As I mentioned when I shared TLR’s thoughts on cover letters earlier this month, I’ve been asking writers what they wish they knew about what goes on in the editorial side of the submissions process. We received a request via Twitter to discuss TLR’s general position on selecting work from the slush pile versus solicitation, and I’m taking today to address that question.
Let me first define my terms: I consider the slush pile to be the open queue of submissions. That which writers send to the journal in response to a general call for work is the slush, whether it comes from established or emerging writers, from writers I know and love or writers I’ve never heard of before. Not part of the slush pile is the category of work is that comes in “over the transom,” or through channels other than open calls for submission. Over-the-transom submissions include work sent to the editor through backchannels, such as via personal email or outside a submission period. (Over-the-transom submissions sometimes appeal to writers because those submissions circumvent the established process, but the very problem with those submissions is that they circumvent the established process. Editors determine procedures to handle submissions to ensure a smooth, timely response to each writer’s story or poem; approaching editors through backchannels can create longer waits or lost submissions as editors try to keep track of various streams of material. It’s for this reason, and for the sake of fairness to all submitters, that TLR does not consider any over-the-transom submissions.)
Solicited work, in contrast to slush, is material that an editor seeks out for publication; that which a editor asks a particular writer for is solicited work. An editor might solicit work generally, saying, “please send me something for this issue,” or specifically, asking a writer to create a piece specifically for the publication. Personally, I think that solicitation can be a positive tool when it’s used to help an audience become aware of work that it might not otherwise have access to. If a journal is trying to represent certain types of content—critical essays on timely social issues, to choose just one example—that don’t typically come through the submission queue, soliciting work from those who write in that vein makes a great deal of sense. Solicitation is also a way in which journals that are trying to do a better job with representing a range of authors can make their pages a more diverse place.
The problem with solicitation is that it can easily become a way for journals to become less diverse and less representative of a range of work. When editors solicit Very Fancy authors simply to stack their tables of contents with notable names in hopes of selling more copies of the journal, there’s less and less space available for new and emerging voices. Also a concern is a potential laziness of curation: when contributing editors who are asked to bring in a range of fresh voices simply fill pages with work by friends, students, or colleagues, the same handful of writers tend to appear over and over across the literary landscape, yet again reducing opportunities for new or under-appreciated writers. Furthermore, when journals charge a fee for general submissions, yet publish mostly solicited material, they place an undue burden on writers who submit via the normal channels.
A heavy reliance on solicitation also keeps writers in the dark about their chances for publication. I recently spoke with an editor of a major literary magazine—one which I’ll refrain from naming here—who told me that his journal publishes next to nothing from the slush pile, but relies almost exclusively on solicitation for content. For this journal, open submissions are merely a way to find writers whom the journal may wish to solicit for future issues, not for publishing any of the submitted work. This is a journal with a response time of up to six months. Personally, I dislike the thought of writers waiting with high hopes for half a year at a time only to receive an inevitable rejection. I’m not calling this journal’s process inherently wrong, but I do think that a bit more transparency about the selection process would result in more goodwill and less discouragement among submitters.
As we began to set forth our vision for TLR, Joe and I decided that, if transparency and fairness were to be our editorial touchstones, we were going to rely on the slush for 100% of our content. We view open submissions as a wonderfully democratic process, and one that allows us to give each writer an equal shot at publication. We’ve been delighted by how many writers whose work we know and admire have responded to our open call for submissions, and we’re also sure that there is great work by writers we’ve not yet encountered that will make us lifelong fans. Call us idealistic, but we believe that fairness works.