Is Anybody Out There? One Writer on the Purgatory of Submission

April 22, 2019 | 6 8 min read

There’s something that people do, but not everyone does it. It involves a hamburger, a shelf, and a lot of time. It goes like this: buy a hamburger from McDonald’s, then just leave it on a shelf to see if it rots. (Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t. It quickly dries out and without moisture, mold won’t grow.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as a metaphor for submitting. Not writing itself (although a book that lasts is comparable to a burger that won’t rot) but submitting. The act that follows writing but precedes being published, assuming success is the end result. (Spoiler Alert: It usually isn’t.)

We’ve all been there. We send a piece of ourselves out into the world and then wait to see what happens. And we try not to take it personally. But unless you’ve written a manual about the proper application of an electronic device, there’s a part of you in your work and you want to see it do well. It’s the literary equivalent of writing a note that says, “Do you like me? Circle Y or N,” and then getting it back with “N” circled, assuming you get it back at all. Ghosting is alive and well in the submissions process, and sometimes it’s even preferable. When you receive an extremely late rejection—so late that it falls into the Rip Van Winkle category—it feels like a slap in the face.

This has happened to me more than once. A very long time ago—so long ago, in fact, that I can no longer find the documentation and have to go by memory—I submitted a 10-minute play, of all things, to a program on a Canadian radio station. Multiple years passed. I can’t remember how many exactly, but I’m very confident it was in the three-year range. Life moved on. I was no longer at the same place in my life. So, I was very surprised to see a letter arrive from a very conscientious employee informing me that he didn’t know how my play had ended up on his desk—nor could he imagine the circuitous route that had delivered it to him—but he was going to have to pass. I don’t even know if the program was still on the air.

I wondered what would have happened if I had moved. Would this rejection have sought me down, like a heat-seeking missile? Would it actually have been forwarded to me, or would it have bounced back to its sender, who this time would’ve known exactly how it arrived at his desk—via Canada Post. And then I would’ve been left to continue on my merry way in the full bliss derived from ignorance.

Technology is supposed to make things simpler. It doesn’t. At the very least, it’s supposed to make things faster. It doesn’t do that, either. It can, but the flaw with technology is that it is used by people and people are still as fallible as ever. Take the following example as Exhibit A:

It is still possible, in the 21st century, to send a novel directly to a publisher. Admittedly, these are small presses, but a lot of excellent books are published by indie publishers, and I was hoping that mine might be one of them.

So, I sent a novel out for consideration. It didn’t sell, but I had one small glimmer of hope in my Submittable queue: an independent publisher who had marked it as “In-Progress” not that long after receiving it. Generally speaking, the longer a submitted work is “In-Progress” in Submittable, the more optimistic I tend to get about its chances. I’m a bit like Charlie Brown that way; I’m fairly certain that the football will not stay in place, but maybe, this time, it just might.

I can tell you exactly how long I was waiting because Submittable is very good at that sort of thing: one year and eight months. With novels, anything over a year and I assume that the publisher has fallen down on the job. My experience with any publisher that accepts submissions, either via Submittable or through snail mail, is that they tend to be very self-congratulatory when it comes to reading slush. They like the idea that anyone can send in anything and a great novel will be found in the slush pile. But in practice things are very different. In reality, slush is disdained by publishers. Reading it is like dropping someone off at the airport or helping a friend move—you can’t get out of it once you’ve made the commitment. So, it takes publishers a very long time to honor that commitment, and they do so grudgingly.

In this particular instance, that was not the case. I was informed that my novel had been flagged as meriting a closer look. But they ultimately decided to pass on it and forgot to tell me.

I don’t know how they remembered; they didn’t say. I assume they were on their own Submittable page and saw it still sitting there on life support and decided to pull the plug. And because my rejections tend to take the shape of form letters, I even Googled specific phrases from the letter to see if others had received it and posted their own results online. I wanted to know if I was alone in having this happen to me. They hadn’t, which still doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a form letter; it may’ve been a modified form letter written specifically for my situation.

That was two novels ago. I am still waiting to hear back from publishers on last year’s novel because, apparently, I do not learn from my failures. For one I have been waiting for more than a year; another has left me waiting for eight months. The latter gives six months on its website as an estimated response time; the former makes no such guarantees. Both ask that you do not query as to the status of your submission, so I guess that means they fall behind a lot. One was sent via regular mail, so there’s no way to keep track of it. The other is listed as “Received” in Submittable, which is the precursor to “In-Progress.” “Received” means that you have done something, and they have done nothing. I interpret it to mean “Ignored.”

There’s no fix for this situation; I just have to wait it out. Which is what I’ve been doing, patiently, like a biblical character. I’m an author, which means I have to play by the rules while they do not. Furthermore, they face no consequences when they’re late, whereas their actions have real-life consequences for me. Wasted time, for one thing. False hope, for another.

That’s novels. Moving on to short stories, the odds are even worse. I once calculated the odds of getting a story published in a magazine as a fraction of a fraction of less than one percent, and that was based upon stats honestly given by an editor of one publication. Stories don’t take as long to write and everyone’s looking to add to their credentials, so let the flood begin.

But when is too long too long? I’m glad I asked. Let me tell you the story of one specific submission, the one I associate with that McDonald’s hamburger.

I was younger then. I was still fairly optimistic as to my chances; I’m wiser now. I sent my story off and watched as “Received” turned into “In-Progress.” In those days, “Received” seemed to almost instantly turn into “Declined,” as if readers immediately rejected my work as soon as they saw it. These days, my Submittable page is lit up with two statuses: “In-Progress” and “Received.” They tend to stay lit for months on end before disappearing into the “Declined” tab. I choose to see that as progress.

Anyway, time passed. A lot of time. How much time? Years. Just a month and three days short of three years, in fact. (Thank you, Submittable, for keeping score.) So much time passed that I began to view the submission like a McDonald’s burger. I wanted to see how long it would go before someone finally rejected it.

Then something funny happened. A new person was put in charge and she decided to blow the whole thing up. Everyone was given an “administrative rejection” and invited to submit again. People flipped out. I didn’t like it, so I wrote a polite email that expressed my frustration. I suggested that priority should be given to those that were already in line.

To my surprise, I received a response. It was very sincere and explained the situation from the magazine’s perspective. It agreed that those that had already been waiting should be given priority, and that when the new submissions came in they would be cross-checked against the administrative rejections and put at the head of the list. She even offered to talk by phone, which I thought was impressive. Clearly, guilt was being felt.

I declined the phone call because it was impractical (different countries, different time zones), but responded by email that trust had been broken and would have to be regained. And then I had a decision to make: Would I get back on the merry-go-round again?

If you were me, what would you have done? It was an out: no real rejection, just bad luck. Lick your wounds and go home. Cut your losses and be thankful they weren’t worse.

I resubmitted, of course. I had to see the experiment through to the end. And now there was hope that the end was finally in sight.

That was two years ago. I know this because Submittable keeps track. Apparently, going to the head of the line was not an advantage. A year and four months ago I received an unsolicited update that my submission was still under consideration, and I can only imagine that everyone received the same update because it was very clearly a form response. I appreciated the courtesy. A few months ago, I sent my own query. There was no response.

Whenever I visit my Submittable page, that submission is right there at the very top. It is lit up like a dashboard light that no longer functions properly and is always on. I ignore it the same way I’ve ignored it for five years (technically two, but I go all the way back to the beginning with this one) and only think about it occasionally, like when its anniversary rolls around.

I considered emailing the editor personally to alert her to this situation, so I went back through my writer’s email account (not to be confused with my daily email account) to find our original correspondence. There it was, buried back six pages from the front, an ancient artifact in our modern, instantaneous world. I read through it again and thought we both came off well.

Then I decided to Google her to see if she was still working there. Guess what? She wasn’t. My submission had outlasted her, and still continues to outlast her. If I was an older person, I’d have suspicions that it might outlast me.

Five years is a long time. The anniversary gift is wood—I looked it up. Which is appropriate, because if I’d planted a tree back then I’d have a pretty big tree by now. And that would be potentially a better use of my time.

For those on the publisher’s side that are reading this, I get it. You’ve got limited resources. So how about this for a compromise—be realistic about how you apply your resources. Either increase your readers or decrease your submissions. Set certain benchmarks and when you fall behind, don’t be delusional about your ability to catch up. If your system isn’t working, rejig your system or shut it down. You’re not doing anyone any favors by having a system that doesn’t work.

I understand that thousands of writers proliferate words in the form of stories and novels on a regular basis. I get that publishers are overwhelmed. Still, when I go to the supermarket and there’s a long line at every register, they open another register. I think publishing should work like that. It’s too bad that it doesn’t.

Some of you might be thinking that my writing sucks, and that’s the real reason why I find myself stuck in limbo. In my less confident moments, I think the same thing. Then I remember that I’ve been published before, so it’s not just me. If you’ve had it happen to you, then you know what I’m talking about. These days, when I do occasionally get published, it’s usually when someone asks me to write something, which takes all the waiting right out of it. But still I persist in sending work out into the ether to see if it has a chance. So, while I might not objectively suck, I just might be stupid.

My motivation in writing this article is partially to vent, but also because five years is some kind of achievement, so I thought I’d mark it. And to let other writers out there know they’re not alone. We’re all sitting outside the school, waiting for our parents to pick us up and wondering where they are. And it’s not the first time they’ve been late, and it won’t be the last. And yes, they’ve got their reasons, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still late and it keeps happening.

Just think—a human being can go from nonexistence to existence in nine months. That’s the gold standard. Anything that takes longer than that, well, there may be reasons, but are they really good ones? If you’re falling that far behind, I suggest you take a good, hard look at the way you do things and come up with another way of doing them because five years is way too long. So is one. And here’s another thought: If karma is real, one day all that time might come back to haunt you.

Image credit: Unsplash/Marius Christensen.

is a Canadian author whose non-fiction includes The Legion Companion, The Best of The Legion Outpost, and The Titans Companion Vols. 1 & 2. His fiction has appeared in Cthulhu Tales Omnibus: MadnessCthulhu Tales Omnibus: Delirium, and 49th Parallels: Alternative Canadian Histories and Futures. His graphic story, "One Of Those Days," was adapted into the live action film, Eldritch Code. In addition to the above, he also writes the ongoing series, Bedlam & Belfry, Intergalactic Attorneys at Law. For more of his (mis)adventures in publishing, visit his website at www.glencadigan.com.

6 comments:

  1. Glen certainly makes clear the sad state of contemporary publishing, at least from the point of view of those of us unknowns toiling away in the obscurity of their Grub Street attics. But has the condition of writers changed all that much from 250 (more or less) years ago when Samuel Johnson mourned “…slow rises merit, by poverty oppressed” in his “The Vanity of Human Wishes?”

    There will always be more stories and novels than space on the printing press (or website) to produce them. Most writers will never get published and, even of those that do, most will never be able to make a living from their work. If you’re very lucky, if you publish and acquire a modest reputation, even locally, you might get teaching work (hardly remunerative, either), but it’s still a dog’s life, at best.

    Glen doesn’t even mention that there are a whole slew of writers ahead of those of us on Submittable: writers’ solicited by editors and publishers, and those being touted by literary agents. Obviously, these writers’ chances of getting published are exponentially higher than anyone contributing to the slush pile.

    I’m sure many publishers would respond that too many wannabe writers are writing too much stuff, and that most of it is awful. They’d cart out their shopworn complaints about MFA programs and writing workshops, etc., (which encourages too many youngsters to think they can write and then fosters cookie-cutter poems and stories and novels, etc., and that too many of these youngsters write too much and read too little.) And these complaints all have a great deal of validity.

    Bottom line, however, writers need to be prepared for disappointment. They need to be willing to take a long view of what they do and hope to achieve. We also need to find like-minded friends and writers to help us maintain faith in our talent, however large or small, in the face of indifference and rejection. And people willing to give us constructive, honest criticism of their work.

    Still, Glen’s comments about the current “system” being out-of-whack seem on point to me. Submittable and other online submission systems have multiplied the amount of slush a thousandfold, largely because they’ve made it so easy to submit and so easy to submit simultaneously. They’ve overwhelmed the resources of publishers and literary periodicals.

    I’ve noticed that many magazines have responded by sharply limiting when they’ll accept unsolicited submissions. And that’s one good fix that responds to Glen’s quarrel with the “system.”

    Another fix would be for many of the publishers who accept slush to stop accepting it altogether. For many prestige outlets/publishers, the percentage of unsolicited work they’ll ever publish is infinitesimal. Any magazine or publisher that publishes less than 5% of material that comes in over the electronic transom (un-agented work, that is), should think very seriously about just closing the door to slush completely. For all practical purposes, they just don’t publish slush. They should be honest about that and save everyone a lot of time, effort, and distress.

    Literary contents that charge exorbitant fees are also a big problem, particularly because almost none of them make any disclosure about judging and selection. If contests don’t anonymize writing samples, and/or allow judges to select writers whose work they already know, they should make that clear on their websites. Otherwise, they’re essentially accepting fee-paying applicants under false pretences. Contests with judges who can select winners from among the writers they already know are a very different kettle of fish from those that don’t Applicants should have the right to know this basic fact about a contest before she or he spends money and time to apply.

    Finally, literary agents, publishers, editors, writing workshop teacher, and other published writers all need to think hard about how their dependence on social networks for connecting talent to publication may restrict access, particularly for marginalized groups and populations that can’t access those networks so easily. How can they more fairly throw open the gates of publication to talent they don’t know via the friend of a friend of a friend, etc.?

    But, even given these kinds of reforms (most of which seem unlikely to be implemented), the writing/publishing game (like all artistic endeavors) will always be hard for practitioners, no matter how “fair” or “accessible it is, and no matter what level of recognition they’ve achieved.

