Storyville: Top Ten Things Literary Journals Need to Do. NOW.
Let me get a couple of things out of the way first. When I say literary journals, I mean any publication (print or online) that publishes fiction—so please include genre fiction, in all of its glorious flavors. Literary can mean a genre of fiction, but it also refers to literature, in general. Also, I write this column from my heart, because I care about you, editors, as well as the authors that keep you going. I want you all to succeed. And, I do realize that I’ve made many of these very mistakes in my own capacity as an editor at various places over the years. But it’s time for us, as a community, to move onward and upward—to do better. There are ways to accomplish this. Here are my Top Ten problems with publishing today—the ways that magazines, journals, websites, and podcasts are handling their business and treating their authors. I know we can change, I know we can evolve.
1. NO MANDATORY FEES FOR SUBMITTING
This has to be the biggest insult that I’ve run across. I’ve seen a huge shift in the number of publications that are forcing their contributors to pay in order to submit. I find this highly offensive. Yes, I understand that we used to have to mail in submissions (I’ll get to that in a second). Yes, I understand that you are struggling to stay in business (I’ll get to that too). But why in the hell would you charge your struggling authors money, and make it mandatory, in order for them to submit? I can understand if you want to make it an option—for some people, it’s not a big deal, they have the money, they can spend $3 a pop, 30 times a month, 360 times a year. I can’t afford to spend $1,000 a year on submissions, especially when the acceptance rate is often less than 1%. Doing a quick search on Duotrope.com, I found 1,730 literary markets that don’t charge fees. But I also found over 200 that do. And of those, 42 were mandatory. As my friend Lemongrab says on Adventure Time, “UNACCEPTABLE!” It’s not unknown markets either, but places like Crazyhorse, Five Points, Hunger Mountain, New Orleans Review, Witness, Grist, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Keyhole, to name a few. And that’s a real shame, because I’m a fan of all of these magazines. But I won’t submit to them anymore. Find a different way to make your money, guys.
2. ALLOW SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS
This is another standard that needs to change. You have to realize that authors are already up against insane odds. The majority of credible publications out there have acceptance rates of less than 5%—with most at, or under, 1%. If you just take those odds straight, and don’t compound them, if you set the response time at a relatively short 60 days, it could take 16.4 years for each story to get accepted. I do understand that you are understaffed, underpaid, and can’t handle the volume of submissions. Find a way to change that. I understand that it’s very difficult to get through the slush piles, find that gem, and then run it up the ladder, show it to boards of advisors, and do it all in a short time. I get that, I do. When you go back to an author and then ask for this story, the one that you love, the one you are finally going to accept, that everyone is excited about, only to find it’s no longer available? I understand the ramifications of that—how depressing it is. So alter the way you do your business. Because I can tell you, most authors are going to ignore it anyway. And the really big name authors, you probably solicited, or accepted pretty quick, anyway—right? There are ways to make it possible, to stop killing the spirit of your authors, and I’ll get to that in a second.
3. LOWER YOUR RESPONSE TIMES
In addition to revoking the NSS rule, also find a way to lower your response times. This is all connected, everything we’re talking about. If you can get to a submission in 30 days or less, you’ll probably get the story. It you take over a year, really, what do you expect to happen? Any author with an iota of talent will have sold that story already. And to ask them to hold on to it for a year, and not submit elsewhere, that’s just ridiculous. If you really want an author, solicit them. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me that Black Clock averages 290 days, Canteen 252 days, McSweeney’s 230 days, and Fence 213 days.
Here are some ways to lower your response times: Hire interns (who are typically college students) and give them valuable experience (instead of pay) and they will help eliminate the stories that are way off base; close your submission windows, so that you aren’t inundated with stories 365 days a year; empower editors (and associate editors) to reject or accept stories in a streamlined fashion. Some of the most exclusive magazines out there find a way to respond quickly. From “The Challenging” list at Duotrope (the 25 markets with the lowest acceptance rates) there are some that actually respond in days or weeks, not months or a year: Clarkesworld (0.22%) averages three days; Ploughshares (0.27%) 42 days; Shimmer (0.30%) averages two weeks; Colorado Review (0.48%) 48 days. You can be selective, and still respond quickly.
