You’ve written your masterpiece, your short story, poem, or novel; you’ve sweated blood crafting the work, redrafting and redrafting. It’s time to unleash it on an unsuspecting public. There’s only one thing standing between you and fame: the editor and/or first/slush reader of the publication or publisher.
It can be frustrating to have your work tied up for months on end with one publication (or publisher or literary agency) as it takes its pretty little time getting around to reading it. It can be disheartening to have to wait so long only to receive a rejection. And when this happens again and again, it’s understandable that you’d want to lash out at this or that editor or publisher.
But I’m here to tell you that on no account should you ever do so. It might seem an obvious thing to say, that you should at all times maintain a level of professionalism in your dealings with the publishing industry, but many writers will ask themselves, when faced with gross incompetence and a severe lack of professionalism on the part of some editors/publishers, why they should perpetually hold their tongue in an equation seemingly so weighted in favour of the publisher.
As a writer, I’ve had plenty of frustrating experiences over the years, and many in recent months. Currently, I have several short stories sitting with various editors for nearly a year now. I politely queried their status a couple of months ago and in most instances received no reply. Some of these markets are non-paying, so it makes it all the more galling that they can so completely ignore me and then eventually, maybe, end up using my work for free. Of course, I’ve made the choice to submit to them, but this is one very good reason why you should start by submitting your work to the more prestigious markets (see Part 1 of this occasional series for more on this subject). The more prestigious markets are generally (not always) more professional in terms of turning your submission around in the stipulated timeframe and getting back to you if you query its status and they generally pay at least something for the use of your work.
One of the publications that did respond to my query informed me they had published the relevant story months previously. I was speechless with anger. You might think I should have been delighted to have had the story accepted, but the fact that the editor didn’t consider to let me know at the time speaks volumes for the perception of writers at that particular august organ. I had also been robbed of the opportunity of promoting the story’s publication; it had been rendered a non event by the editor. Generally, though, I’m tired of having to eventually assume a submission is rejected before feeling free to submit it elsewhere.
There are plenty more instances of this kind of unprofessionalism on the part of editors I could recount, but the ones outlined above serve to illustrate that I totally understand how writers feel when they are used, abused, or just plain ignored.
However, let me put my editor hat on and show you how it looks from the other side of the fence. Let’s assume you’re adhering to the basics of professionalism by reading the guidelines of the publications/publishers you’re submitting to (see Part 2 of this series for more on this) and respecting them. I’ll focus here on the aftermath of your submission.
Waiting for a response can be an exhausting experience but, as I’ve said elsewhere, the answer to this is to keep writing. Move on to the next story, and the next. This way, you’re kept actively creative and you’re getting more and more pieces out into circulation, thus increasing your chances of getting published. Time will pass quicker and there is less chance of your being tempted to query the status of a particular piece before the stipulated response time has elapsed.
The fact is editors are inundated with submissions and they will take whatever time is necessary to respond. The more well-organised and professional-minded the editor is, the more chance there is of getting a response within the timeframe mentioned in the guidelines. But even then, it is just sometimes impossible for editors to reply to writers within a reasonable time (the industry standard is three months, but this varies from publication to publication).
Querying the status of a submission before the stipulated turnaround time has elapsed will only annoy the editor. However, where you risk incurring the ire of an editor is in the ill-considered repost to a rejection. During my time as editor of Albedo One, I’m happy to say 99.99% of submitters have been nothing but professional in their dealings with the magazine. But there have been a few instances over the years of writers raining scorn on us from a height after receiving a rejection.
One writer, an American lady, communicated her utter disbelief that we had rejected her story. She had assumed the fact that she was American and was deeming fit to submit to our pissy little Irish magazine guaranteed publication. The fact that we didn’t even pay (at the time, except for a ‘Best in Issue’ award sponsored by a local bookshop) only added fire to her vitriol. This lady had neglected to understand that pretty much all publications have editorial standards that have nothing to do with whether or not they are a paying market and that a submission is judged on its merits as discernable by the editor reading the work.
