Div­ing Into the Dig­i­tal Slush Pile

How On­line Sub­mis­sions Are Chang­ing Lit Mags (and Your Chances of Pub­li­ca­tion)

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By michael bourne

How on­line sub­mis­sions are chang­ing lit mags (and your chances of pub­li­ca­tion).

EVER since he launched Alaska Quar­terly Re­view (AQR) in 1982, Ron­ald Spatz has dis­cov­ered the sto­ries and poems he pub­lishes the old-fash­ioned way: by open­ing en­velopes sent via the U.S. Postal Ser­vice. But in re­cent years Spatz had be­gun to no­tice that the num­bers of sub­mis­sions mailed to the An­chor­age-based jour­nal were tail­ing off. More trou­bling, when he stud­ied data from the AQR’s so­cial me­dia feeds, he found that in­ter­est in the jour­nal wasn’t as strong as he would have liked among younger writ­ers and read­ers.

So he de­cided to con­duct a test. In Septem­ber 2017 Spatz bought a sub­scrip­tion to Sub­mit­table, the ubiq­ui­tous sub­mis­sion man­age­ment sys­tem, and opened AQR to on­line sub­mis­sions for a month. In that time he ex­pected to re­ceive three hun­dred to four hun­dred manuscripts over the dig­i­tal tran­som. In­stead he re­ceived 1,190—on top of the pa­per sub­mis­sions that were still ar­riv­ing via postal mail.

“I just had to stop it,” Spatz says. “Peo­ple said, ‘Why? This is great.’ But we couldn’t han­dle it. We weren’t set up to do it, and it all came in so fast that it just shut ev­ery­thing down.”

Though the jour­nal’s on­line por­tal re­mains closed a year later, the ex­per­i­ment made Spatz a firm be­liever in the prom­ise of dig­i­tal sub­mis­sions. On­line plat­forms like Sub­mit­table, he notes, dra­mat­i­cally sim­plify the ad­min­is­tra­tive work of manag­ing a large slush pile while at­tract­ing tal­ented young writ­ers who have never—and prob­a­bly never will—sub­mit their work via snail mail. But he be­lieves it’s un­eth­i­cal to in­vite the del­uge of manuscripts he would get on­line un­til he has enough staff to read all of them in a timely man­ner.

If the Alaska Quar­terly Re­view re­opens its on­line por­tal for good next fall, as Spatz hopes to do, the pub­li­ca­tion will join thou­sands of other lit­er­ary mag­a­zines that have made the switch to dig­i­tal sub­mis­sions over the past two decades. But as Spatz’s ex­per­i­ment il­lus­trates, by sim­pli­fy­ing the sub­mis­sion process, on­line por­tals are also help­ing to push slush piles to un­prece­dented heights, re­sult­ing in staffing short­ages, de­layed re­sponse times, and van­ish­ingly low ac­cep­tance rates for sub­mit­ted work at many jour­nals.

The shift to dig­i­tal sub­mis­sions be­gan in the late 1990s, when a few tech-savvy ed­i­tors started ac­cept­ing sub­mis­sions via e-mail. Most writ­ers con­tin­ued lick­ing stamps well into the 2000s, even as Devin Emke, who man­ages the web­site for One Story, de­signed an on­line sub­mis­sion por­tal for the jour­nal—help­ing to cre­ate a model that would change the land­scape of lit­er­ary sub­mis­sions. In 2006 the Com­mu­nity of Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zines and Presses be­gan of­fer­ing a ver­sion of Emke’s sys­tem, now called Sub­mis­sion Manager, to its mem­ber mag­a­zines; but dig­i­tal sub­mis­sions re­ally took off af­ter Sub­mit­table, a Mis­soula, Mon­tana–based start-up, launched a com­pet­ing plat­form (then called Sub­mish­mash) in 2010. To­day, Sub­mit­table is used by roughly two thou­sand lit­er­ary mag­a­zines across the United States and abroad. Only a rel­a­tive hand­ful of jour­nals still re­quire postal sub­mis­sions.

By re­plac­ing the ex­pen­sive, time­con­sum­ing process of print­ing and mail­ing bulky pa­per manuscripts with a sim­ple, one-step dig­i­tal sys­tem, plat­forms like Sub­mit­table have rad­i­cally low­ered the bar­ri­ers to sub­mis­sion, en­cour­ag­ing writ­ers to send their work out more of­ten and to more jour­nals. The ex­plo­sion of MFA pro­grams has fur­ther fu­eled the sub­mis­sion boom, both by widen­ing

the pool of writ­ers send­ing work to mag­a­zines and by giv­ing those writ­ers a fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive to be­gin pub­lish­ing to help them se­cure teach­ing work in MFA pro­grams, which typ­i­cally re­quire a lengthy record of pub­li­ca­tion.

