Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Few Thoughts about Submissions

I recently came across The 10 Rules of Submitting to Literary Magazines at The BookBaby Blog. The author includes 10 solid pieces of advice. I was particularly interested in #3, probably because I think it's a mistake many of us make. I know I have. Here it is:

3. Send simultaneous submissions to similarly-tiered publications (in terms of prestige/influence)

"You don’t want to send the same poem to Tin House AND your friend’s fledgling online poetry journal. What if your friend takes the poem and publishes it immediately, and then you get an acceptance letter from Tin House later that same day before having a chance to notify them of the other acceptance? You’re gonna be bummed that the unknown online journal is publishing the poem—and there’s no way to tell editors “hey, thanks for accepting my poem—but before you publish it, can you wait a couple weeks to see if I hear back from Tin House?” By sending simultaneous submissions to publications of similar stature, you won’t find yourself in this situation."

In our zeal to get our work published, we may think that we're being smart by sending the same batch of poems to a top flight journal (the one we'd give an essential body part to get in) and to a mid-level journal and to one that's just okay (the safety journal). It's certainly not a bad idea to have backups in case you don't get into any of the top flight journals on your list. But the key here is "backups." Don't send to your backups at the same time you send to your favorites. Don't send to your number 2 and number 3 choices until after you've tried at least half a dozen really good journals. (I'm assuming here that we're talking about poems you believe are among your best work.)

I found myself in that creepy situation a few years ago. I'd been invited to submit to a state magazine that was doing a NJ artist feature in each of its monthly issues. So I sent the magazine some poems. At the same time, I sent the same poems to a journal I'd been dying to get into but so far had only been turned away from. I also sent to several other journals I liked. Well, the magazine replied within days that they were taking two of the poems. I then withdrew the poems from the other places I'd sent them. Except I neglected to notify the one journal that I really wanted to get into. I'm scrupulous about record-keeping and playing by the rules, but in this case I just flat-out messed up.

Several months later I received an email from the journal I was dying to get into and was told they'd accepted one of the poems taken by the state magazine. My chagrin was doubled. First there was the disappointment that I was going to have to say no. Then there was the mortification that I'd have to confess my error in failing to withdraw the poem. Now I ended up getting paid $100 per poem from the NJ magazine, but honestly I would have much preferred to have had the one poem published in the other journal and received just a contributor's copy. The editor was very nice when I apologized and explained my error. But guess what? I've submitted to that journal at least six times since and never made it through the door. I may have missed my one shot there.

I want to add one more thought here. That fledgling, poorly done journal just started by your friend? Or that one you'll take as a last chance sort of place? Don't send your poems at all to those places. If you believe your poems are really good, don't send them to a place where you won't be proud to have them appear. You'll be sorry later. It's not a good idea to just try to amass publication credits. It's wiser to be selective. Many a good poem has made it into a book without ever having appeared in a journal. Be selective.

And here's yet one more thought: If your poems have come back repeatedly, you just might be smart to take another close look at them and consider revising them. I took three such poems to a revision workshop recently, three poems I'll admit to thinking were pretty snazzy but which had suffered multiple rejections. With feedback from a group of good readers, I realized they needed more work. Pain in the neck? Yes, but also really nice to get all fired up about new possibilities. I spent several weeks reworking those poems, not just little stuff but deep revisions. I now suspect that one of them just isn't going to work. The other two are out to places I really want to be in.


  1. Very sound advise. I have done it at least once, and the poorly done journal even had mistakes in my name and other things. Sigh.

  2. Very good advice.

    I hope you finally break into that dream journal.


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