Earlier this year, our friends over at Tartarus Press announced a call for submissions for their forthcoming 30th anniversary anthology. (Wow! Thirty years!!) The submissions window ran from 10 January until 10 April—a clean three months. Editor Rosalie Parker said on Twitter the other day that in that time, she received over five hundred stories. Five. Hundred. Stories. Yikes!
In a previous “Thoughts on Small Press #2—What to Publish?”, I briefly talk about submissions. I mention that I’m generally not open for submissions, fearing I would be unable to handle the deluge. Looking at what Rosalie Parker has to sift through, I suspect I’m not wrong.
I also wrote in the aforementioned post that I believe it’s the duty of small presses to nurture new writers, as these are the writers who are pushing literature into innovative and exciting places. Of course, I fully realise that being closed for submissions, generally, is at odds with being open to discovering new writers. This is an issue with which I have been struggling since I started Swan River Press. As you might have guessed, this is something of an issue of time or, rather, a lack of it.
So that’s what I want to talk about in this post: submissions from an editor’s point of view—or at least from my own point of view.
Although I’ve already given my background elsewhere, it might be worth doing so again here for context. Much as I’d like it to be, Swan River Press is not my day job. I’ve got a job at which I work regular full-time hours. Swan River tends to gobble all other hours in between—I daresay that, though it is not a day job, Swan River is certainly a full-time job. (If you really want to irritate me, try referring to Swan River as my hobby.)
Through Swan River, I publish on average maybe four books per year, plus two issues of The Green Book—again, I talk about some of this in the post I mentioned above. Six titles per year keeps me plenty busy. It might not sound like a lot to you, but in addition to editing and other more obvious jobs associated with publishing, there are myriad other tasks in running a small press (such as a horrific amount of admin), the bulk of which I perform on my own. In any case, I’ve learned six publications is more or less my limit with the resources I currently have available.
So let me talk about a specific submissions example. One of Swan River’s main venues for publishing contemporary writers is the Uncertainties anthology series. The series was conceived, in part, as a way to work with writers who I might not otherwise be able to accommodate by publishing something book-length. I edited Uncertainties volumes one and two myself (and am working on the fifth). The third and fourth instalments were edited by Lynda E. Rucker and Timothy J. Jarvis, respectively. (Incidentally, if you want to read Lynda’s and Tim’s thoughts on assembling these anthologies, you can do so here and here.)
Now I also readily admit that I’m a slow reader. Realising I wouldn’t be able to handle open submissions for the first two volumes, again, due to time restraints, I approached contributors directly. I was in the fortunate position to know enough writers who I wanted to work with—and, more importantly, enough who would indulge me by submitting a story. I approached only the number of authors I needed to fill the two books. I was pleased with how the process went, and feel both volumes turned out well. This is, of course, one way to assemble an anthology; not necessarily a wrong one either. However, I realise that most of the writers included were already established, with most names familiar to those who read within the small press. But how could I reach even more writers? I came up with a pretty good work around: Allowing others to edit Uncertainties would be a neat way of introducing fresh voices that I might not otherwise have published. My only editorial stipulation for the series is that an author can only be published in the series once—no repeats. This is another self-imposed restriction to keep from returning to familiar voices.
When it came time for Lynda and Tim to edit their instalments, I broached the idea of open submissions with each. I hope they don’t mind my saying, but both opted to solicit stories privately—the same as I had done, and I suspect for similar reasons as my own: there were certain authors they knew they wanted to work with and the time commitment of ploughing through an open submissions slush pile would likely be overwhelming. And, like me, both Lynda and Tim have day jobs.
For Uncertainties 5, I’ve taken a slightly different tack. This time I’ve invited around fifty writers to submit stories—I figure I’ll have space to include stories by around ten or twelve depending. I’ve still mainly approached writers I know I want to work with, but am now opening up more widely to a limited number of submissions. Ideally I would like to assemble a future volume of Uncertainties with a completely open call for submissions. We’ll see.
Let’s get back to Tartarus Press’s five hundred submissions. There are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, every writer who submits will be a hopeful individual, dreaming that their story will be accepted for publication. When they submit, they will have every right to expect a prompt response. This is really my biggest fear as a publisher: that I would not be capable of processing that many submissions, that I would likely become known in the small press community for my abysmal response times. Or worse, for my dead silence.
Looking at this from an editor’s point of view, would anyone care to estimate how long five hundred submissions might take to process? If stories are on average 5,000 words, that’s a total of 250,000 words. Certainly not every word of every story will be read in its entirety. Some will be given a few pages before being discarded, while others might be set aside to be read a second, third, or even a fourth time. (Remember, I’m a slow reader too.)
Reading is not the only task here either. Submissions must be logged. Writers will also likely appreciate an acknowledgement of receipt, and eventually expect a response, be it an acceptance or rejection. Some might want to know why they were rejected, request a critique, or otherwise desire to enter into a convivial correspondence. There is nothing wrong with this on an individual level, but you can see how it might turn into an administrative nightmare, especially for one person, especially if the anthology isn’t their sole task. And that’s all before the publication process even begins.
Meanwhile the various anxieties of each individual writer will grow. And let’s face it—most will be disappointed. And then there’s always the risk of negative social media reaction, despite best intentions. (Note: Writers out there who have taken to the megaphone to publicly chastise editors and publishers—rightly or wrongly—I’ve read your tweets and posts and would not like to suffer your wrath. I wonder how many publishers keep writing opportunities private for this very reason?)
So that’s basically it. This post is more an admission of failure rather than a prescription for success. I just wanted to mull over in the open the challenges I face as an editor and publisher. I’ve been thinking about this submissions issue for years, coaxing myself to perhaps fully throw the submissions doors open for some future project.
Were I to venture into the open submissions arena, what are some ways I might protect myself from an unmanageable deluge?
Some of you might be thinking: ask for help or find an intern. To that I would say: People should be paid for their work. Anthologies incur the highest production costs of all Swan River projects, often times not capable of earning back the money or time invested. While I have no regrets, I still wouldn’t be able to pay someone to do this work for me.
Perhaps I could have a very short period in which to submit? Really, though, this merely limits the amount of time people have in which to click “send”. Ideally you’d want to give people notice, sufficient time to write something suitable for the anthology. The last thing you’d want is for people to send you any old thing they have on their hard drives just so they can feel they submitted something by the deadline. (Believe me, even though I am not open for submissions, people still send me book proposals completely inappropriate for Swan River. In fact, recently, someone pitched an anthology that pretty much described exactly the remit of Uncertainties. See “Thoughts on Small Press #4—Author and Artist Payments” in which I advise prospective writers to research, at least a little, the venues to whom they’re submitting.)
Hopefully I’ve outlined above some of the challenges an editor faces, especially when that editor works for a small, independent publishing house. Or perhaps I’m just whinging? Still, I can’t help but to feel sometimes that there are more writers than there are readers.
If you’re a publisher or editor, how do you face the challenge of submissions? I’d love to hear from you, about your processes and concerns—how do you approach the deluge of submissions? Or do you err on the side of an invite only system?
(By the way, I am actually open to submissions for The Green Book!)
If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.
My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!
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