Sunday, December 18, 2016

The curious schedules of literary journals

I recently answered the call of a local literary journal for readers. They claim they had about 6000 submissions for 2016. If I count their output correctly, out of those 6000, they accepted 80. One of the benefits they promised for those taking up the call to help read was getting to see what the submission process looks like from the other side.

I sure hope so. I'm not criticizing literary journals here. In fact, I hereby repent some of what now seems to me harsh language I used about some journals early on in my blog. I wasn't so much trying to vent against journals as I was hoping to voice the thoughts that occur to me in the often discouraging process of submissions. My hope was that others feeling the same frustrations might at least know they weren't alone. It wouldn't have been the first blog to do this, of course, but I still felt it might be useful. I know I found Literary Rejections on Display oddly encouraging when I was struggling to get my first acceptance.

So this isn't meant as a rebuke, but more as a question I'm anxious to get an answer to. Almost all journals take between 3 and 6 months to respond to submissions. Some take much longer; I currently have a story in with one journal that has been in the queue for 13 months. (I have a feeling that they have coded me somehow as a writer they will probably never accept, and are hanging onto the submission as long as they can because it will prevent me from submitting again and clogging up their inbox.)

Nathaniel Tower, the editor of the sadly-soon-to-end Bartleby Snopes, has insisted that the length of time your story sits with editors means nothing in terms of how close you were to being accepted. If it took a week or a year, that's just how long it happened to take for the journal to get to your work. (Nathaniel has written some really useful and entertaining blog posts about behind the scenes stuff at lit journals. I actually can't find the post where he said not to read into how long it takes to get a response, but trust me, he said it somewhere.)

The question

Here's what I don't understand: if journals have a long queue, how does it not just get ever longer and longer? Some journals have seasons. They take submissions until a fixed date, and then they stop taking them. That makes sense. They get behind, and then they catch up. It's like a doctor's office; they get further and further behind as the season goes on, but just like a doctor's office eventually closes up and finishes with all the patients in the waiting room who didn't die waiting, the journal will catch up during the off-season.

But some journals--many, in fact, don't have an off-season. It's like a doctor's office that never closes, so the patients, one would have to imagine, just get more and more backed up.

If your model isn't in one day out the next, how do you not just get further and further behind until you choke in submissions?

At least a few journals do seem to run a pretty quick turnaround. Bartleby Snopes responded to me in a week with an acceptance. So did Potomac Review. (Bartleby Snopes made it a policy to always try to reply within a week.) A literary agent the other day responded to my query letter on my novel with a "no" the same day I sent it. That's the only business model I can see working. Anything other than clearing the inbox every day seems like a formula for capsizing in submissions.

I can understand if the timing of a journal is periodic--quarterly, say--that a journal might hang onto a piece until near the end of the cutoff for that edition. My thinking is that a journal would, on the first day of the selection period for the next journal, pick the top X number of selections, with X being the number it plans to publish. As new ones come in, they are either judged better than what they already have, in which case they bump those off, or they fail to be as good as what they already have on the board. If it doesn't top what they've already got, it's one day in, one day out. When anything falls off the board, it gets sent back to the writer with a no.

I assume--and this is very much an uninformed assumption on my part--that front-line readers are able to weed out the obvious misses without a lot of oversight from senior editors. Their job is to triage what they get--some to the waste basket, some on to senior editors to look at more closely. So there might be a few days of delay between the initial triage and the final decision.

But no matter how you slice it, if a journal has more coming in on a daily basis than it makes decisions on, the queue is just going to get longer and longer. So this is what I'm anxious to see: how does a model work where the goal isn't in-today, out-today?

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