ubmitting to literary magazines still holds a great deal of prestige and is a milestone in a writer’s career and part of platform building for many fiction and creative nonfiction authors and poets. Admittedly, I am one of those writers who has struggled to justify the return of investment of time and money against low acceptance rates.
At the same time, submitting to literary magazines, like so many other things in our writing careers, can be an important opportunity for authors not to miss out on. This is why I asked Becky Tuch, founding editor of The Review Review which brings writers together to help us gather the information we need as to whether it’s worth submitting to literary magazines.
WOW: Welcome back to WOW, Becky. You had so much knowledge to share with us the first time, when you discussed building community with writers in Chelsey Clammer’s submissions column! Today, we’re picking your brain about submitting to literary magazines and ezines. Given how difficult it is to get published in some of these magazines, what do writers and authors need to know about these trends and how they might affect them?
Becky: Many changes have been underway for a long time in the lit mag world. Almost all lit mags exist online, either exclusively or in conjunction with a print magazine; editors are increasingly interested in hearing from a diverse range of authors and are increasingly attentive to the diversity represented on their mastheads; nearly all lit mags utilize submission software, typically Submittable. Additionally, more lit mags seek hybrid works (writing that is not easily classifiable by genre) as well as flash fiction and work that the editors characterize as “weird” or “offbeat,” which I take to mean inventive, playful, surreal maybe, though not easy to categorize.
All this said, nothing has changed fundamentally for writers in the submission process (apart from an increase in opportunity for heretofore marginalized voices—I hope!). Essentially, if you are a writer trying to get your work published, the rules for doing so are pretty much the same as they always have been. Write the absolute best work you possibly can; then send it out to the appropriate venues. Don’t worry about trends. Worry about producing your best writing and finding appropriate markets for the work you do.
“Submittable has taken off at a time when MFA programs have also proliferated, when generally there are more working writers than ever before.”
WOW: That makes sense given what it takes for a writer to be successful. Regarding the submission process itself, I am curious to hear your thoughts on reading fees and Submittable, and how these have impacted the literary submission process, and the scene in general.
Becky: Reading fees are here to stay. Obviously, I don’t like them. No one likes them! But the literary economy is such that they are a necessity. When we have more people writing and submitting to lit mags than actually buying and subscribing to lit mags, unfortunately, the financial burden to sustain the magazines falls on those who want to be published in them. I’m not saying this to shame writers (though, of course, I think every writer should subscribe to at least one or two journals). It’s just the way the lit landscape is right now.
Have submission fees impacted the submission process? Probably. Though something like this is hard to measure. Submittable has taken off at a time when MFA programs have also proliferated, when generally there are more working writers than ever before. So, it’s hard to say what causes what.
Personally, I submit to lit mags that charge fees. I set a budget for it. I view it as an investment in my career. Yet, I completely understand and respect that not everyone can do that. A $2 reading fee for twenty submissions adds up! And yes, that money used to be spent on postage stamps. Still. It doesn’t change the fact that people who can afford submissions are going to have an advantage over those who can’t, and that means certain vital and amazing voices will not be getting out there.
Of course, there are plenty of lit mags that do not charge fees. So, if you are a writer who doesn’t want to or can’t pay fees, fear not. So many stellar journals are free to submit to. And some have windows where you can submit for free. So, all is not lost.
WOW: I like your idea for setting aside a budget for fees and your rationale for doing so. How have these trends affected the rate of acceptance (if at all) to some of these literary magazines? Any advice for today’s writer who wants to increase her chances of acceptance?
Becky: Well, again, causality is hard to determine. Is it submission fees that encourage more submissions (as people think they can make up for a mediocre or multiple submission(s) by paying for them)? Is it the ease of submissions brought to us by software like Submittable? Or is it simply more writers? I’m not sure we can say any one of these has definitively affected the competitiveness of lit mag publishing.
My advice, though, is the same now as it was ten years ago. Write your best work. Do your very absolute no-bullshit best. Revise. Then find the lit mags that you think would be the best fit for the work you do and submit to them. Submit widely, beginning with your most ambitious markets; then keep submitting. When you get a rejection, submit to five more lit mags immediately.
“Submit widely, beginning with your most ambitious markets; then keep submitting. When you get a rejection, submit to five more lit mags immediately.”
WOW: Your response goes to show that we can’t let these trends get in the way of our writing. And yet, at the same time, I’ve been hearing from many a writer that submitting to literary magazines, in the long run, seems to be a waste of time. What are your thoughts on this?
Becky: I’d have to know more of the specifics about the writer’s situation. Is it a waste of time because the work isn’t getting accepted anywhere? A waste of time because so few people read the work that is accepted? A waste of time because you don’t really care about publishing in lit mags?
Look, publishing in lit mags is not for everyone, and it is not mandatory. Maybe you’re strictly a novelist. Maybe you want to write commercial pieces for magazines. Maybe you want to write op-eds or start a blog. Okay. Great. Those things are all wonderful. Go do them! No one says you have to publish in a lit mag to be a writer. You can be a writer any way you want to.
