Writers often feel desperate for publication. We feel like we NEED to be published, and we’ll settle for any magazine, for any contest, as long as our work is being validated by someone other than our moms. (Okay, okay, I’ll admit it: When I say “we,” I really mean “I.”)
But we have to remember, we are the ones with the power. We are the ones writing the stories and poems and essays that appear in said magazines and journals. We do not need to send our work to just any magazine for the sake of a potential line on our CVs.
Since my first submission to Ploughshares many years ago (it was rejected, for good reason), I’ve sent dozens of stories to dozens of lit mags and plenty of contests. I have a nice handful of publications to show for it.
But for every magazine to which I’ve submitted, there’s one I chose to pass up, for various reasons.
Here are ten of them:
1. You wanted me to post my story online, as a comment on your website. This is self-publication. I would never be able to submit that story to another journal, and I probably won’t even win your contest. No way.
2. You wanted my first-born child. I’m happy to hand over first serial rights, and I’d love for you to archive my story on your website. But if you want something more than that, you need a damned good reason, especially if you’re only paying me in copies.
3. You haven’t updated your website since the 1990s. In these days of WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, SquareSpace, etc., there are zero excuses not to have a professional-looking website. ESPECIALLY if you are an online journal. (I give print journals associated with universities some slack, because they are often stuck with whatever the university deigns to give them.)
4. Your journal or chapbook covers look like a ten-year-old made them in Photoshop 5.0. I want my work to find a beautiful home, whether in print or online. Crappy journal covers are as much of a turn-off for me as 1990s-era websites. You can’t expect me to believe you care about what you’re doing if your journal looks thrown together.
5. Your submission guidelines are unclear, confusing, or ridiculously complicated. If I can’t figure out how to submit, or if it’s going to take me three hours to go through the process, I’m not going to waste my time. Please, for the love of literature, use Submittable, CLMP’s Submission Manager, email, or even snail mail. Making me jump through hoops is just… why?
6. You charge a contest fee that is enormous compared to the cash prize. Some journal editors seem to think charging a $20 entrance fee for $250 or $500 grand prize is a fair deal. Standards set by the most prestigious journals are a $15 to $20 entrance fee for at least a $1,000 grand prize. An entrance fee that’s 2% of the prize is much more reasonable than one that’s 10%. If you only have $500 or $250 to give away, that’s fine—just charge a lower entrance fee.
7. You take a year to respond to my submission. You may have fooled me once, but I’m not going to let one of my stories sit in limbo a second time. I understand lit mag staffers are usually unpaid volunteers, and life happens. But how long does it take to send a “Hey, we’re really behind, but we’re working on it, and we’re sorry” note?
8. Your journal is brand-new. So new, in fact, that you don’t have a real website yet, and you barely have a plan. I don’t have anything against brand-new journals. I really like new journals. I think a lot of interesting and experimental writing is being showcased in these start-ups. I’ve even had a story published in the first issue of a brand-new magazine. (“A Tree Love Story,” in Psychopomp). But I will hesitate to trust my words to you if you still have a “blank.wordpress.com” URL—or worse, no website at all, just a Gmail account—, a sketchy plan for when and how often you will publish, and a vague statement of what you’re looking for. You can’t fall back on “read our journal!” so you need to be detailed and specific.
9. “Read the journal to see what we like” or “Send only your best work” is the most you say about your editorial focus. It’s important to read literary magazines to find ones you love, ones that aren’t to your taste, and ones you think could house your work. Sending a story to twenty magazines you’ve randomly selected from a Duotrope search is usually a waste of time. But when editors can’t even describe the kind of work they like, I’m thinking they probably don’t know, and it usually shows with a bizarre blend of not-so-great stories. (Saying your tastes are “eclectic” is almost as bad when not backed up with a stronger editorial statement.)
10. I’m not into the stories you’ve already published. It’s nothing personal, and it goes both ways. If I don’t think my work fits in with your editorial focus or the tone you’ve set with previous stories, I’m not going to waste my time or your time sending you something you probably won’t like.
What stops you from hitting the submit button?