AWP 2012: So Many Submissions, So Little Time

Posted on 21 March 2012

I attended the AWP session “So Many Submissions, So Little Time: Editors’ Strategies for Equitable and Efficient Submissions Management” to get some ideas for a side project I may be working on in the future, but in the end, this discussion just seemed to drive home how difficult it is to get something (particularly fiction) picked up by a lit mag. But there were a few bright spots in the doom and gloom — like the short story that had been rejected by 67 places before the New England Review gladly accepted it.

First, let’s take a look at some of the journals’ submission stats:

»New England Review (NER) receives approximately 5,000 submissions during its submission period of September-May. Most of those submissions are prose, which means a slow turnaround. Managing Editor Carolyn Kuebler added that the journal gets fewer “crazy” submissions now, which also slows the process down.

»Failbetter Editor Thom Didato says the publication received about 500 submissions a year back in 2000; today, that number has swelled to 7,000 a year.

»Fence is only open twice a year, and for only one month at a time. During each month submissions are open, the journal receives about 1,700 poetry submissions and 800 fiction submissions. Editor Rebecca Wolf said the process was “impossible” when submissions were open year round, and the journal developed “a terrible reputation for not responding.”

»Ploughshares receives roughly 8,500 submissions during its reading period of June 1-January 15. Sixty-six percent of those subs are fiction. Ploughshares is guest edited, which means that 50% of the content for each issue is solicited by the current guest editor. The other 50% comes from the slush, but Managing Editor Andrea Martucci adds that submissions from past guest editors, former contributors, etc. go straight to a higher editorial level. For all the other/unknown slush submissions, the journal “employs” 60 volunteer MFA students as readers (they must first pass a test).

Other tidbits from the panelists (excluding, for no particular reason, Don Share, senior editor of Poetry — he was severely underrepresented in my haphazard notes; sorry):

From the “don’t bank on it” files: Considering that there are only so many available pages for fiction per issue of Plougshares, and that 50% of them are taken up by solicited work, Martucci admitted, “It’s incredibly hard to get a fiction piece published with us.”

On rising above the slush: Martucci said higher-level Ploughshares editors will dip into the slush to check for new talent. And Wolff recalled the Fence book contest that left her unhappy with all 15 finalists – so she went back to the original submission pile and found the winner there.

On fairness: While the editors on this panel did stress, at several points, that they make a real effort to be as fair as possible when reading submissions, Martucci said, “It’s impossible for [the submission management process] to be completely fair.”

On editorial burnout: “You start out [reading submissions] with good intentions, but it’s easy to adopt mentality of being dismissive when reading so many thousands you don’t like,” Didato said.

On long wait times: Kuebler pointed out that if your story is out with NER for a long time, that’s a good thing – it’s progressed to the managing editor or fiction editor, etc.

On querying a journal for status update: No matter how cold and impersonal the process can feel sometimes, don’t forget a real, live person is going to (eventually, we hope) read your status request. So don’t be rude. “People don’t seem to think they’re actually sending an email to an actual person,” Martucci said. Didato added that it’s shocking how many emails they receive asking for submission guidelines or other information clearly available on Failbetter‘s website – so don’t waste editors’ time by asking questions you can research on your own, either.

On “tiered” rejections: Martucci said, “Everyone overanalyzes rejection,” but Kuebler stressed that if a writer receives a note from NER that says, “please send more,” they mean it – and you should mention it when you submit again in the future.

On cover letters: A few editors mentioned cover letters are less important for online submissions, and in fact, they often don’t even look at cover letters in the online submission manager. In any case, a good cover letter won’t sell the work. Your writing  has to do that.

So who’s geared up to do some submitting?

Photo: Wetsun


12 responses to AWP 2012: So Many Submissions, So Little Time

  • Sarah W says:

    I don’t write a lot of short fiction (unless it’s 100-word prompted flash fiction), but I send out non-fiction submissions.

    Looks like the odds are about the same . . .

    • Actually, I think nonfiction is less competitive than fiction. (Meaning it’s merely crazy-competitive instead of insane-omg-competitive.) I believe the Ploughshares editor said they receive 66% fiction submissions and only 12% nonfiction. (Of course, I also wrote down 32% for poetry, but clearly those numbers do not add up…) Creative nonfiction and essays are still tough to place, but I do think the slush pile is generally a lot smaller in that category.

      Now, if you’re submitting critical essays, book reviews, etc., your odds are better. At least one editor at AWP complained about the difficulty in getting enough critical work and reviews.

      • Hi Laura,

        Sorry for reading out the wrong figures! (And thanks for writing this recap.) 56% fiction sounds right (and then you get 100%, not 110%). I’m not sure if it’s different at publications with more of a history of publishing CNF, but we, at Ploughshares, always wish we received more nonfiction. We’ve started doing all nonfiction issues every couple of years, and there is a separate prize for nonfiction for our Emerging Writer’s Contest. Spread the word: we’d love to get more nonfiction submissions!

        To address the limitations of the amount of fiction (and length of pieces) that we can publish in print, Ploughshares just started a new series called Pshares Singles. Once a month we’ll publish a digital-only longer story or novella-length work. You can read the submission guidelines here:

        Andrea Martucci

  • Averil Dean says:

    Not I, said the turtle. These statistics terrify me.

    • I was going to add a disclaimer that this post isn’t for the anxiety-prone, but then I realized: That’s all of us, simply because we’re writers. What can we do but keep plodding along…

      • Averil Dean says:

        I learned a year or so ago that I can only bear to put it out there so many times. An ongoing stream of rejection from literary magazines would just obliterate me. Instead, I plan to query each new book until I get an agent or a publisher I’m happy with, either of which is a big enough prize to entice me out of my shell.

        It always amazes me to see how fragile even a successful writer can be. I would have thought you were fearless, Laura.

  • Teri says:

    I really do believe they must be completely overwhelmed with submissions. I love the Fence idea of only opening for a month, twice a year. I’m not writing anything short at the moment, but I will say that all of my lit mag acceptances, and even the few personalized rejections, were great. And admittedly, I’ve submitted mostly essays and memoir.

    On the good vibe front … a year and a half ago, I got a letter — in the mail, imagine! — from the editor of Granta saying she couldn’t find a place for my essay but to send her more. I sent more and it didn’t work out, but I exchanged personal emails with her for a few weeks, and she always answered within a few hours and made me feel like a real person and like she’d read what I’d sent her. I never published anything with them (not yet…) but the moral of this tidbit is: she found me in the slush pile.

  • Downith says:

    I’m on a submission hiatus right now, but yes, those statistics are scary.

  • Catherine says:

    I’ve also had some email exchange with Granta over short stories. Three near-misses but a very human face. Encouraging and it makes you really rally your forces for the next story no?

  • Elissa Field says:

    Laura, thanks so much for sharing this. I started reading for a lit mag this past spring and gained a whole new appreciation of the process. It is great to read your insights from the panel, as it illuminates what really happens when work goes out.

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