How a Lunatic Published My First Short Story: A Cautionary Tale

Johnny Knoxville started his career with magazines paying him to injure himself and then write about the experience. Tasers, stun guns, pepper spray... all were used to inflict bodily harm for the sake of entertainment. The success of these articles led to the formation of Jackass, which solidified his career as a living crash test dummy. I grew up with the Jackass generation and still possess an impenetrable fondness for these boys (yes, I realize they are now all men in their late 40s, but in my head they are still, simply, “the Jackass boys”).

If you’ve read my novel, Touch the Night, you probably have also guessed a large part of my childhood consisted of performing ridiculous stunts with my friends while one of us filmed it. Thankfully, we couldn’t quite figure out how to upload files to YouTube, so they mostly remained on someone’s computer hard drive. Are they still on that hard drive? Sometimes this question keeps me up at night. I certainly hope they no longer exist. There’s nothing incriminating on these videos—well, no major crimes, at least—but they are certainly embarrassing.

Nobody wants to watch old videos of themselves behaving like... well, like jackasses. I wonder how often Knoxville and the rest of his cast look back at early videos and blush. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re still proud. After all, without these past decisions, they would not be the people they are today. When I look back at the many regrets I have about how I’ve approached certain aspects of shaping my own writing career, I try to remind myself of the same thing. I feel like I am in a pretty decent place right now, and sometimes I wonder if I would still be here if I hadn’t first experienced total humiliation. Would I have still managed to get a screenplay produced into a full-length feature film without facing a ridiculous amount of publishing disasters? Are mistakes always a negative thing, or do they sometimes result in worthwhile consequences?

Which brings me to the purpose of this article: my first ever short story acceptance/publication, which is something that is traditionally viewed as a tremendous achievement, and—at the time—I definitely felt pretty damn proud. However, as you’ll soon see, I had plenty of reasons for that feeling to quickly fade.

Writing this article required me to dig deep into my email history and read the exchanges made between myself and the publisher of my first accepted short story. After reading not only his messages, but also my replies, I could not help but feel incredibly ashamed. I also couldn’t stop laughing. Which leads me to suspect there’s not only an educational aspect of writing an article like this, but maybe you’ll also find it as entertaining as I do now. Below I’ve copy/pasted the entire email chain I shared with the publisher of my first accepted short story. When appropriate, I have provided an ongoing commentary to add further context. I am not going to name the publisher here, as he appears to have gotten out of the industry for good, and I’m afraid mentioning his name in full will summon him like some kind of shithead wishmaster.

So, with that said, here we go...

From: Max Booth III

To: XXXXXXXXXXXX

Sent: Monday, July 18, 2011 6:12 PM

Subject: Zombie Story Submission

I read on facebook you are accepting one more, and seeing as I couldn't find anywhere else to submit, I am sending it to this email—hope that's okay!

We are exactly one email in and already I am deeply embarrassed. “I read on facebook” is without a doubt one of the worst ways to begin any email—the context doesn’t matter. Also, ending a story submission with “hope that’s okay!”? Honestly, it’s a relief the person who received this email turned out to be a deranged lunatic, otherwise I’d feel even more humiliated than I already am.

Keen observers will notice this email was sent in the summer of 2011, which was nearly a decade ago, if you’re particularly skilled at math. I turned eighteen years old fourteen days before submitting this story. Two months before that, I received my high school diploma. Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. Luckily I have proof:

I realize bragging about having a high school diploma in the same article as my embarrassing short story anecdote might be counterproductive, but I already spent twenty minutes trying to find the above picture, so what am I going to do, not use it now? I don’t think so.

Here’s the publisher’s response, 17 minutes later (if you’re wondering why the time is listed an hour before my previous message, I have to assume we were on different time zones and Yahoo! couldn’t figure out a more coherent way of presenting the data):

From: XXXXXXXXXXXX

To: Max Booth III

Sent: Monday, July 18, 2011 5:23 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

thanks max. i will be reading it at this very second and will get back to you in an houir or so to say yes or no. if the anser is yes, you can get the signed contract scanned and sent back?

And here we go. My first direct communication from XXXXXXXXXXXX, and we are off to a spectacular start. I feel I speak for the entire writing community when I say the one thing every writer hopes to find in potential publishers is an inability to spell words like “hour” and “answer.” And, boy howdy, it sure looked like I’d struck gold!

Okay, let’s continue...

From: Max Booth III

To: XXXXXXXXXXXX

Sent: Monday, July 18, 2011 6:25 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

Yes, I can do that.

