Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good

By Michael Nye

Every Tuesday, the Missouri Review holds its weekly production meeting. This meeting keeps everyone up to date on all facets of the magazine’s production so that all, from editor-in-chief to the interns, know where we stand with the current and forthcoming issues of the magazine. After this production meeting, we break into genre groups – cleverly labeled “poetry” and “prose” – and discuss the manuscripts that will ultimately be passed for a second or third read.

Last week, a story was pitched that sparked a brief discussion on perseverance.

The author in question had sent us many stories over the years, dating back to before my time with TMR and, if I’m remembering the author’s biography correctly, dating back decades. The author has been sending work so frequently that our current intern staff, who only work for us for two semesters, recognized the author’s name. The stories are always good but have never been accepted for publication, and one of the interns wondered aloud about this writer’s constant effort to get into TMR. How does someone keep sending work to a magazine that keeps rejecting the work?

Assistant editor Evelyn Somers spoke up at this point, explaining that getting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, she said, when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never hear get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.

But I’m familiar with this from the writer’s side, too. Since 2003, I have sent my fiction to One Story. According to their Submission Manager, way back on September 5, 2003, I sent them “The Third Child,” a story that they declined and which was never published anywhere (for, I assure you, good reason). Recently they turned down attempt number sixteen. That’s right: sixteen. I keep track of my stories on my laptop by number – I’m at story #83 now – and the majority of those stories are not good, or feel incomplete, or read like fragments of a fully realized story. Of those eighty three, sixteen of my stories have been sent to One Story. Every single one has been turned down. Sometimes, the editors say something encouraging. Other times, it’s a standard form rejection.

One Story is not alone: there are several fine journals that have been receiving my work since 2003, when I started graduate school, when I immediately decided that my fiction would be published everywhere, when I decided to send work out pretty much nonstop. Most of the stories I sent during graduate school were never published, but a few of them were. Of the stories I have sent One Story over the years, two were never published, and two are so new that they have yet to be picked up elsewhere. If publication is a measurement of the quality of your writing (arguable, to be sure), then I’ve only sent One Story my best (at that time) work. They always said, Thanks but we’re good.

I’m not picking on One Story: I could insert Tin House or New England Review in its place and the story would be exactly the same. No, no, no, no, nice try, thanks but no thanks, etc. I would love to tell you that back in 2003, I understood how the editorial decisions of a literary magazine were made, but, of course, I didn’t. I was just stubborn. And while being stubborn and egotistical and confident and (insert your own synonym here) may not be the best thing for a young writer unless those qualities are mixed with humility and a willingness to learn, I’m sure that being persistent with my story submissions has helped me to get my work published.

I submit my stories less often now; I write them slower, I’m more selective about where I send my work, and I’m not nearly as impatient to published as I used to be. But the persistent writer, the one who keeps trying us again and again, is a good thing. A new story to us once every six months, or year, or two years, whatever the pace might be that suits you, is good. Not just for us, but for other literary magazines as well. And, good for the writer.

You can quit anytime. Why quit now?

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

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

On Not Submitting to Specific Literary Journals

By Michael Nye

The literary magazine submission system is in full swing. While a few magazines open for submissions on August 1st or October 1st, the majority of magazines open up their submissions on September 1st. Many read until April or May of the following year, though a few will shut it down in December or January because it only takes four months to receive enough submissions to fill the forthcoming issues. By now, of course, you very likely know that The Missouri Review reads submissions all year round and currently our big focus is the Editors’ Prize, which has an October 1st deadline.

(hint: enter our Editors’ Prize!)

As with many literary magazines, our senior staff is comprised of writers, too. We also send out our stories, poems, and essays in the hope of finding a readership for our work. Fortunately for me, I’ve spent my last few months writing a novel, so the only thing that I have that is “short” is a novella that is over 20K. I think there are, I dunno, ten journals that would even consider a novella of that length.

But, I am working on a new story that I’m moderately happy with, which means, when I’m finished with it in the forthcoming weeks, I’ll need to look at the literary magazine scene and determine which magazine is the best for my work. Fire up the cover letter, hop on their Submission Manager, and send my story out into the world. How do I decide which journals to send my work to for publication?

