How to Submit Work for Publication
Author: David Ebenbach
How often do you submit work? How do you know when and if a piece is at a stage where it can be submitted?
My goal is to submit 365 pieces a year, and most years I exceed that number. And the bottom line is that there’s a really strong correlation between how many pieces I submit and how many acceptances I get. It’s obvious, but it’s easy to forget: you’ve got to send stuff out to get stuff in print (or online). Magazine editors are not going to break into your house to try to get a hold of some of your writing.
The “How do you know you’re done” question is a harder one. I mean, there’s always more you could do—but you have to let go at some point. Sometimes you can pass that decision off partly to other people—you can call it done when good readers have no more complaints about it. Another way is to work on the piece until an inarticulate feeling in your gut tells you that you’ve accomplished the thing that you set out to accomplish in that piece. For me, something just feels off if it’s not right, and that fades when I get closer to right. But I know I have my blindnesses, so I do bring in outside readers a bunch—people I really trust. You’ve got to be able to hear good advice, and you’ve got to be able to rely on yourself as well.
What advice would you give to writers who are submitting for the first time?
I think the crucial thing is to expect rejection. Everyone gets rejections, and usually a good deal more rejections than acceptances. An example: one story of mine was rejected sixty-one times—sixty-one times!—and then won a prize from a literary magazine and became the title story in a collection of my stories, a collection that won two prizes. What would have happened if I’d given up after five rejections, or twenty-five, or even fifty? Well, rejections, schmejections; I never give up.
It helps if you understand that rejection means almost nothing. It doesn’t, for example, mean your piece is bad, or that it’ll never get published. The only thing it does mean is that you need to send the piece out again. That’s the only thing it means. Even knowing that, rejection can still hurt—but I’m convinced that the writer who’s going to survive is the one who’s able to weather the rejections.
How many journals do you submit to at a time? What do you think of simultaneous submissions?
I think simultaneous submissions are the unavoidable result of a bad situation. I don’t know who started it—writers or editors—but you now have a situation where some editors respond very slowly, probably partly because simultaneous submissions leave them overwhelmed with submissions; and where writers simultaneously submit, mainly because editors can be so slow. I had one experience where an editor accepted a story of mine eighteen months after I submitted it to them. In fact, their acceptance came thirteen months after I withdrew it from them (it had been accepted by a different magazine). Apparently the withdrawal hadn’t registered, because by the time I got this eighteen-months-later-acceptance, the story had been in print for seven months already. And what if that much-delayed letter had been a rejection, and I’d been sitting around waiting to hear from them before approaching someone else? So you have to simultaneously submit. If you wait for editors—who do often use those many months to come to the answer of NO on your piece—you could be waiting years before you’re in print. I do try to make sure that any one piece is out at no more than five places at a time, so I don’t have to notify a thousand editors when I need to withdraw a piece accepted elsewhere.
How do you decide what journals to submit to? What are some journals you like that might be good for writers who are sending their first submissions?
Part of my strategy is planned out; I keep track of the journals that place pieces in the annual “best of” anthologies (e.g., Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology), and I target them. And part of it is more whimsical; sometimes I come across a journal I hadn’t heard of when, say, a friend is published there, or when I bump into it on the web, and I fall in love. But my main principle as a beginner was to send to as many places as possible. And there’s nothing wrong with sending stuff to the New Yorker and the other glossies right off the bat, as long as you’re willing to keep going no matter how many rejections you get. The key, again, is to send all over the place rather than count on any one place. And you find magazines by hunting them down and reading them, by seeing which places publish stuff you like and that feels open to the kind of work you do. There isn’t any one magazine that’s ideal for all beginners.
What steps do you take once a piece is accepted?
Sometimes there’s a contract to sign, and often the piece needs to be withdrawn from any other places that are considering it. After that, editors will do a layout of the work and may send it to you for a final check and approval. And then it comes out in print (or online), and sometimes I’ll sit down with my wife and read it to her (even though she’s probably already heard it) as a kind of celebration. That’s about it. The publication process, from acceptance to publication, tends to be a nice one.
As someone who’s published in multiple genres, is it tougher to get work published in one genre than in another?
It does seem like there are more venues for poetry overall, and the process for submitting poetry makes it a little easier, too; the expectation is that you’ll submit one story or essay at a time, but poems are submitted in multiples (usually 3-6). That turns a poetry submission into more of a grab bag, and makes it easier for editors to find at least one poem they like. I hadn’t thought about it before you asked this question, but in six out of the last seven years I’ve had more poems accepted than stories.
Do you think publishing should be a priority for young writers, and if so, why?
I think that’s a very individual choice. There are plenty of reasons one might want to get published, some of them helpful reasons and some of them not. Among the helpful reasons, a writer might want to share her/his work with others, might want to be part of the literary conversation going on in magazines, might want to build up a record of publication to help with school or job applications. What I think isn’t productive is using publication as a measure of one’s worth or talent level, because the process is so unpredictable and capricious; and I don’t think one should use publication as a boost to one’s self-esteem or a substitution for love or a happy childhood. It would be like using nachos as a substitution for those things. Nachos are good, but they’re good because they’re nachos, not because they prove that you’re a wonderful, worthwhile person. That’s got to come from somewhere else.