What I Am Not Supposed to Say About Literary Journals Until I am Famous

Since, in addition to being an article-writer and one-among-millions blogger, I would like to become a Serious, Respected Essayist whose book is lauded by critics as “lyrical and precise” or “a stunning debut”, I thought the writers’ conference I attended in DC last month would be a good start.

Sponsored by several literary magazines who, as of yet, are not banging down my door to publish my essays (so that a reviewer can call them “harrowing and affirming”) the conference offered several panel discussions for working or aspiring writers.

As I research markets for my essays, I notice one huge difference from my present work right away. Many worthy literary journals seem to believe I am huddled beside a candle, sharpening my quill. In my work for news, industry or arts publications (online and in print), I often communicate with my editors exclusively through e-mail, phone and electronic files.  But many literary journals take the opposite approach.

“No phone calls,” their listings say; “We do not consider e-mailed submissions.” And most emphatic of all: “Do not send your only copy to us!”

Are there essayists who are not only still working exclusively on typewriters, but who do not have access to a copy machine or the wherewithal to use it? Are there writers who compose an essay on the computer, print it, permanently delete the file, and then mail their single copy to a publication which buys one percent of the work it receives and shreds the rest? These scenarios do not seem plausible to me.

Forgive me if I’m way off base here, but I think the “only copy” admonition might be a relic of another time, when all writing was bound to a physical page. Besides insinuating that we’re not smart enough to keep copies of our own work, journals mired in the last century seem to be assuming that their writers are too. They’re hoping that they can ride out the new waves in publishing like a stately ship at sea while everyone else is building the ports of the 21st Century.

Which brings me back to last month’s conference. I attended a discussion panel of editors from prestigious journals in poetry, fiction and nonfiction who talked about what they like and don’t like in writers’ submissions.

Everyone chuckled ruefully as an editor with a spiky Mohawk described a pushy writer who had the gall to call him on the phone twice in seven days to find out the fate of a submitted poem. Editor Mohawk explained how, upon receiving the calls, he had to get up from his desk because he didn’t know where to find the poem. He had to walk into the office of another staffer and ask him if he remembered seeing that poem in the paper stack.

Another editor was handsome in a stylish, spring-like pink vest and a purple tie. It looked like Justin Bieber had copied his hair, rather than the other way around. As he spoke, he continually tossed his bangs out of his eyes like a male pop star on the red carpet. Editor Vest complained about writers who mail their submissions inside folders, especially the slippery plastic kind.

First, he offered the revelation that if our work was good, it didn’t need to be dressed in a fancy folder. But then he got to the root of problem. He asked us to imagine the stacks of submissions in his office: towers of paper that he needs to keep organized. Imagine what happens when a clear plastic folder is in the middle of a pile: it can slip right out, bringing the rest of the stack down to the floor with it! It really muddles an editor’s day when he has to re-sort that stack, and brings the offending folder-sender’s chances of publication down to zero.

Editor Vest imparted a second annoying habit of writers. Sometimes, when they mail their submissions and contact information, they invite the journal to notify them via e-mail about the fate of their manuscript, rather than traditional mail. Seems easy enough, right?

No, Vest says. Replying to a writer by e-mail would “throw off the whole office,” because they have specially pre-printed rejection cards, and office staff whose job it is put those cards into envelopes and mail them. It’s proper and efficient, and writing an e-mail instead would gum up the whole system.

“Our publication has a reputation for being elitist.” (Hair toss.) “But we are who we are.”

“Elite” is an admiring title that others can give you. But “elitists” are those who call themselves elite, and then take perverse pride in their inaccessibility. In this case, modern communication methods, instead of easing the submission process for everyone, are used as a barrier between the publications and their writers.

To be fair, I admit to being something of a troglodyte myself. I’m always behind on the latest internet craze, and I didn’t get an iPod until last year. I have no desire for a smart phone, and I have an iPad, which I use to play Boggle, only because someone gave it to me. A few years ago, I was among those who preferred the old ways of doing business.

