Recently, John Scalzi wrote about Black Matrix Press's pay rates and it's led to a lot of discussion about pay rates and publications. For what it's worth, I'm in the "you do not need five million tiny publications" camp, but I understand the urge behind it. I think when you're first starting, sure, some publications help you realize you're a writer, but there comes a point where you need to start having a strategy when sending stuff out. jimhines has weighed in on this, as has Cat Valente.
My friend lonfiction divides markets into three tiers, based on pay rates and prestige. When he starts sending a story out, he starts with the suitable markets at the top, and works his way down. That's pretty much what I do, and I try not to trunk stuff. I send to markets that pay well, because I like to have money to buy my morning latte, I send to markets that appeal to me because either they're put together beautifully (Shimmer, for example, or One Story) or they get a certain amount of critical notice. I try to send something when I'm solicited for a new magazine or endeavor, because it's nice to be asked. And the thing is this: we all want to be read. We want our stories out there, rather than sitting in a drawer. But we'd like them to find a good home, a pretty magazine that lots of people see, and which the editors put some love into. Money is just a bonus. To make a living off short fiction, you'd have to work awfully goddamn hard.
It's good to get exposure. But I dunno how much it helps with publication. I TOTALLY agree with what Rachel Swirsky says here:http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/12/07/bad-credits-wont-help-publish/ and which Ann Leckie has also talked about. The more exhaustive the list of credits in a cover letter to Fantasy Magazine, I've found, the more likely the story is to be crap.
Your mileage may vary. For one thing, if you're a slow writer, you may choose to focus your submissions more closely than your friend who writes five pieces of flash fiction a day.
The Horrific Miscue, Seattle Branch, writing group just had a session where we focused on marketing, which was really interesting. People came in with a sheet for each story, which held the writer, the name of the story, the word count, the genre, a brief description, and a list of the markets that had already been tried. We passed those around the table and jotted suggestions down
Here, FWIW, is my list of places to find spec fic market info. I've found that passing along market info freely is a good thing, and works much better than trying to keep them to yourself in order to diminish the competition. :) Actually, I haven't tried the latter, but the former seems like much better karma. Get your writer's group in the habit of freely passing along news.
Duotrope - http://www.duotrope.com
Ralan's Market List - http://www.ralan.com
SpecFicMarkets - http://community.livejournal.com/specficmarkets
The CWROPPS mailing list rarely has anything specifically spec-fic, but is worth skimming. So is Mediabistro, but I wouldn't pay the fee for it just for fiction opps. It is excellent for nonfiction, though.
Writer's Market - I found the online version USELESS and badly put together. Cynthia Ward's Market Maven seems to be best of the pay-for market lists, but I have heard Gila Queen mentioned as good as well.
I also look at Year's Best and reprint anthologies to see where stories are coming from, and investigate markets that intrigue me. I go through my stories every couple of weeks and try to make sure everything's out.
I have sold a story after seeing an editor lament on Facebook about a lack of stories for her anthology and querying, so it's worth keeping an eye on editors via social networks.
I also try to be bold about asking. For example, I just had a story come back from an anthology that I'd like to be in. The deadline had passed, but I politely asked if the editor would look at something else, making it clear that I knew he was under no obligation to do so. He did, and is holding onto the story to think about.
I use this excellent utility, which draws from Black Hole data, to track who's sending rejections out, and to find some magazines I wouldn't otherwise. (And I urge people to submit their data to Black Hole, because it's very helpful.) I also spend some time once a month or so going through the magazine rack down at our newstand, looking for mainstream mags that might be interested in a story that deals with issues that appeal to their audience. These are scarce, but worth finding.
Once you've got something published, of course, that's not the end of it! Plenty of audio markets out there (although there's no decent guide to them that I've found), plus a plethora of international ones contained in Douglas Smith's excellent guide or perhaps mentioned on the PlanetaSF mailing list. I *heart* reprints, they're like free money.
So...weigh in! How do you find markets, and how do you decide what to send where?