From: XXXXXXXXXXXX

To: Max Booth III

Sent: Monday, July 18, 2011 5:28 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

ok, i will let you know. getting a few more in so the best one gets into this antho but i can prob use your story for

another if its still fun

thanks!

From: Max Booth III

To: XXXXXXXXXXXX

Sent: Monday, July 18, 2011 6:36 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

Cool, sounds good to me. I just saw on FB that you want it to be between 5000 and 7000 words, so that probably disqualifies my story which is just over 4000. Hope you like it anyway!

From: XXXXXXXXXXXX

To: Max Booth III

Sent: Monday, July 18, 2011 5:43 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

well i got another one in just now thats in the word count i need. but if you are game, i can still look at your story and use it for the next antho if you want. or this other guy might not like the contract i send and walk away. it happens sometimes, not often though

From: Max Booth III

To: XXXXXXXXXXXX

Sent: Monday, July 18, 2011 6:44 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

Yeah, that's definitely cool; considering it for the next anthology sounds plenty good to me.

I can already tell writing this article for LitReactor was a terrible idea, and I haven’t even reached the “acceptance” yet.

Hey, speaking of acceptance, looks like I have a new email! Yay! Let’s take a look...

From: XXXXXXXXXXXX

To: Max Booth III

Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 5:55 AM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

hi max

Ok, here's the deal. as far as your writing style, I was fine with it. the only thing is that, to me,your story is more like a document by a scientist than a story but it isnt that bad that i would reject it outright.

i like it, but not enough to want to give you a book for it. (in other words i dont want to pay for it as i dont LOVE it)

but, many writers could care less about the book and just want to be accepted and published.

if thats you, then let me know and i will still use your story and put it in the antho and send you the contract.

if you say "Hell no, i want compensation" thats fine but then i have to reject this particular story and how you want to send more standard stuff with people talking and fighting ect or anything in between.

i'm fine with whatever you wnt to do.

and thanks again for sending it so quickly. if the answer is yes you want in, i attached the cover art for the antho your story would be in.

cheers

And there it is. My first ever story acceptance.

I’ve read this email so many times since first receiving it in the summer of 2011. When I first opened it, I was overcome with excitement. I was eighteen years old and had been submitting fiction to markets since I was fourteen. Rejection after rejection after rejection after rejection. Four years of No thanks. Four years of thinking I’d never be good enough to be published. Then bam. This fuckin’ guy comes in, and tells me what every writer dreams of hearing: “I like it, but not enough to want to give you a book for it. (In other words, I don't want to pay for it as I don't LOVE it.)”

Other emotions I have experienced while rereading that email in later years: rage, frustration, and—especially lately—amusement. I do find it very funny now, which is why I pitched this article in the first place. However, there was definitely a time where just mentioning the editor’s name would send me shaking with anger.

Also, if you’re confused about his “your story is more like a document by a scientist than a story but it isnt that bad that i would reject it outright” line, that can easily be explained. The story—titled “Mad”—was originally written for a high school science assignment earlier that year. The task involved picking a disease of our choice, researching that disease, and writing a report about it. The task did not mention anything about disguising that report inside a short story about zombies, but for reasons that escape me now, I decided it would be more interesting that way. So I picked Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and went a little nuts with it, and much to my delight received an A from my teacher, which is far more compensation than I ever saw from the eventual publisher.

Which, yes, if you read the acceptance above, you’ll know: the compensation being offered on this anthology was only a contributor’s copy, and he couldn’t even be bothered to give me one of those. Surely I wouldn’t have agreed to such an outrageously rude offer, right? Well, I mean, obviously I did. Otherwise this wouldn’t be an article about my first published short story.

If you thought the acceptance was infuriating, just wait until you read my response.

From: Max Booth III

To: XXXXXXXXXXXX

Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 10:28 AM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

hi there. To be fair, I actually didn't think there would be any compensation except for maybe a free copy of the book--and even if that isn't the case, I am still okay with that as I will just buy a copy myself. so what I am saying is yes, if you want to publish the story in it, I am all for that. At this early point in my writing career, I am more about getting my name everywhere as possible. Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Jesus fucking Christ, Max. You poor goddamn idiot. Oh my god.

I understand why I emailed this, but I desperately yearn for the ability to reach back in time and punch Past Max in the face.

