litmag etiquette–courtesy is a two way street



I know that litmags demand a certain amount of courtesy from writers who submit work; whether this is courtesy in the form of addressing the editor by name (as opposed to the thoughtless “Dear Editor” or “To Whom It May Concern”) or in the form of standard formatting (Times New Roman, 12 pt font, inch margins, numbered pages, etc.), there is an expected etiquette in the realm of literary submissions.

THAT SAID–I have had my taste of strange (or lack thereof) etiquette in return from litmags lately. Most litmags are not guilty of this, but I still find it odd that the establishment (and yes, it’s an establishment) of litmags won’t return courtesies…

Earlier this year, during the holidays, I got quite a few letters from litmags asking me to donate. I shrugged.

There is one litmag to which I will donate, and that is ZYZZYVA and its editor, Howard Junker. He opened the door to my writing career, and for that I am always indebted, and for that ZYZZYVA will always be first in line (okay, maybe when Haiti has an apocalyptic earthquake, they get my money first). This is all to say that I’m no stranger to donations.

But when a litmag that has rejected me multiple times with curt letters (nay, I wouldn’t even call them “letters”–more like a sentence or two, which technically isn’t even a paragraph), asks me to donate, it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. And before you think I’m anti-litmag, I’ll let you know that I’m the fiction editor at a litmag that runs on a shoestring budget. I’m pro-litmag, and pro-donation-to-litmags.  Writers should read, donate, and subscribe, to literary magazines.

My friend who used to work at one of the litmags that sent out the letters protested when I said the donation queries disgusted me. She defended the litmags saying they need the money, and we should give money without thought to our personal experience with being rejected. True, I told her, true. We *should* give even if we were rejected by the litmag.

But out of *courtesy*, why can’t the litmag figure out a different form letter to send those whose work had been rejected? Just a touch of courtesy might pierce my scarred, cold heart. To that, my friend agreed. That would be a nice touch.

My other pet peeve these days have to do with litmag contests. Specifically, my pet peeve is about litmag contests that don’t bother to notify the losers entrants whose work didn’t win.

I entered two litmag contests months ago recently. I did it on whim–knowing I probably wouldn’t win. In the past, my work has been named a finalist, a couple of times in various contests. (Many, many other times, my work has lost). I’ve noticed in the past that litmag contests sometime fail to notify everyone of the winners, and to notify folks who didn’t win, that they didn’t win. I thought to myself, “Huh. Maybe the letter got lost in the mail.”

But I’m beginning to notice this as a trend. There is no such indication in the contest submission instructions that winners will be announced on a particular website (implying no notification otherwise)–so there’s no way to think you won’t be notified personally.

Zoetrope’s Fiction Contest clearly states that winners are announced on its website, and that’s fine by me. And the venerable Glimmertrain with its multiple contests, always manages to notify its writers (winners, finalists, honorable mentions, and outright rejections alike) in an organized manner.

But when litmags don’t state how entrants will be notified, I assume I’ll be notified either by email or by postal letter note. Both The Missouri Review Editors Prize and The Mississippi Review Prize posted the winning writers on their websites, but didn’t notify entrants.

I’ve gotten used to the 2 inch x 4 inch xeroxed rejection slips sent to me in the postal mail. In fact, I’m so used to it that when I see a handwritten note scrawled on a rejection slip with a six-word-long encouragement, I get quite excited. I’ve gotten used to the one sentence rejection emails. I’ve gotten so used to the rejection form letters that have been xeroxed over and over again so that my copy is barely readable, that I am not offended at all. I understand that there is a balance of power, here, and that as a writer I don’t have much power at all.

I would not be kvetching if etiquette and courtesy weren’t such a priority expectation in the litmag world, but it is something that litmags expect out of writers. Shouldn’t we writers expect the same in return? Even if one sentence long, shouldn’t writers get the courtesy of notification? Even if a different form letter, shouldn’t writers get the courtesy of an acknowledgment that their work has been rejected, but they’re still being queried for a donation?




Filed under Publishing, Writing

9 responses to “litmag etiquette–courtesy is a two way street

  1. It is a bummer to get a request for donations in the same envelope as a rejection. I’d prefer, at least, a request to become a subscriber. It makes more sense.

