Editor Roundtable: How Long Should a Writer Wait for a Literary Magazine?
The waiting is the hardest part for many who submit to literary magazines. Some writers have determined their own criteria as to when to wait and when to continue submitting a piece. Among writers who haven’t developed their own approach, here’s a situation that comes up:
A writer has sent their best piece of writing to a publication. After three months, or whatever response time the magazine has published, there’s no word, no “yes,” no “no,” and no “maybe.” The writer is afraid that if they submit elsewhere, they’ll miss their shot at this publication.
How would you advise the writer? Should they start submitting to other magazines of the same caliber? When is it time to submit to less selective magazines, and what does that mean? On a related note, how are wait times affected by the increase in online submissions? Please tell us about your own experiences as a writer or editor or both.
- Laura Moretz, TRR Interviews Editor
I would advise writers not to put too much stock a single submission. Most literary magazines now accept simultaneous submissions, so there’s no need to worry about submitting pieces one at a time. You can generally determine the journal’s policy on simultaneous submissions by looking at the writer’s guidelines on the magazine’s website. And if you keep good records, you will be able to withdraw your manuscript when it is accepted elsewhere. I generally expect to hear back by three months. If it’s been too much longer, the manuscript has probably slipped through the cracks. However, I never follow up, since I figure that, in this instance, the connection was simply not meant to be. The exception might be a case where your work has been solicited, or where you have a special relationship with an editor or magazine. Then you will want to check in about the manuscript’s status. Nevertheless, I urge writers not to obsess about publishing in particular venues. Sure, it’s great to have publishing aspirations. But I find that it’s actually more gratifying to find the editors who genuinely respond to the particular work. In other words, if a journal likes my story, it’s generally a good match. Love the one you’re with!
Jack Ross, editor of Poetry New Zealand and poet:
Wearing my editor's hat, I guess my first advice to people submitting pieces would be to check carefully on the magazine's website or back issues to find out details of the suggested response time. If this time has elapsed, and nothing has been heard, I think a quick business-like email to the editor asking if a decision has yet been reached is entirely appropriate. If you're still within the stipulated waiting period (whether it be six weeks or three months), probably better not.
If you don't receive a response to this enquiry, I think you can safely begin submitting the work somewhere else, without further ado. Nor do I think you're honour-bound, at that point, to inform the initial magazine of your decision.
If you get a better offer for your piece while it's still under consideration by another magazine, best to send the first bunch a quick, business-like email to tell them about it. No apologies are necessary, but it's courteous to keep them informed, as it saves them spending any more time on a piece which is no longer available.
If no time-period is clearly stipulated (which already shows an ominous degree of amateurism, in my opinion), I would say an enquiry after six weeks would be fine.
Wearing my writer's hat, I guess my longest waiting period to date has been (from memory) 18 months. I'd actually forgotten all about the submission in question, only to get a letter from the editor asking me to revise it and also add supplementary details (it was a translation, and they wanted copies of the originals of the poems in question) within the next few days to meet their print deadline. This is extremely bad form in anybody's lexicon: a ridiculously long silence followed by a demand for immediate, frenetic activity shows a kind of top-lofty contempt on the part of the editor which I wish I could say was unprecedented. Alas, it's not even unusual. It was the top magazine around these parts, which may have explained why they thought they could act in this way.
This is why I think it's important that editors should be familiar with both sides of the selection process. Hopefully, if you've been pissed around by somebody else, this makes you less prone to do the same thing yourself. I also believe firmly that all communications between author and editor should be conducted with courtly politeness. It's fatally easy to read hastily written emails as contemptuous in tone, even with this is entirely unintended.
I'll speak as a writer and you can assume that my editor side agrees (mostly) with what I say.
Don't wait. Especially if the journal doesn't specify "No simultaneous submissions." The reality is that if you don't simultaneously submit, it may take decades for you to get that one piece published. Yes, decades. I once had a short story that took 130 submissions to get accepted. It was a quirky story, but I believed in it, and so I kept sending it out, unchanged. Before its ultimate acceptance for publication, the story won a cash award, and it got me admitted to Bread Loaf as a waiter, so I knew it was good. But 129 journals said no to publishing it. Now imagine that I hadn't simultaneously submitted that piece and the average response time for each journal was 3 months (and I immediately resubmitted to a new journal as soon as each rejection came in). If you do the math, that's 390 months to find publication. Yep. Just shy of 33 years to get published. I'm sorry, but I just don't have that kind of time.
