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June 24th, 2010 / 1:00 pm
Behind the Scenes

I’ll Be There For You, Just Not in the Submission Queue

In a community as small as what can be loosely termed the independent publishing community, the lines are easily blurred. With blogs and social networking and sites such as this one, it’s easy for writers and editors to become familiar and sometimes friends. There are days when it feels like every writer is an editor and every editor is a writer, and we’re all submitting work to each other in a deeply incestuous whirlwind of writing. The Internet has also made the word friend interesting. I’ve written on this subject before. I correspond with lots of people. I have many acquaintances and writers/editors with whom I get on well, but the people I consider friends have my phone number and could call me at 7 am and that’s not many. With few exceptions, we’ve spent time together, in person. We know things about each other that we wouldn’t share in 140 characters or less.

A lot of editors write about finding rejection difficult. While I don’t cackle gleefully while sending rejections, I don’t have a problem with doing it. I don’t find it troubling. Sending rejections is inevitable and necessary. It is part of the process for putting together a magazine. Whether I know you or not, whether we are friends, acquaintances, or strangers, I am looking for great writing. If you don’t send me great writing, or if for whatever reason your writing isn’t a great fit, I will reject you and sleep soundly. If we’re friends or acquaintances, I will send you a really nice note. I don’t know if friends expect that friendship translates into an automatic acceptance but I hope not.

As a writer, I am regularly rejected by friends and acquaintances and even though rejection always stings, I would rather be rejected than have my work grudgingly accepted solely on the basis of a personal connection. Nepotism exists. I have benefited from nepotism a time or two. I’ve extended nepotism to friends a few times, in some small way, as I have nothing to really offer by way of nepotism. I don’t even believe that nepotism is always a bad thing but as an editor, there is a line–the magazine goes before anything else. I don’t think reading blind is a necessity for selecting work ethically and without bias but the reality is that unless I’m looking directly at the list of submissions online, I often have no idea who has written what. The CLMP submission manager assigns each submission file a sequential number. I download and save these files in a folder on my laptop. Unless the writer has put their name on the submission, I’m reading blind.  After I read the submission, I’ll go look to see who has written it. It’s quite surprising how few writers put their names on their submissions.

I get an e-mail every time we receive a submission, so if I see the name of someone I know and I have the time, I’ll certainly jump ahead in the queue because I’m excited to see what they’ve sent. In those instances, as I read, I know who the writer is. I can’t guarantee acceptance but I’m happy to provide a little near instant gratification. When I read a submission from someone I know, I want to love that submission. When I don’t love that submission, I am disappointed but I get over it. Sometimes, someone I know submits what is clearly not their best work and I find that irritating and I wonder if they simply expect that a personal connection will elevate the mediocrity. Sometimes, a big name will send their dregs and expect that name will elevate the mediocrity. It won’t.  I would like to think we’re all mature enough to handle being rejected by the people we know. I am all too aware that sometimes, we’re not. It is a fine balance trying to negotiate who we know and what we do and what we feel is right and I am not graceful, but I try. I think most editors try.

I started thinking about all of this again because Tara Laskowski, a great writer and one of the new Senior Editors of Smokelong Quarterly, e-mailed me about submissions and friends and making difficult choices. She had this to say:

When I started reading submissions for SmokeLong Quarterly earlier this year, we had a submission center that made it very easy to read blind. I didn’t actually realize how much I liked this format, and relied on it, until we switched over to Submishmash a few months ago.

Don’t get me wrong—I love Submishmash. The options and features there are really great, and we’ve been able to streamline our process in many ways. But, as of now (hint, hint, Michael FitzGerald) there is no way to read submissions without also seeing the author’s name.

So now our staff is faced with this dilemma: how can we make sure to read objectively when we recognize names, and in some cases are acquaintances and even friends with people who send us stories?

This is by no means a new problem. Editors have been dealing with this issue for years. But even though it’s not a new problem, it’s probably worth revisiting every once in awhile, worth thinking about and being aware of.

With social media sites like Facebook and Twitter exploding, as well as blogs and many, many high-quality online publications out there, it seems like it’s easier now more than ever to meet people in the literary community. Good writers become good editors of good literary publications. And they all know each other, and read each other, and respect each other.

This is all great—until someone you know and respect sends you a story that you don’t think is their best, or you don’t think is quite right for your publication.

So then what? Yes, business is business, but we are all writers and neurotic and fragile, and though rejection is just an ugly, common part of the whole process—who are we kidding? It still hurts.

I’m curious how other editors deal with this issue. Detailed personal rejection letter? Form letter as to not offend with unwanted criticism? And, have you ever accepted a story from someone you know because you wanted his or her name in your pub more than you necessarily loved the story?

On the flip side, as a writer, do you submit to places where you know the editor, or do you shy away from it? And if you do submit, and they take your piece, do you ever wonder if you just got accepted because you know them, rather than the merit of your story? (See above: writers are neurotic—sometimes even an acceptance can bring worry and stress.)

I like to think I can still be fairly objective when reading, but I don’t know. I try to rely on my gut rather than a bio. When I get that feeling—that burning, tingling in my shoulders, that nagging, ‘holy-crap-we-have-to-accept-this-story-before-someone-else-gets-it-first’ feeling, then I know. But sometimes I really want to like a story more than I do because I know the writer. Sometimes when I send a rejection to an online acquaintance, I spend ten minutes hating myself and feeling guilty about it. And I wonder—does this happen to everyone?

Let us know what you think. Where are the lines for you? Do you ever cross them?