Monday, February 29, 2016

New rejection policy disrespectful to writers

Everyone loves to be an editor. Editing, though, can be a lot of work, and that’s much less fun than passing out business cards at bookfairs.

I have a regular feature called “Reading the Tea Leaves of Rejection,” where I look at rejection notes and analyze the rhetoric to help the recipient understand the subtext. Sometimes I am critical of these messages, but my mission is not to embarrass editors for their mistakes or errors in judgment. I don’t name journals when I write the “Tea Leaves” feature, because their messages were never intended for public consumption.

But recently a journal posted a general rejection on its website, and this was new territory for me. What this move says, basically, is that if work is not accepted, no notice will be given. It is tempting to name names here, too, but I will adhere to my practice. Writers should exercise due diligence when submitting, and the website of this journal is quite open about the policy.

The magazine in question is an attractive one, printing a diverse and intriguing mix of writers. I particularly like its focus on place, its occasional themes, and its inclusion of art with poetry. I’ve also heard that writers who published with this journal in the past were well treated and happy with the collaboration. This journal has been doing the crucial work of literary publishing since 2009, and the result has been a series of great-looking journals filled with excellent work.

But the past is the past. No matter how much good work this journal has done, there is no excusing its newly adopted editorial practices, which the editors spell out on their web page:

NEW POLICY ON REJECTIONS: Beginning with fall 2016, we will no longer send notices when we turn work down. Instead, if you do not hear back from us within a few days after a submission window closes, then we’ve likely not selected your work for publication. We may, on occasion, make comments on work we turn down. Please see our publicly-accessible Facebook page, where we post front and back covers of forthcoming issues. You do not need a Facebook account to access the page. The back cover will show the names of those selected for publication. This is normally done on or about the first day after the submission window closes.

In sum, here’s the deal: You send work, and if you hear nothing in reply, you’ll figure it out. Sorry about your luck.

Almost more troubling is the suggestion here that accepted writers will learn their status from seeing their name on a picture of the cover on the journal’s Facebook page. I can’t believe that an established journal would dare to publish without a contract or at least an exchange of e-mails with an author, so let’s give the journal the benefit of the doubt here. Despite what this notice seems to say—that successful submitters will be notified via a general Facebook post—we can probably presume that writers whose work will be included are contacted through regular channels.

Times have certainly changed since those storied editor-writer collaborations of years past, but I hope submitters still merit the courtesy of a reply—even a computer-generated reply or a mass e-mail. How long, exactly, does it take to paste a paragraph or two into the body of an e-mail, or to send a message to a list of e-mail addresses? Of course, even if the entire staff has to work around the clock for days to reply to every writer, there’s still no excuse not to do so. Responding to submitters is one of the main parts of the editor’s job. (And incidentally, I suspect we’re looking at less than an hour of effort, and much less if the editors do the logical thing and reject as they read.)

I’m sick and tired of editors regarding writers as a nuisance. I’m likewise tired of editors abnegating their ethical duty to be open and forthright with writers. It’s not necessary to provide a detailed critique for every submission—God knows, I don’t want a critique at all, although many do—but it is absolutely necessary to give writers the simple courtesy of a reply.

Literary journals publish work by authors. The editors draw work from a submission pool (or from solicitations, to varying degrees). Vetting the submission pool is a big job, but a large number of submissions means an opportunity for diverse and unexpected voices. There are treasures to be found in the so-called slush pile.

When are journals going to begin to count submissions as a boon instead of a pain? Or can we expect more and more journals to send the message that this journal does? We can’t be bothered to reach out to you. You’ll figure it out.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post named the journal that adopted this policy. A friend wrote to suggest that there were extenuating circumstances in play, so I revised to fit with my usual practice of not naming names. I want to examine practices more than I want to out editors and journals with which I disagree. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Ask the Moon: You again?

Yesterday I fielded the question of how soon to send again when a rejection solicits work—the coveted “send again” note. I received two related questions from my friends Karen and Lori, respectively.

Karen wonders how long to wait before sending again after withdrawing work that was accepted elsewhere, and Lori asks how soon to submit again after appearing in an issue.

Yesterday’s advice on when to send again boiled down to this: Wait a month to avoid appearing desperate or annoying an editor. Of course, different editors have different attitudes, and some say directly when they would like to see more work. None of this is science.

Karen’s question requires us to consider a few important factors. When our work is accepted by another journal and we need to withdraw from Journal X, it is fine to replace the submission. If we merely clicked “withdraw” on a Submittable submission (or a submission on another management program), I see no good reason not to submit again immediately. But if we had to communicate with an editor via a personal e-mail, it may be a good idea to wait a bit before resending.

