In Bob Heinlein’s day, this was very literal. You would make a copy of the story and put it in a manila envelope with a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope for the response and you would mail it with a cover letter to some editor or other at that magazine you read.
This system sucked like a black hole with a grudge. Entire fucking galaxies could form from cosmic background matter in the time it took them to respond, assuming you got a response at all.
The rule still holds, though – put it on the market.
I formed a publishing house and publish a lot of my own work, but not all of it. I design a cover, format the thing, and put it up on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and the Nook. This makes it available to buy, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s “in the mail.”
I don’t self-publish everything, though. Why not?
Partly it’s a latent need for validation – any writer who wants to see their work in print will know what I mean. Self-publishing brings in a little money, and sometimes fame, but being published by someone else makes you feel like a Real Writer. It’s a sign that your peers, the experts, the writers and editors, consider your work worthy. I’m not going to deny that’s part of it.
Partly it’s a matter of how you get paid – with a self-published story, it’s a few dollars here and there…for the next forty years. Send the same story to an SFWA-accredited market, and you’ll get a fat check to the order of five cents for every word. For a 5000-word short story, that’s a $250 check you can then use to pay your electricity bill. As Stephen King said, “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”
For me, mostly, it’s about exposure. Dean Wesley Smith summarized it basically like this: “You can pay Asimov’s $250 for half a page to advertise your book, or you can send them a story that’s ten pages of advertising that they pay you for. It’s your call.”
Which is why it can sometimes take a year or so for stories I write (like “Hull Down” and “No More Final Frontiers”) to show up on my self-published lists, and why you’ll see my name pop up in the likes of anthologies like Blood on the Floor and I, Automaton. Because I still have to submit them to this market, then that market, then the other…
It still takes time. Except now I can cover six markets (including the occasional contest or anthology) in about nine months, instead of twenty-nine. And if it hits every editor on a bad day (and remember that most professional-paying markets have rejection rates somewhere around 98%) I can put it up for sale and let you people decide whether it’s good or not.
Sending a short story to markets is selling to experts. Putting it for sale on Amazon is selling it to everyone. Both are ways of selling, both can make you money, both can break your heart. They’re two roads to the same place.
As long as you keep it up.