    I’ve entered the Missouri Review contest several times and always received a notification (that I wasn’t a winner or finalist). In addition I always receive an email announcing the winners.

  2. Yup, same here — no notification (in e-mail or hard copy) from TMR. Can’t say it made me feel particularly interested in donating OR subscribing.

    Good for you for sending your stuff out. I think it’s that non-notification thing that turns me off to doing it more than the rejections. I wish I knew a workaround for that so I could stop making excuses 😛

  3. winter

    I’ve submitted to Missouri Review’s contests and never heard back. I have heard back from them on individual submissions, with one instance of a kind personal response, but I agree, it seems like the least they could do would be to send an email out.

    • Contemporary Troubadour: Weirdness abt the lack of notification. Makes me feel bad about entering, abt the entry fee, and yes, no interest in donating or subscribing to them. Karma. But we’ll keep being polite and courteous and sending that work out–and maybe karma, will reward us for our diligence. 🙂

      winter: i too, have heard back from them on individual submissions, which makes their non-response (an email would suffice, yes!) abt the contest results all the weirder. good luck to you on your writing. 🙂 keep sending your work out!

  4. You know, I’m starting to have mixed feelings on contests. On one hand, if the contest fee also gives me a subscription to the journal, I feel like that’s a no-brainer (not to mention, very clever on the part of the journal to increase subscriptions). But on the other hand, some of these contests are charging 20-25 bucks a pop + it seems just as possible that your story doesn’t get any more attention than in the normal submission slush pile. But at least in that case, when you get rejected, you haven’t INVESTED in your submission. Personally, I think that editors should be reading the entire submission pile. If the same readers that reject us for normal submission read the contest pile to clear the way for finalists, there’s a really good chance that we just paid twenty bucks for some opinionated 26 year old with zero publications to read five sentences. Despite the fact that fewer people enter contests, I’m starting to think it’s become a gimmick to help journals stay afloat. I mean, look at glimmertrain. They have 1-2 contests EVERY single month now.

    Also, I think a journal that has a curt rejection slip shouldn’t expect people to transcend their own grudges + subscribe. It would be great if those writers did, but writers are deeply human, sensitive + we’re much more willing to shell out 20 bucks for a journal that rejects us humanely than another than that photocopies a single sentence that says “Thank for your piece but it doesn’t fit our needs.”

    Lastly, I agree with you. They should send out an email to all the contest writers + inform them of who the winner was. We shouldn’t have to research the ways that we lost another contest. Lame.

    • Jackson, you always speak the Truth! I’m pretty wary of contests at this point–I’ve always been aware of the fact that they are revenue generators for the litmag–but they are really black boxes as to how they are really run (the lack of response on outcome being only one indicator of what could be a horrific, disorganized process). It is highly possible that yes, an opinionated 24 year old (we’re lucky if we get a 26 year old) with no publishing credits gleaned out the 5 stories for the Famous Writer to read (and in some cases, might be picking them out her/himself).

      In any case–I’m avoiding most contests from now on.

  5. Always love your litmag posts, Jade.

    I’m actually in the middle of a development communications (so, fundraising) course, and litmags break just about every rule of soliciting potential funders that we’ve looked at so far.

    The key one is to make the giving process reciprocal. If someone donates, they should get something in return–something as little as a bookmark has a big effect. Conversely, if they get something as a gift, they become more likely to donate. It’s just human nature.

    For litmags, editors break the cycle all the time—and as you prove, sometimes they insultingly ask for something (a donation, a subscription renewal) when they just took something (by sending a rejection).

    I should admit that editing an online fiction section with an online submission process is really no improvement—and might be worse. Identity Theory gets so many mass-emailed submissions that we’ve gotten in the habit of corresponding only with writers whose work we want to accept or encourage. Rejected pieces typically get no response. There’s a bad mental switch that happens, within the expectations of courtesy, between knowing a writer spent money on a stamp, envelope, paper, and printer ink–and trekked out to the mailbox on a 20-degree day–and knowing they put our email address in the BCC line and clicked send.

    • Andrew–I love your insight and your perspective on soliciting funding, as it applies to litmags here. That they don’t follow “rules of soliciting potential funders” explains why I, and so many fellow writers, feel snubbed.

      Good point about the online submission process–I too, get a bunch of mass emailed submissions at the online litmag where I’m a fiction editor.

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