Submission Etiquette

This morning, I am thinking about submission etiquette for writers. I hope you’ll indulge what may come off as a bit of a rant, but it’s not really. A week ago, it might have been, but I’m over it at this point. Still, I think it’s important for writers who are submitting to understand the etiquette that goes along with it.

I’m the fiction editor for a literary journal. I do my best to give each submission my full attention when its turn comes up. As a writer who also submits to literary journals, I am mindful of the dreaded long wait times, so I also try to get back to writers regarding their submissions as quickly as possible, often within just a few days. I sincerely believe most editors take this responsibility seriously and try to honor the writers who’ve entrusted their work with them.

I’m writing this morning about a specific submission we received. In some cases, I know immediately that a story is a great fit for the journal. In some cases, I know immediately that a story is not for us because the writing isn’t ready or it doesn’t fit the journal’s aesthetic. Sometimes, I’m not sure. When that situation comes up, I need to take some time to think about it or to consult with others, and that was the case with this specific story. It was a great story, and I loved it, but I wasn’t sure if it was the right fit. So, I read it again and again. I asked others to read it, too. Our copyeditor took the time not only to read it, but to weigh in on some specific concerns I had about structure and formatting. Our managing editor read it and offered her input. Our assistant managing editor, who is also the editor of our journal’s daily section, read it and offered her input. Our editor-in-chief even took the time to read it while he was on vacation.

I had one slot left for fiction in our journal’s upcoming summer issue. After a great deal of consideration, and after pulling nearly our entire team in on the deliberations, I gave this story our last fiction slot, only two months after the story had been submitted to us. This was the longest wait time for a decision for any of my writers this issue, but it is still well under the usual wait times for journals.

I am always so excited to write to authors with an acceptance. For many of the writers who submit to us, it is their first or one of their first publications. I love delivering the news that their work will be published in our online journal, that it will also be published in a lovely print edition, and that they are going to be paid for their work. So, I was delighted to tell this writer we were going to publish their piece.

I was surprised to get this note back: “I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed [my story]! Unfortunately, it was already picked up by another lit magazine.”

Writers, this is a huge breach of writer etiquette.

Simultaneous submissions are the norm in contemporary publishing. When I was starting out, every submission had to be sent via snail mail, and it had to be sent exclusively—you could only submit to one journal at a time, wait forever for that rejection slip to come in the mail, and then submit to another. Today, almost all journals accept electronic submissions and simultaneous submissions. That’s a great convenience for writers, but it’s also a responsibility. If  you’re simultaneously submitting, then the professional thing to do is to notify every other journal you’ve submitted to immediately once you receive an acceptance. This is what I do—when I get that rare acceptance email, I give myself a few minutes to fist pump, dance around the room, and text a friend or two with the happy news. Then I sit down at my computer and withdraw the piece from every other journal I’ve submitted it to.

Why is it so important to withdraw your work from other journals once it’s been accepted for publication? It’s important because, by not doing so, this writer wasted a lot of my time, as well as the time of nearly the entire staff of a literary journal. We are all volunteers, with families and day jobs and writing careers and, in my case, a freelance book coaching business. My time is valuable, but I gladly give of it because discovering and publishing emerging writers is important work to me. I set aside hours of my personal free time each week to read submissions. It’s part of my literary citizenship.

Our journal is now short one piece–we’ll publish five stories this issue versus six, so that’s one less story we’re bringing out into the world. And this is what gets me the most: this last spot could have been given to another writer. Someone else could have had their work published this summer, perhaps their first publication, and now they won’t. I’ve heard editors complain about these things, but this was my first experience, and it hit hard. It was a real world example to me of just how much this can impact people, a publication, and other writers.

One last note: this writer may have burned, or at least charred, a bridge. I sent the writer a nice note back, congratulating them on the publication of their piece and asking them to withdraw their work when it’s picked up elsewhere in the future. I’d like to say that, if I receive another submission from this writer, I’d give it the same objective look I would give to any other story. But I’m human. I can’t possibly be 100% objective. I’m pretty sure if it was a great story, I’d still publish it. I hope I’d do so. But if I was on the fence, I probably wouldn’t ask our team to invest time in reading it to help me make a decision. If I wasn’t sure, I’d likely have to say no.