Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Simultaneous submissions: A horserace

It’s time someone attempted to explain the ethical horserace of simultaneous submitting.

I am a big believer in simultaneous submitting—that is, submitting the same work to multiple outlets at the same time. It’s the only reasonable way for a writer to operate in today’s publishing environment. Thirty years ago, a few dozen journals considered postal submissions from a much smaller pool of writers, but today, new journals are created all the time, and all typically receive thousands or even thousands of submissions per year.

It’s hard to swim to the top of a submission pile when dealing with those numbers. Response times are frequently slow, if responses are offered at all—more and more journals seem to be adopting the “no news is bad news” model of submission responses—and serial, rather than simultaneous, submissions could mean a lot of wait time.

But there are right ways and wrong ways to simultaneously submit, and there is a cardinal rule that ethical writers must follow: The first journal to accept a piece wins.

To a savvy submitter, this cardinal rule should suggest a few practices for sending out work. 

* First and foremost, aim high. The only practical place to start with a submission is the top. I guess the top varies from writer to writer, but when I invoke the term, I mean to reach up, over our own head. I’ve been in Poetry, which is an excellent journal and a publication I’m very proud of, so for me the top is higher than that—maybe The New Yorker, if the top is determined by the number of readers.

* Also, aim equally. It would be the height of folly to submit simultaneously to The New Yorker and a brand-new, unknown journal. Submitting should be a patient practice, governed by the idea that we’re trying to get each piece into the best possible journal, and for my money, that means the journal with the biggest readership. With all else being equal, I want my poems, stories, and essays to be widely read.

* Aim reasonably. When I was first starting to submit, it made sense to send the same work to, say, eight different journals. I made progress quickly; at first there were more rejections than acceptances, but then my success turned—with a few good credits in my bio, probably, but also with more experience and growth as a writer and submitter. I gradually lowered my simultaneous submission rates to six or four or three journals, and I must confess that these days, I’m pretty lucky with poetry submissions, and I no simultaneously submit in this genre. (Fiction, my weakest genre, is a different story—I still simultaneously submit those few stories I send out because these aren’t as readily accepted by journals.)

* Remember, it’s a horserace. If we submit to multiple journals, and we were careful to aim high and to target journals of similar prominence, we should be prepared to allow the first journal to accept our work to print it. This is one of the main reasons we submit to similarly tiered journals; in the example above, if The Podunk Journal accepts our work on Monday morning and Poetry accepts it on Monday night, we’re honor-bound to go with Podunk. That’s the journal that won the race. Acknowledgement of any acceptance should be immediate, and so should withdrawal from other journals. We must drop everything to take care of this crucial piece of business, mainly so that editors won’t waste time on unavailable work.

* Know the journals you submit to. It’s best to obtain or view a full issue, but most journals have sample contents online. A lot of precious time can be wasted by writers who send poems to fiction journals or traditional work to experimental journals. Investigating the market helps writers to submit respectfully.

* Thank an editor. Respect should be the name of the game when submitting. Editing a journal is hard work, and most of the time editors are either uncompensated or poorly paid. I definitely think the respect should go both ways, and I have a dim view of disrespectful correspondence from editors. But both parties have to make an effort to achieve a positive atmosphere in publishing. No one wants an antagonistic relationship among people who operate within our field.

* Follow journal guidelines to a T. A journal announces its rules and intentions, and writers should abide by them or avoid them. There are enough journals that we don’t have to submit to journals whose policies we dislike. This is especially true for simultaneous submissions. Some old-guard journals don’t allow simulsubs, and that’s their prerogative, to an extent. (They don’t actually have a right to tell writers what to do with their work, but it’s the principle of the thing. There’s no reason to send to a journal with policies we don’t like.)

Beyond all of these rules and best practices, the most important part of submitting is the writing part. One reason I gave up simultaneous submissions for poetry is that it prompted me to finish and refine more work and to keep my creativity going.

Submitting should be a deliberate and thoughtful process, but it’s not a writer’s main job. When publishing is our primary focus, our writing suffers, and we become something other than an artist.

Writers write. And then, in their non-writing time, they work to find an audience—the largest and best one they can.

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