Saturday, June 11, 2016

On publishing your BFF

While we’re thinking about issues related to connection and partiality among editors and writers, it’s useful to ask the question of how close is too close for submissions.

The answer is complicated by the fact that there are all kinds of submissions—regular magazine submissions, contest submissions, special calls for thematic work (as with an anthology), and more. Each situation calls for a new assessment of the relationship between submitter and decision maker, and for careful calculation of how the relationship could potentially impact other submitters.

A policy on relationships is almost always spelled out by fee-based and/or cash-prize literary contest guidelines, which typically specify that no student or friend of the judge or the staff can enter (or sometimes no one associated with the publishing body, like a university, is permitted to submit). There is a good reason for rigorous guidelines when submitters pay to have their work read, and when a prize (beyond recognition) goes to the winner.

When a cash prize is on the line, it could not be more crucial to avoid conferring an unfair advantage. Favoritism is a form of fraud, after all—that $35 fee should make every entrant equally eligible to win. Obviously, provable fraud is punishable in civil and criminal courts.

More to the point, it’s a matter of trust that editors won’t swindle entrants by choosing buddies to win big prizes and high-profile publication. When there is even a sense that this has happened, it doesn’t sit right with entrants. Contests are expensive, and they should be conducted fairly.

Beyond contests, it is also somewhat problematic for editors to print their friends’ regular submissions. I’ve mentioned it before in various ways, but if a magazine receives five thousand submissions per year and the table of contents reveals a large number of former classmates and professors and pals of the editor, it can feel as though regular submitters have wasted their effort and misplaced their faith.

While editors have an ethical responsibility not to play favorites (and most don’t, I firmly believe), writers also have a responsibility to the writing community that they not request favors. Of course this happens, especially when writers are starting out; they know an editor and believe they have an in, so they submit. The problem is when they know the editor too well. If the editor was on the writer’s thesis committee, it’s best to submit elsewhere and avoid making everyone uncomfortable. (Worse than getting published by favoritism? NOT getting published despite an expectation of favor.)

What really complicates the matter is social media. On Facebook, every associate is called a friend. By that token, I have 3,500 “friends”—but, um, no social life at all. Like most users of social media platforms, I connect with people who have something to offer—insight into politics, a hilarious sense of humor, mutual interests, an unusually good-looking cat. It’s a convivial feeling, to think of these people as friends, but I’m just not certain that we get 3,500 friends in this life. I feel like the luckiest among us get a few dozen, and they shift in importance throughout our lives (our elementary school friends are not our work friends, typically). These are the people we treasure.

There are also associates, who range in closeness from a former boss whom we never knew socially to the professor who once took us in when we were wet and cold and freaking out on acid. You get the picture. It’s almost certainly OK to submit to the former, and it’s relying too heavily on connections to send to the latter.

If there is an exception, I believe it is for special issues and anthologies. If a good friend were to announce that she was putting out an anthology of television poems, you can bet that I would submit in a heartbeat. I have been very public about my current project, which is a third full-length manuscript of classic TV poems. The theme justifies the breach of normal conduct. It’s hard to fill an anthology, and the submission pool is automatically smaller. Usually editors have to beat the bushes for work, and my bush is pretty obvious when it comes to TV poems. (There has to be a better way to say that.) Maybe the favor has to go two ways—a submitter has to be doing the journal a favor as much as the journal is helping the writer. But no, I don’t think this logic applies to regular submissions, and it certainly doesn’t apply when money or a prize is in the offing.

Which relationships pose a problem when submitting? It’s best to avoid sending work to an editor who is also a job reference, or whose wedding you officiated, or who you at any point huddled with to generate life-saving body heat. If you named offspring after an editor, or if the editor shares your last name and its more than a coincidence, or if you can describe the editor’s genitals to a police sketch artist, pass. If you buy the editor a holiday gift, pass. Mostly, though, if it feels sketchy, pass. You’ll be glad you did.

I guess there’s a sliding comfort scale when it comes to submitting. I can’t tolerate the idea or perception that I might be seeking favors, so I avoid editors I know well. Some may be perfectly comfortable working any advantage, and it’s hard to question the logic of submitting to friends as a way of getting ahead. I think, though, that it feels much better to be published by a stranger than a friend.

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