The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming
Photo Credit: Theryn Fleming
For many of you, this time of year, almost spring, means piles of slush.
But for us west coasters, it means cherry blossoms.
Sometimes I see statistics on slush piles posted, e.g. if a publication gets 1000 submissions and it publishes 10 of those, then anyone submitting there has a 1% chance of being published. Such stats assume that publication is like a lottery: you buy a ticket and if you’re lucky your number is drawn.
Of course, that’s crazy.
“Anne,” who writes well, follows guidelines, and submits her work to publications where she knows it would be a good fit is not comparable to “Bob,” who hasn’t mastered the basics of writing, ignores guidelines, and submits his work to unsuitable publications.
Anne has a good shot at being published regardless of how many other people submit. Bob is unlikely ever to be published regardless of how few people submit.
Potential for publication also depends on how seriously journals take their slush piles. Are they truly interested in wading through the slush to find the cherry blossoms—or are they just going through the motions?
Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways recently wrote an article titled “The Death of Fiction?” In it, he complains about the number of submissions VQR gets in a year (15,000) versus the number of subscribers VQR has (1,500). According to Genoways’s logic, this means that everyone is writing and no one is reading, a situation he attributes to writers no longer concerning themselves with what their potential audience wants to read.
Well, he may have a point there. However, I think Genoways rather misses the real reason for the discrepancy between VQR‘s submissions rate and its subscriber rate. Publication in an established, prestigious print journal is a dream for a lot of writers and so such publications are likely to receive a disproportionate number of submissions.
In “The Death of the Slush Pile,” Katherine Rosman writes that although “[g]etting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot” because it did happen occasionally, “the slush pile represented The Dream.” While it’s unclear from Genoways’s article how many slushpile pieces, if any, VQR publishes, Rosman cites The Paris Review as a publication that still values the slush pile, noting that all its unsolicited submissions are read, albeit by interns. However, of the 12,000 submissions TPR receives annually, it publishes only one. ONE. Which makes it hard not to laugh when the journal’s managing editor is quoted as saying: “We take the democratic ideal represented by the slush pile seriously.”
Presumably there is more than one publishable piece in the 12,000 they receive each year. (Come on.) TPR has chosen to instead to solicit already-established writers. That is, of course, their prerogative, but it’s also a very particular mandate.
What is hard not to escape in “The Death of Fiction?” and “The Death of the Slush Pile” is the narrowness of the writers’ perspective. In their world, literary journals only count if they’re print and old (venerable) and preferably sponsored by a university or some other institution (so they can afford to pay writers). Whereas, as Seth Fischer, editor of The Splinter Generation, points out, “There are hundreds of new sites that thrive on slush piles. There are countless small journals that do so, too. Does nothing count unless it’s Random House or The Paris Review?”
Toasted Cheese is online-only, and while we’re old in internet terms (this is our tenth year, can you believe it?) we’re still an upstart compared to the big-name print journals. Oh, and of course, we’re self-funded, which means, as much as we would like to, we can’t afford to pay our writers at this time.
But everything TC publishes—aside from Best of the Boards and our editorials—is slush. All of it. It is explicitly part of our mandate to publish new voices. From our submission guidelines:
Toasted Cheese publishes flash fiction, fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. Our focus is on quality of work, therefore the number of pieces published in each issue will vary. We accept approximately 5% of the submissions we receive. We encourage unpublished writers to submit to Toasted Cheese. We are impressed by quality writing, not by a list of credentials.
Five percent may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind TC‘s slush publication rate is 600 times higher than the The Paris Review‘s 0.0083%.
Everything we receive is read by two editors. If one or both of us feels the piece should be considered, it is shortlisted. We shortlist around ten submissions per month, regardless of the total number of submissions received.
At the end of a three-month submission period, the shortlist is read by the complete editorial board and we make our final decisions. If your submission makes it this far, you have two ways of making it in to TC. The first is for your piece to receive yes votes from a majority of the editors. The second is for your piece to be chosen as an editor’s pick, which means at least one editor feels strongly enough about your work to champion it.