As an editor, I look at Submittable as a ticking clock—one that keeps editors on their toes. Unless they’re scanning for famous names, editors probably take Submittable submissions in order. This is only logical; no reasonable person will jump on today’s submissions when there are unread submissions from December. When we submit again to Submittable or another management system, we just remove our work from the queue, and there is no compelling reason not to replace a submission with another at the end of the line.

Some journals accept submissions without using management systems, of course; these provide an e-mail address that a staff has to maintain by hand—probably with a system that is refined over time, but still, a rejection is going to be processed in some way by a human hand. I would be reluctant to send a new rejection immediately when the system is not automatic, because someone is going to have to track down the old submission and cull it. A new submission could complicate matters, and that human I mentioned may feel annoyed to see it. That’s not a good start to a relationship.

I hope submitters are being careful not to ignore journals’ guidelines, because we can’t forget that some dinosaurs don’t welcome simultaneous submissions. It is certainly a mistake to follow up a withdrawal with a new submission if the journal does not allow simultaneous submissions in the first place. I’m not sure when to send again when a writer is thumbing his or her nose at the journal whose attention is being courted. I’d avoid ever sending again out of pure shame.

A slightly more comfortable scenario is offered in Lori’s question—when to submit again after a journal publishes our work. Once I publish in a journal, I have to admit that I feel rather connected to that magazine—as if I’m part of its team, its family. When I’ve been in a magazine, I return the interest and attention it showed me, and I like to follow its news, read its issues, and be connected in whatever way I can.

With that being said, I don’t think it’s a good idea to send again very soon after appearing in a journal, unless there is a special call for submissions, a solicitation, a contest, or some other compelling reason. Why would we? We’ve cracked that nut, and it’s time for the next challenge. My suggestion is that writers wait at least a year, but probably more like two, before sending new work. Editors don’t want us in every issue, so why set ourselves up for rejection? And why not find a whole new audience with another journal? That makes the most sense to me.

I love thinking about the submitting game and all of the various strategies we employ to find homes for our work. I’m not certain there are right or wrong answers for any of this, but writers do well to try to think like editors. If nothing else, it builds empathy for the hard work that happens in the publishing world, and it helps to guide us toward respectful and considerate practices.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ask the Moon: Send again ... but when?

My friend Lori brings up a head-scratcher I hear very commonly from writers:

When I was reading poems for a journal and responded with a no, but that we'd like to see more, I was astounded that some people sent a batch RIGHT BACK which were so similar to the ones rejected that it felt maybe desperate or too eager.

Lori goes on to ask my opinion on the issue. We all covet an acceptance, but barring that, we hang our hopes on the “send again.” But “send again” rejections bring with them the sticky question—when should we send again? Immediately? In a week or month or year? Editors have an opinion about this, but one editor’s opinion may be different from another’s. It leaves writers unsure of how to proceed.

I write this frequently, but it bears repeating: Unless a journal is run by rank amateurs who don’t take the appropriate level of care in their communication, a “send again” statement in a rejection note is targeted and intentional. That means that the editor of any established journal truly means it when he or she includes the line “We invite you to submit again” in a rejection.

Editors receive plenty of submissions. Most of the work is easily rejected; even if work is good, there is a significant difference between “good” and “rocked my world.” Not a lot of “rocked my world” happens, but those pieces tend to be snatched right up. There is a level between competence and amazement, though, and that’s the work that is edging toward amazement—work that has something special going on, even if it is not a pick for an issue of a particular journal yet.

This work, the “edging toward amazement” work, is what editors want to encourage and see more of. Editors like seeing familiar names in the submission queue; it happened many times that I saw a name and thought, “Oh, wow, XXX sent again!” and I couldn’t wait to see the work. Typically a journal has at least two standard rejections, not counting the personal letters that are not from a form. The rejections are the basic form (“No, but thank you for sending”) and the good form (“No, but we read your work with enthusiasm, and we invite you to send again”).

A writer who receives the good form rejection should absolutely send again. An editor like me who recognizes the writer’s name and remembers asking to see more work will be eager to receive it, and the writer will receive perhaps a more generous read because the work has been quasi-solicited. (A true solicitation happens when a writer is contacted out of the blue with an invitation to submit to a journal, and I make a distinction between that sort of invitation and the “send again” rejection.)

