Faith, hope, and clarity
by Perry Mc Daid and Rick Taubold
A little while back, Perry Mc Daid, my friend, a fellow Silver Pen director, and an excellent writer and poet, sent me a little piece called “Faith, Hope, and Clarity” in which he talked about the state of literary magazine submissions and contests.
For most of us, as writers, our goal is to be published. Thanks to Amazon and others, we can now do it ourselves, sometimes with a good degree of success. There still remains, however, that desire for validation by someone else, like those publishing gatekeepers we hear about, those with the ability to decide that our work is not only publishable, but that they want to publish it.
Not all of us go for the brass ring of having a novel published, at least not at first. Some of us aim at a smaller target: a short story published in a magazine. I’ll talk about this more in a little while. I’m going to let Perry tell you his feelings, but first let me preface his piece with a bit of clarification.
The magazine market, once limited to print magazines, has grown almost exponentially in the past few years to include myriad online magazines. I say “myriad” (which means “one thousand” in Latin) because Submittable.com, which offers authors a way to search out and track their magazine submissions, lists over 5000 markets. Some of these are book publishers, but the bulk represent magazines and contests one can submit to. That’s a lot of potential markets, although we must realize that not every magazine accepts every kind of story. Some are highly specialized. Still, many markets do exist for nearly any type of story written.
The problem is how to decide where to submit. In the old days, when only print magazines existed and the only easy source of market listings was a $20 book published by Writer’s Digest, you had to do a lot of research. Not only did you have to comb the listings for potential markets for your work (Submittable allows you do narrow the search by topic and genre), but if you were smart, you would purchase a copy of the magazine (or subscribe to it) so you could see if your work stacked up to what they were looking for.
On top of that, many magazines had a “no simultaneous submissions” policy (many still do), and that meant you could submit to only one at a time (although some authors did not adhere to this). Further, many magazines took weeks (or often months) to respond. Given that usually 90% or more of the responses to submissions were “not for us,” the author spent much of his life waiting (and hoping), and his or her best bet was to keep writing and submitting as much as possible. The more carefully you vetted the magazines, the better your chances, but that took even more valuable time away from your writing—a Catch 22 situation. Further, many magazines paid little or nothing. In general, the more a magazine paid (meaning the more elite they were), the less your chances of acceptance by them.
With book publishers, it was a similar story. At least with magazines, since most of the time you could expect a rejection (which is why some authors submitted a piece to multiple markets anyway), there was little chance of an embarrassing moment of having a piece accepted in two places. An author who had to withdraw a piece because it had been accepted elsewhere was frowned upon, and you could end up cutting yourself out of a market for doing that.
When it came to book publishers, if they said “no simultaneous submissions” you had to obey or you could get yourself blacklisted everywhere (book publishing was a smaller world then and editors and agents talked to one another).
So, with that background, I’ll turn you over to Perry for his perspective and additional thoughts.
In the world of writing it is important that writers have faith in the referees overseeing their chosen arenas, namely magazine editors. If one cannot trust in the integrity of such, then it is foolish to waste subscription money upon them. The spread of little literary despots clinging to their own tastes may be what is precipitating the downfall of hardcopy literary magazines.
We all hope that our literary children: poems, stories, plays, novels and articles get to compete on an even playing field, and will be successful in catching the judge’s eye to the extent that they get to stand on the winners’ podium. When I subscribe, I’ll wait eight issues or two years before giving up in the face of failure to publish. Of course there’s a bit of self-centred annoyance in this, but there is the pragmatic consideration that there is no point staying where your work is not appreciated; and no feedback offered to help you improve. If integrity is suspect, it is prudent just to seek honest competitions.
In 2005 and 2006 I submitted items to a certain competition with appropriate entry fees. Two years in a row my cheques had been cashed, yet years later still no word received as to results despite SSAEs being supplied, and reminders issued. That the magazine to which I was subscribed continued to advertise on behalf of such was ill-advised. The organisation in question may even persist with its poor practice today. I don’t know. I stopped subscribing to that apparently high-quality magazine because (a) I never got a response from a touted advertiser and (b) the magazine itself ignored my complaint in favour of publishing letters of appreciation.
On top of that, readers were invited to submit short stories on the topic of Celebration, and a Historical theme. I submitted a story for both, clearly defined as entries for such, and both were returned. July/August’s issue claimed that there was a lack of response to the latter (historical) and the competition was thus discontinued. No proviso to that effect had been included in the terms of submission.
Killing the competition on historical fiction because there were not enough entries was insultingly arbitrary to those who did enter. This practice was sprung upon me. My opinion of the overhyped and Arts Council funded magazine became jaded.
In horse racing, where there have been mass withdrawals, sole remaining horses get to “walk the course” and claim the pot despite the non-runners. I began to suspect that competitions only counted when approved writers submitted entries of acceptable quality. I didn’t even get my fee refunded.
The winner of Readers’ Challenge “Celebration” had nothing to do with the required subject, other than an arbitrary mention of Thanksgiving. It dealt with commemoration. If editors specify a topic, they should stick to it. If they will only accept submissions from preferred subscribers, they should say so. This is where the clarity comes in, and I chose to exit, not about to pay someone to blow me off for another year. There were, I believed, appreciative judges out here who can actually get to grips with the concepts of true literature and fairness.
One of the stories submitted has since been published and the other continues to be polished and submitted as it gets better and better.
‘Don’t get mad, get even’ is a healthy truism if taken in healthy context, but so is ‘Always forgive but never forget’, which is a sad reflection on our society and civilisation as a whole.
Perry’s last comment brings up an interesting story. Some years ago, a writer friend had an excellent story published in a magazine. He was later at a sci-fi convention attended by notable writers and magazine editors.
At one point, one very prominent editor of a prominent sci-fi magazine (a competitor of the one where the story was published) came up to him, praised his brilliant story, and asked, “Why didn’t you submit it to us?” The implication, of course, was that the editor would have accepted his story in a heartbeat had he done so.
The author replied, succinctly, “I did.” The editor had not only rejected his story previously but had not remembered it.
The publishing world, especially the world of short fiction, is littered with not only obstacles but, in some cases, landmines. It’s not always an even playing field. And sometimes it’s a fickle world.
The advice that comes from magazine editors to “read the magazine before submitting” seems sound, but when you consider that in the past many literary magazines were not cheap to purchase, being typically $4 to $8 an issue, an author could easily spend (or waste) a good deal of money on purchasing them and never recover it because most magazines didn’t pay much anyway. Today, they run as high as $10 an issue (sometime plus postage because you can rarely find them in bookstores), and even some of the purely online ones are not free.
Thus, an author could easily find himself spending a lot of money on the slim hope of having a story accepted and the sale often won’t cover more than the cost of one or two magazine copies. (The couple of magazines who published five of my stories paid $10 per story.) Magazine publishers seem reluctant to put sample stories on their websites, and then they lament that they receive so many inappropriate submissions.
As Perry pointed out, for some of these magazines, new authors or those without significant literary credentials have virtually zero chance of an acceptance anyway–whether they read the magazine or not.
What’s an author to do? Write your best fiction, go after markets that have a fast turnaround and which accept simultaneous submissions. Covet those that provide feedback as to why they didn’t want your story. Although it’s not free, it’s worth it to join Submittable.com because many magazines are listed there, you can find out more about what they’re looking for, and you can see feedback from other writers about the magazine.
There is little money to be had in writing short fiction these days, rarely near enough to pay back for the time spent researching the markets. My advice is that you not submit to any magazine or market that charges more than a dollar or two submission fee and only then if that magazine pays its authors. A few legitimate magazines charge to limit the number of insincere submissions from authors who sent out their material at random and without research.
It’s up to you to balance your research times with your writing time appropriately.
–Perry and Rick