If, though, you write short stories, essays, poetry, or some kind of hybrid thing, then lit mags really are the places that will be the best homes for your work. Yes, the readership can be small. But the readership is often incredibly high-quality. You are going to get thoughtful, engaged, and intellectually curious people who will look at your stuff. And you never know where a piece might lead. It could end up in an anthology, reprinted somewhere. An agent might see it. Another editor might see it and ask for you to submit to them. Another writer might see it and reach out. Plus, you will rack up the needed publishing credits for growing your career—applying to grants, fellowships, teaching jobs, etc.
Now, if you feel it’s a waste of time because you’re not getting acceptances, well, then, that’s a different story. It might be that you’re not submitting to the right places. Or maybe your work is not yet ready. Patience. Patience. Work. Read. Revise. Patience.
“If you write short stories, essays, poetry, or some kind of hybrid thing, then lit mags really are the places that will be the best homes for your work. ”
WOW: Your response reminds me that writers get to choose how to define their platforms and what action steps they can take to support theirs, despite the rejection. Writers frequently hear that submitting is a numbers game. Do you think it’s smarter to research and target specific literary journals or submit your work to multiple journals at once, and why?
Becky: It is always smarter to do research about the places you want to submit to. If anything, it will empower you about the market. You will learn from the writers publishing in those magazines. You will discover some great voices. And through research, you might discover that certain journals have particular niches. For instance, I was submitting to the same lit mag for years, getting rejected over and over, before I actually read more of this magazine and realized they wanted writing with a greater international focus. So, the rejection had less to do with the quality of my work than with the appropriateness of it. I could have saved both myself and the editors some time.
Also, though, submit widely. If there are twenty lit mags that you like, and which publish work like yours, submit to all twenty! (Maybe not at the same time. You might want to start with your first choices first, just in case you get an acceptance from them.) Doing research and targeting specific magazines and also casting a wide net are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Do your research; but yes, also, submit as widely as you can until your work lands somewhere.
WOW: Great story and thank you for the important advice on researching the magazine before submitting. I’ve been guilty of this too many a time! What are your thoughts on publishing excerpts/chapters from a book-in-progress in literary journals as a way to build an author platform? Have you noticed any trends in journals publishing book excerpts?
Becky: I think it’s a great idea to publish excerpts of longer works. The only challenge is that most lit mags want that work to stand alone. So, it typically requires some tweaking on the writer’s part to make a piece feel less like a chapter and more like a complete story with a satisfying arc. Sometimes putting that work in is frankly not worth it. What I mean is you might not feel it’s necessary to spend time doing that when you could just focus on getting the larger book finished and out there. Or maybe it’s just not possible to do that with your particular project.
If you can do it, though, and you have the energy and interest, I think it’s great. If you don’t yet have an agent and/or publisher, it could be a great way to market yourself. And if your book is coming out in the near future, this could be a terrific way to start connecting with readers.
I haven’t noticed much changing in this regard. It has been a pretty consistent editorial request over the years—that the work stand on its own in order to be considered for publication.
“Isn’t the point of writing...to write?”
WOW: Thanks for explaining how this works from platform-building and publishing perspectives. In creative nonfiction writing groups, there’s been a lot of talk about “self-plagiarism” amongst writers and journal editors. Writers have been worried about using the exact same phrasing—whether sentences or paragraphs—from essay to essay. Have you heard about this? And in your opinion, how much weight do you think journal editors give to reusing the same text? Could it prevent a writer from getting her essay published?
Becky: That’s interesting. I’ve been reading a lot about plagiarism, especially in the poetry world, where there is this tricky line between acknowledging influence and inspiration and then downright taking someone else’s style and hard-won sensibility.
As far as plagiarizing oneself, well, if this is something an editor picks up on, obviously she could work with the writer to tweak the language and make it distinct from past work. But if the editor doesn’t catch it, I don’t know, my inclination is to feel like the writer’s in the clear. Most of us are noodling the same issues and obsessions over and over; it seems pretty inevitable that we will wind up repeating ourselves.
I guess I’m talking here about this happening accidentally. I remember some brouhaha a while back with the social theorist, Slavoj Zizek, in which he was criticized for repeating some of his material. This was in an instance where he was accused of recycling some of his content from one of his early books for a newspaper column. He remarked, “So what’s the big deal?...I don’t get it, I must say.”
I suppose I’m inclined to agree. But again, I’m talking about a kind of accidentally repeating phrases or sentences here and there.
To deliberately lift one’s own work from one piece to the next? Well, that is something else. I frankly can’t even see the point in doing that. Isn’t the point of writing...to write?
WOW: Thank you, Becky, for explaining the groundwork on submitting to literary journals. The two big takeaways for us from Becky’s words of wisdom are:
- Identifying whether it makes sense to submit to literary journals for your writing goals. Are there other ways to build your writer’s platform that fit better with what you want to accomplish?
- Research those publications to get a feel of the style, voice, and theme; know that for every one that doesn’t appear to be a good fit, there are countless others on The Review Review that will help get a writer one step closer to publication.
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