Last week, I sat down with my handy Excel spreadsheet and looked at the poems I have out for submission at literary journals. One’s been out for three months, another for six, a third for eight. As I scrolled up my spreadsheet, I saw my old friend, the group of five poems that’s been out for seven years. That’s right–seven years. I’m reasonably sure that I’m not getting a response on that set of poems, but I like to keep the record of that submission in my spreadsheet as a reminder to myself that, as an editor, I’ll never keep anybody waiting that long if I can help it.
Good editors are careful to make sure that every submission is handled as quickly, professionally, and thoroughly as possible, but even so, responses don’t always come back to us as swiftly as we’d like. What takes editors so long?
First, let’s talk about reasons that some submissions might turn out like my seven-year slog.
- The US Postal Service is Not Your Friend
Today, most journals have adopted an electronic submission system of one form or another, yet some journals still–remarkably–want everything to come to them on paper. Snail mail may be quaint, but it is notoriously unreliable. In editorial posts past, I’ve had envelopes come to me soaking wet, mutilated as though by a feral animal, or otherwise damaged beyond identification. And those were the submissions that weren’t even lost! If you’ve not heard back from an editor within a reasonable period on a postal submission, your work may well have fallen into the bowels of your local post office. Luckily for you (and us), TLR’s electronic submissions system obviates what I call “the postal problem.”
- S-T (Staff Turnover) Happens
When you submit to journals run by students in creative writing programs, your work is read by any number of eager young staffers and interns, most of whom are lovely and professional. But as with any enterprise that sees a great deal of turnover, sometimes important things fall through the cracks. I’ve even heard an apocryphal tale of a jaded intern’s having stuffed a large box of unopened mail in a closet before leaving her job at a journal. (I sincerely hope the story isn’t true, but I fear it might be.) Submitting work to journals with small staffs, in which work is read only by the editors (as it is at–you guessed it–TLR) is one way to avoid the turnover debacle altogether.
- Lightning–Or Something Like It–Strikes
A colleague of mine once received an editor’s letter in the mail telling her that her submission had accidentally caught on fire. Would she mind sending her work again? I can’t imagine what an editor was doing that would kindle flame to a submission, short of strapping a SASE a grounding rod in an electrical storm, but apparently, at some journals, anything can happen. I give this editor a little credit for at least tracking the submitter down and offering a reason for the long delay, but I feel it’s in writers’ best interests to move on from journals that can’t guarantee non-combustibility of submissions. If you’ve been treated unprofessionally or bizarrely at one venue, move on to a venue that you know will treat you like a writer, not an arson investigator.
So, what can you do about a slow-to-respond journal, assuming your submission hasn’t caught fire or been found languishing in a storage closet? If your submission has been out for longer than the journal’s stated average response period, it’s entirely within your rights as a submitter to inquire about how your work is coming along. Some journals may wait until the submission period closes to accept or reject any work, while others may hold your submission for months at a time while making final decisions about the aesthetic direction of the issue; most editors, regardless of their internal practices, will respond to polite inquiries by giving you a good indication of whether your work is still under consideration.
Here at TLR, we try to give submitters our decisions as soon as we’ve made them. We may know that one piece isn’t for us just a few weeks in, or we may take a month or more to decide that another piece is a definite fit for our volume. Either way, we try never to leave you in the lurch, and we feel confident in promising that we’ll never set fire to your submissions.