Sky­rock­et­ing sub­mis­sions have, in turn, driven down ac­cep­tance rates at many jour­nals, es­pe­cially the more pres­ti­gious ones—a trend that has pushed writ­ers to send their sto­ries and poems to even more jour­nals, set­ting in mo­tion a sub­mis­sions arms race that de­fies easy so­lu­tions.

At the Cincin­nati Re­view, for in­stance, the tran­si­tion from pa­per to dig­i­tal in 2011 roughly dou­bled the num­ber of sub­mis­sions in a year, says manag­ing editor Lisa Am­ple­man. Since then the bian­nual jour­nal based at the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati has seen a steady rise in sub­mis­sions year af­ter year, to roughly eight thou­sand manuscripts in the 2017–2018 aca­demic year. Even as the jour­nal has nar­rowed its sub­mis­sion win­dow from nine months to six, the flood of sub­mis­sions hasn’t let up. “We keep short­en­ing the read­ing pe­riod to man­age the num­ber of sub­mis­sions we’re get­ting,” Am­ple­man says, “but it’s like a liq­uid—it fills what­ever space you give it.”

This has real con­se­quences both for Am­ple­man’s staff, which is made up of part-time vol­un­teer read­ers, and for writ­ers sub­mit­ting to the jour­nal. Last year, Am­ple­man says, the Cincin­nati Re­view re­ceived 3,742 fic­tion sub­mis­sions and pub­lished just ten sto­ries, re­sult­ing in an ac­cep­tance rate of 0.26 per­cent. (The odds for po­ets were slightly higher, at 2.8 per­cent.)

Mean­while, the 99.74 per­cent of fic­tion writ­ers whose sto­ries weren’t pub­lished in the jour­nal are waiting longer to re­ceive re­jec­tion no­tices. The Cincin­nati Re­view ed­i­tors aim to re­spond to sub­mis­sions in six months, Am­ple­man says, and most writ­ers who send their work early in the sub­mis­sion pe­riod do hear back within that time frame. But as manuscripts pile up, re­sponse times inevitably lengthen. “We’re be­hind, and I’m not happy about our re­sponse times,” she says. “I have a hand­ful of sub­mis­sions in here that haven’t had a de­ci­sion that are ap­proach­ing a year, which is un­for­tu­nate for the writ­ers.”

At Tin House, one of the coun­try’s most well re­garded lit­er­ary mag­a­zines, the dig­i­tal del­uge has be­come even more tor­ren­tial. In the era of pa­per sub­mis­sions, the Port­land, Ore­gon– based quar­terly re­ceived fewer than five thou­sand manuscripts a year, says as­sis­tant editor Thomas Ross. But Tin House was an early adopter of Sub­mit­table, and at its peak a cou­ple of years ago the magazine was get­ting close to twenty thou­sand sub­mis­sions a year.

Af­ter cut­ting its nine-month sub­mis­sion pe­riod to two one-month pe­ri­ods an­nu­ally—one in Septem­ber and one in March—Tin House has seen sub­mis­sions drop by half, down to a still un­wieldy ten thou­sand a year, Ross says. But since the jour­nal tries to make sure ev­ery sub­mis­sion is read by at least two peo­ple, and be­cause much of that read­ing is done by vol­un­teers and in-house in­terns, it can still take six months, and some­times as long as a year, for a writer to get a re­sponse. “Of course,” Ross notes, “the other frus­tra­tion in the slush pile is that the things get­ting the most de­lib­er­a­tion are the things that take the long­est to re­spond to.”

Tin House and the Cincin­nati Re­view are hardly the only jour­nals see­ing length­en­ing re­sponse times. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey com­piled for this ar­ti­cle by Duotrope, a widely used sub­mis­sion-track­ing plat­form, the av­er­age re­sponse times for elec­tronic sub­mis­sions has in­creased 40 per­cent in the past decade, from just 55 days in 2007 to 77 days in 2017. (If it’s any con­so­la­tion to e-sub­mit­ters, Duotrope users sub­mit­ting by postal mail have to wait even longer—an av­er­age of 116 days in 2017.)

