Thursday, June 9, 2016

Why good journals don't publish writers from their masthead

In yesterday’s post, I made this statement: “Good journals don’t print writers from their masthead, unless it’s in the form of a review or an interview.” My friend Shannon liked that bit, and she asked me to elaborate.

I’m always pleased when someone suggests a topic. I struggle, actually, to come up with a timely and interesting topic to address each day. I’m delighted when a prompt or question shows up in the comment area of a post, or when a friend drops me a note to share an interesting idea or a funny bit of correspondence from an editor.

As for my statement, it may be a good idea to define “masthead,” a word that is often misused to refer to the name or flag of a journal or other publication. The masthead is the list of editors of a publication. It’s always among the first few pages of a newspaper, magazine, or journal, and it includes the editors and interns and assistants—all of the people who make a publication possible.

When I say that good journals don’t print writers from their masthead, I mean that they don’t print original creative work—poems, essays, stories, and the like—from the people who make decisions about what goes in each issue. This is for the simple reason that ethical journals find their work among the hopeful—the people who have submitted their best work in good faith. It would be appalling rudeness to reject a writer from the submission pool, only to print a story by the managing editor.

This is understood by established journals. Only a very new journal or a student-run one is likely to make this sort of editorial decision. It can make sense with a student-run journal at an undergrad institution. In a very small program, the litmag is an instrument of the community. It brings people together and cements identity. In my own undergrad journal, I served on the editorial staff and had my work printed as a winner of an annual literary prize. This strikes me as an exception; anyone could enter the contest, and the journal just agreed in advance to print the winner. The winner happened to be a staff member of the student magazine, but those pages were set aside in advance; printing the work of the prize-winners did not put editors in competition with submitters.

I can imagine a very small university with a campus-only journal—not one that prints outside submissions—where staff members might represent the most dedicated writers. That’s certainly how it was at my small university; a few dedicated writers were at the core of the magazine and the reading series and the writing classes. It wouldn’t make sense to deny a spot to the dozen students who do all of the writing stuff on campus. Who will write the content if the writers are doing the editing? There will be a few people who step up, but most of the serious writers are sitting around the table, considering work.

This scenario is quite finite. At a larger university with more options for students, I really wouldn’t support student-editors publishing their own work; there are good undergrad journals, and there are journals that are very open to new writers. That campus magazine is never the only option, and at a larger university, it’s unlikely that every serious writing student is on the staff. Even at a small university, though, if the journal accepts submissions from the outside, printing work by staffers is inappropriate.

A good place for editors to participate more fully in their own journal is with book reviews. There just aren’t enough literary book reviews, and most journals receive few or no unsolicited submissions of these. Plus, a book review is the valid work of a literary journal, and it’s all hands on deck to perform this service to readers.

Likewise, a staff could opt to publish interviews of writers, and that’s a place where an editor could contribute. Since an interview is functionally a conversation between the journal and the subject, there is no problem with editors doing this work and enriching the journal with the sorts of insights that can result.

Often, journals include the names of consulting editors on their masthead. For nonprofit journals, the consulting editors are usually well-known writers who have agreed to allow the journal to list them because they support the editors’ work. Don’t picture annual gatherings of this august body; that’s not a thing. There is no board meeting/barbecue/kickball tourney. The work starts and ends at the list, or, for more enterprising journals, it ends with occasional dialogue—do you like what we’re up to, what is your favorite feature, are we making any errors, etc.

Consulting editors are typically chosen because they are favorite writers of the editors, or because they have contributed frequently to the magazine in the past. I may make an exception for this group. If, say, Stephen King agrees to serve on the board of consulting editors, it’s highly unlikely that he’s going to be sitting around that table and deciding whether Joe Schmoe’s nonce sonnet makes the cut. Consulting editors don’t make this decision. Usually they do nothing at all. I suppose we shouldn’t even have them, but granting organizations like them, and it can be helpful to have that kind of cachet.

If Stephen King sends a story, feel free to accept it (if it’s good enough—and I suspect it will be); his title is honorific, because you like his work, but he’s not really a member of the staff. But if your assistant poetry editor does, please don’t.

The bottom line is that editors need to be very fair to submitters. Submitters are people who spend hours at their keyboard or notebook, getting the words exactly right, to the best of their ability. They deliberate over where to send their work, and each submission is accompanied by faith in the editors to do well by them, to treat them fairly, to respond with promptness and with respect. Staffers have no business elbowing these good people out of the way.


  1. Okay, yes, good points. Thanks much for another fine piece, Karen.

    What about this, though: what is our goal as an editorial team? Is it to be fair to submitters or is it to produce the best magazine possible? If the editorial team considers in its collective subjective opinion that a creative piece by one of its editors to be of excellent, stellar quality--a story/poem/photo that will unquestionably raise the caliber of the issue, why deny the magazine the chance to publish it?