It’s probably a good idea to play it cool for a short while and plan the next submission carefully. The trick is to wait long enough that a new submission does not look overly eager or feel burdensome to an editor who may have just become caught up with the always-difficult “maybe” pile, which is where the “send again” rejections tend to come from. (“Send again” may reflect weeks of consideration and discussion, and frankly, an editor may enjoy not seeing your name for a bit. If your last submission came close, it probably required a lot of work—the hardest work an editor does.)

It’s also a good idea not to wait so long that the name recognition factor fails to work in our favor. We can and should mention that the editor asked to see more work when we do send it, but the ideal situation is for an editor to spot a writer’s name and feel interested—rather than spot the name and have it make no impact because the previous submission was too long ago.

How do we calculate this in number of days or weeks? I’d like to mention at this point that I started a blog on writing and creativity because I was told there would be no math. But let’s take a stab. The same day? Bad. The same week? Bad. The same month? Better. And at this point, it’s actually a little hard to make this sort of call. Some editors want a six-month buffer and some were probably hoping to see more work sooner, maybe for a hole in an issue. Additionally, some magazines are very quick.

Yesterday I “sent again” to the magazine that is listed as the fastest in Duotrope’s rankings of response times. I received a response in under a day, and it was quite cordial—but it would be very awkward to send again right away. I think I recall a recent nightmare in which I received another rejection, and another, and still another, like one of those kinetic art desk gadgets with the ball that goes out and swings back without perceptibly slowing. Imagine the ridiculous extreme of your behavior, and the answer of what to do becomes a little clearer, I find—in all areas of life.

And Lori is so wise to bring up the work in this question. There is really no sense in sending again when what we send is almost the same as what was rejected. Chances are we’ll just be rejected again. Maybe what “send again” actually means is “Send something along these lines but different,” rather than “Send something nearly identical to what we just rejected.”

Regardless of when we send again—because in fact editors are very odd birds and nearly impossible to please—I hope the real takeaway is clear. If an editor says, “Send again,” we should absolutely SEND AGAIN. We’re getting closer! Maybe the next time will be the charm.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ask the Moon: The case of the disappearing litmag

Since Nancy Drew solved The Secret of the Old Clock and The Mystery of the 99 Steps, maybe we can turn to her to solve the case of the missing literary journal.

My friend Leslie writes to Ask the Moon this question:

What I'm wondering about is the sometimes ephemerality of online publication. I have at least two stories that have disappeared—one they just aren't archiving that far back, another defunct. I love the part of online that means I get readers, of course, but once the story disappears, it really disappears. No trace—not even cache. I would be interested in your editorial take on that.

Book people sometimes fetishize paper editions—the feel of them, the smell of the ink, the way their spines line up on shelves. But one thing that is irrefutably true about books is that they are physical artifacts that commemorate a publication. We can hold them in our hands, mail them to our moms, pass them around a room.

While I like how my print publications look on the shelf, I really prefer online publications these days. I’m never going to run into my college friends and pull a Laurel Review from my purse, mainly because it’s a small purse, I have far-flung friends, and I like to keep my prized contributor’s copy of The Laurel Review in good condition. But I do enjoy posting a link on social media, and my friends still may not read the thing, but they’re generous with a “like” or a “favorite.”

Leslie brings up a huge drawback to online publishing, though, and that is the uncertainty of the archives. My very first publication was in a small literary magazine out of Illinois called Farmer’s Market. Farmer’s Market no longer exists as a magazine, but my copy exists. It’s on my shelf, and it’s a physical reminder of when I started to fully identify as a writer. I treasure it.

Mind you, I don’t insist on paper. But I don’t want my online publications to disappear, as Leslie reports happening with hers. When we publish online, we like to believe that there will always be a marker online, one that we can return to at any point or refer readers to as the need arises.

In the past here, I’ve mentioned the problem caused by dilettante editors who dabble in literary journals with great enthusiasm and success—until they decide they’re over it. So many people are graduating with MFAs and PhDs in creative writing, and there are far fewer academic jobs than candidates for them. These folks look to find a toehold in the literary world, and they find that publishing a journal is a positive use of their energies. They put out several issues, and they solicit their former classmates and writers they know to ensure that the work is strong. They often show a distinctive vision—something older journals frequently lack—and they use media savvy to build a following. They frequently publish online because it’s cheap or free, and that’s how a new litmag is born.

But then the editors get tired of publishing, and suddenly their journal—named, probably, with a weird-sounding, single-syllable noun—disappears. In other words, Poof! goes poof. Plop! sinks. Jig! pulls a hammie. Nut! cracks up. (My apologies to any real journals that debuted last week or early this morning with any of these names.)

