Sunday, February 8, 2015

Finding Your Audience: Simultaneous Submissions

            Don’t let anyone tell you differently—in an effort to get your work in front of its audience, you should be simultaneously submitting to literary journals.
            A few literary journal dinosaurs don’t allow simultaneous submissions, and of course their policies should be observed. But maybe it makes more sense to avoid this handful of magazines and to send work instead to those journals that understand the simple fact that until you have their contract in hand, they don’t have the right to tell you what you can or cannot do with your poems or prose.
            The key to making simultaneous submissions work is rigid adherence to ethical behavior. I’ll spell out the unofficial rules of the game:

·      You should target the appropriate number of journals. A beginning writer may shoot for a dozen magazines. A famous name who publishes frequently may not want to simultaneously submit at all. A writer on the spectrum between these two extremes should target appropriately. I’m publishing here and there on a fairly regular basis, so I typically send work to one to three journals at a time. (Actually, not simultaneously submitting is often my choice—it forces me to write more.)
·      Work should be targeted toward journals with similar levels of prestige. It wouldn’t make sense to simultaneously submit to, say, The New Yorker and The Podunk Review.
·      If work is accepted by a journal, you need to withdraw it from other magazines politely and, most importantly, immediately. Don’t let the sun set on this important task; you need to withdraw right away.
·      The first magazine to respond to your work wins. It is the only ethical way to operate. I’ve known writers to try to leverage one acceptance against another, and I can’t think of any worse way to behave. Mind you, this means that if Podunk replies with a “yes” at 5 p.m. and The New Yorker replies with a “yes” for the same work at 5:15 p.m., you’re obligated to go with Podunk. And to receive payment in copies. And to have fifteen readers, total. Refer to the second bullet point to understand where you went wrong.

As long as writers operate with respect for editors’ time and effort, there is no reason to even think twice. Simulsubs pose no ethical dilemma.
            Sometimes people wonder what to tell editors when they need to withdraw a submission. Is an apology in order? And what kind of reaction can one expect? If we’ve followed the editorial guidelines and not submitted to journals that explicitly disallow the practice, a simple request to withdraw a single piece from a packet is sufficient, and conventions of common courtesy suggest that this request be positioned within a polite, formal note. Here’s what I usually say:

            Dear [Name of Editor],

            Please withdraw “Awesome Poem” from my February submission packet. I thank you for your attention to the other pieces there.

            The One That Got Away Karen

Since I’ve done nothing wrong, there is no need for an apology, and if the editor is crushed by disappointment because she was just about to snatch up that piece (I have a rich fantasy life), the “thank you” goes a long way toward making things better.
            Mistakes happen, of course. Sometimes we misread or fail to check guidelines in a submission frenzy, and it turns out that a journal we have submitted to does not welcome simultaneous submissions. If we have to withdraw from a magazine that does not allow simultaneous submissions, a very large apology seems to be called for. We have, after all, prevailed upon somebody who welcomed us in with a simple request that we abide by a single rule. It’s not something we would do in our everyday lives; we wouldn’t take a covered dish of our famous meatloaf to a vegan shut-in. Even if we love beef, we understand that our friend lives by a different code, and because we value that friend, we abide by the code.
            Even so, work that is not contracted belongs to no one but the writer. Our poems and prose are ours to do with whatever we wish, and even when we err and must proffer a withdrawal, there is absolutely no need to explain our reasoning. Perhaps the best move is to send a note saying, “I must withdraw ‘Awesome Poem,’” or, if we’ve ignored the stated rules, “I apologize, but I must withdraw ‘Awesome Poem,’” end of story. It’s only right to own up to our errors, and it’s probably quite obvious how work became suddenly unavailable.
            Work needs an audience. Until it has one, it’s not quite finished. A writer owes it to herself, and to her art, to find the biggest or best possible audience for her work. Simultaneous submissions maximize our chances to find our readers, and we must find them.

Someone out there may be waiting to be changed.

Letter Writing, Jacques Van Bree


  1. Sometimes you just have to load up the poem shotgun. Then cry when it misfires.

  2. Good piece. I'm thinking about the targeting the same level magazine bit. Would you advocate aiming high with the first batch and then targeting a more realistic group of magazines?

    1. Oh, dear, Luanne, I missed this question before! Sorry about my delay in responding. I do advocate exactly what you say -- aim high, equally high, with the first batch, and then ratchet down as you deem necessary. (To be honest, I think it's best only to aim high, in one sense -- aim for the magazines you'd be proud to be in, instead of the ones that are easy to get into. You'll probably find that a lot of the magazines you like aren't insurmountable. I do.)