  2. I think writers should take it personally, because publishers are really evaluating you (us) more than y/our book(s). That’s why the slush pile is so disdained–because they’re strangers. They could be losers! As to the material, they don’t know what’s good or bad, they can’t recognize what will sell or what won’t, hence most of the people they publish are known to them personally, so they can verify that they’re not losers.

    Mr MGF makes some good points, but I question whether he has drawn the best conclusions from them. If the chance of publication is tiny, and when you multiply that by the meager or nonexistent rewards, what’s tiny multiplied by tiny? It’s like multiplying fractions; they get exponentially smaller each time. Instead, stop submitting. Writing novels is fun and I will continue to do so, but I stopped submitting them years ago. I get all the enjoyment that is available from writing with none of the downside. People make a virtue of persistence, but no one can persist forever, because human beings are mortal. It’s merely a question of whether you will learn this now, when you can still extract some pleasure from your remaining time, or years or decades from now on your deathbed.

  3. 5 years is a long time to wait for just any kind of notice. When I was a young woman, I submitted a manuscript to several of the major publishers, yet I received it back with a polite rejection letter, not because it was bad, but because it did not “suit their goals”.

    I had to wait 30 years before the technology to publish my own books became available. Since then, I have published 25 books, some of which are now in print. With self-publishing I can do what I want with my work, reprint, or anything else I choose to do.

    I feel that waiting for someone else to give your manuscript little to no notice is not progress. If you want to be published, you are better off publishing yourself. It will save time and your masterpiece will be published the next week, instead of 5 years later. There is no guarantee that your book will become a best seller, that is true, but trusting others to do the work for you will make you wait, far too long to make it worth the effort. You may not even get picked up by offline booksellers, because they are already overwhelmed by new books published every week, but you will have the opportunity to see your work in print and to sell it yourself or on bookseller sites online.

    One need not languish in a fog of uncertainty. Do it yourself and you will save yourself a lot of time and effort.

  4. One reason now is the best time ever to be a writers is that there are many ways to deal with this terrible problem:

    * Accept that will keep getting harder for new writers to be published by the Big Apple 5 or agents who have to sell to them to make a living. But rejoice in the explosion of alternatives you have access.

    * Accept that if you’re writing literary work, you will make less money than writers of commercial work do, although there are always literary books on bestseller lists.

    * Accept that publishing is a subjective business so rejections are part of it. But remember that editors are rejecting your work, not you, and that their rejections may have nothing to do with with the quality or salability of your work. Publishers reject future bestsellers all the time.

    * Thousands of small and midsize houses buy books from writers.

    * Take Sue Grafton’s advice: If you want to write a mystery [or anything else], read a hundred of them.

    * Do as many drafts as it takes to make every word count.

    * Build communities of early readers to give you feedback as and after you write.

    * Share your work on online at sites like Scribd and Wattpad.

    * Build your presence online and community of fans.

    * Every field has its own combination of events, organizations, media, and influencers. Be an active, contributing member of the community in your field and the book community.

    * Get to know writers in your field. Ask them to give you feedback and cover quotes you can use in your query letter.

    * Maximize the value of your books before you sell or publish them by building your visibility, your brand, and the communities you need to succeed, and by test-marketing your work as many ways as you can.

    * Accept New York agent Don Maass’ belief that it takes five books to build an audience. Keep writing books that sell each other.

    * If you keep writing better and growing your audience, you will write a breakout book and your lucky publisher will welcome the chance to publish your backlist. This is the usual path to success.

    * Take the long view in developing your craft and your career.

    As editor John Dodds used to say: If anything can stop you, let it. If nothing can stop you, do it and you’ll make it.”

    Adapted from a talk and manuscript in progress, Writing Success Guaranteed.

  5. One way to cut down on the time it takes for lit mags to read submissions is for submitters to connect with one and give their own time to read through a pile.

    I started reading lit mags before submitting to them and continue to read for them. My reading helps me become a better submitter. I see what is sent wrongly and rightly. Throughout the piles I try to search for treasure. And guess what? I find it.

    However, I will say that mags should be

  6. *However, I will say lit mags should be accountable to some sort of code of ethics. I don’t know how the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses actually follows up (investigates and/or enforces) publishers that bend, or break, their own guidelines, especially for contests.

    In the digital world, there are resources for writers to report horrible practices:
    Writers Beware (agents as well as publishers and contest with sketchy practices), WhoPaysWriters.com (mostly for nonfiction, reporting earnings), Duotrope (response times), or even The Review Review’s archived articles.

    Full disclosure: I wrote for the latter, especially on Entering Contests while serving as a managing editor:
    http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/entering-lit-mag-contests-fine-print

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