If you are a new writer and somehow you’ve stumbled upon this article, please listen to me: never settle for exposure. Back in 2015, I wrote a LitReactor article titled “Exposure is Not Payment: Why You Should Start Respecting Yourself as a Writer.” Here’s an excerpt from that article, where I basically subtweeted the publisher of my first accepted short story:

I’ve heard actual ‘presses’ claim that contributor copies are not an industry standard, which is a hilarious and depressing statement. I’ve even seen some places refuse to dish out electronic copies. Digital files that don’t cost the publisher a fucking dime to send. ‘Publishers’ come up with these laughable excuses, claiming they’re afraid the PDFs might circulate. Basically, they don’t even trust their own authors to not upload the anthologies on torrent websites. But the truth is, they’re holding these back in the hopes that the authors will purchase a copy on Amazon once the book goes live. Because that’s their only real targeted audience. They don’t have a fan base. They just have the authors they publish, and the authors’ families. If you do not receive a contributor copy for your work, then you are being ripped off, pure and simple. If the book is published in print, then you receive a print copy. If it’s eBook only, then you get an eBook. If the book is in print, and you don’t receive a print copy or an eBook, then you’ve been fucked.

This is a common scam I’ve noticed among the many micropresses that pop up. Typically, they will start off by exclusively publishing anthologies. These anthologies will not pay anything. The press will accept fifteen to twenty authors for each anthology, all writers who are just starting out, naïve and hungry for any kind of publication. Authors find these open calls and they submit and almost nobody is ever rejected. There won't be a contributor copy given because the publisher knows the author will buy a copy, maybe even a few copies, just so the author can see his/her name in print, and (s)he'll go around showing everybody, bragging. The author's friends and family will want to support the author, so they will also buy copies. There will be no author discount. It will be full price. You publish an anthology with at least fifteen people and charge $14.99 for the book, plus shipping, that's nearly $250, before printing costs. You do a dozen or more anthologies like this a year and you start making a serious income. Especially when it's not just the authors buying it, but also their families.

In that article I was describing an anthology mill, and that’s exactly what XXXXXXXXXXXX was doing. Publishing more books than anybody could possibly market with any competency. Not offering any actual compensation. Relying on the authors and the authors’ families as the books’ sole customers. He also operated under at least half a dozen different company names, to throw people off his scent. What a racket! And of course I fell for it. Not only that, but I was happy to fall for it. This must be what publishing’s like, I foolishly assumed. Surely nothing shady could be happening here!

From: XXXXXXXXXXXX

To: Max Booth III

Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 9:58 AM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

wonderful, glad youre onboard.

and make no mistake, i dont make a habit of doing this. if i had been in a different mood, i might have just sent you a polite rejection and that would have been it.

will send the contract later.

cheers

It truly baffles me now, reading this all again, just how goddamn rude he was in these emails, even after accepting my story. Is this...is this what negging is? Oh my god, was I negged?

Gee, I wonder how I responded this time...

From: Max Booth III

To: XXXXXXXXXXXX

Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 11:09 AM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

Cool, sounds great to me.

And yeah, I figured as much. I am very grateful. Thank you for this.

Lmao.

From: XXXXXXXXXXXX

To: Max Booth III

Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 6:39 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

hey

havent heard back from you, did you get the contract? are you scanning and emailing or snail mail?

From: Max Booth III

To: XXXXXXXXXXXX

Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 8:00 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

yeah, sorry, I was at a concert last night and have been resting all day from it. I did get the contract. I will print, sign and scan it back to you sometime within the next hour or two.

From: XXXXXXXXXXXX

To: Max Booth III

Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:22 PM

Subject: Re: Zombie Story Submission

no worries, just checking. see, the story is edited and i want to give it to my proof readers but i dont want them reading something that might not get in if a writer changes their mind. its bad enough i spent the energy editing, i dont want to take up their time too

Thxs

The aforementioned concert I attended consisted of Streetlight Manifesto, Reel Big Fish, and The Maxies. The last band mentioned there is particularly important in trying to explain the mess I’m wearing in the picture I’m about to show you, which is something I took on my laptop webcam while signing my first short story contract. I have no justification for the hat other than I was 18 and loved dumb hats.

And thus ends the chain of emails chronicling my first short story acceptance. Ten years later, the anthology has received one (unrated) review and two ratings on Goodreads. Both ratings are five stars, and they were posted by the same account: an author from the anthology.

This is the only review:

I have to return this to my to-be-read shelf. I managed to read one story before NaNoWriMo started, ‘Justice is Served’ (very amusing BTW) and then my mother-in-law absconded with my contributor copy after babysitting for us while my husband and I were at Hal-Con. I don't know when I'll be getting it back, if ever…

What a cliffhanger! Unfortunately I could not figure out if the author’s mother-in-law ever returned their contributor copy. Some mysteries are meant never to be solved, I guess.

