I declare this a People’s Revolutionary Post!
Aspiring writers already know What Editors Want (or What Publishers Want, or What Agents Want, or whatever). That information appears on many blogs, forums, and workshop-type websites. I’ve read plenty of it myself — enough to realize that the actual advice writers need is “read the submission guidelines, stupid,” because Editor A hates sans-serif fonts and will bounce any story that uses them, while Editor B wants only serif fonts and Editor C couldn’t care less but personally sends death threats to the home of every writer that puts two spaces after ending punctuation marks. And if you’re very, very lucky they might even tell you that.
Those of us in the unenviable “on spec” market — submitting fiction unrequested, on the hopes that it will be in the minute percentage that sees acceptance in any given publication — are familiar with bending over backward for each set of specific requirements. And to some extent there’s nothing wrong with that. If your business is reading a few hundred pieces of writing every week, it’s pretty reasonable to want them to be readable. But — People’s Revolutionary Post, remember — at the end of the day it’s the writing that pays the publication’s bills. You, the writer, are the indispensable part of this equation. So today, rather than telling writers what will better please their editor, I aim to tell the publishers of short fiction what will please their writers. Forward the post to the editor in your life — you have nothing to lose but your chains! Or your dignity. Or a book contract. We’ll work on the slogan later.
Publishers, be advised! Your writers have basic needs:
1. Clear Formatting Guidelines
In all seriousness, if you refuse to read anything that isn’t in twelve-point Courier, you need to tell writers that up front. The days of a “standard manuscript format” that everyone who was serious knew and respected are over and done with; the internet and plain-text submission forms have killed them for good. Anyone who’s dedicated to getting published will happily oblige individual publisher’s formatting preferences, but those preferences need to be clearly stated. And if you do say that formatting doesn’t matter, take it upon yourself to transfer that eye-straining, green-on-black, ten-point, single-spaced, Times New Roman submission into something you can read more easily and give it its fair shot, because you told the writer anything was fair game. By the same token, bounce anything that directly contradicts a clearly-stated formatting guideline like it was a Superball — folks gotta learn.
2. Clear Content Guidelines
The internet has arrived, and if you’re publishing on it you know that it takes ten minutes tops to update your submissions page with a few sentences on what you’re looking for this issue. If there’s a theme — say it’s October and you only want spooky stories — tell your prospective writers that, rather than bouncing anything that isn’t scary because it “doesn’t meet our needs at this time.” With turn-arounds of a month or more, submitting a story that’s guaranteed not to meet the needs of the time can be a serious dent in a writer’s potential income, which brings us to the next point…
3. Quick Rejections
The acceptance process can be a long and difficult one. We understand that. If it takes a few rounds of reading, some close votes, and a while of deliberation to accept or reject a story, that’s part of the game. But for pity’s sake, once you’ve tossed something in the “NO” pile, let the writer know by the next day. Unless you allow for simultaneous submissions, a submitted story is useless to a writer until the reply comes back. If it’s just not what you’re looking for, or it’s total crap, or whatever, and it gets eliminated at the first glance, send it back then rather than when you send the notices to the writers who just barely missed publication after months of painful deliberation. Remember, the story sitting idle in your rejection pile may be the writer’s only hope of paying off Vinnie the Shark!
4. Accurate Estimates on Response Time
I can’t tell you how painful it is to get a rejection long after the “usual response time” for a publication has passed. You try not to get too optimistic in this business, but when a magazine that claims to get back to writers in two to three months sits on a story for four months plus, you can’t help but think it’s because you’re in some kind of final round or who knows what. If it takes four months to get to a story, consider it, and make a decision, say as much.
5. Online Submissions
This is another of those “the internet is here” things. Depending on your genre, some of the longest-standing and best-established periodicals are still clinging fiercely to the mailed-in manuscript submission, but let’s be realistic here — if I have my choice of a dozen periodicals paying about the same rate, and two of them require me to print on good-quality paper and pay for postage while the rest don’t, I’m going to submit to those two at the absolute last, when everyone else has rejected me. Doesn’t matter how prestigious you are, doesn’t matter how long you’ve been around. This is no longer a “gatekeeper” method for keeping lazy writers away. This is shooting yourself in the foot. By the same token, charging for your online submissions is just going to drive writers to every other available publication before yours — and there’s plenty out there. No one should have to pay you for the privilege of having their work considered, and inevitably no one will.
6. Real Reasons for Rejection
All right, this is mostly a pipe dream. Magazines get a lot of submissions; it really is impossible to write a detailed critique for every rejection. But a sentence or two saying “it’s not quite dark enough for us” or “your plot was boring and we hated the dialogue” or something like that doesn’t take long — hell, make a form letter with check boxes and take the extra ten seconds to mark the reason for rejection. It can only improve the quality of submission from writers who submit more than once to the same publication, and that’s in everyone’s best interest.
At the end of the day, these are all just so many wishful thoughts. The relationship here is pretty much a one-way street — there are enough writers out there submitting on-spec that magazines can get all the stories they need without taking any steps to make the process easier or fairer. But viva la revolución! There are some very fine publications out there that are now offering some or all of the gestures described in this post (where do you think I got the ideas from?), and they are inevitably the ones I turn to first. My hope is that other writers are doing the same, and that publishers are sitting up and taking notice of who gets the best submissions first. Rates are about the same everywhere, give or take a few cents a word, so this is what’s making the difference. The oppressors have been warned!
The author of this post is not in actually particularly revolutionary. But he does like Socialist posters and things like that. Leave a comment with your thoughts if you like!