A former student sent in this excellent question: “When I write my cover letters for submission, do I just list more noteworthy achievements or do I include everything, the lesser known publications as well? My only noteworthy publications are two essays in (large regional daily) and a poem in (significant local writing competition). The rest are obscure magazines, journals and anthologies.”
“My works has appeared in (large regional daily), (significant local writing competition series), and elsewhere.”
If you know your magazine—which you should, before submitting—and you know your editor—ditto—you could add one or two more credits that you know will resonate.
LONG ANSWER: Know your magazine and your editor.
I heard the following from Joanna Yas (editor, Open City Magazine). She blushed a bit as she spoke, but bless her heart, gave us helpful honesty over coy humility. She said, ” If I haven’t heard of the magazine, you probably shouldn’t list it.”
Context: Open City is a hip version of the classic literary magazine. High-profile writers. Mostly New Yorkers, focus on fiction. So that tells you where J-Yas is coming from. Or: was. She said that maybe five years ago. Since then, the number of publications (mostly on-line) has shot through the roof. Today, I find it hard to imagine an editor making the same claim.
Lit mags don’t care so much where you have published. They want to read your submission or they want to publish name writers, ie: they contact you or your agent.
I think it is a good idea to submit to your dream publications, and row toward shore. I recently had a piece appear in This Great Society. I wanted some new literary clips. I wanted one up as soon as possible in the best place I could get into. I submitted in March and the piece went up in July. Success.
For a commercial venue you have not written for, they will Google you, click on the links in your e-query, or go to your site. For the more vaunted, if you cannot supply them with links, clicks, or Google-ability, they are not likely to take the piece. BUT! If you keep submitting good ideas, they might eventually take the risk.