Submission guidelines were created with the express purpose of seeing how far you're willing to grovel in order to get your short story published.Probably said by a multitude of writers but for the purposes of this post was originally stated by me around 2007.
Four years and countless submissions later, I now say this:
Submission guidelines were created with the express purpose of weeding out people who are incapable of following simple instructions, thus leaving those who can follow instructions with a major degree of accuracy an open, honest and level playing field.
For the purpose of this post, I'm going to concentrate on short story submissions, since those publishers have the type of guidelines that don't have a lot of caveats to them and thus make it reasonably easy to submit a story.
I've found over the years that all publishers usually fall into two major categories with their submission guidelines:
New material only!
All publishers are looking for new material to publish in their e-zines, magazines and/or literary journals. However, while some have made it beyond crystal clear in their guidelines about it, others are slightly more ambiguous. While they say they want new material, they don't specifically state that the new material has to be previously unpublished. This in turn creates a small conundrum in that if you have a good story that was say, previously published on a blog in a different form and then you decided to tighten/re-write the story, does it make a new story or a previously published story? Of course, one way the conundrum can be easily solved by e-mailing the editor with that very question. Doing that, I believe, actually gives the impression that you know how to ask for clarification on a particular part of the submission guideline.
The other way to solve the conundrum is to simply e-mail the submission and specifically state in the query that the story was previously published elsewhere (like a personal short story blog for example) under a different title. That way, the story can either be accepted or rejected based either on the merits of the story or on the fact that you're submitting a previously published story.
Personally though, I think it might be easier if publishers made the distinction clearer as it pertains to a story being previously published. As I see it, simply stating that if a story popped up anywhere on the Internet, it's considered published, is overly broad and overly punishing. If a story was previously published in an e-zine, then yes I can see where that's cut and dried. But what if you published the story on your own personal blog? If you still own the rights to the story and you have the ability to pull the story down if need be, how does that count as previously published?
Previously published material accepted!
Some publishers clearly state in their guidelines that reprints are accepted, which I think is a good thing in that these publishers are recognizing the fact that some e-zines/magazines don't last a very long time and sometimes it's good to find another home for a well written story. Some also state while reprints are accepted, the story itself had to originally appear in a magazine with a circulation of less than 5,000.
Still others, while they may clearly state that new material is accepted, they are open to reprints depending on how well known the writer or well respected the writer is, or even with the reverse of how well known and well respected the e-zine/magazine is.
However, the one consistent point that all of these publishers/editors agree on is word count. Unless you're specializing in flash fiction or micro-flash fiction, most publishers/editors want stories that clock in under 5K words. This is by far the easiest part of any submission guideline to meet, and if you can't meet that (like I couldn't for quite a years), then perhaps you should take a class on creative writing (like I should've back in the day).
To sum it up, submission guidelines, while on the surface seem to be nothing more than a sadistic ploy to make sure that you never get published unless you grovel and boot lick, are there to really prove one salient fact: That you can follow directions.
If you can't follow directions to something as simple as submitting a well written short story to a publisher, then really, what's that say about you?