Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Words Cast Upon the Water: the Trouble With Simultaneous Submissions

(Original article previously published in Magnapoets, Issue 2, July 2008,
minor updates/changes have been added to reflect recent events.)
One morning as I opened my email, I noticed one marked "regarding submissions from 1/12/08," from a poet whose name I will not reveal. He notified me that one of his poems had been accepted elsewhere for publication, stated I that had his permission to publish the others, and hoped, if I liked his work, I would re-publish it and the other poems in an upcoming issue. After re-reading his submission, I congratulated him and told him, "No thank you."
For the record, I applaud the poet's honesty in admitting that his work had been simultaneously submitted (he stated so in his first email). However, this poet's work, while technically sound, did not resonate with me, which is, ultimately, why I turned him down.
As a writer/ editor, I find myself walking a precarious tightrope on the subject of simultaneous submissions. In publishing, this is a conundrum that has plagued me for years. Within this essay, I will explore the matter based on my own and other others experiences to shed some much needed light on the matter: why poets/writers brazenly - or not so - simultaneously submit work to the "quickest" bidder.
According to an article I discovered in the online magazine Ink and Blood, Norman Mailer was the first to pioneer simultaneous submissions, utilizing the natural frustration and subversion that go hand in hand with a writer's persona to send out manuscripts en masse to publishers. If I ever had the chance to meet Mailer (alas, he's since shuffled off this mortal coil), I'm not sure if I would've shaken his hand, or kicked his ass, in that order. (Note: with manuscripts, simultaneous submissions are another story for another time).
I'm not a prolific writer, though many people would disagree with me. In my opinion, it's vital to me that my work is read by as many people as possible. Yet, I want the "life" of my prose and poetry to last. This means, in accordance with my literary ethics, to refrain from sending the out same five poems to ten different literary journals, which, according to aspiring novelist and Subtle Tea editor David Herrle, is "like a guy 'poking' several women to raise the chance of impregnation."
As the editor of poeticdiversity: the litzine of Los Angeles, I no longer accept simultaneous submissions, In doing so, I find that many poets/writers choose to believe I'm being disingenuous when the rules of my publication clearly state:
7) Previously published work will be considered for publication, but with the following caveat; please cite where the work was published for the former, and contact us if your submission was accepted elsewhere for the latter. This will not bar submissions from getting published in poeticdiversity, it's just that every publication has its own rules and we don't want to step on anyone's toes. Simultaneous submissions will not be considered. And yes, we do check!
More often than not, these same submitters assuage their conscious with the fleeting validity of publication rather than risk the opportunity to be honest in return. Before I made my decision to stop accepting simultaneous submissions, I would do the following: perform a Google search to determine if the work had appeared elsewhere. If the work had already been published, I would request a publication date and name. Nine times out of ten, my request is ignored.
Because of this, I routinely reject work of those who are less than forthcoming. It’s not in my best interest, nor in my nature to represent the work of liars, the notable exception being, in quite a few cases, the poet/writer in question who accidentally omits the mention of previous publication. This is an honest mistake, and one that I made on occasion. Poets/writers who generate a body of work that spans a few years can easily fall prey to forgetfulness, as poet and Magnapoets executive editor Aurora Antonovic states, with unforeseen consequences:
"While there are honest mistakes (sometimes poets forget to where they've submitted what, or editors reject a poem only later to publish it, and the unsuspecting poet has already sent it off elsewhere), anyone who knowingly does this is engaging in unethical behavior. If poets (or anyone for that matter) want to be taken more seriously, they have to begin by behaving responsibly.
I've never knowingly simultaneously submitted somewhere, but I have made mistakes with records or an editor has made mistakes. Human error is one thing, but deliberate misleading of submissions records is serious enough, in my book, that repeat offenders ought to be no longer considered for publication. After all, no serious publication wants to get into copyright trouble."
I have yet to hear of a small press publication/literary journal suing another for violating the "exclusive" or more specific (though it reeks of nationalism), "first time North American serial rights" rule, and Antonovic raises an excellent point: The frustration writers and poets are exposed to, caused by editors who are not timely or courteous enough with responses, which compels them to simultaneously submit. Time lags have inspired Richard Beban, ex-pat, poet, and author of What the Heart Weighs (Red Hen Press 2004) and Young Girl Eating A Bird (2006 Red Hen Press), to take a hard line with journals, and to seek alternate and more selective means of publication:
"Since I began work as a poet in 1994, I don't bother sending to any publication that wants:
            2.) simultaneously claims a response time of six months or beyond.
I think six weeks is reasonable, no matter how "understaffed" a publication claims to be. Part of staffing should include the commitment to give writers enough respect that you don't hold their work for inordinate amounts of time. Writers like to see their work in print, yes, and particularly within their lifetimes. I also query about the work after six weeks, unless the specified response time is longer.  I even bug The New Yorker, which apparently has NO specified response time, judging from the black hole my poems go into when I send there.  I give them (the publication) three months in any case, and then gleefully simultaneously submit elsewhere."
