Diving Into the Digital Slush Pile
How Online Submissions Are Changing Lit Mags (and Your Chances of Publication)
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