Thursday, February 11, 2016

The problem of cronyism in publishing

I love how small the literary publishing world is—and I hate it, too.
It’s really hard to beat the pleasure of walking through the AWP bookfair and shaking hands with those editors who accepted a poem, story, or essay of mine. These are people I know primarily from e-mails and the occasional postal exchange, and it sometimes feels as though I have a relationship with them. We may have worked on improving a poem together, or we may have put together a suite of poems that would work interestingly together. By the time we’re done, I feel a certain closeness to them, although they may, in fact, be near-strangers to me.
When they choose to, editors of literary journals play an important role. They are the ones who vet thousands of submissions to find work that is worth presenting to an audience. They thus serve the needs of readers and of writers.
Believe it or not, editing a magazine is quite a difficult job. The numbers of submissions are a little hard to envision for those who have not been on the editorial side of the transom, and good editors build relationships with writers—even writers who are rejected. It takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to maintain these relationships, but the most rewarding part of my editorial life was when a writer I’d been encouraging finally broke through and sent work that was too good to refuse.
And in addition to the time that goes into communicating with writers, it is also very time-consuming to make decisions. I’ve mentioned before here that a negative response is usually a speedy default, but the work that comes close can be puzzling to consider. And editors must work quickly, or they risk losing out to other journals—as they should. Simultaneous submissions serve writers and journals well in this way.
Despite my tremendous respect for editors, I do see some questionable practices in play from a handful. Most editors are also writers, and some back-scratching occurs from time to time, or seems to. On occasion I have sent to journals and received, almost simultaneously, both an acceptance and a submission from the editor. With the number of journals that exist, this seems like an unlikely coincidence, but it’s a common one nonetheless.
As editor-in-chief of a major litmag, I spent a dozen years publishing other people’s work instead of my own. During that time, I made many good professional contacts and built some friendships in the field, but an unexpected effect was that my relationships with other editors made submitting awkward. I didn’t want even a sense of quid pro quo where my poems were concerned; instead, I wanted them to get by on their own merit. During these years, for the most part I didn’t attempt to publish in journals, and I certainly didn’t pursue a full-length book. Lately, I’ve been catching up for lost time—thankful for the quick turnover in the literary field and the spate of new journals that are always being created.
In the old days, I sought publication with the most established journals, and I thought of publications in terms of tiers. There was a top tier that represented the most established and prestigious outlets, and a secondary tier for very fine journals of long standing, and a middling tier and a low tier. I avoided the low tier altogether, because I didn’t really want my work to be in subpar journals.
Of course the recent (and ongoing) online literary publishing revolution forced a change in my thinking. Some fascinating online journals offered a much bigger potential audience than most of my supposed top-tier journals. If audience isn’t a determiner of tier, the system is flawed. When I submit my work, I want readers, and I’m sort of over the idea of prestige through long standing. With every single issue, a journal has to bring it—bring excellent, challenging work that surprises readers and withstands scrutiny.
Work exchanged through cronyism typically doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Writers don’t resort to those means if they have the chops to do otherwise. Unfortunately, the reading public has only one way of evaluating a journal, and that is through the work it publishes.

I loved being an editor-in-chief, but I also love operating outside of the system. When you start out as nobody special, an acceptance means that, in fact, you are special—and it’s your work that makes you so.

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