TRACHODON publisher and editor John Carr Walker writes from his home in Saint Helens, Oregon. His latest short stories can be read online at Small Doggies and Pine Grove Literary Review.
The best advice I’ve ever heard about submissions came from fiction writer Todd James Pierce: Be honest about where you are in your development as a writer, and about the work you’re producing now, and submit to publications that are in a similar place in their development.
The idea that a publication develops over time much the same way a writer does—by becoming more selective, by raising her own standards, by working harder, and with experience and practice, getting better—is rather obvious once one thinks about it. New publications, like new writers, have to struggle for readership. Both have to prove themselves to the veterans in the field, and to some extent rely on the endorsement of more firmly established voices. Both have a lot of learning to do. And both are looking to celebrate the small things, because for writers and journals, it’s a tough road to success.
All that said, relatively few new writers recognize the opportunities developing journals can provide them. And by the same token, too many new editors are too focused on publishing the day’s literary stars at the expense of promoting the lesser-known writers appearing in their pages. My aim here is to identify the problem, as I see it, and offer a different, cooperative strategy which writers and editors can employ with mutual success.
The mistake, for the writer, boils down to what I’ve called elsewhere on this blog as the “CV Curator” syndrome. The writer is looking to build a career in one of two ways: by securing that lightning strike, lottery jackpot publication in The Georgia Review, for example; or, barring that, building a literary profile by sheer numbers, submitting to every online quarterly, one-off themed anthology, and university sponsored biannual that calls for submissions in the classified section of Poets & Writers, regardless of whether or not the writer knows anything about the publication beyond what’s mentioned in the ad. In this case, the writer’s base assumptions are both naïve and selfish. It takes as fact that publications exist only for the benefit of the writers who appear in their pages, and more significantly, that the editors responsible for overseeing the publication are the equivalent of bee drones—emasculated, impotent, without ego or desire of their own.
This, of course, is never the case. This writer’s attitude will inevitably be communicated to the editors, who, in addition to preparing the work for publication, are also responsible for promoting the journal, placing it in bookstore shelves, organizing readings, and on the list goes. Unlikely our CV Curator Writer will be in the good graces of the editors who might have otherwise offered an opportunity.
Editors of young journals make a nearly parallel mistake from the other side of the desk, when chasing down work by established, even famous, writers. (This isn’t to say an editor should never do this, but too often, the work the well-known writer offers the new journal is either sub-par or a reprint.) The real error in practice, however, comes in the secondary result of publishing that story by The Star: all the other writers get second-billing, even though the work itself is as good, if not better. The assumption the editor makes is one of celebrity-based marketing. He believes that a famous name will earn the journal a readership, selling copies or garnering hits on the website.
This is most often untrue, and to boot, is perhaps rather lazy on the editor’s part, because only selling the journal will earn a readership. It’s hard, mostly unpleasant work for which many new editors have little or no training. The marketing aspects are learned mostly through trial and error, and lots of dull reading, and if the editor is too focused on leveraging a big name, the most important lessons are never learned.
For the writer and editor I describe, the publication and the submitters/contributors are essentially mismatched. Coming back to Pierce’s wise advice, the situation here presents a gap in development between the two, creating dissonance, and missing an opportunity for one party to help the other.
Both Associate Editor Katey Schultz and I have been honored with publications supported by Press 53, including Prime Number Magazine. Editor Clifford Garstang and company do an extra something that’s both a lot of fun and very smart: each work, by every author, is followed by a short interview. The questions are light, meant to solicit entertaining responses more than pierce the hide of a writer’s creative process. Now, when a new issue of Prime Number is published, I look forward not only to reading the stories, poems, and essays, but gaining a little insight into the lives and minds of fellow writers who, typically, are “emerging”—a rather euphemistic phrase for “still working on her book, but it’ll get there.”
This gesture, small as it might be, has cemented for me a sense of community around Prime Number. If other readers react as I have, and visit the website early and often when a new issue goes live, it’s a community that is benefitting both writers and journal equally.
Since the formalizing of Cheek Teeth as a blogger-based webzine in January 2011, preceding by a few months the publication of TRACHODON 2, we’ve been able to feature every contributor to be published in the magazine, except one, in a “short and sweet” interview. And more often than not, the interviewer is a past contributor, asking questions of a more recent contributor. Featuring our writers in this way makes the oft-cited “literary community” a reality for me. The writer is honored as a professional, a craftsperson, an artist worthy of attention. They get the chance to offer insights into their lives and processes that not many emerging writers get a chance to show, which, I hope, serves as encouragement to keep on writing. And it’s great marketing for TRACHODON. Our print sales and e-book downloads typically spike once these interviews go live on Cheek Teeth. Our emerging writers have emerged a little further into the light, the journal is in the hands and heads of a few more folks, and both parties have earned a little wider readership.
It’s easy to recognize the spirit of cooperation when speaking of contributor interviews, but here’s the leap: the publication of the story or essay itself, which began with a writer submitting to us, continuing through processes of acceptance and proofreading and design, is also an act of cooperation between writer and editor. A give and take. A two-way street. A mutually beneficial enterprise. A partnership that ought to be honored by both parties as such. And one that works best when both editor and writer keep in mind Pierce’s essential advice.
I’m not suggesting that emerging writers ought to stop submitting to the giants of literary journals—The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Paris Review, to name just a few—because, every now and then, breakthroughs happen. However, even if your breakthrough happens in such a publication, it will be more to your benefit than theirs, at least in the short term. More than likely, the issue featuring your work will appear and then...nothing happens. To writers, I’m saying: be smarter about your submissions. Get to know the publications first, and think about them not as notches on your CV, or as stair-steps toward literary stardom, but as a community you’re applying for admission to. As you gain experience, as your writing improves, finds new depths of craft and insight, the communities you belong to will grow in number and prestige, but like everything else, it’s a process. Be patient. Be smart. Be good.
I would encourage editors to make their publications true communities. Because editors love the word “community!” It’s so...welcoming, and anti-commercial, and, well, communal. Yet, only a few journals publishing today are inviting all, or even most, their writers into cooperative roles. Find creative ways to involve contributors, present and past. Find incentives for those writers to help promote the publication, and to stay involved in the months and years after their own work appears.
The real benefit of this, I think, comes down the road. The writer will be able to say “My first story was published in the second issue of The Such and Such Review when no one had heard of them.” And The Such and Such Review will be able to claim that they published The Emerging Writer before anyone else recognized she was a genius. Probably no one will get rich. No one gets very famous writing and publishing literature. But starting small and eking out success makes for a good story, and really, isn’t that point?