There are a variety of factors that go into my decision. I think about the journals whose work I admire and whose work I read. I think about if my story fits their aesthetic, as this particular story I’m working on is a little bit different for me. I look up their reading period, their response time, limits on word count, and make sure everything is a good fit. Every writer has two or three journals that she/he would love to publish in, and those personal goals and aspirations are always a factor, too.

But there are two terrific journals I will never submit to: River Styx and Natural Bridge.

River Styx is an international, award-winning journal of poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, and art. A triannual publication with no university affiliation, the magazine is slim and elegantly designed, and has featured writers such as Yusef Komunyakaa, Ted Kooser, Lawrence Raab, and many others in its thirty plus years of publication. Natural Bridge, a journal of contemporary literature, is published twice per year at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and each issue is curated by a guest editor. Selections are made by the editorial assistants, who are comprised of graduate students at the university. The magazine is, like River Styx, a true miscellany, publishing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and translations. Basically, both are excellent, and any writer would be proud to have work published in either journal.

So why won’t I send them work? Because I used to work there.

My first experience working on a literary journal was as a graduate student making selections for Natural Bridge. Naturally, the current editorial assistants do not know who I am (and vice versa), so it really doesn’t matter if I send them work: my name means nothing to them. And, my first job as a managing editor was at River Styx, where I worked for almost five years. Richard Newman, the long time editor-in-chief, probably doesn’t care if I submit work either; I’ve been in the office when he’s turned down poems from poets whose work he really likes, poets he’s good friends with, and poets he respects. Neither magazine has guidelines on their website indicating they won’t consider work from previous editors, which is, of course, the prerogative of the current editorial staff. If I didn’t bring it up, they probably don’t think about it one way or the other.

Nonetheless, I think it’s inappropriate for me to send my work to those magazines. This is my choice. I don’t want to put those staffs in the position of having to consider work from someone they know worked there in the recent past. My position on this might be a bit over the top. It might then logically follow that I shouldn’t send work to any magazine where I was friends of, or friendly with, the editors. This would eliminate most magazines from my list. I know many literary magazine editors … and many of them have turned down my stories. And vice versa. It isn’t personal. That’s just how it goes.

In the grand scheme of things, this stance of mine probably doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot. That’s okay. The literary magazine world, and the large publishing world, has bigger fish to fry than whether or not we should send our writing to a place where we used to work (which is a cliché, but I’m hungry, and fish sounds tasty right now, so Imma leave it in…).

The reason I bring this up is to emphasis that as a writer and an editor, I have to have ethical standards for my work. All writers and editors do: take a spin around the web about quoting sources or “anonymous sources” and all that related material and you’ll find a wide spectrum of what is ethical, what is acceptable, in the world of journalism. Whatever your standards might be, you have to stick with them. No one else is going to police you. And it does matter: when you aim to publish your writing, you’re acting as a professional, and need to be one regardless of which side of the publishing wall you’re on.

Small stuff? Of course! But it’s all small stuff. The small stuff is what separates your work—whether it’s your writing or your magazine—from all the rest.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself; Or, Online Submissions

By Michael Nye

Three weeks ago, I opened up The Review Review weekly newsletter (if you don’t subscribe to it, you really should) and the top story was “We’re Taking a Stand Against Literary Journals that Charge Submission Fees” by Emily Harstone of Authors Publish Magazine. You can and should read the entire essay here but the title alone probably tells you everything you need to know about why I’m writing a response.

Literary magazines charge a submission fee for one of two reasons: to generate a small revenue stream to avoid going out of business, or to slow down the number of submissions. The Missouri Review is housed at the University of Missouri, and because of this connection, we receive a large chunk of our annual income from the university. The rest is generated through a range of revenue streams: subscriptions, single copy sales, an endowment, royalties, grants, and so forth. In the litmag world, TMR is a very large fish. From all of those income streams, the revenue from online submission fees is approximately five percent of our total annual income.

That’s it. Just five percent. But that five percent? That’s the difference between us being in the red or being in the black every year. And in this current environment, with universities treating their departments like businesses and their faculty like worker bees and their students like whimsical customers, making sure we have a balanced balance sheet is an absolute necessity.

I have discussed the rhymes and reasons behind our submission process and its financial logic many many times before on this blog. I waited a few days to respond to Harstone’s piece because my initial feeling was aggravation, and since this is the first week of summer semester, our new interns will (“might”?) read this blog post, which is as good a spot as any to begin their look into the literary magazine world.

