Tuesday, January 26, 2016

I have promises to keep: On editorial professionalism

Not long ago, a friend reported to me that he’d been the victim of a literary switcheroo.

A well-established journal accepted his poems and even sent a contract to make it official. Before press time, though, my friend received an e-mail informing him that there had been a communication snafu, and his work was actually slated to appear in the online edition of the journal, rather than the print version.

Now, after giving the matter much thought, I’ve actually grown to prefer online publication. I like sharing the work easily with my friends via social media, and I also appreciate the unlimited number of potential hits. The most prestigious journals in the country may only print 3,000-5,000 copies, and I suspect precious few of those copies are read cover to cover. Actual potential readership in a print journal is minute—although it’s true that the feel of paper in the palm is hard to beat.

But this isn’t about me. My friend had been excited about this acceptance, and he had worked for years to break into that particular journal’s pages. He didn’t want his work to be featured in an online issue; he wanted what he considered to be the real thing. And according to his communication with the journal, this “real thing” was exactly what he deserved.

Is it just me, or do things begin to fall apart when editors and writers fail to act like professionals? A writer should send a normal amount of work (about three to five poems) with a polite cover letter or electronic note. She should follow the established guidelines, or else submit elsewhere. She should wait until the end of the announced response time before querying. She should not follow up with an immediate submission unless specifically asked to do so. And under no circumstances should she write to the editor and argue about the decision or ask for an explanation. (The simple explanation is that her work wasn’t good enough. The expanded explanation is that the editor doesn’t remember her work because it wasn’t good enough.)

But a professional attitude is even more important on the editorial side. (Submitters aren’t going to fall in and act rationally; they’re too diverse, and anyway, diversity and a little attitude are what make journals good.) Editors have important work to do. They have to give submissions a fair read and a prompt response, and they always have to keep in mind that their real job is nothing less than to contribute to the life of letters.

More and more editors seem to be adopting an attitude of the writer as a nuisance—or worse, as a mark. So many times submissions go unacknowledged for months or more than a year, or forever; a few magazines have even taken to telling submitters simply that no news is bad news, and if they see a piece they want, they’ll be in touch. Submission fees compound the problem. I can think of several magazines that openly admit to getting most of their work from solicitations but still charge a reading fee for regular submitters in what may well be the crappiest lottery around. Additionally, some journals have deliberately offensive rejection notices that are designed to chase away submitters they deem unworthy. Luckily, this bad behavior is not the norm—but it’s also not uncommon.

These ugly practices by journals and presses put literary publishing in a bad light. They don’t seem to spring from well-meaning editors; instead, they seem like the behaviors of brats and snobs. With my friend and his presto-chango publishing arrangement, I don’t sense any ill will. Rather, I think an overworked editor probably went overboard with acceptances for a print issue and had to come up with a way to remedy the problem. More work means more pages, and in a print journal, that means more money. The Internet remains commodious, and more work there is no big deal.

But again we come back to the idea of professionalism. A letter of acceptance is an editor’s word to a writer. An affirmative response from the writer is, likewise, the writer’s word. Written agreements can have the strength of a contract, under the law, and often an actual contract is also exchanged. My friend experienced a breach of contract when he learned that work he had submitted for one journal was being shifted over to another, different journal (which is exactly what that online edition is). The only reason editors ignore contracts on a fairly regular basis—withdrawing acceptances, shorting payment or contributor’s copies—is that writers aren’t going to take a case to court over contributor’s copies or a $50 honorarium. Editors know they can do what they wish with impunity, or with a week or two of social media shaming as a worst-case scenario.

I could write a whole post about the problem with having separate online and print issues and putting the better work in one or the other. That’s more of that disrespect I was talking about. But the problem here is more fundamental. One of the parties is not keeping his word—something ethical professionals just do.


  1. Sigh... It sounds like those particular editors are acting like big bad bosses in big bad businesses in a crappy capitalist economy, without, though, making all that money. The culture seeps in.... I'm sorry for your friend and glad for your clear statement of how it should be!

    1. Thanks, Kathleen! While I advocate professionalism, I, too, am opposed to a big-business mentality. We need to keep our word and treat writers considerately.