I happen to think that publishing a literary magazine is a calling and a responsibility. Editors owe it to contributors to commit for the long haul, and to ensure that if something happens to them or to the journal, those archives will remain available as a permanent record.

Publishing an author’s work is a profound act of trust, and disappearing without a trace is a violation of that trust.

Sometimes I hear writers and editors complain that there are too many journals. We know that editors think there are too many submitters, crazy as that seems. (Submitters are writers, and I fervently believe that the world needs more writers.) My own take? The more, the merrier—but those who start a magazine must work to secure its future, or they should move over and leave literary work to the real editors.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Ask the Moon: Submission fees prey on the vulnerable

My friend James writes to ask about submission fees. He and I share a basic churlishness about the practice. James writes,

I’ve been submitting a lot (for the first time in a while), and it seems like WAY more litmags have submission fees than used to. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on whether these fees are worth it, especially if (a) I’m simultaneously submitting (the cost adds up a lot quicker that way) and (b) the journal doesn’t pay anything (all I get back is “exposure” of some nebulous quantity). Today, I decided the fees were too much, but I also ended up skipping submitting to some magazines I thought might be a good fit.

There is a growing belief among journal editors that it is acceptable to put the burden of supporting a journal’s activities directly onto the backs of submitters. Submissions used to be universally free, but more and more often, magazines are charging what they consider to be a “small fee”—usually $3 to $5, although we all know of one magazine, Narrative, that charges a whopping $23 for general submissions.

It’s easy to see why journals charge submitters. Most beginning writers long to be published. They willingly cough up the “small fee” just to have an editor’s eyes on their work. Most submitters long ago abdicated their responsibility to contribute to the litmag community by subscribing to any of the magazines where they want their work to appear—in fact, they often sneer at subscription offers from journals. Journals have struggled to support themselves through a whole buffet of means, from vying for grant opportunities (which are drying up), to approaching private donors (who are hit from all sides), to sponsoring contests (which are criticized, maybe justly, for taking advantage of beginners).

So editors figure they’ll go where the interest lies and where the money is. While subscribers are not beating a path to their door, submitters are, and like most of us, they likely have some money to support their passions.

My beef with the practice is the attitude that some editors espouse about submissions. Even before the growing trend of charging submitters, I often heard editors complain about the numbers of submissions they received. Early on, they began to regard submissions as a problem, and it was easy to embrace fees as a solution.

Another complaint I have is that submission fees aren’t entirely equitable. If a journal solicits work from writers and allows the elect few to submit for free, think for a moment of what a gross inequity that is to the early-stage writer who is not being solicited and who, under that model, stands a very poor chance of being chosen from the submission pool. Honest to God, it’s a system where eager undergrads are subsidizing the publication of the work of National Book Award winners—on one end, people are paying what money they have in the dim hope of publication, and on the other, very special people are given the red carpet treatment because their work is a privilege to consider.

But damn it, every writer’s work is a privilege to consider. Almost all of it represents the best people have in them. It all represents time and effort and emotional investment.

Every writer has a mission to say something vital to a reader. It’s not a fashionable thought in a time when workshops tell us that our poems are broken widgets to be repaired in a spirit of total objectivity, but typically, a poet is trying to communicate an inner truth to readers on the outside. Truth is about as valuable a commodity there is, and editors are lucky to receive each and every submission. In a just world, they would pay writers just for the privilege of reading their words.

James asks whether I think the fees are worth it, and I’ve danced around the answer. In a practical sense, most journals charge them now, and if he wants to make progress in getting published and reaching audiences, he should probably formulate a budget for submission fees.

To target another aspect of his question, I believe simultaneous submissions are a must, especially with prose, which James writes. There are too few slots for too much work, and submitting serially instead of simultaneously would probably mean a very long wait for work to find readers.

And finally, James sees a scam at play with journals that charge fees but don’t pay writers. He’s correct to question this. If a journal gets at typical response of five thousand submissions and charges $3 a pop, there’s no reason it can’t pay writers a small honorarium—say $50—for their work. He may want to target his submissions toward those journals that do pay, even a little bit—not because he needs to recoup his costs, but because, like me, he bristles at the indignity and unfairness of the system.

I would remind editors that there are other ways to make money—ways that don’t prey on the most vulnerable, ways that were used before the submission fee trend began. Fundraisers, donation drives, contests, subscriptions, events, workshops—they’re a lot of work, but I’d like to see magazines go back to these funding mechanisms.

I won’t hold my breath, but still—I’d like to see it.