My frustration comes from a sense that because TMR has explained this before; hence, because there is an Internet, this no longer needed any further discussion. This is, of course, wrong: one explanation doesn’t reach everyone and one explanation may not be sufficient or correct. If one good explanation ended all inquiry, we’d have sexism, racism, climate change, and clean water all taken care of by now. People enter and leave the litmag world every single day, and for many, they are starting at square one.

Harstone says she has been submitting to literary magazines for four years. Back then, she writes, not that many journals were charging for submissions. This is incorrect. I would say the majority of the best known (or “most popular” or “top 100” or whatnot) literary magazines charge for online submissions and have done so for nearly a decade. She also states that she “supports” literary magazines, a claim, usually without substance, that many writers make when they rail against online submission fees.

I could pick this essay apart in several other ways—about startup magazines and Kickstarter, about trusting the editorial board of a magazine, of “support” meaning more than just a monetary transaction, about Crazyhorse being an excellent literary magazine, about how poets seem to get hosed by disreputable literary magazines more often than prose writers, why TMR doesn’t solicit—but this is all pretty familiar ground, and I’m finding it difficult to continue on this path without being persnickety. There are several hyperlinks up above, written by me or my staff, from a moment in time when I’m in a significantly better mood.

Instead, I’ll just focus on this: Harstone’s piece showcases why literary magazines need to continue to explain their process, why transparency is critical for both publishers and editors. We don’t want our writers to believe (falsely) that the game is rigged and they shouldn’t be playing in the first place. The lifeblood of all literary magazines is discovery of new writers. We need your work. We cannot exist without it.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

The Postman Always Rings Twice

By Michael Nye

Last week, we held our first class since the AWP Conference, which I wrote about last Monday. Several of our staffers were in Seattle, so the offices were a little quiet, though there was plenty of work to be done. The frequently repeated line from AWP was “We read year round” so we were sifting through stories, poems, and essays trying to finalize the summer issue and load up the fall issue. The work never ends. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

In class last week, we focused on submissions to the magazine. First, we talked about our submission system; second, we talked about how and where we receive our submissions and the fact that we charge for online submissions.

For years, TMR had a custom online submission system. We’ve taken down all the old pages, so I couldn’t walk my class through it, but, in memory, it went through something like twelve pages (really) and three or four different URLs. I was impressed anyone every submitted that way! Then, the uploaded manuscript was put in an Outlook Inbox that was accessible by the senior staff, graduate editors, and interns. There were several subfolders for each class, and on Wednesdays, everyone received a fresh batch of reading material.

The problem with this system is obvious: it’s not very secure and difficult to track the path of a submission. It worked for us—we had been using it for ten years, roughly—but it wasn’t the best way to keep track of our writers’ work. So we looked at submission management systems and made the change that best suited TMR.

We went with Submission Manager, Devin Emke’s program that is recommended by CLMP. Though my students use it all the time, they hadn’t seen the back end, so I walked through what I can do as an administrator: track a submission, run reports, mailing information, all kinds of really useful stuff that makes the magazine run more efficiently. We also looked at Submittable and Tell It Slant, two other programs we considered; the former is very popular and used by many other excellent literary magazines.

For the second half of class, we talked about online submission fees. TMR charges $3 for online submissions; postal submissions remain free and always will be. I asked the class what they thought of this, and most of them, knowing full well that TMR already has this fee in place, initially said, yeah sure, no big deal.

Finally, someone said, (paraphrasing) “I don’t submit to magazines that charge an online submission fee. I can always send it somewhere else” and we were off and running. Here are some quick questions that were (or should have been) posed to the class:

Do you find online submission fees to be ethical? Just because something can be a revenue stream for a literary magazine doesn’t mean it should be.

Is the terminology important (reading fee, submission fee, convenience fee, etc.)? Branding matters more than one might think: calling something a “reading fee” is different from an “online submission fee” in the minds of many, even if the end result is essentially the same.

What is the cost of a paper submission? Add it up. Twenty page story. Envelopes. Postage, on both the submission and the SASE. Time, getting to the post office, which might also be measured in gas for your car. The numbers are about the same …

Should the fee be different for poetry? But not necessarily for poetry, which can be stuffed in a #10 envelope.