4. MAILING IN SUBMISSIONS
This is really becoming an antiquated means of submissions. You have to write the story, spend weeks or months on it, and then print it, staple it, write a query letter, pay for the paper, ink, envelope, and postage, and then mail it in, with a SASE. Really? Still? In this day and age, shouldn’t we be beyond that? I do understand that some older editors and publications may not ever change their ways. I get that. And I do understand universities don’t have budgets to print out digital submissions (read them on the computer!) and pass them around. It’s partly about the money, as it will still cost an author $2-3 to submit this way, but you’re also wasting valuable resources and slowing down the whole process. Yes, I do still mail in my stories to a few places (such as Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine) because I like them enough to do this, and I still want to publish with them. But I tend to avoid most publications that make this their only option. There are almost 500 markets on Duotrope that still accept submissions by mail, and that’s just too many.
5. PAY YOUR AUTHORS
I know that not every publication can afford to pay their authors. Of those almost 2,000 literary markets I mentioned earlier, only 244 pay anything at all. Of those, 44 pay professional rates (.05/word and up), 105 pay semi-pro rates (.01-.05/word) and 95 pay token rates (less than .01/word). That leaves a whopping 1,500 that don’t pay anything—most likely a contributor copy or two, and exposure. And that’s not good enough.
And yes, I understand that I’ve been part of the problem as well. I send my stories to places that don’t pay—I’ve edited creative ventures that don’t pay. I know. But I’m trying to change that philosophy, that idea. In what other industries do people work and not expect to get paid? Would you ask for free yard work, or plumbing, or medical care? I don’t know why, as a community, we feel that this is acceptable.
And I’m not talking about reprints. I do feel differently about that, as a story has already been accepted elsewhere, and hopefully been paid for. Sure, ideally, paying for reprints would be great, but to get a second (or third, or forth) publication of a story, that’s additional exposure, and I don’t feel payment is mandatory.
6. LOWER YOUR FEES
I know that a lot of magazines and journals run contests, especially in the poetry field. I very rarely pay money to submit to these, as I feel the odds of getting any sort of return on my investment is minimal. I won’t spend $15, or $25 to enter a contest, when all I get is a chance at the prize. Of course, if you have the money, and are willing to do it, more power to you. I have entered contests, or paid to submit stories, if I’ve gotten something in return—a subscription, for example, or a copy of the final anthology. I think that’s okay. But if you are going to run a contest, try to do a few things: lower your fees so that you get more entries, don’t prey on your pool of talent; offer something in return, such as that subscription I mentioned (eBooks, if you can’t afford the print versions); offer other intangibles such as critiques, or Q&A sessions with editors and teachers, other writers—people who can actually help your authors to improve.
7. HIRE INTERNS
Yes, I know I’ve been screaming about paying everyone—the authors, the editors, the designers—money, money, money! But keep in mind that you have a talented and energetic base of men and women who are eager to learn the business. If you are attached to a university, your students are right there on campus! If not, much of the work can be done online. But the important thing to remember is that they will only be as good as the training you give them. Tell them what you are looking for, show them examples, and help them to see your vision as a magazine or website. Empower them to reject stories that are totally inappropriate—poetry, when you don’t publish it, graphic horror stories when you are a conservative literary magazine, poorly written material that is riddled with typos, grammatical mistakes, and formatting errors—whatever you feel is important. Yes, there will be turnover, yes they will disappear, and yes, they will take time to understand what you want. But this is a valuable resource, so use it. Obviously, if you can pay them, in copies, in private lessons (easy, tiger), discounts on tuition, or even a small stipend or hourly rate, then please do so. They are the future of literature and publishing.
