If I publish in a lot of literary magazines will I get a book deal?
There are many reasons to publish your work in literary magazines. The best reason of course is to get feedback, first from editors and then from readers. Nothing is better than getting a reader of your work contacting you saying how much they loved the piece and related to it. Ok, a book deal might be better. Will you get a book deal if you publish your work in a lot of literary magazines? The short answer is maybe.
Many years ago some writers (literary writers) worked their way up through the ranks of publishing by going from lit mag to lit mag and showing literary circles something about writing. At one time a literary magazine (many many literary magazines) really represented a writing circle. Some were large circles like The New Yorker that were read by agents and such, and some were small circles like a university magazine for students. Either way when you were being accepted by a lit mag back then it was kind like being on display to the whole literary circle of that lit mag.
Some of those circles were very elite. A literary magazine like Ploughshares for instance would have both academics (editors from university press houses) and agents or even publishers looking for the next great writer. Things have changed thanks to the internet, but many of those literary circles still exist.
Today the internet has allowed just about anyone to start a literary magazine. This means that many magazines may have very few readers of that magazine and no circle to speak of. Other literary magazines get many many readers many more than those elite literary circles, but not so many elite publishers, editors, and agents are reading those magazines. It means that you might get published in an online literary magazine with tons of readers, but those readers are not powerful in the writing industry or in literary circles. This limits your chance of getting a book deal if you are published in even 100 of these less read magazines.
In the past it might have worked like this: a writer gets published in a university literary magazine. That magazine is read by other editors. They see the writer and like his or her work. The editors then might even ask that writer to publish with them. Now said writer is published in 4 or 5 literary magazines. A university press editor, who reads all those magazines, sees the work and calls the writer. The editor already knows of 4 or 5 published short stories that would make a great collection. He talks to the writer and publishes the collection. An agent sees the collection (maybe sent to him or her). He likes it and then shops a book deal for the writer. Boom the writer has a book deal. This is a hypothetical. It is an idea of how things could have worked back in the day. None of it is a requirement. Writers were getting published back then without lit mags, of course. This is just an example of what MIGHT have happened.
Now with so many literary magazines out there, it is possible to publish in 100s of literary magazines and never get noticed by a publisher. There are just too many magazines. As credits, a bio, readership go those magazines might be great, but as for getting those agents and editors to read your work, no go. They are just not reading those magazines.
The old circles still exist. Those magazines are what we would say are on our Top 50 literary magazines list. It is one of the reasons we built the list. Those magazines do have editors and university press editors and agents reading them. For instance all of those magazines have been in Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry. This shows you at least two editors are reading these magazines.
I would say if you could manage several or even a few publications in great literary magazines it puts you in a great place to be recognized by editors and some agents out there. This doesn’t mean you will get a book deal, but you never know. Usually the better the magazine you publish in the more editors and agents are reading your work. This isn’t always the case, but it does give you a better change.
For everyone out there wanting to yell at me about this article, just know this is a hypothetical about the some theories behind publishing with literary magazines. There are a million ways to a book deal, and nothing here is written in stone. It is just and observations from someone who has about 20 years of experience working with, in and around literary magazines.