Should writers get more for their money, such as a more detailed critique? It’s a fair question. If you spend money on an online submission, one might argue that the editors should spend more time with the manuscript. This is probably a misguided way of looking at things—there’s a worldview of spending money that entitles you to something that is disturbing (read: I cough up college tuition; therefore, I deserve a college degree because I paid money)—but if that’s the worldview we live in, how does a magazine prepare for it?

Do we spend enough time with each submission? It’s very easy for an editor at any magazine, not just ours, to look at the stack of submissions and fire through them quickly. Sven Birkets of AGNI once wrote that he only looks at the first page before deciding do proceed (I think this was in an editor’s foreword in an issue of AGNI, but I can’t find a link).

Is it solely a business transaction? After all, literary magazines are in a strange situation: we don’t have a magazine without unsolicited manuscripts. And, many of our submitters are our readers.

Other questions on my mind included the following: What do you think about waiving online fees for subscribers? Are writers our “customers/consumers”? Is there even a distinction? What business are literary magazines in? Why, if there is an explosion of MFA programs, and consequently writers, is there little to no financial support for literary journals? Must TMR or any other literary journal charge fees? Should submission fees come with some sort of incentive: a quicker response time, a more detailed critique, or something else?

It’s not a perfect or complete list of questions, but for my students, this is the first time they’ve been asked to consider online submission fees in-depth. It’s far too easy to say “Oh, well, we’ve always done it this way” without asking why it’s always been done this way. Maybe it wasn’t the most groundbreaking discussion in history, but when it comes to literary magazines, there isn’t any one right or required way to publish literature. And if that leads to students asking “Why?” or (maybe even better) “Why not?” in the future, then the discussion took us in the right direction.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

On Submissions and Waiting Forever

Last week, The Review Review, an online source for writers with reviews and articles about literary magazines, hopped on their social media platforms and asked writers about their submission strategies, in particular about how they keep track of their submissions.

I wrote back and said that I had an Excel file (a Google spreadsheet now) with basic information: what piece I sent where and on what date. Pretty easy. A writer-friend tweeted at me, and pointed out that submitting poems is trickier because a poet sends several individual poems at a time rather than just one story. That’s a good point that as a fiction writer, I hadn’t considered. Nonetheless, I didn’t think that keeping track of submissions was all that hard, nor did I think choosing what journals to submit to was difficult either. I’ve known for a few years now which journals I want to send my work to and, loosely, if X amount of journals turn down my work, then it probably isn’t “ready” yet.

In the last two weeks, I’ve received several emails from writers who entered our Editors’ Prize contest. They contact me because they want to check on the status of their submission to the contest. This puzzled me a bit: often, the writer had sent work within just the last month, and we announce our selections in January 2014 all at once. What was the worry? What were they “checking on”? I send these writers a quick, polite, “don’t worry!” email explaining the Editors’ Prize deadline and leave it at that.

But these two things taken together, I remember what it was like to be anxious about sending out my stories, and how easy it is for magazine editors to forget what it’s like to wait. When I was a graduate student, and for several years after I completed my MFA, I perused Duotrope to find out the exact average response time a journal had, and got my hopes up way too high anytime my work was held even a day past the average. I looked at my Excel file of submissions daily, studying which journals reading period were almost over, and considered which work I had sent them before, which new story would fit best. Any rejection letter that had any ink on it—even a quickly scrawled “THX”—remained in a folder in my desk.

Now, of course, I know better. I don’t keep rejection notices; they get recycled like all the other paper products in my house. Why haven’t the editors responded? Most likely because they haven’t read it yet. Why do they have my story so long? Most likely because they haven’t read it yet. Why did I get rejected so fast? It just happened to get put at the type of the reading pile (or queue), and has nothing to do with whether or not it is good or bad.

Of course, I can only speak for what it was like at River Styx and here at Missouri Review. I’ve certainly heard stories of piles of unread manuscripts sitting around, ignored and unread, while the editors solicit friends. I’ve heard of offices where the submissions don’t get opened, let alone read. Or, the magazine hits a fiscal crisis and production, and consequently, reading, is indefinitely delayed. Whether any of these anecdotes are true, I don’t know.

Many editors forget what this process is like for their submitters. Editors of literary magazines have typically had publishing success, anywhere from poems placed in good journals to several books at large publishing houses. All writers feel some level of anxiety, stress, and pressure about publishing The Next Thing. But, like anything that we’ve learned and have years of experience with, we often forget how difficult those first steps were at the time, how frustrating the process can be, the “I’ll never publish there!” feeling and how the echo chamber of our insecure creative minds can be maddening. Reading submissions and making editorial decisions takes time. At TMR, part of our mission statement is a teaching component—we are at an university, after all—and that means we often need to slow down a little bit.

I wonder if reminding writers of this fact is sufficient.

But in a world with so much noise, maybe simply telling someone, “Hey, I hear you” is actually an important thing. If you’re human, you’ve had arguments with people. And, almost certainly, you and/or the other person has said “You aren’t listening!” or “That’s not what I said!” or “That’s not what I meant!” Simple, honest, reflective language makes conversations easier. Makes relationships stronger.

And that’s what we want. We want to deliver the best writing to you. You want to read the best writing. We publish what you send us; you want to publish in our pages. Same goals from different parts of the process. And, perhaps, those small things to make those goals mutual rather than combative do make a difference. We hope so.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Beyond The Slush: On Editors and Absolutes

Last week on Indiana Review‘s website, fiction editor Joe Hiland wrote a blog post titled “Three Stories Unlikely to Make it Beyond the Slush.” Aimed at fiction writers thinking about submitting their work to IR, Hiland touched on three story types that are far too familiar to the editors of literary magazines. These are:

  1. “The Sad Garage Sale” which is a post-breakup story involving giving away stuff and usually has little to no narrative drive.
  2. “[Insert Character Name] is Sick” about, well, you can probably figure it out, and has a heavy dose (overdose?) of pathos.
  3. “Scholars Misbehaving” are stories about academics who are disillusioned or drunk or both, and the prose is laden with esoteric references.

Hiland’s blog post hasn’t gone viral in an Elizabeth Warren video kind of way, but has certainly received plenty of tweets and re-posts and sharin’ to have caught the attention of writers and editors in the literary community. Here’s how its written on the Paris Review‘s blog (bold emphasis mine):

The three types of stories one editor always rejects.

Maybe I’m thinking too much about it, but the phrasing of this relatively simple sentence jumps out at me. In the last paragraph of Hiland’s post, he does write “I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from sending us stories that deal with these subjects, but I do want you to be aware that these kinds of stories have to do a bit more than others to make it out of the slush.” But that’s something that is really easy to lose sight of that detail.

Let’s break this down a little more.

Types. The problem with these stories, as Hiland points out, is that they are far too familiar. Editors can call these stories “types” because they don’t do anything particularly interesting with their subject matter. There is a common theme in these stories, usually one that is cliched and melodramatic. In our weekly pitch meeting, we discourage our interns from describing the stories they are discussing as a particular type of story.

But it’s really easy to do this because we get so many stories that deal with the same trope over and over and over again. This really can’t be emphasized enough: given how many stories we receive, it’s remarkably how often Hiland’s story “types” make it to our mailbox.

Strong, publishable, and dynamic stories that could be classified as these types of stories are, of course, not these types of stories at all. Here’s a good example: Kevin Brockmeier’s remarkable story “The Ceiling” is a break-up story. In essence, a guy whose marriage is falling apart doesn’t do anything about it.

Of course, if you’ve read “The Ceiling” (and I wouldn’t spoil it for you if you haven’t)(but, Good God, man: why haven’t you read that story?!) you know that calling it a break-up story or an inertia story misses the point. In fact, it’s almost impossible to view the story that way because of all the other powerful and wonderful things Brockmeier does with his characters.

And that kind of imaginative storytelling, even on a “type” story, is what editors want to publish.

One Editor. Simplest just to say that the mind of a good editor remains remarkably open to literature, whereas the mind of an average editor often does not.

What Hiland has expressed is what he wants to see as an editor. That’s all. Another editor, even perhaps one of his colleagues at Indiana Review, may have an entirely different aesthetic from Hiland. His blog post is about only what he is after. IR, and other good journals just like it, usually have more than one voice on the editorial staff advocating for a particular story (or poem or essay).

Good editors recognize their biases and preferences. The latter might be the better word. Magazines have preferences, and these preferences are ones that a writer-reader should be familiar with by reading copies of the magazine and reading the submission guidelines.

