In 1927, Ernest Hemingway was paid two hundred dollars for his short story, “The Killers.” The story appeared in Scribner’s Magazine and is considered by scholars to be his first mature work. Over his career, the income from his stories only went up.
Today, the situation is rather different. Whatever the cause of the decline of the pay-scale—often heralded to be a lack of interested and/or paying readers—the writer is left in a tough spot: He/she wants his/her story out there, but thinks the piece deserves compensation. I agree; however, magazines and literary journals often make little or no profit. Therefore, pay tends to be in copies, subscriptions, or a small honorarium.
With the inexorable growth of online journals, the pay has been reduced to nothing. In tandem, several new start-up journals use Print On Demand (POD) technology and they only pay with a digital copy. The situation, at least financially, remains bleak.
The question remains: why do you want to be published?
For the prestige? Seeking tenure? To see your work in print? To say something important? For the promotion of art? For the money?
In terms of the latter, and to backtrack a tad on what I said earlier, slick international magazines, such as, The New Yorker, Playboy, The Atlantic, etc. will often pay several thousand dollars for a short story. Of course, most work is carefully agented—few pieces making it out of the slush pile.
So, then, the realistic options: several current literary journals, The Sun (up to fifteen hundred dollars), Subtropics (one thousand), Glimmer Train (seven hundred, and more for contest winners), One Story (one hundred) pay well. I wrote an earlier post, which discussed several of the top literary journals. Getting published in these journals can help a budding academic career or attract an agent.
Contests are the other chance for making money. Often they have top prizes of one thousand dollars or more (watch out, though, for the entry fees of ten to twenty dollars!). Send only to reputable places, like, Crazyhorse, Narrative, Cream City Review, New South, and so forth. The Internet is rife with various scams, including journals set up only to produce profit from contests.
As always the best advice is to write, send work out, get drunk at AWP, accumulate publications, graduate from an M.F.A. program, gripe about the state of literature on HTMLGIANT, get on the tenure-track, switch to novels, acquire an agent, and then shift into memoir, collect literary prizes, publish more books, elope with a grad student, publish a magnum opus, refuse literary prizes, and then end your days teaching undergrads in a small liberal arts college somewhere in the Midwest.
Sounds like bliss to me.