    I mean, I totally get how the group decisionmaking process can be seriously compromised under this system. How an editorial team can go terribly wrong by leaving open the possibility of publishing one another. But should we not give editors more credit for being able to say to one another: hey, dude: I love you but this piece isn't good enough.

    We're flawed human beings, so naturally this isn't going to work perfectly, but ultimately doesn't a magazine suffer when it shuts itself off from potentially great work because it's written by one of its editors? And might not an editor of the magazine have a certain unique perspective on a theme/aesthetic that the magazine is looking for?

    Personally I fall somewhere in the middle here. I think a mag shouldn't unilaterally restrict creative work from its editors, but it should be much harder for an editor to publish in it. Editors should be held to a far higher standard. I'd say a) the work must be recognized not just as holding its own with the others, equal to the rest, but it must be unequivocally stellar; and b) the editor in question should already have earned her chops with many publications elsewhere and recognition from the larger literary world that her work in general is seen as excellent.

    Very curious to know what you think about this.

    1. PS: Sincerely, Shannon Cain.

      (Google thinks I'm "unknown." The internet isn't tracking my every move for a damn change)

    2. There are lots of venues out there for excellent writing. If I were working at a literary journal and one of my co-editors wrote a piece that was absolutely amazing, I'd say, "Wow, this is great. You should send this to Ploughshares!"

      Then if she said, "I already sent it to Ploughshares, and ten other literary magazines, and they all rejected it," to her face I'd be like, "Those bastards! Don't they know an amazing piece of writing when they see one?"

      But on the inside I'd think, "Maybe this isn't as good as I think it is. Maybe I'm being nice to my colleague and not noticing the flaws. Maybe it isn't outstanding--I wouldn't have read it all the way through if I hadn't promised my colleague. Maybe you need to know the writer personally to understand the voice."

      So if that colleague pivoted to, "Since you think it's so good, we can publish it in our journal, right?" I'd say "Sorry, no, that's against the policy."

  2. Andrew, yeah. I totally hear you...these are all the reasons I agree with Karen's premise: that good journals don't publish their editors.

    Karen, okay, so I'm on the editorial team for Paris Lit Up magazine, an annual litmag now in production for issue #4. Here's a story. When we were in London, touring bookstores and pubs with our fab literary performances to promote issue #3, a member of our team took it upon himself to try to sell the magazine to indie bookstores. He handcarried the last two issues around to a few key shops, one of which was one of these famous London bookstore dudes--I'm forgetting his name or the name of the store and I'm too lazy to google it but I'll find it if you're that interested--anyway the guy is famously crusty and highbrow, and our man Ed hands him an issue and he says yeah we don't stock litmags so much anymore you know they don't really sell...and the guy looks at the issue and takes a minute with it and says all right well you can leave one here I guess, and then he keeps looking and gives it another minute or two and says yeah, why don't you leave two.

    Okay, so for a little litmag produced by basically three or four hardy souls, that's a victory. And this victory came from an issue in which many of the contributors were also on the masthead. These were the artists and writers who made something beautiful by submitting their best work for the others to read, critiquing it amongst themselves, etcetera. And it's really a beautiful magazine. The publishing model was as much a collective as it was a traditional litmag editing model. It's been a hybrid, and in part that's been its strength.

    This isn't to say that in my subjective view there haven't been missteps, quality-wise, with regard to editor's submissions. I think in the past there has in fact been blindness to the problems of the work of one's colleagues.

    Now that we're more well known and doing a better job of soliciting writers, we're getting a more submissions. As the magazine matures these are conversations we've been having. This year, while we've rejected the mandate that Editors Shall Not Submit, we've been talking a lot about it. One member of our team who works on the admin side of the magazine has already announced his intention to submit, has spoken to us about his vision and ideas, heard our feedback. He's not on the editorial decisionmaking team so we thought it okay. On the other hand, we all love him and are thus impartial. But I'd hate to see us no publish his piece, because it sounds fantastic. Personally, I'm favoring a system wherein editors who want to submit will do so through the regular online system, and that they are encouraged to use a pseudonym. And to submit work that the others probably haven't seen. This strikes me as fair, but I fear something will lost by eliminating the collaborative critique process that fueled the first three issues and that I think will make the next issue richer.

    1. Thanks for all that interesting background! I'm busy today and haven't had time to craft a good response, but I've been thinking a lot about your comments and will reply in detail later. I wonder ... is there a cultural difference, too? Are European writers closer to that salon/small magazine tradition of writers who were evangelical about "making it new" and spreading philosophies about literature? Maybe my attitude is born of capitalism. It's worth thinking about whether it is.

      So more later -- and thanks for the good suggestion and follow up posts.

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  5. In my country, around 70% of the poems published by one of our most popular Sunday mags are written by one of its editors (whom I believe is the "undeclared" literary editor). On second thought, I think I'm exaggerating; perhaps it's "only" 60%.