Friday, February 1, 2013

Submit or Bust

Print is still--and maybe always will be--the coveted realm of publication, so it seems odd that print journals are more and more striving to banish hard copy (aka snail mail) submissions. From a recent attempt to put together some mail submissions, my cursory survey indicates that the tide seems to be going this way.

I’m noticing a lot more online only submissions from journals that used to take mail submissions, and I’m of mixed opinion about this. Since print publication is the coin of the realm, it seems counterintuitive to have the work processed electronically by quality print journals (Willow Springs, Sycamore Review, Gulf Coast, among many others). Many charge $3 for this service, through the dominant submission site, submittable (which had the unfortunate name submishmash for awhile, which is how I thought they probably felt about the deluge they were asking for with this system). After signing up and using the service for a few journals, I didn’t realize until recently that one password would allow access into a system that offers no indication of which journals it serves, knowledge which could have spared me confusion and inevitable password headaches. When using submittable, you see a list of your submissions in a spreadsheet, the name of the journals you have submitted to with the annotation of either “Received” or “Declined.” Some must also see “Accepted,” of course. Many of the smaller or less profile journals use the system, though without a $3 charge.

The $3 may seem no more than a nominal charge considering how much an actual mail submission costs: postage, anywhere from a dollar to two or more, envelope, return envelope with postage, and printing paper, as well as the time involved. In a sense, these journals are getting the money you would otherwise spend to send a hard copy.

For all the time investment and inefficiency of snail mail, I prefer it because, like the lowly and costly journal in paperback form it aspires to, it puts something substantial and tactile in hand. It won’t evaporate with one key stroke. It is, more and more, put into a recycling bin when it fails to impress--but its chances of being a felt presence on an editor’s desk seem more comforting to me, maybe because it materializes something that came out of my mind.

As for the electronic format, if the work is only published online and not in print, it can have a brief, lowly half-life when someone hacks the journal’s website and destroys hundreds of writers’--and editors’--work. This happened with a journal I had work in, which I’ve never been able to confidently call published because the website is gone. There is often this notion that work committed to the world wide web is public forever, but somehow, it’s never the work that you might want to be available.

I am warming up to the electronic transition. But not much. I don’t particularly like reading on a screen, though I have adapted to it out of necessity. At one time, I absolutely refused to send work by e-mail or through online submission sites, though I now accept that this is the future.

The argument is made that online submissions are greener--which may be true--but I think there’s something more insidious going on against the writer, which highlights the plight of the marginally published.

As there are presumably more writers submitting work in this form, it is also easier now to send work. This can make rejection so much more efficient for journals. Because there is less paper for them to wade through, it is easier to ignore. The slush pile has become the melting polar ice cap. It’s going away and no one will miss it until it’s too late.

Online submission systems might tempt harried and overworked editors to skim over possibly good work. If the work is unknown, what are the chances that it will be that good, anyway? You can almost see the logic to this assessment. Of course, this can just as easily happen with snail mail. When you have toiled and edited your writing to a careful finish, it can feel like nothing to submit and pay your $3; if it’s this expedient to send, just image how much more likely the work could get passed over merely because there’s too much work for editors to read through. The numbers reality: there’s likely more good work out there, too. Maybe now more than ever, it is all about luck, or almost crazed persistence on the part of the writer to land a publication.

If journals don’t banish snail mail, they are making it much more difficult to submit this way, often instituting exacting guidelines to follow. I find them to be an intentional annoyance, and sometimes lose track of them when I’m putting work together to submit. If I miss something when I mail, such as accidentally forgetting to address a piece “Attention: Fiction Editor,” I don’t really fret about it that much. But often, these journals’ requirements can come to sound like the red M & Ms of a diva pop star’s dressing room requirements: “Never address us as ___.” “Under no circumstances, should you ever do X.” How low do you need to bow and scrape? You will because you want them to consider your darlings. Or maybe you’ll give up and hit send when you realize how much more work snail mail requires.

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