I’ve presented a lot of problems, but not as many solutions. If you are struggling, consider a few of these ideas. If you are monthly, cut back to quarterly. If you are a quarterly journal, change to a bi-annual (or annual). Consider moving online. Switch to POD, if you haven’t already. Supplement with eBooks. And, keep Kickstarter (and Indiegogo) in mind as well. I know that running a successful Kickstarter campaign is not easy, they are complicated, multi-layered, and are reliant on compelling visuals, rewards and limited packages that are tricky to put together, and they tend to wear down your audience and support system. It’s just another option. I’ve seen friends and associates get $5,000 or $10,000 even $25,000 for comics, and novels, and anthologies. It can be done. It’s something to consider.
9. SELL ADVERTISING
I know, it’s more time on the phone and sending out emails, and rarely any fun. Go pick up a copy of Tin House. They’re considered a successful publication. What do you see on the first and last five pages? Advertisements. It’s the same with The Paris Review and The Missouri Review. And if you’re squeamish about making people pay actual money (stop it, already) consider co-op advertising, where you basically barter and trade ads with other journals and magazines. Obviously, some have bigger circulations, but it’s something to think about, a supplement.
10. THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
It’s more than selling the actual anthology, journal or magazine. Think of your endeavor as a business, not just the words and art. As we see more and more bookstores failing, the ones that do succeed are finding ways to reinvent themselves. Sure, sell the journal, but is it a loss leader? Most paying subscriptions don’t make money—they actually lose money. When a grocery store sells milk (a staple) and puts it way in the back, and prices it so low that they actually lose money (called a loss leader) how does that help them? They count on customers also buying cookies to go with that milk, and cereal, and coffee. They count on selling them wine and beer, coffee and cheese, other items that are placed between the front door and the checkout register. They make up the profit in other places. Sell merchandise, if you want—I’ve seen creative publications like Hobart selling shot glasses and flasks. What about t-shirts (I just got one from Electric Velocipede as part of their, wait for it…Kickstarter!), coffee mugs (“Write like a motherfucker!” says Sugar over at The Rumpus) baseball caps, and other products, that hopefully have better profit margins. What about readings, where you charge a small entrance fee and in return there’s a keg of beer? Alcohol has one of the highest mark-ups in the world—around 1,000% in a bar or restaurant. I imagine that bottled water and coffee do, too. Throw a party, host an art gallery showing—just think outside the box. Bookstores that are surviving also sell coffee, food, merchandise, classes and lessons, and have live music, readings, and other events.
I was the Fiction and Poetry Curator at a festival here in Chicago, in Wicker Park, called Around the Coyote. I had a two-day event, with over 30 authors reading, two bands, a DJ, and a $5 OPTIONAL door charge. We made $2,000 in two nights. It’s possible. It takes work and time, but it can definitely happen.
Related to what I just said, you have to think outside the universities, outside of the authors as your primary audience. You have to find people that are willing to give you money even if they don’t read. What did he just say? Don’t limit the scope of your work to the literary minded. Find a way to connect to local athletes, charities, art galleries, schools—you name it. Do something that has very little to do with writing, but is still creative, or inspirational, and you’ll broaden your audience. Those people may not buy your journal, but they’ll come to that event and drink the beer and eat the chicken wings—and pay the fee to get in.
There’s a lot of anger and ranting going on in this column, I know that. I hope that I’ve not only pointed out some ways that we as a community are failing, but ways that we can evolve and succeed. I want to be a part of the solution, not just part of the problem. I am weak at times, like anyone else. I give in, I give up, and I question my decisions. But overall, the editors I know, the publishers and designers and authors—they are a generous, intelligent, and loving group of people. Let’s find ways to build each other up, not tear each other down. When an author sits alone at a desk and considers quitting, even though they are talented, sometimes it’s the process of connecting that wares them down—the methods of submitting and publishing, the hoops we have to jump through, the insults we endure by being demeaned, and pushed away, and rejected—on a daily and weekly basis. We can do better. I can do better.
Are you in?
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