The pace of dig­i­tal sub­mis­sions is only slightly less crush­ing at a smaller on­line jour­nal like Juked, which re­ceives roughly 4,600 sub­mis­sions a year, ac­cord­ing to editor Ryan Ridge. Ridge has three other ed­i­tors who help him read the fic­tion that pours in, but he es­ti­mates he still reads seventy to a hun­dred sto­ries each month, many of them more than once. “It’s a lot, but some­times with a story you can tell just by the end of that first page,” Ridge says. “I try to read all of ev­ery piece, but some­times we [know] it’s not go­ing to be right for us pretty quickly.”

Juked, which pub­lishes sto­ries and poems on­line and in an an­nual print edi­tion, doesn’t charge writ­ers for sub­mit­ting on­line, though many jour­nals do charge a small fee, typ­i­cally about $2 or $3 per sub­mis­sion (as op­posed to con­test sub­mis­sions, whose av­er­age fee is roughly $24 per en­try). Sub­mis­sion fees are es­pe­cially com­mon for mag­a­zines that use Sub­mit­table, which charges an an­nual sub­scrip­tion fee and takes a cut when those mag­a­zines charge writ­ers for us­ing the sys­tem to sub­mit. (Jour­nals that use Sub­mis­sion Manager, the plat­form de­vel­oped by One Story’s Devin Emke, pay a one­time $200 li­cens­ing fee, and those

pub­li­ca­tions typ­i­cally don’t charge for sub­mis­sions.)

Still, at $2 or $3, on­line sub­mis­sion is of­ten cheaper than the cost of postage, pack­ag­ing, and print­ing, es­pe­cially for longer fic­tion manuscripts, and saves writ­ers un­told hours print­ing out manuscripts, ad­dress­ing en­velopes, and waiting in line at the post of­fice. More im­por­tant, sub­mis­sion plat­forms also serve as dig­i­tal data­bases for both writ­ers and ed­i­tors, al­low­ing writ­ers to track their sub­mis­sions and en­abling ed­i­tors to see at a glance who among their staff has read a man­u­script and what that reader thought of it.

But the shift to dig­i­tal sub­mis­sions also car­ries more sub­tle ben­e­fits that are largely in­vis­i­ble to writ­ers. Magazine staffers no longer have to sort and log incoming manuscripts by hand, and with ev­ery­one read­ing on a screen, ed­i­tors can re­view and dis­cuss manuscripts re­motely, mak­ing it eas­ier to re­cruit ed­i­tors and first read­ers. Ridge, for in­stance, lives in Utah, but Juked’s po­etry editor is in Hong Kong, while oth­ers on the jour­nal’s staff live in Ge­or­gia, Ken­tucky, Mas­sachusetts, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. At Alaska Quar­terly Re­view, Spatz must dig­i­tize manuscripts that make it past the pre­lim­i­nary screen­ing round in or­der to e-mail them to read­ers he trusts out­side of An­chor­age—yet an­other layer of ad­min­is­tra­tive work he hopes to elim­i­nate by mov­ing sub­mis­sions on­line.

Then, too, those ad­min­is­tra­tive fees can add up to a small but at­trac­tive rev­enue stream for peren­ni­ally cash-strapped lit­er­ary mag­a­zines. At

AQR, Spatz paid $757 for the jour­nal’s an­nual Sub­mit­table sub­scrip­tion and re­tained $1.86 of each $3 pay­ment from writ­ers us­ing the sys­tem, with the re­main­der go­ing back to Sub­mit­table. With 1,190 sub­mis­sions, the rev­enue from fees more than paid for the jour­nal’s Sub­mit­table sub­scrip­tion in just the one month sub­mis­sions were open. Had AQR kept the on­line por­tal open for a full year, Spatz says, “we would be get­ting lots of rev­enue, which we need, but the thing is, that would be un­eth­i­cal [be­cause the jour­nal doesn’t have the staff to han­dle the added sub­mis­sions].”

Of course a small num­ber of pres­ti­gious jour­nals, in­clud­ing the Paris Re­view, the Yale Re­view, the An­ti­och Re­view, and Zyzzyva, have so far re­sisted the siren song of Sub­mit­table and ac­cept only pa­per sub­mis­sions. (In an e-mail Emily Ne­mens, the newly ap­pointed editor of the Paris Re­view, said she is “in the mid­dle of re­con­sid­er­ing our sub­mis­sion poli­cies” with her staff.)

