Monday, January 23, 2017

What do journals owe to former contributors?

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A friend wrote to me last week, and she was feeling very disgruntled over a rejection she had received.

This friend is an old war horse, like me, and she doesn’t get riled about rejections. When you’ve been submitting for a long time, you accept rejections as a matter of course, and they don’t make you especially sad. (The down side, of course, is that acceptances no longer thrill; they’re better than the alternative, but they don’t make a long-time submitter and publisher feel giddy.)

My friend was feeling irritated because she sent a submission to a journal that had published her work before, and she received what was probably some version of the journal’s “good” rejection. (Most journals have at least two different form rejections, one saying “Thanks,” and the other saying, “Please try again.”) 

What happened next was interesting. My friend wrote back to ask whether the journal would be interested in seeing a revision, since the rejection was positive. That editor wrote her back to say this: “You are welcome to send a revision to [Journal Name] through Submittable if you would like. As you know, we are a tough mark with a less than 1 percent acceptance rate, but we would be happy to review anything you would send our way.”

This response really wasn’t an appropriate one to send to a former contributor. My friend had obviously broken through once, despite the 1 percent acceptance rate. Yet the editor wrote to her as if she were a stranger—and a novice. This, despite the record of her having published with the journal. As a former editor-in-chief of a literary magazine, I can say definitively that I would recognize any name from the past twenty years of publication, and if pressed, I could probably match that name up to a title. These names matter quite a bit to a journal; they helped to build the magazine’s reputation, and we often refer to our contributors as family. Any correspondence, and particularly any submission, from a member of the family was enthusiastically received and cordially responded to.

My friend got no such acknowledgement. This is complicated by the fact that she is an important editor herself, and in that capacity she has worked closely with the editor-in-chief of the journal that rejected her.

She told me that she knew the main editor would have been more collegial, whether accepting or rejecting. If that editor had had no interest in seeing a revision, he would simply have said, “No, thanks”—an answer that would have been perfectly acceptable.

What was desired by my friend was not special treatment for her work, but something else: an acknowledgement, maybe, that she had shared her talent and her name (it is a somewhat prominent one) to help advance the journal’s mission. While she didn’t put it this way, I believe it could be said that she wished to be received as family, just as I used to receive the writers at my national journal.

My friend gives this assistant editor great benefit of the doubt. “I know if we talked to these editors in person, they would be shocked to hear how their words are being perceived,” she told me. “They’re just trying to be professional. There’s a huge disconnect.”

This friend didn’t write to complain about her treatment, though. Instead, she wanted to raise an issue that was most pertinent to her, as an editor herself. She wrote, “Maybe the larger question is, ‘What do journals owe the writers they’ve published?’ It’s a curiosity I’ve been exploring in my head both as a writer and an editor. What do we owe each other?

“And maybe the answer is nothing.”

I don’t think my friend believes journals owe nothing to writers, because I’ve witnessed her welcoming, collaborative attitude toward writers many times—including times we served on a masthead together. 

And I don’t believe the answer is nothing. I think journals owe everything to writers. As most journals have started charging for submissions, and as many never send rejection responses (and even announce this as policy), and as many close reading periods without notice, editors seem to forget that writers are vital—that writers, in fact, are the heart of a journal, and without them a journal would fold.

It is true that many magazines contend with large numbers of submissions despite a small staff. But whether ten writers send work or ten thousand, journals should be honored to be entrusted with it, and they should show graciousness and care to all submitters. 

And they should especially show care to family.


  1. I had never seen a discussion of this particular issue of former contributors. A lot to think about here. As someone who is now an editor and also a longtime submitter (and very unprominent, with only modest abilities!) I do have to say I don't think dialogue is useful. A simple form letter kind of rejection note is what most writers and editors would prefer, whatever one's previous connection to a journal.

    1. Hi, Alex! I'm just seeing this, and I wanted to thank you so much for weighing in! I really hate unsolicited advice, and I prefer a simple yes or no from most editors -- but I honestly do think that a former contributor, who helped make a magazine what it is, deserves a personal note, even if it's just a "Thanks for submitting, Karen." :)