Another writer, this time from Russia, replied to a rejection ‘thanking’ me for my ‘miniscule’ response. This writer had once had a story published in Amazing Stories and apparently was used to receiving detailed critiques of his work from editors who seemed to have lots of time on their hands. The sad fact is most editors are dealing with such vast numbers of submissions that it is generally not possible to issue more than a form rejection. I’ve always been polite in my rejections and if I’ve seen something good in the story will try to mention it.
An Irish writer let his rejection fester for several weeks before firing off an email to me at 1.30 in the morning, perhaps after the application of a wagon load of Dutch courage, informing me that I wouldn’t know a good story if it jumped up and bit me in the arse. After I stopped laughing, I reflected that I did know a good story when I saw it, as testified by the continued success of the magazine, its winning of several awards, and the regular appearance of Albedo One-published stories in various Year’s Best anthologies, and his wasn’t one of them. Of course, it’s quite possible that I wasn’t capable of discerning the merits of this particular story, but those are the risks a writer takes when submitting a work to an editor who is, after all, only human and has his/her own specific tastes.
At the end of the day, there is nothing to be gained by venting your spleen at an editor and everything to lose. Doing so will only predispose an editor to greet future work by you with, at the very least, caution. Any momentary feeling of satisfaction you experience at giving an editor a piece of your mind is just that: momentary. Far better to keep resubmitting your story until it gets published and/or you become a better writer. Far better to quietly feel vindicated by succeeding.
Good post, John. Lots of great advice here. I think writers often lose sight of what it must be like for editors dealing with hundreds of submissions. I’ve just come back from a workshop in Oregon for which I had to read around 240 stories in a short space of time. This was deliberate on the part of the workshop leaders (all editors), to show us just how difficult it is. I’ve only ever once questioned a response from a magazine. This was after the assistant editor asked me to do a re-write. I sent it in and she replied that I’d done everything she asked but that she wasn’t going to pass it the senior editor because it wasn’t the kind of story she liked . . . in retrospect, I probably should have written to the senior editor.
A bit cheeky asking for a rewrite of a story she didn’t like to begin with in terms of its basic type/nature, Terry. I hope it wasn’t one of Albedo One’s readers. When we see one of yours come in Bob, Dave or myself will usually grab it instead of giving it to one of our first readers. As an addendum to the above blog, one of the stories I queried a long time ago finally got a response the other day. I submitted a year ago, queried six months ago, and got a one liner saying she ‘apparently didn’t receive the story. All the best.’ She didn’t apologise for taking so long to get back to me, didn’t ask me to resubmit it, didn’t say she’d endeavour to turn it around quickly for me, nothing. One year that story’s been tied up for, and it doesn’t even get rejected. After clenching my fists a few times, grinding my teeth, and pacing the room for several minutes, I took my own advice and resolved to say nothing, never subnmit to that magazine again, and send the story out somewhere else.
John – no, it wasn’t Albedo One! And thanks for letting me know you like getting my stories: made my day. By the way, I’ve had more reviews from the story you did of mine than for any other publication. Thanks, too, for buying another story from me recently. I’m proud of that one since it was a challenge: to write what is in effect a character study but also to make it (hopefully) tense and involving.
Sorry to hear about your held-up story. Unfortunately, it does happen. Another irritation is when a magazine holds on to your story but won’t quite die, e.g. I sold a story to one back in 2008 but it still hasn’t appeared. The magazine manifests roughly once a year or so online, just to keep ticking over I guess. I’ve written a couple of times to the editor, but no reply. What I learned is not to sign a contract without a clause for recovery if the time to print becomes unreasonable.
Yes, I know magazines have black lists of stroppy authors, but I suspect quite a few writers have black lists for magazines they won’t submit to again, too.
On a slightly different note, my favourite rejection was getting rejected for an anthology of rejected stories . . .
Looking forward to your new story in Albedo One. I wasn’t one of the readers on that one, so I’ll be coming to it fresh when it sees print.