I recently heard a panel of US magazine editors (from New Yorker, One Story, etc) discuss short story submissions. The statistics are depressing. For example, the Paris Review gets about 15000 stories a year of which it prints 15, most coming via agents. Even with smaller magazines, less than 1% of stories are taken.
One editor said that she didn't think that agent-submitted pieces were much better than openly submitted pieces, but she still read the agent ones first, because she didn't want to be hassled on the phone by them. The first big hurdle is getting out of the slush pile. One editor said that Quality might only be the 5th most important factor - cover-letter information's more important. The most common cause of quick rejection is that the story is the wrong genre or length.
In June 2007 The Independent (UK) printed an article by AL Kennedy - Why the short story is still alive and well - but the title's more optimistic than the contents. She thinks that "Publishers, who rarely pay well for short-story collections, are then under no pressure to recoup an investment and rarely promote them, so they sell poorly, thus fulfilling the prophecy that collections sell poorly."
The Guardian are also trying to help. They have some stories online, and in August 2007 published The Guardian Summer short story special - a 50/50 US/UK male/female split. About 18 pages of text, so we should be grateful, but about 12 pages of pictures.
Summer 2007's Antioch Review 65.3 was an "All Fiction" issue. The editorial says that in 2004 they came close to refusing unsolicited material (they received 5000 stories a year and depended on voluntary "slush readers"). Luckily, new volunteers came forward and this issue is mostly from the slush pile. They also say that "Breaking into print has never been easy and the commercial market for short fiction has shrunk dramatically in the last few years. The expansion of M.F.A. programs (on line and off) has added a new dimension in that there is a growing class of individuals who write professionally and need to publish their work in order to advance their careers", so it's not just in the UK that there are problems.
For more information, visit The short story which has several articles about the short-story from various viewpoints - agent, publisher, writer, self-publisher, etc. Some rays of hope in the UK are that
Maybe short writers are rushing online. I've always had doubts about whether prose suits the new mode - it doesn't fit on a single screen; it's hard to come up with a quick, useful reaction; and "the regulars" might only be able to submit 3 or 4 times a year. I have a list of online prose forums which I sometimes look at. Some of the groups are private, but I've some stats for May 2007 activity
It's all rather discouraging. Maybe most of the work is on register-only boards, or maybe May is a bad month, or maybe online prose needs to be dealt with in a different way? Even the big sites aren't perfect. Laura Denham's essay, Hissy Fit Now (Salon) describes some happenings at Zoetrope which led to dissatisfaction. I think genre sites have a better chance of attracting a loyal following. And paying for a course encourages a commitment that free venues can't easily incite.