That said, if you do simultaneously submit, you must keep good records and withdraw from the other places still considering your work once you have an acceptance. There's no excuse not to, especially given the wonderful online submission services that most journals use now. As an editor, I can tell you that I never blame an author if I miss out on a piece because I was too slow responding. That's on me, and honestly, if anything, it makes me more inclined to look at future work by that author a little sooner so I don't miss out again. What I absolutely hate, though, is having all my readers weigh in, discussing a piece, finding the right issue for it, deciding to accept it, sending out the acceptance email, and then having the author respond, "Oh, sorry, another journal already accepted that." It's such a waste of my time and my readers' time. It's extremely inconsiderate, especially when withdrawing a piece from Submittable or other online submission services is so easy. One click and the notice goes out. If you can't be bothered to do that, then you really don't care about my time at all and my first thought is that I don't want to waste any more of it on you.
Also, I would add that I used to "tier" my submissions, starting with the big guys first and slowly working my way down to smaller journals. Lots of "experts" suggest going that route. While that may work for some authors, I ultimately realized that there is no perfect journal acceptance. The bigger name journals look good on your bio sheet and help with agents, but many of them are print-only and your work gets one shot to be read and then just sort of disappears. The smaller online journals often archive work forever, giving you good hits when someone like that dream agent googles your name. The smaller journals are more likely to recommend your work for Pushcarts and other prizes because you aren't competing against the big names that well-known journals publish. There are lots of pluses and minuses for both routes to publication, and I would say that just like investing your money, diversification in your submission strategy gives you maximum exposure and you reap the benefits from more than one angle.
John McNally, writer in Residence, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, author of Lord of Ralphs and The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide, who has edited, co-edited, or guest edited seven anthologies on subjects that range from superheroes to adultery:
The late Alice K. Turner, who was fiction editor at Playboy for many years, said to me, "Life is too short to send stories to only one magazine." I took that advice to heart. One of my early stories was rejected over fifty times before it was taken by a good magazine. If I had submitted it to only one magazine at a time, it might have taken twenty-five years to get an acceptance since there are two primary seasons for submitting work: fall and spring. If I really, really want to hear back from a magazine, I might write to them a month after their stated deadline, a polite email asking for the status. But I try not to put all my hope into one magazine.
Patricia Grace King, a short fiction writer whose work has appeared in Ploughshares, Narrative Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, and Nimrod, and who blogs at Wuthering Yankee: Stories from Life on Two Continents:
First of all, I think writers should submit simultaneously all the time—unless the journal they're submitting to has a “no simultaneous submissions” policy. In that event, if a writer has not heard back from a journal once the journal's response time is up, she should send a quick email and ask about the status of her submission. If she does not receive an answer within a reasonable window of time—say, a week—then she should go right ahead and submit someplace else.
At that juncture, she's done all she can and should do to honor the journal's "no simultaneous submissions" policy.
But about simultaneous submissions: In my experience, most journals do allow this. I often start by sending out one piece to 4 to 6 journals at the same time. As responses start to come back on those first submissions, I try to cull what I can from them. Are journals rejecting my piece right away, or holding onto it for the entirety of their response time? Am I getting a standard rejection, or a rejection with comments and encouragement? Based on that kind of editorial feedback, I usually re-read and revise the piece once more. (By now, several months will have gone by since I sent it out in the first place, and it's always amazing—as well as humbling—to see the improvements I still can make on a piece.)
Then I send it again—to 4 to 6 more journals at a time.
There's nothing magic about that number, the 4 to 6 journals at a time. I know some writers who simultaneously submit to a greater number than that. It just feels like the number I can manage while continuing to do my other work: all the other parts of writing that are not about sending out submissions!
Whether or not a writer decides to start sending to journals of a different caliber than what she's already tried probably will have a lot to do with the kind of feedback she's gotten from editors on her first round or two of submissions. If the rejections are encouraging ones, I'd say keep going—keep trying at the same level, as encouraging rejections mean your piece made it through the first several rounds of consideration by the editorial board.