Some Thoughts on Small Press Publications

Apparently there was a purse, an open water bottle, and a freshly-line-edited manuscript over at Doubleday. This is what happens when the three meet.

I have to say, I’m impressed with the dedication of those folks who apparently spread the entire manuscript out, page by page, to dry in their offices a few days ago. I’m impressed and heartened. It’s nice to know that big house publishers take such care of the work that writers send them (the purse & water bottle mishap aside). And little moments like this remind me of the care I’ve witnessed first-hand in working for several journals and magazines – those with very little resources and certainly offices not large enough to spread out an entire manuscript.

Many writers have the idea that editorial staffs at journals sit around making fun of submissions or intentionally waiting six months to reply to a submission just because they can. Believe it or not, I hear these sorts of gripes all the time. Even more disconcerting are the writers who tell me that they submitted their work and were rejected and have, as a result, stopped submitting altogether. Or worse: stopped writing.  But those writers, it seems clear to me, have never worked for a magazine. And it’s not their fault that they have this impression. The experience of submitting to a literary magazine generally looks something like this:

Spend weeks, months, years on a collection of poems or a short story or essay; Gather the nerve to submit that work to a literary journal; Wait four months (or a year, depending on the journal); Receive a pre-printed slip in an envelope you had to provide (along with postage) that reads something like this: Thank you for submitting your work to Magazine X. We are sorry that we cannot accept it at this time.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the rejection slip will ask for you to submit again – at some point in the future.

This can make literary magazines seem cold and uncaring. As someone who has worked on the staffs of five different small press publications, I thought maybe it would be useful to list some insights I’ve gained. Here they are:

  • Every magazine, journal and online publication I have worked for has been staffed exclusively by writers.
  • Because the staff is made up of writers, every one of them knows what it feels like to submit work and to be rejected.
  • Virtually all of these writers are volunteers.
  • It is not uncommon to receive 1,000 submissions every month.
  • Every submission is read by at least two people, sometimes by the entire staff.
  • Submissions are rejected for a plethora of reasons – none of them are personal.
  • No one I have ever worked with has gained any pleasure in rejecting another writer’s submission.
  • Everyone I have ever worked with has, at one time or another, argued vehemently for the inclusion of a piece they believe the magazine should publish.

Ultimately, it all boils down to this: literary magazines are on our side. In fact, our side is their side too. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a group of strangers so committed to your work and so dedicated to taking it seriously. Except for maybe your mom. So, the next time you get a pre-printed and short rejection slip in the mail, know that someone on that staff wishes he or she had the time to write to you personally, to give you some small bit of encouragement. Know that a group of people took the time to read your work, to discuss your work, and labored over the decision to accept or reject your work. And for the love of God, don’t let a rejection stop you from writing and submitting. Every writer I know has ten rejection slips for every publication on the books.

If you want to help out, why not subscribe to a magazine or two (most print publications are walking the line of bankruptcy), or volunteer your time to help out in some way (have you ever tried reading 1,000 poems, short stories and essays every month?) After all, without small press publications, many of us would never see our work in print anywhere.

And that, friendly readers, is my two cents.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Small Press Publications

  1. Lovely and *not* preachy 🙂
    I’ve worked on a couple University magazines, & I can say the same for them. I fought tooth & nail for a story for the YR. And I won! Yay! I still revel in being able to flip open the magazine & read it.
    AND, living with someone who submits constantly & having submitted my poetry in the past, I believe that thick, non-sensitive skin is in order. Just bounce those rejections right off of it.

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