And so, after all this, when we send an acceptance letter and we receive back, “Oh! Thanks, but it’s been accepted elsewhere! Isn’t it thrilling?!” I have to say, no, we’re not thrilled. We’re annoyed.
At this point, we have invested a lot of time in your work. We have told many other people, sorry, no, not this time. We ask upfront that you do not send simultaneous submissions (obviously many writers ignore this). We shortlist promptly (at the end of each month). We shortlist relatively few pieces (so you can be sure that if your piece is shortlisted, it is under serious consideration). This schedule is posted on our guidelines page and we adhere to it. Everyone who submits gets read (assuming you’ve submitted correctly) and gets a response.
We put a lot of work into reading and evaluating submissions. And unlike Ted Genoways, who sounds like he would prefer most writers to just go away, we do this for free, on our own time. We do this because we love writing and reading and discovering new writers.
Unlike Genoways, I do not mind reading unsolicited submissions, even the very very bad ones, because I know that if I keep reading, eventually I will find some cherry blossoms buried in the slush. What I do mind is the growing amount of impatience we have to deal with.
We tackle the reading of submissions in chunks as opposed to reading them as they come in because it is more manageable for most of us to set aside a day or two to read submissions than to be constantly thinking about them. Additionally, reading submissions one after another allows for the comparison of different pieces, to not only see how submissions stack up against each other, but see how they fit together. Many of our issues end up feeling like they have themes even though we did not explicitly set out with one in mind. In other words, the lack of an immediate response on our part is not arbitrary; we’re not making writers wait just for the sake of making them wait. We have good reasons for sticking to the schedule that we do.
Meanwhile, we have writers withdrawing only days after submitting, occasionally within 24 hours. We have writers withdrawing after we send them them shortlist letters. And we have writers withdrawing after we send them acceptance letters. To be honest, the ones that are withdrawn before I even have a chance to read them don’t bother me so much. But when I spend a lot of time reading a piece and making a decision about it and sometimes even editing and preparing it for publication, it irritates me to no end to receive an “Oh, sorry! It’s been accepted elsewhere!” in response. In the case of our Editor’s Picks, sometimes an editor has made a difficult decision between two pieces, only to have the chosen piece be withdrawn. Not only is this annoying from an editorial standpoint, it’s upsetting as both an editor and a fellow writer to know that a lack of courtesy meant the second writer missed out on an opportunity to have his or her work published.
A few points: if a publication says “no simultaneous submissions,” then don’t send them a simultaneous submission (i.e. submit your piece to more than one publication at the same time). If you are simultaneously submitting (and some publications are fine with them), this should be noted upfront in your cover letter. If you have simultaneously submitted, and your work is accepted by one of the publications, immediately notify the other publications to which you have submitted. By waiting until they contact you, you are not only being incredibly disrespectful of the editors, you are sabotaging yourself. Editors do keep track of such transgressions (and share information with each other), and any future submissions, regardless how good they are, are likely to be viewed with suspicion. Why should an editor put time into something that is likely to be withdrawn?
Recently, literary agent Nathan Bransford advised against the shotgun approach to querying. Instead of querying every agent you can find at once, he suggested querying in small batches. His rationale is that if you fail on your first try, you are then able to tweak your query and try again, but if you query everyone at once, then you are done.
I think the same principle can be applied to submissions. When you finish a piece, make a list of potential markets for it. Think of it like applying to university: pick a couple ‘reach’ markets, a bunch where you think your work would fit right in, and a few ‘safeties.’ Submit to one journal at a time, starting at the top of your list. While your work is under consideration, leave it alone. Work on something else. When you get a rejection, take another look at the piece with fresh eyes and fine-tune it. Send out the updated version. And so on.
Submitting this way might sound slow and tedious, and perhaps it is in the short-term. In the long run, however, writers who take this approach will end up with more polished work, stronger publishing credits, and a better relationship with editors. Their names will be out there as people editors want to work with and would be pleased to include in their journals. Their work may even be solicited by fancy-pants print journals, which means they won’t have to worry about the slush pile anymore.
They will be perennial cherry blossoms.