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Literary magazines and the numbers game, part 1

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, one of the big changes that affected the way magazines such as this are managed is the changes in etiquette when it comes to multiple submissions. In my earliest years as a fiction writer, the expectation was that the author submit work only to one publication at a time. With traditional turnaround times at six to nine months for a response, that could be a long journey for the author. I still have my records from the early years, notes of what I sent where; I can see which magazines I sent to, and how long the magazine took to respond---if at all. And I think then of the anxiousness that came with that: The feeling that a good story might have been sitting out there, unread and unattended.

Sometimes that worked out for the best. In the early 1990s I sent a story called “The Drowning” to Triquarterly, the literary magazine at Northwestern University. Nine long months later I received the story back with a form rejection. I’d never been so certain that I’d written a good story; I’d almost felt as if I’d sent it to this magazine as a near-sure-thing (which I learned, in time, is always a misapprehension). In what may have been a fit of pique, I then mailed it to The Atlantic Monthly, fairly certain I was consigning it to nine more months of pointless delay. But The Atlantic took the story, and quickly; it went on to be included in the next year’s Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize anthologies, was performed on National Public Radio’s "Selected Shorts," and optioned three times for film projects. It became the title story of my first published book. Had Triquarterly said yes, my life as a writer would certainly not have taken the turn it did.

But in the single-submission era, that was the gamble. The more quickly you might get something in print, the more it would benefit you going forward; sending to high-end magazines represented, typically, long wait times and miniscule odds. If you were going to send something to The New Yorker or Paris Review or Atlantic, you were either sure you had a winner or were practicing self-delusion. If you submitted to a smaller magazine, your chances were better at beginning to create a publication history that could recommend your work to the next publication to which you submitted.

Those days are gone. In the multiple-submission era, anyone can send anywhere, anytime. The risks involved diminish. You can send Mount Hope a story and send The New Yorker that story as well. But I’ve given more thought to why that isn’t a good thing.

The numbers game is simple. Under the old etiquette, ten writers sending submissions to ten magazines meant ten decisions were in play. Now, ten authors sending ten submissions simultaneously creates 100 processes. Submittable.com makes that exceedingly easy. I once taught at a writing conference where one unpublished author told me she was sending her work out thirty and forty at a time, then expressed the frustration that no one was accepting anything.

What the multiple-submission game has done, I think, is change the dynamics of the deliberations magazines make. These might include, for the magazine:

1) The sense that the author has not targeted your publication for any defined reason. Most magazines offer submissions guidelines that delineate what it’s about and what might fit. Many magazines, such as ours, either have a website, or online publication of the entire magazine, as we did on Issuu.com up until our 14th issue (we’re discontinuing that, though, because of changes in Issuu’s model).

2) The presumption that the submission has been shotgunned out to numerous publications. That may create a sense of urgency if something jumps out at us, but muddies the process just as much: If we take this story for fear of losing it, will we then have to reject that much-better story you sent us because we have no slots left for it?

3) Staffs, especially at magazines larger and more prestigious than our own, are increasingly overwhelmed by the flood of work.

4) The larger magazines seem to have created “black hole” submissions portals. The New Yorker, for example, has you send to an email address, and warns you that it is unlikely you’ll ever hear anything back on your submission (the exception is poetry, for which the magazine uses Submittable, oddly). There is no transparency, but it’s also not their responsibility to offer that. The fact is, most work being published in these large magazines are getting there through literary agents, because the old model of submission has become overwhelming.

These factors, in my opinion, lead to a different review process, one in which:

1) Submissions must be read very quickly, and with less deliberation, than they otherwise might warrant.

2) Submissions might be turned down quickly, rather than garnering more reads that might produce an insight different than an early reader’s, and one that might change the fortunes of the piece.

3) Submissions that come in closer to the end of a reading period might have a lesser chance at success, and be turned down despite being better than pieces that have been accepted.

4) Truly creative work might be overlooked because of the increased speed with which work must be reviewed.

5) In some instances, large amounts of work may not be read at all. Here at Mount Hope, we look at everything, but not all publications can.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything to be done about this. Submittable.com is here to stay, as is the multiple-submission standard. But one major change that has come from it is a reading fee.

We don’t charge a reading fee at our magazine. But I’m seeing more and more publications that are. The standard seems to be $3 to $5 per submission; I’ve seen as high as $20; the flourishing of “contests” and “awards” with hefty entry fees has become more widespread ---troubling to me, and something I will address in a future post. But the general sentiment seems clear: A reading fee forces an author, at least on some level, to put something behind the submission. The fee somewhat reduces the flood of submissions from authors who are playing the numbers game by sending out dozens of submissions at the same time, and the revenue helps support the process of reviewing the submissions. That may begin to balance things out.

But what I will suggest is that the way submissions are handled at a magazine may change the way an author needs to write. The magazines are simply the first step of a process in which work must demand a hearing. Telling a story, in any form, needs to meet the fickle attention of that modern audience. Next week, I’ll offer some thoughts on that.

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