unprofessional Behavior and Language
This isn’t something I’ve encountered much, but watch out for editors who think they’re funny.
A bit of banter and joking around is one thing, but if their Twitter feed appears to consist of possibly-drunken comments on other writer’s work (sadly, not making this one up), then that means there might be unprofessional language in future correspondence.
They Aren’t Proofreading Their Guidelines…
One typo, maybe, but if the guidelines (or anything else on their site) are a mess of typos and grammatical errors, then guess what…
…they probably aren’t going to do a good job of proofreading and editing your story either. You don’t want your story to go out into the world with that typo on page 5 you missed.
Or worse, the grammatical error on page 7 that the “editor” introduced.
In some cases they’re more careful with the actual product, but it’s definitely a red flag to be careful of.
That’s three red flags. Any writers care to add more in the comments?