Always. Again, that’s not really what Hiland says. There isn’t really an absolute when it comes to fiction. Or poetry. Or nonfiction.

What Hiland emphasizes is that if a writer writes a story “type” than the story needs to do something unexpected and wholly original to have any chance of appearing in a literary magazine. The late Jerome Stern said this in his essay “Don’t Do This”:

Art is made out of broken rules. Art pushes at the envelope of the never-done, but also constantly recycles the forever-done. Cliches are the compost of art. Transformations, inversions, and reversions, and conversions continually revive fiction.

Can’t say it any better. Transform, inverse, reverse, convert—doing that with your work, your characters, your prose, is what will get your story beyond the slush pile. Always! Well, according to this editor.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

The Art of the Literary Magazine Cover Letter

Last week, I received my first request of the season for a letter of recommendation. If you’re thinking “Wait, it’s only September” you’re right, it is awfully early. But that’s a good thing! Nothing aggravates mentors more than being asked to write a LOR a week before the deadline. I’ve had students ask for a letter of recommendation that needed to be submitted in two days! I’m pretty sure I refused. Anyway, for the most part, I agree when asked to write a recommendation; usually, I’m asked for a LOR by a student who I’ve had a good working relationship for a long time, a student whose work is good enough to be accepted at a graduate level but also needs graduate level study.

I’m particularly happy about this recent request because this student isn’t fresh out of his undergraduate program. He went and did a couple of other things, including travelling and making music and studying something completely different than writing. Here’s the thing that’s really impressive: he’s still writing fiction and has published several of his stories. The latter doesn’t matter all that much to me, but the fact that he has continued to write post-college speaks volumes for his drive and his energy as a writer. He’ll be a terrific addition to any graduate program that accepts him.

What, though, do I say in a letter of recommendation? In this case, writing this particular letter won’t be a chore. I’m not really worried about that. What I’m concerned about is the people on the other side, the professor-writers at various MFA programs who will read my letter and use it to make a determination on whether or not my student is accepted to their program. I also know that what they really are concerned with is the writing sample; some claim to look at the writing sample and the writing sample only, but I don’t know if that’s true. That also might mean a good LOR is, potentially, a tiebreaker.

The way my mind works, the Who and the What and the Why of letter writing always brings me back around to the letters I see most: cover letters at The Missouri Review. I’ve been sending out stories for almost a decade now. I’ve worked at three different literary magazines. I’ve seen thousands of cover letters. And, like the letters of recommendation I’m going to write this fall (likely several of them), I know they don’t matter at all and they matter a tremendous amount.

Every submission to a literary magazine should come with a cover letter. Unless a magazine specifically states in the guidelines they do not want a cover letter because they read blind (and some magazines do this), a cover letter should always be included with your submission. It’s like wearing a suit to an interview. A submission to a literary magazine is a professional transaction—treat it like one. Try showing up for a job interview in a Hawaiian shirt and basketball shorts. It probably won’t go well.

Cover letters should include all your contact information. Name, address, phone number, email, and the titles of your piece(s). This is pretty simple. After that, things get a little dicey.

Should the cover letter be addressed to a specific person? Dear Editors, Dear Editor, Dear Mr. Morgan, Dear Dr. Morgan, Dear Speer Morgan, Dear Dr. Speer Morgan, Dear Speer Laddie, To Whom It May Concern, Dear Intern Reading This, Dear Fiction Editors, Dear Fiction Editor, What’s Up Doc?, and so on … the possibilities may go on and on. Honestly? I can’t say any of these are wrong when sent to The Missouri Review. We’re going to read the work one way or the other. It does help to know if your submission is, say, fiction or nonfiction, but other than that, it really doesn’t matter. We understand. But there are magazines out there that will get their shorts in a knot if you don’t acknowledge the editors doctorate or spell a name right. Again: follow each magazine’s specific guidelines.

Should there be a subject line? Something like “RE: Fiction Submission” or “RE: ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ – fiction submission'”? This does help our office staff. This makes getting your work to the correct reader easier. But, it doesn’t make a huge difference.

What most worries writers, I think, is the body of the letter. What to say? What if the writer knows the staff? How well? What if the writer is unpublished? What if the writer has published dozens of pieces? And so on.

