Portal del Sol

Author Salon, Fiction, Novels, Editors, Books & More

Future Tense

Online Submission Systems

by Ben Pfeiffer

Not long ago, when I had finished a short story, I copied the manuscript between ten and twenty times. I collated the copies by hand. When I had finished, I typed a letter for each photocopy, addressing them to the appropriate editors. I found letterhead to print my queries on. I hand-addressed the nine-by-twelve envelopes. And when I had finished applying the stamps, and had dropped the packets in the outgoing mail, I started a new story, and waited for the rejection slips.

This may sound organized—and perhaps I was more systematic than some—but in truth this sort of dedication was rare. I dreaded sending off stories for submission. My parents also told frightening stories of typewriters and white-out and carbon-copies. Today, the submission process for writers is far less arduous, but far less personal, too. I can write a brief note, attach my short story to an online system, and wait for an email: No need to lick stamps, no need to drive to the mailbox. My programs of choice are Submishmash and Duotrope, but many more exist, including Writers’ Market, Pubmission, and custom-coded PHP forms (such as the one utilized by The New Yorker; don’t act like you haven’t sent them something).

Online submissions systems exemplify our changing literary culture. As with the advent of desktop publishing software, these systems contribute to the democratization of literature. Start-up journals no longer need post-office boxes to accept submissions—now, using computer programs such as those developed by Submishmash or by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), editors are one step closer to completely consolidating their operations. They now have access to an unbroken pipeline, from submissions to manufacture to postproduction. In other words, to start a literary journal, a serious, hardcopy magazine, you don’t need much office space, supplies, or staff. You only need some cash, but not much—and a laptop computer.

This democratization of technology has led to many pop-up journals in the past decade, especially online projects that die off within six months, but the business of editing and publishing a literary journal remains incredibly time-consuming. Most of the time disappears while handling submissions: manuscripts must be sorted, assigned, considered, debated, rejected, accepted, edited, typeset, proofed, and printed. I serve as the managing editor at Beecher’s Magazine; the first month we called for submissions, we received seventy manuscripts, and more arrive each day. We manage the influx with Submishmash, but the system only gives us flexibility, and does not excuse our team from the work of examining each submission. Luckily, we have many options. As Michael FitzGerald, co-founder and CEO of Submishmash, says: “Work via Submishmash doesn’t have to be read on a computer. All files are converted into PDFs. Submissions can also be printed out. Editors can read submissions on any device or form factor, for example we have an iPad version. And files can easily be ported to a Kindle or any e-Reader.”

Nonetheless, Submishmash (and any program similar to it) does contribute to our society’s slow divorce from the printed page. Despite the system’s versatility, I have not read one submission by printing it hard-copy, and I do not know anyone else who has. To do so would seem wasteful, hypocritical—wasn’t the whole reasoning behind this institutional choice to save paper, or to protect the environment? Within a few pages it becomes clear which submission will be a no, yes, or maybe; there’s no need to draw out the process. This begs the question: Why would a journal refuse to accept online submissions? For example, The Paris Review only accepts printed submissions as of this column’s publication. Here we enter the realm of pure speculation. One reason, maybe, is that sending off a printed story, as detailed in the first paragraph, precludes “the literary equivalent of spam,” as the fiction editor of Beecher’s Magazine put it. The cost of postage, the time it takes to print, the delicacy with which a writer must handle the manuscript—don’t bend the corners, don’t smudge the ink, and for God’s sake don’t set your coffee cup on it—automatically excludes careless, unprofessional writers. Of course, it must be said, the reason might be simpler: Maybe the editors at The Paris Review just prefer to read things on paper.

Maintaining a literary journal will doubtless continue to seem easier than it is in practice—you still need someone who can work that laptop computer, after all, who can manage Submishmash and Adobe InDesign, a person who has the time to read submissions, or to organize volunteers to read submissions—but, in the meantime, online submissions are here to stay. For editors, they complete the pipeline, closing the circle from manuscript to finished product; and they are also part of our society’s shift from the printed page to the electronic screen. When you consider their proliferation, then, they seem inevitable, a product of our times. Many forces have contributed to their rise, and detailing them all, untangling the threads, would take too much time, and too many words for a short column such as this (for example, we barely touched on their relationship to other cultural movements, such as the environmental awakening of the early twenty-first century). As the world continues toward a technocentric future, bringing American culture along for the ride, and as writing and writers struggle to find their way in that future, online submissions systems seem a good example of how old concepts—the slush pile—and new technologies—the computer database—can come together to benefit both writers and editors.

Ben Pfeiffer is the managing editor and cofounder of Beecher’s Magazine. He currently teaches at the University of Kansas, where he is an MFA Candidate in Fiction. For more information on his projects, future events, and forthcoming writing, visit his website, WritingInTheWild.org.

Comments are closed.