|Which is best? As Harry Hill says, There's only one way to find out...
Until recently, I've always favoured getting things published online. I'll admit it, it feels good to put a link on Facebook or Twitter and have friends and followers click through to read the story. I like the fact that it's 'out there' - sometimes just for a while, sometimes much longer - and virtually anyone might stumble across it. It's all part of the platform we writers are supposed to be building. I treat online publication like having a publicly accessible CV - people who've enjoyed one of my stories can come to this site and read several others, without having to pay a penny. I don't actually know if anyone does this, but the possibility's there and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.
With print markets, it's difficult to know whether the reduced exposure is worth the increased prestige. There's the question of economics, in terms of who among my potential readers would go to the trouble of buying a print-only magazine - which in many cases, once you pay for postage, can cost a lot more than a paperback book from your local Waterstones. There's also the problem of targeting the right markets for your work - it would cost a fortune to buy an edition of a good selection of literary magazines, and chances are many of them would be a disappointment in terms of (a) not publishing the kinds of stories I like to read, and (b) not publishing the kinds of stories I like to write. It always seems strange that so few of the more established magazines don't offer any kind of free sample (like an ebook or PDF version of an old edition), so that writers - and readers - can see what they're getting before they submit (and perhaps even subscribe - I'm all for supporting small press magazines, but not when I've no idea what they print!).
I've also focused almost exclusively on writing competitions. Some writers baulk at the idea of paying an entry fee (though not all competitions charge them), others find the whole concept of 'competitive' writing a bit distasteful. I can see where they're coming from. However, I've always seen competitions like doing an exam, while submitting your story to a magazine (whether print or online) is more akin to coursework. Submit your work to an editor, and if it's almost but not quite there, you'll probably get a chance to tweak things and generally knock it into shape. With a competition, you only get one shot at it - so everything has to be perfect: your characters, plot, pacing, language, beginning and ending, spelling, grammar, it all has to mesh precisely. It's a good test of your abilities, and the deadline provides all the motivation you could wish for to get on and write your masterpiece. Also, with a competition, there's no rejection to worry about. You get placed or you don't; nobody emails you to say your story isn't up to scratch. For some writers (i.e. me) that's a distinct advantage.
But, after a year when my competition mojo appeared to desert me, I've been reassessing my stance on this. Some of the very big story competitions (the BBC National Short Story Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Competition, both run by Booktrust) essentially say your previous work doesn't count unless it's been in print, and when you look at the biographies of the people who do well in the major contests, very few (if any) mention online publications, whereas some of the more established print markets crop up time and time again. So I'm convinced the general consensus is that print still rules the roost, and if I want to continue to develop my writing I'm going to need to try harder to get some stories into one or two of those magazines.
This doesn't mean giving up on competitions (the Bridport and Bristol short story competition winners are printed in beautiful anthologies, after all) or online markets, but it does mean trying to widen my horizons in terms of where I look when I have a story ready to go. Fortunately, there are many fantastic resources online and elsewhere to help identify potential markets - for instance the brilliant Short Stops, or Thresholds, or any of the many online lists other people have put together. I don't have any particular targets in mind, but if I score any hits, you'll be the first to know about it.
How do you decide where to send your writing?