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. 

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