Robert Fog­a­rty, who has edited the An­ti­och Re­view since 1977, says his jour­nal doesn’t ac­cept on­line sub­mis­sions be­cause he prefers not to read un­so­licited sto­ries and poems on-screen—and with roughly five thou­sand manuscripts coming in each year, it’s im­prac­ti­cal to print out that many pages. “I’m pre-Eu­clidean, in some ways,” says Fog­a­rty, who turned eighty this year. “I don’t even have a cell phone. So part of it is that I’m not part of that gen­er­a­tion.”

In fact Fog­a­rty says he is con­sid­er­ing end­ing his jour­nal’s open sub­mis­sions pol­icy al­to­gether to fo­cus on a smaller num­ber of writ­ers that he and his staff would solicit di­rectly. “The vol­ume is so large that it is al­most

im­pos­si­ble to man­age at this point,” he says about sub­mis­sions to the jour­nal. “We have a long list of writ­ers who have pub­lished in the An­ti­och Re­view who con­tinue to want to be pub­lished in it.”

While Fog­a­rty is hardly alone in his frus­tra­tion with mount­ing slush piles, other ed­i­tors say they re­main ded­i­cated to keep­ing their sub­mis­sion por­tals open. But as on­line sub­mis­sions be­come in­creas­ingly uni­ver­sal, ed­i­tors are work­ing to shrink their slush piles by short­en­ing sub­mis­sion win­dows, lim­it­ing the num­ber of pieces writ­ers can sub­mit dur­ing any one open pe­riod, and re­cruit­ing ever more staff to find the lit­er­ary gold in the great rivers of sub­mis­sions.

Mean­while an in­creas­ing num­ber of jour­nals are hold­ing con­tests through dig­i­tal sys­tems like Sub­mit­table. With higher en­try fees, con­tests ef­fec­tively mon­e­tize a por­tion of the sub­mis­sion stream, al­low­ing ed­i­tors to pay the read­ers and judges who re­view sub­mis­sions as well as the win­ning writ­ers. Many con­tests, such as the Cincin­nati Re­view’s an­nual Robert and Adele Schiff Awards in Prose and Po­etry, also help build read­er­ship by of­fer­ing each en­trant a year’s sub­scrip­tion to the magazine.

Writ­ers, too, have a role to play in keep­ing slush piles man­age­able, says Jef­frey Lepen­dorf, the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Com­mu­nity of Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zines and Presses. Rather than “car­pet bomb­ing” lit­er­ary jour­nals with mul­ti­ple sub­mis­sions, Lepen­dorf says, writ­ers should make a con­scious ef­fort to gauge the lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ties and rep­u­ta­tions of the jour­nals they’re sub­mit­ting to. Once they have a strong sense of the lit­er­ary land­scape, he says, writ­ers might then start by send­ing their work to the five mag­a­zines in which they would most like to pub­lish their work and wait to hear back be­fore send­ing to the next five pub­li­ca­tions on their wish list.

Fi­nally, Lepen­dorf says, writ­ers should get as much feed­back on their work from fel­low writ­ers as pos­si­ble be­fore sub­mit­ting it for pub­li­ca­tion. “From a writer’s per­spec­tive, don’t feel that the mo­ment you fin­ish some­thing you need to send it in to be pub­lished,” he says. “I think for writ­ers there’s such a pres­sure to pub­lish that a lot of work that isn’t re­ally ready is sent in.”

It may sound ob­vi­ous, but the fact re­mains: Many sub­mis­sions to lit­er­ary mag­a­zines are re­jected sim­ply be­cause they aren’t yet ready for pub­li­ca­tion. Writ­ers not only in­crease their own chances of pub­li­ca­tion, but could even col­lec­tively de­crease the over­all re­sponse time, by sub­mit­ting only their very best work.

To­day, a year af­ter his month­long ex­per­i­ment with the dig­i­tal slush pile, Ron­ald Spatz is back to slic­ing open pa­per en­velopes, ea­ger to find the next best sto­ries and poems for his jour­nal. But he is also qui­etly staffing up, in the hopes of re­open­ing dig­i­tal sub­mis­sions again next year and mak­ing the Alaska Quar­terly Re­view a wel­com­ing home for the emerg­ing, dig­i­tal-na­tive writ­ers of the twen­ty­first cen­tury.

“We have this mis­sion,” he says. “We want to ex­pand, and we think it’s re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant to reach this younger de­mo­graphic. We’re talk­ing about a lot of folks who are at the cut­ting edge, and they re­ally are the fu­ture.”

Ron­ald Spatz, Alaska Quar­terly Re­view

Lisa Am­ple­man, Cincin­nati Re­view

Ryan Ridge, Juked

Robert Fog­a­rty, An­ti­och Re­view

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