I wish I could say this also marked the end of all communications with this publisher, and that I never submitted to one of his anthologies again, but of course that isn’t true. C’mon. You’ve read the article this far. You already knew it wouldn’t end so easily.

On October 17, 2011, I received the following email (which CC’d 41 authors in total):

Subject: new author's horror antho open

To all XXX and XXX writers,

As writers, there are times we get an idea for a story and then after it's written, we don't know what to do with or can't find a home for it. But dammit, the story is good and you want it to see print so others can read it too.

like in the Book of XXXXXX anthos already made by XXX, XXXX XXXXXX XXXXX (an XXX imprint) is doing the same thing. So if you have a horror story (any type) that's fun and you want to see it in print, send it to me by way of  XXXXXXXXXXXX. Editing is still in effect so just 'cause you send it doesn't mean it's in but hopefully it will be.

there is no payment for this antho, like in Book of XXXXXX, and the reason is this is my way of helping you get your work out there. these books don't sell alot but I don't care. This one is made for the writers.

Hope you either have something in you library or want to write that story that's been on you mind.

Three days later I submitted a new short story to the anthology. This was also the same month I moved into my first studio apartment after hopping on a bus from Indiana to Texas. I left my entire family behind and began living in a strange state, alone. It was on one of these nights shortly after submitting my new short story that I received a phone call from an unfamiliar number.

You know how when you submit a story, you include your telephone number at the top left of your manuscript, because it’s standard practice but you don’t actually expect anybody to... ya know, dial it?

If a publisher accepts your story while simultaneously insulting you, maybe just tell them to go fuck themselves.

So yeah. Guess who was calling me.

What followed was one of the strangest phone conversations of my life. It lasted at least an hour, if not longer. The man on the phone—who, again, I will not name here—talked with the same speed as a machinegun firing infinite bursts. His voice was only interrupted by brief snorting noises. I don’t know for a fact that this man was drowning in cocaine but this man was definitely drowning in cocaine.

The phone call started with him addressing the recent short story I had submitted to his new anthology. He informed me that while he liked it, there was no way in hell he could ever accept it under its current narrative structure. Evidently, stories written in first-person POV were too amateurish for his fine company, and if I wanted to rewrite it in third-person then maybe he’d reconsider. He told me no publisher in their right mind would ever accept a story told in first-person POV. This then quickly transgressed into a paranoid rant about how other publishers and authors were “out to get” him and wanted to see him fail. I did not get much room to speak on my end, as he literally never stopped speaking, but I think I managed to fit in “Oh, okay," a couple of times. Eventually, the phone call ended, and I went to sleep.

Fast forward about half a year later, and the publisher manages to piss off the entire Internet by screwing over one of his authors in a truly baffling way. I won’t link to anything here, as it was nine years ago and there’s no reason to reopen old wounds, but holy crap. In this particular case, XXXXXXXXXXXX not only added a typo to the author’s story title, but he also added an implied rape scene, along with other details seemingly from the editor’s imagination. Things that did not exist in the story until after the author sent it to the publisher. And of course XXXXXXXXXXXX did not send edits for approval before publishing. He released it and the author only discovered what had happened to their story after flipping the paperback open. The author emailed XXXXXXXXXXXX about the situation, and if you’ve read the previous emails copy/pasted in this article, then you can probably guess he responded like a true dickhead. So the author wrote up a blog post documenting everything that had happened, and it blew up, with people like Neil Gaiman even sharing it. Nowadays, nobody mentions this dude’s name, and for good reason. I don’t think he’s still publishing, at least not under any obvious names.

This article was not written to expose anybody, as he’s already been exposed and rightfully exiled from the horror community. Instead I wanted to share the background on my first accepted short story, and I’ve done that. I hope you found it amusing. I also hope, if you are a new writer, you can take my past experiences as some sort of lesson. There are lots of grifters out there looking to take advantage of naive authors. It’s not always easy to see the signs, especially when nobody else has written about getting duped. So consider this article a cautionary tale. If a publisher accepts your story while simultaneously insulting you, maybe just tell them to go fuck themselves. Also, don’t submit to markets not offering fair compensation. Have pride in your work. Do not settle because you have a desperate desire to see your name in print. It’s not worth it. It’s never worth it.

Oh, and if you want to read my first accepted short story, I posted it on my Patreon for free. It hasn’t been touched since I turned it into my high school science teacher. So, ya know, proceed with that in mind.

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