Writers and publishers: what we owe to each other.

I’ve been submitting to magazines a lot recently, as you can see by other posts on this blog, and one thing I have started to notice is statements like this in the submissions guidelines of various publications:

“Note: will not respond in the case of rejection.”

“Due to volume of submissions, we will only be letting accepted stories know”

“If you haven’t heard from us in 6 weeks, assume we didn’t want your story”

These have always gently frustrated me, and as I have gained experience in my actual career of handling things like advertising jobs and putting out tenders, this frustration has grown somewhat.  I’ve been asking myself why, and I think I’ve come up with the answer:

When a writer submits to a publication, there is a contract.  Not a publication contract, of course.  Only the angry people self-selecting out of the publishing market assumes that sending a story to a publisher means they are bound to accept it.  However there is a social contract in terms of how writers act and publishers act towards each other.  In its simplest form the contract is this.

The writer will:

  • Read the submission guidelines
  • Follow the submission guidelines
  • Be polite in their dealings with a publisher
  • Avoid nagging or pestering
  • Take no for an answer.

The publisher will

  • Have clear submission guidelines
  • Follow their own submission guidelines
  • Act in as timely a manner as is appropriate
  • Recognise the information needs of the writer

What I mean by the last part is that writers of short stories are rarely submitting a story to one market and one market alone.  Usually when a story is rejected they will polish it up and send it to someone else who might want it.  There’s a reason why The Submissions Grinder has a “Find another market for this story” option.

In order to continue the process of finding other markets for their stories, writers have information needs.  They would like to know that their story has been received.  The very curious would like to know where they are in the reading queue.  And importantly they would like to know as soon as it practical when their story is no longer being considered for publication.  Only then can it be turned around and prepared for another market.

Recently, and with the very best of intentions, a previously closed story opened their submissions.  With a decent word rate and a solid pedigree within their publication (they are an SFWA recognised market), they were quite quickly swamped with submissions.  To the point where their submission method (emailing the editor) broke down and not all submissions were received.  This was an entirely honest accident, and as soon as the problem was known they took measures to correct the problem, but it took a while for the problem to be known about, in part because their usual protocol was that writers should not inquire about stories until six weeks had passed since submission.  Which meant that it took six weeks for writers to realise their stories hadn’t been received.  In other words, an information need for the writers wasn’t being met.

Systems like Moksha and Submittable fill this gap, albeit at a cost.  This is a modern fiction market where people read, write, and submit online, and where email is ultimately still fallible.  In this market, writers will desire, the assurance that their work been received, and in the end the assurance that their work has been considered.  In return, publishers can and should expect that writers follow their guidelines.  And ultimately everyone involved in the writing and submission process should treat each other with the respect due to fellow creative professionals.

It’s what we owe to each other.



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