Rogue Submission Guidelines to the Rescue
There is a certain selfishness to the existing submission guidelines in literary magazines that makes the prospect for rogue guidelines hilarious, even imperative. Bringing democracy to publishing would entail submitters stringing together guidelines that are entirely of us, by us, and for us. And this is not because of any frustration with the slush pile. I corral some credits on my bio, though only my Submittable account gives the full picture. Author bios are like TV highlights of football matches: you see only the goals. Blessed are those whose misses are covered.
And so the first port of call, cudgel in hand, would be ‘blind submissions’ – the phraseology not the ideology. To ‘read blind’ must be the reason for so much quality that ends up in the slush pile. Writers who are not visually handicapped have no business having their submissions read in Braille. For that is what reading blind connotes. This is so different from reading anonymously. To think that the czars of reading blind are mostly mother-tongue English users and not African or Asian ESL users. Nevertheless, they make my colloquialism as an African writer look amateur when I write that some public officer ‘ate money’. After giving reading blind a black eye, we move over to the duty of notice.
Every prospective publisher wants you to ‘immediately notify’ them and ‘withdraw’ your submission if accepted elsewhere. Whyever should that be? And what is wrong with the compliment of multiple acceptances and publications in different markets? No writer is complaining about that. If publishers don’t want it, it is always the subsequent ones and never the first one. And it is because no one wants to look like the one whom they beat to it. Look out for #1 is very much at play here with the writer drawing the short straw. No writer is hurt by multiple publications. Peter Tosh sang that the rich man’s heaven is the poor man’s hell. That goes for the publisher and the writer mutatis mutandis.
Publishers should wake up and realize that some good-to-goodness pieces overhaul the market from the buyer’s market that it traditionally is to a seller’s market. When it happens, they should not try to play the ethics’ card ‘cos it won’t wash. Ethical considerations would come in if we were dealing with first refusals. First refusals are exclusive offers which most submissions are not. Even if submissions are akin to first refusals, the markets are often different. Being published by a 2000-print run mag in Mississippi cannot compromise the market of an online journal in Nairobi. Not from the point of view of the writer.
Literary submissions are not marriage proposals; they are more like sowing wild oats. While infidelity is to be frowned at, commitment has to be mutual for the charge of infidelity to hold water. However, no publisher makes a commitment upfront except for commissioned pieces from a JK Rowling or Adichie. They won’t head-hunt a Mike Ekunno piece – not yet.
On a more personal note, even when one was willing to practice withdrawal, there is the frustration of scouring the submissions not made on Submittable. E-mail, and worse, snail mail submissions, are not easy to track for withdrawal because they are often not assembled together in a folder with an icon to click for withdrawal. So like real life oats, they are sown and forgotten. If they sprout after their earlier or faster clones, the more the merrier. Life should not be unethical. Every withdrawal is disruptive and can be messy but only the withdrawer knows it.
Reading fees are also not writer-friendly. For monetized, prizey contests, they can be justified, but not for regular submissions. Many publications which charge reading fees are paying markets. One may therefore be wont to offset their venality against their charity – a receiving offset by a giving. It is the rest of the clan who claim that reading fees help to offset their running costs including Submittable subscription that are being disingenuous. That’s why they are in business in the first place: to publish and circulate with no assurance of breaking even. That risk needed to have been hedged from the promoter’s equity and not from potential customers. It is much like a supermarket asking every window shopper to pay a looking fee.
The squirminess that attends the entire business of reading fee is proof enough of its immorality in non-paying markets. Most times, the publications are not upfront with full disclosure of their status in this area until the very last moment. You therefore wade through the submission throughput only to reach point of uploading your submission and chance upon the fee sentinel at the gates. It may be a ‘token’ of $3 by the publisher’s reckoning, but how about that ‘token’ in 49 other submissions? That becomes a king’s ransom for most writers with no guarantee of the king’s release even after the payment thereof. Reading fees for writers are therefore like lottery tickets. But lotteries are not played by the dozens. It is a tribute to the horde of non-fee paying markets that the litmag industry has not been mortgaged to only writers who can afford the venality of reading fees.
While at it, why would litmags not accept adverts to offset their overheads? Adverts are no more unethical than reading fees and most readers and subscribers will forgive the odd two or three advert pages if they realize that’s what makes the cover price affordable. The pool of potential advertisers is quite mouth-watering: coffee, brandy, cigarette, MFA programs, writing workshops, mifi data plans, laptops and ergonomic seats. Entitlement to a buyer’s market would not allow other publishers see the reach afforded by advertising in another magazine which is popular in the market they wish to prospect.
The other redundancies on submission guidelines are not as notorious as the foregoing and may be but minor irritations. Don’t ask a prospect to order or read your back issues in order to get a feel of what you want. That’s what guidelines are for. Submission pieces are finished products often not amenable to emendations to suit every publication. If an editor is upfront with her tastes in the guidelines, it saves both parties the faux marketing of pitching back issues to get ‘a feel’. Not every suggestion for back issue is a marketing gimmick, though. There are free, online mags which extend the same invitations. At the more practical level however, if a writer had to browse back issues of every potential publisher, his throughput would be severely hampered. Not to talk of the magazines’ library he would have to establish for his collection of printed back issues.
Another redundancy which most writers treat with benign neglect is the advisory on checking up on their submissions ‘if you haven’t heard from us after….’ Fact is that silence is no acquiescence in this industry. If it is any acquiescence, it is acquiescence to rejection. Acceptances in writing and in romance are active things; it is rejection that can be passive. Some rejections are communicated while others are not. But hoping for a muted response to morph to acceptance in this industry is worse than waiting for Donald Trump’s tax returns to be made public. Which then makes a check-up superfluous. It must be a very bored writer who goes about checking up on her unheard-from submissions.
And now all writers from east and west; writers north and south; of every land and clime; hear ye my joyful tidings. Henceforth submission calls shall read:
This magazine is reading for its umpteenth issue and submissions are invited for short stories, poems, creative non-fiction, essays, artworks and photography. All entries shall be anonymous. There shall be no disclosure of the identity of the writer in any part of the work. We endeavor to respond within three months, but if you do not hear from us, don’t bother to enquire – you’ve been had. If you feel up to it, go ahead and order our back issues, it helps our bottom line. To get a feel of our aesthetic preferences however, wait for us to accept your piece – that’s your best evidence. If another publication beats us to your submission, when we send our acceptance letter, just furnish us details of the earlier publication for proper acknowledgement – shows you’re that good. Pitching for re-publication from the onset? You’re welcome. Just say so and tell us the catchment market of the earlier publication especially if it has no Internet record. This magazine is non-paying – both from and to.
Mike Ekunno: "I go after sensory beauty to relieve a difficult world. I am published in over a couple dozen journals including: Bridge Eight, The First Line, Crack the Spine, The Hamilton Stone Review, Gambling the Aisle, Warscapes, bioStories, BRICKrhetoric, The Transnational, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Ebedi Review, Dark Matter Journal, Bullet Pen and Storymoja, the last two coming with wins in continental contests.
I am a freelance book editor and ghost biographer. I am a massive fan of ABBA and an Agnetha groupie."