Short and sweet is really the way to go here. Including every magazine you’ve ever published in is probably overkill: mention four to six places, and then move on. Don’t explain what your story is “doing”: we’ll figure that out when we read it. Don’t be too clever or cute. Yeah, if you’ve had some interaction with us—an encouraging rejection, met us at AWP, liked a story from a previous issue—definitely say so, but again, don’t spend a ton of time on this: two or three sentences will do it.

That’s really it. If you’ve never been published before? Say so. “If accepted, this would be my first published story.” All literary magazines love being the one to publish a writer for the first time, so acknowledging this possibility can only help.

A professional cover letter is all we ask, and even minus that, if the work is excellent, we don’t really care. We want to publish the best work we read, regardless of whether or not you’re an emerging writer or an established one. So: Our guidelines are here—fire when ready! We’ll be here, reading and reading and reading.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Rabbit Season or Duck Season: A Guide to Submissions

September 1st is the loose opening day for submissions in the literary magazine world. Some magazines open on August 1st or even October 1st. Others go for the middle, opening on August 15th or September 15th. And some magazines, like, say, this one, are open all year long. But for the most part, with the universities back in session, September 1st is thought of as the time to start getting your submissions ready to send out into the world.

All of the staff members of The Missouri Review are writers, too, so we’re constantly on both sides of the submission process: we send work out, we take work in. Because of this, here are a couple of real quick Dos and Don’ts (“There is no try” – Yoda) in regards to your submissions.

DO read the guidelines. Ours are right here. For the most part, it’s all the same from magazine to magazine—a manuscript free of coffee cup stains or donut crumbs, contact information so we can say “We want to publish this!”, etc.—but every magazine has its own peccadilloes and quirks when it comes to a submission.

DO send us your best work. Feverishly writing the first draft of your magnum opus late into the wee small hours is good. Firing that sucker off to us the next day probably isn’t. All good work needs a little refinement, a little marination. Be patient with your work.

DO NOT send inappropriate work. By that, I do not mean pornography. I mean work that fits TMR’s aesthetic. Andre Dubus, in an essay about writing and publishing, wrote that often he would write a particular scene into a story and think to himself “Well, there goes the New Yorker!” He was familiar with the work they published and knew, particularly many decades ago, that certain things would not get printed in their pages. He read the magazine. With that …

DO read a copy of The Missouri Review. Every literary magazine says this, of course: always read a sample copy before submitting. And, yes, you can get our current issue here. It’s particularly important for us because we’ve had the same senior staff here for almost twenty years, and Speer has been here from the beginning. Unlike a magazine run by a graduate program, where the staff turns over completely every year, we’ve been here the whole time. A sample copy helps you.

DO consider online submissions. There are lots of good reasons to submit online, but most important is that it is so much easier to keep track of your work. Postal submissions, unfortunately, do get lost sometimes. Online submissions don’t. You don’t have to, of course: we accept paper submissions, too. In which case …

DO NOT forget a SASE. We’re not gonna track you down if you don’t include a SASE with your paper submission. We have a great big box on top of a filing cabinet in our mailing room that says NO SASE. It’s like a well for lost souls only … well, it’s just a box of battered envelopes. But you get the idea. Include a SASE!

DO be patient. Our response time is six to eight weeks, which in the lit mag biz, is pretty quick. We have four issues to fill, so we’re reading all the time. If that isn’t fast enough for you, or you want to know how fast other magazines are responding, use Duotrope to check out stats independently reported by other writers.

DO see what else we have to offer. Our website was revamped last summer—why not check out our blog (of course, you’re here now, but, you know what I mean), our podcasts, our Poem of the Week, stories like this one by Amy Hempel or this one by Russell Banks or this essay by Cheryl Strayed, our Facebook page, our Twitter feed. If you’re in the Columbia area, you’ll find us at readings at Tate Hall, Get Lost Bookshop, and Orr Street Studios. Come say “Yo!”

DO NOT hesitate to contact us. Maybe this quick and dirty guide hasn’t answered your questions. This page has all the answers, and if not, down at the bottom is an email address to contact us. We’re always happy to help.

DO keep writing. I mean, what could be more important, right?

