In Praise of Print Submissions

By Michael Nye

Last week in my Internship in Publishing class, we were discussing online submission fees and our submission system, which is powered by Submission Manager, the program endorsed by CLMP and designed by Devin Emke. I’ve discussed this subject before with my class (and on this blog). For the most part, my students were untroubled by online submission fees, even when I did my best to steer the conversation into some sort of “Art is anti-capitalist!” angles. They didn’t blink.

What was odd to me was when I asked them about stuffing envelopes. No, not the kind of normal intern stuffing envelopes stuff where you get papercuts and are mailing press releases and all that other good stuff. No, I was referring to actually mailing out your manuscripts via the post office. Standing in line with a stack of ten envelopes in your hands and slapping stamps on those suckers.

I didn’t expect my undergraduates to be familiar with that. After all, they’ve grown up with the Internet being ubiquitous in their lives, and only about half my students actually want to be writers (as opposed to being editors or publishers). However, I also have two graduate students in my class, and while I am a little bit older than them, it isn’t by THAT much. And they both sorta shrugged at the concept of mailing out a physical manuscript.

When I was a graduate student in my MFA program, I used to block off Saturday mornings to mail my stories. I bought a big stack of manila and #10 envelopes from Office Depot, and made sure to stock up on stamps every time I went to the post office. Back then, I made sure to pay attention to see if postal rates were going to rise any time soon, in case I needed to snag three cent stamps to add to the SASE I needed to include with my manuscript. I suppose in that (very) small way, I was a conscientious submitter. On the other hand, I stocked up on all this stuff because I was cranking out a new story every six weeks or so, and simultaneously submitting my work to as many places as I possibly could, so I wasn’t really that conscientious of a submitter.

Let’s point out a few things here. First, constant submitters, like I was, really clog up literary magazines. My general attitude was to have a manuscript under consideration at virtually all times at every magazine I wanted to be in. It never quite worked that way, what with the cost of mailing manuscripts and the time to get to the post office and with reading periods being closed, but I tried. When one story was turned down by Journal X, I simply sent them another one, until I was all out. Second, you probably will not be stunned to read that most of those stories were never published and that my stories were constantly rejected. My work wasn’t good enough; I rushed stories out the door far too early, but even with a gestation period and revision, I doubt those stories were very good.

So I’ve never been one to think that mailing a physical manuscript was going to slow me down. And, I’m demonstrable proof that just because someone goes to the post office rather than clicking a button in a web browser, it doesn’t mean the writer takes any special care to make her/his story perfect before mailing it off for publication. Nonetheless, I wonder if we lose something if we skip those manila envelopes.

It’s hard not to feel that this is the first in what will now be a lifelong series of Crotchety Old Man blog posts, all that “back in my day …” stuff. But I think we’re capable of acknowledging that, yes, online submissions had made life easier for both writers and editors (and I’m both of those things), while simultaneously wishing, just a little bit, for the way it was. I prefer reading paper rather than a screen, a hardcover rather than an iPad. I’m certainly not alone with this feeling and attitude.

But I wonder what it means for a generation of writers who might never get beyond the screen with their writing. They might only work on a screen, finish their drafts on screen, send their work out on a screen, and then read their published work on a screen. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and I haven’t come to any deep or (even shallow) meaning behind this, other than it struck me as curious, and has stayed with me for several days. I recently finished a story that had been stewing, in various forms, on my laptop for almost three years. When something haunts me, I try not to shake it off. There’s just somethings that we should never let go of, and I believe paper, the good ol’ fashioned stuff, is one of those things.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye