Wednesday, January 7, 2015

On slow submissions

This stock rejection form from the Essanay Film Management Company of Chicago back in the day has been making the rounds in the literary blogosphere for a few years, popping up on blogs like Literary Rejections on Display. We laughed out loud when we first saw it; it's a gas! Then we 'shopped it up nice and sharp and framed it for our press office wall.

Authors have a lot of time on their hands around the holidays, when the business of their workaday jobs slows down, and many shops turn out their employees for seasonal time off. This means that the pace of correspondence in a literary press picks up, since authors have the time to follow-up on submissions, and check in on projects that have been hanging fire, and buzz the tower about forgotten commitments.

Christmas: the days of eggnog and demanding an end to editorial negligence. We get these messages, and it makes us think: should we take steps to make things in Pen & Anvil more efficient? We could follow the lead of Essanay Film Management and cook up a stock form that lets us tick off, one two three, the reasons why any given submission or proposal doesn’t spark our interest or meet our needs. How great would it be to cut down our response time, for magazine submissions or manuscripts review, from “years” to “months” or even “weeks.” That’d be the life! To be able to acknowledge submissions with a message of assurance: “Many thanks, and you’ll hear from us soon.” And by soon, to mean soon, not “as soon as we’re able,” whenever that may be.

Anyway, that’s the kind of idea we bandy around. But in the end, every year, we knock back the last drops of our eggnog, and agree that it wouldn’t work. Not for us. When an author submits to a publication partnered with Pen & Anvil—these days, that list includes Clarion, Pusteblume, Decameron, and others —we don’t promise them a swift response, but an adequate one.

In view of the trouble our submitters have taken to tell the story or find the rhyme, to set down the mood, nail down the image, put those right words in the right order, the least we can do is take the review process seriously. If we like what you’ve got, we’ll tell you why. If we think the piece doesn’t quite achieve its ambition, we’ll try to explain how. If your piece is doing something interesting but it’s not the kind of lit we traffic in, we’ll shake our brains a little and try to make some recommendations as to where you could send it next. And if your piece shows ambition but not yet the polish of a practiced writer, we’re going to point you in the direction of other authors that we’ve learned from, that we think you’d learn from as well.

The submission process for us isn’t a beauty pageant, where the hopefuls line and we crown a winner. For us, it’s a conversation. The editor’s office is open, so you knock on the doorframe, and say: Hey, got a minute? I’ve got this story here. And when you’ve got a minute, I’d love to know what you think.

We’d love to have that minute right that moment, but most days there’s a dozen other obligations clamoring for attention. That said, when we do have the time, we’re going to take a look at your piece, and pay it our full attention. If that’s worth it to you, stick around, say hello from time to time, and trust that we’ve not forgotten about you.*

If you don’t feel like waiting, there are a lot of magazines out, and a million readers, and a roster of editors and publishers numbering in the googolplexes. You just be sure that wherever you take your submission, be it story, or poem, or book proposal, that you take it someplace where it will be taken just as seriously as it deserves.

There’s a risk that all this explain-y prose will be read as a passive-aggressive apology to any submitter we may have kept waiting overlong for a response. Well, perhaps they do deserve an apology!**

But that’s not what we’re explaining in this miniature manifesto on the subject of submissions review. We’re explaining why we framed a printout of the Essanay rejection slip. That reason is: because we’re proud not to be form-response professionals.

And as great as it is to get a reply to your submission a week, day, or minute after you send that text in, we encourage you not to settle for form-response kinds of magazines. If anyone asks where you get off having such eccentric expectations, tell them you got hooked on the idea after reading the Pen & Anvil Slow Submissions Manifesto. (See also: slow food, 'city slow', slow design, slow pencil-sharpening.)

Good things come to those who etc. About that hurry-up, just-in-time culture that everyone with a smart-phone and a Twitter account has been swept up into? Keep in mind that such an inhuman pace is entirely at odds with the slow (sometimes tortuously so!) care that goes into the creation of good writing, and the long-lasting enjoyment that good writing delivers.

                                                Editorially yours,

                                                Zachary “Pains-taking” Bos
                                                Publisher, Pen & Anvil

"True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity, before it is entitled to the appellation." - George Washington

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* Then again, if you're a prominent author with a well-selling backlist, drop me a line directly and I’ll bump you to the head of the queue. We may be aspirational around here, but we aren’t self-defeating.

** If you are one of these long-suffering authors in need of an apology, and have tired of waiting for a member of our team to get back to you, drop me a line directly and I’ll see if I can’t resolve your problem with a timeliness more in keeping with our modern moment.

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