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Why Literary Journals Charge Online Submission Fees

Why does The Missouri Review charge $3.00 to receive online submissions? This practice is becoming more common among print journals that accept online submissions, including  Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, American Short Fiction, Southwest Review, just to name a few. TMR has had an online submission fee in place for many years, but the latest Poets & Writers (Nov/Dec) has just been released, and there are several articles on literary magazines, small presses, and what we’re doing to build community. Included in this issue is Laura Maylene Walter’s essay “Price of Submission” about why literary magazines charge for online submissions. It’s a good article – go read it! But there are a couple additional thoughts we’d like to add, some specific to TMR and some broader about our literary community.

One of the things worth recognizing is that the cost of submitting to a magazine is a fixed prospective cost: a cost that will be incurred and cannot be recovered. Submissions have never really been free. It’s simply that the cost (paper, envelopes, postage, etc.) has been paid to the post office, not the magazine. And I’m not saying that it necessarily should have. Freed up from (some) of the costs of submitting to literary magazines, has there been an increase in subscriptions? Has there been an increase in financial support of literary journals from writers?

No. Not at all.

Because of this, supporters of online submission fees, like me, tend to take a more realistic and business-centric approach: there is a revenue stream that we need to capture. It is, however, a pretty small revenue stream; we earn significantly more through subscriptions. There isn’t a print literary magazine that can be sustainable—even in the most basic sense of covering its printing and mailing costs (let alone paying its staff)—solely through online submission fees. Opponents of submission fees feel that it’s a tremendous burden on writers, who are overwhelming described as poor, noble, honorable (and so forth)(and, yes, I’m a writer, too), and that the practice is unethical and unlike any other business model. Further, opponents believe that it is an easy system to rig – solicit work from writers that the editors know, then charge writers we don’t know to submit – and that because of a greater need for transparency in our community, we shouldn’t do this.

Fair enough. I’m a big believer in transparency. So. Here’s what editors ask fellow editors when discussing charging online submission fees: Will this mean I get fewer submissions? Editors don’t even look at as a revenue stream. Editors look at it as a way of slowing down submissions.

In fact, submissions increase significantly. This varies from magazine to magazine, but the increase in submissions is somewhere between twenty to thirty-five percent.

Maybe editors are looking at this all wrong. Maybe writers have done the mental math that I’ve done above and said You know what, I support literary journals when I submit online and pay a submission fee so I don’t need to subscribe to journals if I spend $60 a year on submissions. Now, that would be really rational, so the thought appeals to me (I’m Mr. Roboto like that) but it would make sense.

Why, then, don’t we avoid the dreaded “slush pile” and just solicit work from writers we know? Good question. And it really gets to the heart of why literary magazines exist and why writers want to publish in them. It is all about discovering a new voice from a new writer. It’s about finding that one really amazing story or poem from a writer we have never heard of before, and then delivering that writer’s work to a larger audience. We can’t do that if we solicit work because, of course, we don’t know who that new voice is. That’s what we – and I mean all literary journals, not just TMR – are most proud of. Literary magazines are all about discovery. The response to online submission fees is that we receive more work to read and consider, but also more possibilities of finding a new, unpublished writer.

So, then: are writers doing the calculations of going to the post office and deciding online submissions are fine? Is it just way too easy to click a button? Do writers view paying online submission fees as “supporting” the journal, adding to our revenue stream, and therefore, they don’t need to subscribe to us? I don’t know. What I do know is that as a magazine editor, the initial idea of online submission fees was not to increase revenue but to decrease submissions. That hasn’t happened, and since submissions have increased, it is reasonable to conclude that writers clearly have no problem with submitting work to us this way.

It is also important to recognize that TMR continues to accept paper submissions. If a writer does not believe online submissions are ethical or fair, then he/she can mail work to us. We continue to, and will continue to, receive paper submissions. I think it’s crucial that we leave that option open.

So, yes, TMR charges for online submission fees. No writer has to pay this fee if he or she chooses not to. What’s important about is two-fold: 1. To be fully transparent with our audience and 2. Remain open to new ideas as to how to strengthen our magazine, which includes our relationship with our audience and the biz-side of publishing TMR. Through a slightly different lens – communicating with an unseen readership, and being open to trying new things – writers are working on the same problems. It’s the same struggle for all of us—how do I create something true and authentic while also bringing it to the widest audience possible?

When you’re ready, send us your work, online or hard copy. Either one works for us. We want to read it. We want lots of submissions. It’s what all of us are here to do: read, discover, then, finally, publish.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye