Print Publishers Speak Up

For poets -- who are in some ways the PBS of the printed word -- the submission process can be frustrating and confusing.  Partly because poets are responsible for the bulk of the poetry-reading market, the competition is fierce.  And the waiting can be hell; rejections as well as acceptances are usually months or even years in the making.  Many more months or years may pass before a poem appears in the accepting publication.  While the phenomenon of Internet publication has shortened the process somewhat for those who publish online, the opportunity brings with it a new set of issues.  Two practical issues – previously published poems and simultaneous submissions – are the focus of this article.

To research these topics, I sent a survey to over 200 print-based poetry publishers.  Forty editors from the queried publications responded.  While the fact that we received only 40 responses might by read as implicative of the opinions of the remaining 160+ editors queried, several other possibilities come immediately to mind: 1) The surveys were sent via email only (and since most print publications do not accept submissions via email, it should be no surprise if they don't partake in other email correspondence either); 2) Many university-run publications either shut down or maintain a minimal staffing during the summer months; 3) Official policies on the survey’s topics have not yet been established; 4) Editors may be concerned about how their participation might effect them or their publication (e.g., an unwanted influx of email from our readers, a misunderstanding or misapplication of their responses by would-be contributors, an assumed alliance with Internet magazines, etc.);  5) I was mistaken for a spammer?

Lo, I am not a spammer.  Here for your reading pleasure and displeasure are the (paraphrased) questions I posed and a summation of the responses I received.  Since only questions one and two were delineated as ‘must-answer’ questions, there is some variation in total number of responses on questions three through eight.  Some respondents included comments with their yes/no answers; I've included some of those comments (those which seemed unique, which I felt might offer readers a perspective not commonly discussed) in the "Comment Excerpts" sections.  Question eight, however, was an open-ended question; the responses to it are quoted in their entireties.*  As I read through the astute observations and ideas communicated by the survey participants, it became increasingly more clear that my plan to analyze and interpret the data for you, the reader, was probably unnecessary and perhaps an odd disservice.  If I am wrong, you will bring the need for interpretation to my attention for in the next issue.  But I think I am correct in my assessment, that you will prefer reading and interpreting the various editors' words for yourself.  So hang on, and enjoy the ride!

If your publication policies include "no previously published poems", do you consider poems published on the Internet -- i.e., in online 'zines' -- to be previously published?

35 of 40 editors consider poems published in online magazines as ‘previously published.’

Comment Excerpts:

        "We do not have a specific policy regarding previously published poems - we have often done reprints. I don't think "previous publication" means very much anymore because of the vast array of publications that are read by just a few people."

        "Obviously, such poems are “made public,” but we do not consider this a disqualification for print publication. Print publication, if the paper is archival quality [as is ours], can last for centuries, and serves as a lasting record. Internet publication has unique advantages, as does radio, TV, CD-ROM, the movies, etc. But poems that appear in any of those media should also be eligible for print publication, if they work well in print. Print publishers should stop thinking they are in competition with electronic media and realize that they need to cooperate with it instead."

If you answered yes to #1, do you also consider poems which appear on personal web sites, online workshop/discussion forums, etc., to be previously published?

7 of 40 editors consider poems posted on personal web sites, as well as poems posted to online workshop boards, ‘previously published.’

3 of 40 editors consider poems posted on personal web sites ‘previously published,’ but not poems posted to online workshop boards.

1 of 40 editors considers poems posted to online workshop boards as "previously published", but not poems posted on personal web sites.

Some print publishers are believed to hold the opinion that the poems found in Internet publications tend to be substandard to those found in print publications.  Would you tend to agree with this opinion?

9 of 33 editors tend toward the opinion that poems found in Internet magazines tend to be substandard to those found in paper-print.

Comment Excerpts:

        "But I suspect this will change.  Because a paper journal invests a great deal of capital in the production of the journal, their choice of poetry is apt to be more hard-headed.  But as on-line zines become more common, I believe that "competition" will encourage their editors to become more choosy."

        "[I] have not looked at a lot of internet sites however, have been advised to submit to the older more established magazines in order to attract attention."

        "There are excellent sites on the web offering the highest quality poems by the many of the best poets.  Eventually everybody will want to be on the web, because of the unique accessibility it offers.
        The web does make informal publication and self-publication relatively easy.  Does this material compare unfavorably to the zillions of  xeroxed zines? I doubt it.  Rather, it’s great that another avenue of publication exists for literature whose quality may be simply different, not better or worse.""

        "Clearly,  there is, and prob. always will be, plenty of substandard poetry on the web: there are plenty of substandard publications and I have found little of any value on the various discussion forums/poetry BBSs. It's probably true that poets who publish only in substandard zines most likely *are* substandard. However, there are also a number of online-only or hybrid publications that are every bit the rivals of their print counterparts: .... Serious (that is, seriously talented, committed, what have you) writers are publishing in the best publications regardless of format. Still, I suppose it's entirely conceivable that a poet could have a history of publication that includes only high-quality web-only publications (due to luck of the draw, ease of email submission, who knows why?); to dismiss him/her as substandard because of the delivery vehicle (i.e. web rather than print) is positively ludicrous. Good editors know the best web publications and take them seriously...."
        "...I  agree that there are chuckleheads out there who believe that there is some kind of "ideal" medium in which any given type of artistic endeavor is created. These same arbitrary critics would also have to throw their hankies in distaste at holographic sculpture and no doubt spilled their sugared tea in utter disbelief when a Shakespearean play first appeared on television. ...
        Having said all that, I believe that Web-published (and e-published, etc.) magazines are extremely easy to publish. So many poets who do not wish to go through the rigors and the pain of submissions and rejections to more established magazines that are harder to publish can simply skip to the joy of acceptance, never knowing that their poetry is worthless."

        "I would strongly disagree with this opinion. Some of our finest poets and writers today are being published in e-zines. Many particularly fine past, present, and upcoming contributors to our print journal,...,have had work published online."

Do you feel there are reasonable numbers of good poets who publish their work in Internet publications to support a "no" answer to the previous question?

12 of 25 editors feel there are reasonable numbers of good poets publishing on the Internet.

Comment Excerpts:

        "I think there is a wealth of good poetry being published online. I think "the best people" are publishing both online AND in print, and are doing so selectively. I can't imagine a serious poet deciding to publish *only* online or *only* in print.
        Well, what I mean is that while there are certainly plenty of  serious/well-known/name-brand poets who do or would turn their nose up at Internet publication, I think that doing so is both foolish and naive--the stuff of curmudgeons and luddites. Consider this: the average print run of a small magazine might be somewhere around 2-3,000 copies.  If you figure 2 readers per copy (and maybe that's generous), that means maybe 6,000 people see any given issue. With the web--assuming you promote agressively--it's not at all unrealistic to expect that, after a while (if your content is good you hold to a regular publication schedule and etc.), you'll have that many visitors in a month. [One well-regarded Internet magazine] claimed something like 20,000 readers for its last issue, and [another] gets considerably more unique visitors. That means that these publications are among the most read literary publications *anywhere*.  That being said, I can't imagine that a poet serious about his/her work could ignore or sniff at the web for very long. ...
        The web's ability to reach people quickly, cheaply, etc. is very rapidly eroding "the prestige gap" between publishing in print and publishing online. Another factor in this erosion is the quality/high editorial standards of some ... web-based publications ... . (proof of this erosion, you say? The NEA and other grant-issuing bodies now allow writers to count web publication credits in their applications;[**] this alone has had a major impact). I really believe that it's only a matter of time before more high-quality, well-known, but perpetually cash strapped "little magazines" transform themselves ...[to web magazines]. ..."

Would you advise good poets to avoid publishing on the Internet?

10 of 22 editors would advise against publishing on the Internet.

Comment Excerpts:

        "On the contrary, I would urge them to read Robert Sward's excellent article, "Why I Publish in e-Zines" for his invaluable perspective on this very issue."

        "Hell, I've published on the Internet and in print magazines. A major advantage of Internet publishing occurs when the editor prints the poet's e-mail address.  I've had that happen and have received more responses than I've received in all the print magazines I've been in.  It's great when a writer can hear back from his/her readers."

        "Poet-teacher Ishmael Reed reported that internet publishing was quite profitable for his students in California (bringing in book contracts, etc. for individuals)."

        "In my opinion, having to submit work on paper to editors and suffer their rejections forces a developing poet to work harder on craft, to continue revising and perhaps eventually rejecting poems."

If the bio of a submitting poet contains many Internet publication credits, does that negatively effect your consideration and decision regarding that poet?

2 of 36 editors said that consideration and decision regarding a submission are negatively effected if the bio includes many Internet publication credits.

Comment Excerpts:

        "Without any hard copy publishing credits they might be taken less seriously."

Do your personal poetry reading habits include Internet publications?

18 of 38 editors’ personal poetry-reading habits include Internet publications.

Comment Excerpts:
        "While we are primarily a print publication, we feel we are very tied to the online literary community, and have frequently included the work of writers we first encountered in online publications.  As a point of fact, when we were first starting up our magazine, we found the vast majority of our initial work by scouring the Internet and writers' personal Web pages, looking for quality, unpublished work to solicit."

        "Poetry, which tends to be brief and intense, is the ideal literary form for the internet. The internet may well prove to be the best thing that ever happened to poetry."

       "Because my life is screaming busy and because, given the choice, I'll still take the beautiful object in the hand."

       "Occasionally, don't like the quality."

Whether you accept simultaneous submissions or not, what are the reasons that inform your policy on this issue?


         "We do not accept simultaneous submissions, for a few reasons.  First, do the arithmetic: if every poem gets sent to a half dozen magazines at the same time, that makes six times as many poems for editors to read.  The kitchen table where our senior editor ... screens manuscripts already spills over with envelopes every day.  Second, simultaneous submissions create problems. More than once we've found out on the brink of publication that a poem we've accepted has been "inadvertently" submitted, and is about to be published, somewhere else.
        We do sympathize with poets who submit their best work to a magazine and then wait what seems interminably for a reply.  For that reason, we try to "clear the decks" of manuscripts that have survived the initial screening (those that don't, the vast majority, go back in the next day's mail) every three months...not an ideal solution, but the best we've come up with."

        "The people who read manuscripts for me, who narrow down our choices, are very busy--as I suspect most editorial board members are.  They have full-time teaching jobs and many are active scholars or writers.  I feel that if they take the time to read a story or a clutch of poems, they should do so with the understanding that this time is not wasted.  If a writer has double-submitted it, and we accept it only to find that it's been accepted elsewhere, we've wasted precious time.
        I'd appreciate it if you could convey this perspective to writers.  I know  that they're often frustrated with the amount of time it takes journals to consider their work, but at the same time it doesn't seem fair to ask the readers of at least one journal to waste precious time."

        "No, we don't accept simultaneous submissions.  We publish only work which has not been published elsewhere and the editors invest a great deal of time with each manuscript.  We make every effort to respond within four months and ask that poets refrain from submitting work under consideration here to other magazines until they hear from us."

        "We ... don't accept simultaneous submissions (though I  suspect some submitters do so without telling us).  Our reason is that we simply don't want to go through the editorial process on a piece only to have it withdrawn because someone else has accepted it and the author prefers to place it with the other publication.  Also, we do reply within four months, so authors aren't left in limbo for very long."

        "Due to financial problems, we have had an irregular publication schedule, even though we only aim for twice a year publication.  It doesn't seem fair to hold onto a manuscript for, say, a year.  It's easier, when a decision has been made, to send a letter to a writer saying something like, "We'd like to use your story, 'The Hounds of Sopchoppy,' in our next issue.  Let us know at the above address if it has been accepted elsewhere."
        A second reason is that we aren't THE KENYON REVIEW or THE SATURDAY REVIEW, and we don't receive hundreds or thousands of submissions a week.  If so, we would quickly change the policy.

        "We don't have a policy on it. We think authors should be free to submit their work to whomever and whenever they want."

        "Yes, we reluctantly accept simultaneous submissions.  In this day and age of computers, it has become quite easy for writers to submit multiple copies. We should be advised always of the fact, however."

        "Historically we have always done this and to be frank we have not recently reviewed our policies"

        "We do accept simultaneos submissions. Since we are a magazine that supports and encourages the new writer, we feel that the more exposure  the writer gets, the better."

        "Simultaneous ok, as long as a cover letter or note indicates that it is, in fact, a simultaneous submission. About 50% of the mss. we receive are simultaneous submissions.”

        "[Our publication] does accept simultaneous submissions, because poet's lives are too short to do otherwise. But it is morally incumbent on the poet to inform a magazine IMMEDIATELY when a poem is accepted elsewhere.  Far too often, poets ask us to pull poems when the magazine is already typeset and ready to go to the printer. This is why many magazines don't allow simultaneous submissions. Please be responsible: don't let ‘nice guys (or editors) finish last.’"

        "I imagine most publications dislike simultaneous submissions because they don't like to publish things that are published elsewhere at the same time or nearly the same time. I don't take this view. There are 100's of 1000's of publication choices for writers and readers. It is highly unlikely that a piece published in another literary magazine would be read by someone who sees it in mine. But that's not even the real issue. My idea of publishing is taking the best stuff that I can and placing it in a unique way to make a greater whole. I have often described my publication as a kind of found poetry - a collage of words. This may sound arrogant, but I am the ultimate artist of my magazine, choosing the works that I want and putting them side by side with other works to bring out certain features that may or may not have been intended by the original author. This is why I don't pay attention to where other poems have been published. It just doesn't matter for my purposes. Our simultaneous submission policy is expressly for the rights of the poet, not for our own rights. If he/she for some reason doesn't want the poem published in more than one place, then we're happy to oblige. Many poets seem to feel this way, thus the policy."

        "Yes with notification -- as writers ourselves, we feel its unfair to demand contributors wait the months most journals take to respond before trying again to find homes for their work."

        "We accept simultaneous submissions if the writer lets us know that their submission is a SS. Simultaneous submissions benefit the writer because, obviously, their story gets read by more editors and has a better chance of getting accepted somewhere. Our magazine tries to be as writer-friendly as possible, because all of our staff members are writers as well. We only ask that if a story is accepted somewhere else, the writer lets us know."

        "I think it is unfair to writers to make them wait as we each decide. We get 10,000 submissions per year and we read every one. So, it can take us 3-6 months to respond, and writers shouldn't have to sit and wait helplessly all that time. We are here for them."

        "I accept simultaneous submissions.  My reasons:  I believe in a balance of power in the submission-publication process instead of editors claiming all the power (which is arrogance in my opinion).  Poets should have the right to submit their work as they deem most advantageous to themselves, so long as they adhere to a reasonable ethic of notification of acceptance.  Editors should not be able to claim exclusive rights to submissions unless they can return a decision in, at most, 30 days."

        "[Our publication] accepts simultaneous submissions as a matter of simple courtesy. [Our publication] has an editorial staff of one. I respond to about 75% of the manuscripts I receive within two weeks, but the other 25% can take about two months, and occasionally as long as three or four months (though that's unusual). In the end, I only accept about 1% of the work I receive (if that much). Anyway, if I'm going to potentially take that long with a poet's work, and if that poet's chance of acceptance is so slim, then I think it's only fair to give the writer the option of trying their luck elsewhere as well.”