But work as a writer in the real world has forced me to adapt. I blog and promote it on Facebook; I opened Flickr and YouTube accounts because that’s how my magazine editor prefers to collect my digital photos and video. If I cannot contact or submit to a publication through its website, I am unlikely to pursue it, not only because contacting them would likely be a hassle, but also because they are unlikely to maintain future readership if they are not internet-savvy, and therefore are not a good market for my work.

I have a suggestion. Avail yourselves of the Internet! Are writers bothering you with phone calls? Why not communicate with the click of a keyboard? Are towers of paper and foolish folders weighing you down? Accept electronic files. Are writers antsy about their pieces’ fate, needing to know if they should try their stuff in a different market? Upgrade to an online submissions system which can give notice of acceptance or rejection. If a writer asks you about a particular piece, you could find it easily on your computer instead of walking to the next office and digging through a pile. Does every request for an e-mail throw off the pulse of your office? Modernize your system, and those staffers who are stuffing envelopes and licking stamps could be managing databases and sending e-mails. No more budgeting for postage and printed cards!

Many publications are adapting to the modern world without losing the quality of their content.  In a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction, Sarah Wexler’s piece on editors who resist the online revolution is headlined “Junior staffer to management: EVOLVE OR DIE!” When I recently submitted an essay to the same journal by mail in the required fashion, I was gratified to receive a concise and courteous e-mail confirming its arrival.  Barrelhouse magazine has implemented an online submission system – I just found out my essay is still under consideration without bothering anyone. And some editors on last month’s panel urged writers to accept publication online when it is offered, instead of holding out for print, because an online essay has a wider audience, a potentially endless life, and a greater opportunity to be noticed and shared. These publications will reach new generations of audiences, and other lit mags can and must get up to speed. In fact, a recent New York Times article by Reyhan Harmanci discusses the potential for lit mags’ ongoing survival, with their low overhead and devoted, specialized audience, and details the newly launched online efforts of several venerable journals.

My mother was curious about the conference and I told her about my frustration. The daily urge came over me. “I need to write about this.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said. “You shouldn’t say those things about publications – now what you say will be out there forever and if you want to write for this or that journal, they’ll just toss your work. It’s not smart. Wait until you’re a famous writer. Then say what you want.”

I am touched by my mother’s faith in me, and I don’t know of anyone who got famous by refusing to offend anyone. And I’m peeved that I paid money in the year 2011 to hear someone complain about all the paper in his office, when he refuses to accept a Word document or send an e-mail. Maybe an august editor will read this and blacklist me, but I doubt they’re scouring the internet for my opinions. And I have one more pretty good defense.

“We have no plans to go online, at present,” said Editor Vest (smirk; hair toss). They probably don’t pay attention to blogs.

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8 Comments

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  1. good stuff Laina…. Mom still feels you should wait until your famous to offer opinions on stuffy, boorish wanna be hair tossers….. but I don’t.
    She’s probably right though.
    Pink-vest, Bieber hair-toss dude sounds like a tough guy.

  2. Well, you always were an independent child. I liked the blog even though I didn’t recommend writing it. Great illustrations, too!

  3. As a mom of a writer (and another reasonable adult,” I say: Dare.

  4. Didn’t realize there were journals left that only accepted paper submissions. I do understand the “Don’t call” provision as editors are harried creatures, but you have a point.

  5. Jinny Alpaugh Says:

    If you paid good money to attend this conference (or were on spec to report on it) and you are reporting honestly on what was said — and on the attitude of those who said it — then it would be unethical NOT to warn other writers of the out-of-date approaches to submissions you heard pronounced by representatives of literary publications. I’m amazed that 21st century editors would so blatantly and publicly reveal themselves as electronically inept. But as someone who in the far distant past did occasionally receive timely (albeit written) responses to submissions, I think it might be worth following up with a quick survey of editors from impressive literary publications who may have taken one look at the speakers at this conference and opted out of it. Just a thought.

    • Wasn’t reporting on conference, just felt compelled to blog about it afterwards. Just got the invite to the same conference for 2012 – now I know to skip it. It’s not even that the editors revealed themselves as so inept – it’s that they also seemed to take pride in it, as if the rest of us were mired in some foolish fad they couldn’t be bothered with. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment.

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