What Submittable Has Done To Us

A most interesting article appears in the Nov./Dec. issue of Poets & Writers. It’s called (and pay attention to the subtitle!) “Diving Into the Digital Slush Pile: How Online Submissions Are Changing Lit Mags (And Your Chances of Publication).”

Let’s take a time out before we dive in, shall we? Any writer submitting to lit mags already knows that this isn’t Kansas anymore. For one, most every writer north of Honduras knows that Submittable is addictive for both editors and writers. And if you live south of Saskatchewan, you’ve probably figured out that this thing called “a reading fee” is making itself comfortable like a guest staying past three days.

But what does it all mean? Two things, it appears. One, Submittable is hurting writers’ bottom line while helping magazines’. And two, the easier it gets for everyone (and their sister) to submit, the harder it gets to land an acceptance. In other words, change is not always a good thing.

Still, as the article attests, when you factor in all the costs of snail mail (postage, materials, and that vanishing commodity called time), reading fees might be a deal. Why, then, a dozen submissions later, does one feel like George Washington after his doctor has bled him (again)?

Holdout magazines like Alaska Quarterly Magazine and Antioch Review (editors of both interviewed here) are feeling the heat, too. AQR‘s Ronald Spatz admits that he might be missing cutting-edge  (read: “young, up-and-coming”) writers by sticking with snail mail. So he did an experiment. He played Submittable’s game for a month in Sept. of 2017.

What happened? “In that time [Spatz] 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.”

This is where holy meets Toledo, folks.

The whole experiment might have led Spatz to change AQR‘s policy for good and go all-in for digital, but he resisted for a wonderful reason: “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.”

Which can only mean that some lit mags are soldiering on under impossible conditions: too many manuscripts, too few readers, too long a response time. Why would they do such a thing? In the language of that plutocracy we call “U.S.A.”: m-o-n-e-y.

Submittable charges magazines an annual subscription fee, then takes a cut of the proceeds when writers pony up for a hearing. Let’s stick with the AQR example: “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].'”

Meanwhile, John Fogarty, editor of the Antioch Review, has other solutions to the never-rest Everest Submittable creates.  He’s considering a policy of directly soliciting work from a small group of established writers Antioch has already worked with. “The volume is so large that it is almost impossible to manage at this point,” he says.

If you as a writer think the penny ante-financial drain of regular submission fees is rough, consider the fees charged for increasingly-popular contests. $25, $30, $35. While these might not be salad days for lit mags, there is a discernible uptick in their bottom lines, as they can now use writers’ money to pay off judges and readers of the hopeful writers’ wares.

The conclusion seems to be clear: In its innocent way, Submittable might be hurting your chances of publication. After all, convenience equals congestion equals competition at previously unprecedented levels.

Solutions? You can continue to patronize those magazines that shun reading fees, for one. Or, as the article suggests, you can take a chill pill. Read the magazines you submit to first. Narrow down the periodicals you’d like to be a part of and submit to them and them alone. Stop carpet-bombing!

What’s more, the article wonders, what’s this rush to publication all about anyway? Many writers are rushing works to markets before they’re even ready, just adding to the problem. Wait! Get feedback from fellow writers! Let it cook for a year! Then submit to a small group of magazines—ones you personally love.

If that sounds an awful lot like self-discipline, something people are not very good at, you’re right. Still, it’s advice worth trying. We are in a brave new world here, one where more and more writers are paying more and more money for someone to tell them their writing sucks.

Or, in some cases, one where more and more writers are paying for some front-line intern to skim and reject their work because, well, said intern has such a mountainous pile to scale that he or she is not going to bother giving every single piece a fair reading. Rather, it’s check the box. Caught up. Done. Next?

If that sounds unfair, you need only be reminded that digital life, like life itself, is unfair. As for literary magazines, they want to be fair and they’re doing their best, but injustices will happen. It’s all collateral damage, after all. At a $1.86-a-pop profit, Submittable’s way is here to stay, and everyone has to adjust appropriately.

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