        "Accepting simultaneous submissions seems more compassionate somehow than keeping someone's poems for 8 months and rejecting them while adhering to a policy against simultaneous submissions.  If the magazine is particularly "popular," a person's chances of getting work accepted there is a fraction of 1%. In that case, prohibiting simultaneous submissions is self-serving for the magazine and harmful for more than 99% of the people submitting work.  Yes, simultaneous submissions increase the number of submissions, but it also increases the number of acceptances for a poet. And isn't editing a magazine about putting poetry into the world?  Or is it about minimizing the amount of work one has to do?  If a magazine accepts unsolicited submissions, it should accept simultaneous submissions as well. I suspect some editors who are staunchly opposed to simultaneous submissions would prefer not to have to deal with unsolicited submissions at all."

        "Because of the high volume of submissions we receive (1,000 per month), it can take us five months to respond. Allowing simultaneous submissions, therefore, is only fair.  As long as authors inform us immediately if a work is accepted elsewhere, this works fine for us."

        "First off there is nothing an editor can do about simultaneous submissions. If the author states that the submission is not simultaneous, but it is really just one of a hundred that were sent out simultaneously. There is no way of knowing, and frankly it doesn''t make any difference to most authors. In my advertisements for my magazine I tell the author I don't want to see previously published work, period. I am willing to read simultaneous submissions because I am a slow reader and it may take me between a month and six months or more before I respond. Thus, I rarely receive cover letters that say the MS is being sent simultaneously.
        What I resent is the author who sends out MSS without any notice that the work is being sent simultaneously. I have two titles. In each of the publications that carries my listings I say that in one I am looking for the work of beginning writers, and in the other I say I am looking for the writing of emerging writers who have had a history of being published in better magazines. For the beginners I send a one year subscription to the magazine, to the advanced writers I send a small check as a vote of confidence. Authors don't seem to believe what they read and will send the same MS to both my magazine and the New Yorker in the same mailing.
        When I get the rare same submission to each of the magazines on the same day and there is no indication that it is a simultaneous submission, I take the two cover letters and send them back to the, usually, unpublished writer to let the author know that editors want to know when an MS is sent simultaneously and failure to let the editor know is a breach of etiquette.
        On the other side of the coin, over my twenty years of publishing a little magazine, I have had perhaps a half dozen authors write and tell me that a story that had first appeared in my magazine was being republished in another magazine. Only three or four were republished with a notice of the previous publication. However, over the years I have read more than a dozen stories first printed in my magazine in others without attribution simply because I sample widely and am also published in a variety of magazines.
        A few years back I published three chapters from a novel in development, over a two year period, from a young PhD just starting a career as a teacher of English and creative writing at a state university. Recently I received a copy of a magazine which contained one of my MS and one by the same professor. I noted that the professor was now an Associate Professor still at the same school. I thought I would say hi, happy to see both our names in the same magazine and checked the name of the school on the Internet. I found a home page for the professor and wryly noted that the vita contained a listing of twenty published short stories, but no novel. All three of the stories published in my magazine were listed, but all of them were listed as being  published in other, I presume better, journals. Some professors don't practise what they profess!
        The moral of my tale is that there are so many writers trying to make a name for themselves that there is no way to stop writers from sending simultaneous submissions. When I do send the author a polite note when I send back their simultaneous cover letters without telling, I usually get irate letters from the author saying I advertise the acceptance of simultaneous submissions.
        Each year I get between six and seven hundred MSS in the mail. I assume they are all simultaneous. I publish about 150 of them, but I only have about half a dozen MS withdrawn each year saying that they were accepted by other magazines."

        "Okay.  I confess that sometimes a collection of poems sits around for a while before I make up my mind.  I've read it already, usually within a week of its arrival, but, somehow, I'm just not sure if I want to publish the book or not.  So...it sits.  Meanwhile, another stack of submissions has arrived and I've been reading them.  It may take up to three (sometimes 6 or 7) months before I reach a final decision.
        So, the poor poet is waiting there, her manuscript in a box by my desk.  I glance at it occasionally, pick it up, read a few poems, waiver this way and that.  Finally, six months later, I send, probably, a rejection letter.  I'm really sorry about that but I can only do 4 - 6 books each year and even though I love several of the poems in the MS, something hasn't quite clicked for me.  It's all personal since I'm the only one who works at my little press.
        What I hope is that the poet has submitted the MS to other publishers and that it will be or has been accepted elsewhere.  So, the short answer is "yes."  I do accept simultaneous submissions and think any poet who doesn't submit to more than one publisher at a time is cheating himself.
        I do expect a basic courtesy:  if the MS is accepted elsewhere, I want to be notified quickly.  While record-keeping is not one of the things most poets are known for, it's necessary to keep a log of submissions so you can notify others if your work has been accepted elsewhere."

        "Yes, we accept  simultaneous submissions because it is unrealistic not to. All we ask is that we be informed if an entrant to our ... Prize has accepted a prize elsewhere.  When we offer the prize, we are now careful to ask if they have accepted publication elsewhere (in which case we would withdraw our offer) and to stress that if they accept the offer, will they stick to it?  We had one case where a poet accepted our offer and two weeks into preparations for manuscript to be published, that person called and said, "I changed my mind."  What was really upsetting was not knowing why -- we racked our brains trying to see if we caused some problem only to find out several weeks later by public announcement that this person had accepted another prize. Word Works agrees that if a poet gets another award offer on the heels of our award and that award carries more recognition, then the poet should just tell us what happened so we can release them.  Believe me though it causes us no end of extra work.  Our decision is well considered and involves 3 levels of readers and judges (about 20 people).  Final judging panel consists of 5 people."

        "Yes, I accept simultaneous submissions.  In fact, I simply assume most submissions are simultaneous.  My experience is that most magazines take 2-4 months to accept or reject a submission.  With the odds stacked against writers anyway -- especially new writers--it could be years before even an excellent piece finds a publisher."

        "On the most self-serving side, our policy of accepting simultaneous submissions relates to the fact that we are still a small publication, and need to attract as many contributors as possible.  Accepting simultaneous submissions increases our submission volume.  But beyond that, accepting simultaneous submissions has never caused us any problem (aside from instances where we weren't notified of a piece's status AS a simultaneous submission), so I see no reasonable reason not to continue the policy.  I view the process of submitting one's writing to be just a form of job hunting.  If you were an employer looking to fill a position, and you found out that one candidate had sent his resume out to two or three other companies, in addition to yours, would that bother you?  Of course not.  To expect the candidate to submit only to your company would be ridiculous. And I see minimal difference in dealing with writers who are looking to get their work published."

The following is a partial list of links to publishers who participated in this survey.  All respondents were given the option to remain completely anonymous; those who specifically requested anonymity or did not provide a URL do not appear in the list, though their responses do appear in this article.

To each editor who participated in the survey:  our thanks for donating your thoughts, experiences, and time to the exploration of  key issues for poets and publishers alike.

C. J. Sage

The Word Works***
White Eagle Coffee Store Press
Wascana Review of Contemporary Poetry and Short Fiction
Urban Spaghetti
Sycamore Review
State Street Review
Shades of December
Seedhouse Magazine
River Styx
RE:AL, the Journal of Liberal Arts
Pudding House Publications
Pecan Grove Press
Painted Bride Quarterly****
Pacific Coast Journal
Outrider Press, Inc
North American Review
The Montserrat Review
Matriarch's Way Journal
LYNX (now AHA Poetry online)
Literal Latte
Krater Quarterly
Hanging Loose Magazine
Grand Street
The GW Review
Beloit Poetry Journal
Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies
Atlanta Review
13th Moon


*         Particular journal names were edited out and a few comments were edited(in areas non-crucial to the topic questions) for brevity.
**       NEA fellowship applicants may use electronic publications on the Internet to establish up to fifty percent of their eligibility, provided that such publications have competitive selection processes and stated editorial policies.  Refer to the NEA website at http://www.nea.gov/guide/Lit00/Fellowships.html#Eligibility for further information.
***   The Word Works notes that they are a literary organization publishing contemporary poetry in collector editions and presenting public programs (they aren't a literary magazine).
**** PBQ switched from paper publication to Internetpublication in July 2000; their paper edition will now be an annual "Best of"" PBQ made up of selections from the online issues.

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