It’s September again, the time of year when thousands of hopeful writers hunch over keyboards with coffee breath and some nervousness, preparing their babies to go out into the world. Some of them will find good homes, but the vast majority will make their way back for some attention and TLC.
For more than twenty years, I have submitted fiction and poetry to magazines, anthologies, and online journals. In that time, I have published more than two dozen short stories and two hundred poems, received valuable feedback, and developed relationships with editors. I have also been rejected time and time again. I’d like to share some advice that might help prepare you for submission season.
By my best estimate, I have had a submissions acceptance rate of approximately 2% over the past two decades. This means that I have also had more than 10,000 rejections. In my early days of submitting, the rejections filled more than one recycling bin. I used to save handwritten rejections, until even these became too numerous to keep in a drawer.
Success comes with rejection, and writers who take submissions personally are missing the point: readers and tastes evolve constantly at each and every magazine. I have placed work at magazines that have rejected me ten times or more.
Do Your Homework
Even if submitting is a number’s game, there are still things you can do to increase your odds. In any given year, I read twenty or so literary magazines to get an idea of what my peers are doing and to gauge the creative tastes of publications. I read submission guidelines carefully, and look at work on the magazine’s website that the editors have selected as representative work. Then and only then do I submit.
Now for Some Controversial Advice
There’s only one rule I break, something that other writers I know do as well. I occasionally submit work to magazines that don’t accept simultaneous submissions while I am submitting the same work to other places.
At writers’ conferences, I make it a point to talk with literary magazine editors that don’t accept simultaneous submissions. Many of them acknowledge that they know that most writers aren’t following this guideline, and many even privately agree with a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy.
You should still be careful if you take this approach. I place all publications into roughly five tiers. I only send out work a handful at a time to the top tier, and this is the only place I break the rule and send simultaneous submissions to (a few) magazines that have a non-simultaneous submission policy.
Has this approach ever backfired? Yes. One time I missed out on publishing a poem in a top magazine and had to explain that I didn’t follow guidelines. When I weigh this against the high-quality publications I’ve placed my work in by accelerating the submission process, I consider it an acceptable risk. I’m certain that there are writers and editors who will disagree with me on this point.
I also strongly believe that every magazine and publisher should accept simultaneous submissions, particularly from those of us not submitting through our agents or emailing to a friend on staff. Since magazines work in an open marketplace, why not show the same respect to writers?
Define Your Submission Strategy
I tend to be patient with my submissions. I wait for my work to make its rounds from tier to tier, before submitting them more widely to lower tiers. One fiction writer friend has told me that she submits to eleven places at a time. Another poet friend confided that he once sent more than a thousand poetry submissions in a year.
At any given time, my work is in circulation from three to ten places, depending on the tier. In recent years I have stopped submitting to my lowest tier, as the quality of publications is now more important to me than the quantity.
Be Nice to the Editors
When you receive a rejection, don’t freak out and write back to an editor to explain why she or he is wrong. This is doubly true for feedback. Unfortunately, this is a rule that I have broken. It cost me placing a poem once in an anthology, when I didn’t like the edits I was getting, and I shot back a late night discourteous email.
I have received valuable feedback on my work, including on a short story The Policy that I published at Superstition Review. Some of the best comments on the story came from student editors, and their feedback made it better.
It might also not be the smartest idea to harass editors about why they haven’t taken a look at your work yet. Here is a great set of guidelines from Mixer Publishing that made me laugh:
Please wait at least one year before querying about your submission. If you need to withdraw your submission before that, our submission system will notify us of the withdrawal. We no longer respond to queries regularly due to the large amount of submissions we have and due to time restrictions. If we receive multiple queries from you or antagonistic emails, we will put you on an industry blacklist that we share on a secret database with the most powerful writers and editors in the world, who are all usually in a bad mood or hungover.
Tools for Submissions
I have used many tools over the years to manage my submissions. Currently, I use a combination of Duotrope, New Pages, and the CRWROPPS email list: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CRWROPPS-B/.
One of my friends has built a “secret’ weapon that he calls the Database of Doom. It contains a custom-made spreadsheet of publications by tiers and submission windows. He lets me use the Database of Doom, as long as I am mindful of its powers. Talk to your writer friends about submissions and share tips.
When in Doubt, Submit
Many writers disagree about the right time to submit. I think that a writer should wait until the piece no longer feels like a draft. However, when in doubt, my advice is to submit and submit some more. You may be surprised by the results (publication, feedback) and even rejection may tell you something about the quality of your work.