Not everyone is as organized or as adamant as Beban. In my opinion, his approach is straightforward, and somewhat fair - because he has clearly established guidelines. Many newer poets/writers, legitimately bound by time constraints, don't have the time to research ALL the publications that they wish to submit work to, as one anonymous writer/editor/poet shared with me:
"I do send out to about five different publications at a time when I submit sets of poems. I do that with publications who say they accept simultaneous submissions, because they agree to take that risk. And writers take risks; too, when we send work out to journals because it's more likely than not that we're rejected. Of course, odds of acceptance depend a lot on the match between quality of work and quality of publication, but if we only submitted serially we'd be hard-pressed to have any kind of publication credits at the end of the year. At the end of the day, getting published is either important to you, or it's not. And if it is, you want to be smart about it and increase your odds by increasing your submission sights.
Groups like Writer's Relief make their living getting people published by doing that very thing: targeting about 30 publications with a single set of poems from an author. I know a handful of poets who use that service, and it does seem to work for the writer. I'm sure it's hard on editors when work is pulled at the last minute which is why a lot of them don't accept simultaneous submissions."
While the writer quoted above is acting responsibly by employing an intermediary like a writing/publishing resource to act on his/her behalf, there are many more poets/writers who are not, either because they are new to the submission process, and become overwhelmed by the plethora of submission rules, or because they experience frustration caused by the increasingly iconoclast rule of "exclusive rights," which has caused a potential pandemic of dishonesty between poets/writers and editors. As the rift widens, not only does the relationship between the poet/writer and the editor disintegrate, but the standard of a publication can become compromised, as John Amen, poet and editor of The Pedestal Magazine, maintains:
"Pedestal does ask for firsttime rights; i.e., we don't (re)publish previously published material; we do accept simultaneous submissions and ask that folks let us know if/when work is accepted elsewhere. This policy doesn't seem to be creating too many problems, although we've had a couple of situations that led us to consider changing the policy. Personally, I've never been into simultaneous submitting. I don't know why, it just doesn't appeal to me.
Now, there's another thing that goes on from time to time: someone wanting to publish a particular piece in various publications at the same time. It's not a question of whoever says "yes" first gets the piece; it's that the writer wants everyone/all the editors to publish the piece. As we ask for first rights and don't republish material, this clearly doesn't work for us. But more importantly, I think this practice does a disservice to the literary landscape. It fosters homogeneity and compromises the uniqueness of a particular publication."
I'm in accordance with Amen - and - I firmly believe that homogenizing one's art is the ultimate form of self-sabotage. I base my opinion on personal experience and a hard-won work ethic. Which is more important: elusive popularity coupled with the fleeting validation I receive every time my name gets into print, or the TRUTH that exists in my words? This is the question I ask myself as a writer when I submit work for consideration of publication, and, as an editor to whom work is submitted to on a weekly basis. I strive to respect myself and others in this capacity, and I believe that honesty is the key to bridging the chasm between poets/writers and editors.
This responsibility rests with the poets/writers. After six years, I have found that it IS possible to build a CV of publication credits without casting out my poetry and prose like the proverbial bread upon the waters. The following guidelines may help:
1) Be clear and careful. Study a publication's guidelines. Follow them to the letter. If a rule is unclear, take the initiative and contact the publisher.
2) As Beban illustrates, construct clearly established parameters regarding submissions. One suggestion: Unless the publication in question takes submissions on a rolling basis, consider your submission to be defunct if you have not heard from the editor by the publication date, and then take it somewhere else. Or, if the publication gives permission to contact them after a specific time, do so. You and your work deserve respect.
3) A writers' resources, like Doutrope, offer over 4,300 venues for publication, along with (daily) updated listings, a submissions tracker, notification of changes to publications (defunct, dead, temporarily closed to submissions). Duotrope is free, though I would encourage those who use it donate money to its upkeep once in awhile.
4) Keep a log of your submissions; dates, titles and email correspondences. Duotrope offers a log,. Many online publications are now using Submittable's Submissions Manager program, or you can create your own in an excel spreadsheet. A lot of confusion and anger can be avoided by getting organized in this fashion.
5) Be patient. Getting published en masse does not guarantee your literary immortality. Turn off the little voice inside your head that urges you to disseminate your work like fish food in a tank full of guppies. Too much food can kill the fish!
6) You all have heard this one, and it bears repeating. Carefully PROOF your work before submitting it anywhere; that stray comma or missing period can make a difference between a "Yes," or, a "No. Thanks for playing."
7) If all else fails, publish your work on Facebook, Twitter, Blogger or Live Journal where the whole world can see it, and where you can be fawned over or condemned to your heart's content.
I fear the day is coming - , no - it may already be here, where instant gratification outweighs the desire for quality literature. Of my own volition, I do my best to stem the tide. I wish each and every one of you "good luck."
(Note: Thank you to all those who answered my questions regarding this matter, which, of course, we all know will not be resolved any time soon.)
© 2012 marie lecrivain

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