Author and editor Jason Sanford did a piece about the perplexing complaint from writers who had submitted stories to a prominent horror/dark fantasy magazine, The Dark, that they were getting a response too quickly and that rejections they received clearly indicated that the stories hadn’t been read at all.
This was a familiar issue to me because when I was a literary agent, our agency used to get the complaint all the time, and indeed, magazine editors, literary agents and book editors who deal with unagented submissions will tell you that they regularly receive it, and usually when they have managed to respond to submissions quickly. It was a somewhat more understandable situation when it comes to novel manuscripts. After all, authors do know that when they submit sample chapters to an agent or book publisher that the person may not read all the chapters, but may make a decision based on reading just the first chapter alone or even on a few first pages. The biggest commodity publishing folk have to deal in is time, and they will try to get through submissions quickly to find stuff they think they can use. Ninety-eight to ninety-five percent of what they receive they won’t be able to use — it doesn’t work for them, and they know it pretty quickly because they aren’t engaged by the material or it’s not their area of fiction. But they are willing to look at that large pile of submissions to find the small percentage of ones that could and do work for them, for whatever reason they have for that decision.
So it would not be entirely surprising for a writer to accuse an agent or editor of not giving their work enough of a read or proper careful consideration — though agents and editors owe submitting writers neither. But there is no real logic behind the accusation that editors and agents are purposely asking for submissions and then not reading them at all. To what point is there in these publishing people having submission piles in the first place with that assumption? For simply the thrill of rejecting people, usually with a form letter? Authors who make these accusations seem to be claiming that entire publishing operations are wasting their time in an elaborate trolling exercise of strangers with no discernible purpose.
The reality is that no fiction magazine, no fiction publisher and no literary agent intent on selling fiction to fiction publishers needs to be open to submissions from authors if they don’t want to do it, if they don’t think it will pay off with the occasional good find. They can instead keep a closed process where they contact and solicit chosen authors out there for material and only look at that material. Even operations that do take open submissions also do this as well and they can easily find more than enough material by soliciting known authors or authors they happen to spot in the market. Which is why the larger book publishers, finding that keeping increasingly large open submission piles didn’t provide enough returns for the time and expense of having their staff go through them, simply shut the piles down in the 1990’s, and limited their allowed submissions to solicited ones from agents and authors they chose.
Given how low and depressed the payments for short fiction have been over the last thirty years and how much the market for such fiction has shrunk even with the more recent self-publishing and anthology booms, SFFH magazines have no problem soliciting short works that well known book authors happen to have lying around, paying them a few hundred for the stories and reaping the benefits for their circulation numbers. Even the newer, smaller magazines don’t actually need to bother with newbies if they can swing a decent payment by market standards.
Yet the magazines do often have open submissions, or open submissions part of the year, because finding new talent also brings smaller, long term rewards, including pleasing their readers, and because it’s a tradition certainly of the SFFH field to find and bolster what they feel is new talent. But you can’t actually find “new talent” if you do not actually read what new authors submit to you. If you don’t read submissions, having them at all is a colossal waste of time.
In the “old” days a couple of decades ago, the open submission pile was a huge time investment as well as costing some money. Submissions arrived in packages and had to be unpacked, which was hours and hours of time. They had to be logged in to a record system of some sort, which was hours of time. They had to be read, which was hours and hours of time. They had to have rejection letters or requests for more material letters printed, even if they were form letters, which took hours of time. And they had to be repackaged as returns in the self-addressed stamped envelopes and gotten to the post, which took hours and hours and hours of time. The claim that editors and agents and their staff, if they had them, would spend all that time in the processing and mailing of submissions but skip the critical reading part made no logical sense. Yet it happened from submitting authors all the time. They seemed convinced that agents and editors were spending the better part of their days engaged in a non-profitable prank operation.
Everybody in publishing was a little slow to adopt electronic submissions, not because of a distaste in technology but because they feared the submissions would swamp their networks and also leave them exposed to viruses in attachments. But eventually most places taking submissions were able to do so electronically and send the responses electronically as well. This not only saved an immense amount of trees and postage and print costs for authors, but cut down considerably on the amount of time needed to process submissions by editors and agents. The submissions have to still be logged in, which still takes hours, but now story files can be opened with a click. The stories still need to have return responses crafted and sent, but that takes much less time than doing it by mail with packaging. So now the main time requirement is reading the stories. This has meant that editors and agents can get through and respond to submissions in half the time or less than back in the only paper days. And authors in short fiction definitely can hit a lot more markets with their submissions in the time it used to take to get a response from just one submission, which greatly increases their odds of finding a publication that will want their work.
But this improved situation has instead been received by many authors as further proof that they are being tricked by editors and agents who lure them in with open submissions, ignore their work and reject it. Why would they do that? Because, that’s why, seems to be the main response. Submissions to agents and book publishers are free — they aren’t making money off submissions and yet are still spending hours processing those submissions if they take them. While many literary magazines seem to have taken up requiring submission fees, which is deeply ethically problematic and usually not worth an author’s time, submission to major magazines and SFFH magazines is also usually free, and those magazines are again still spending hours processing those submissions. So what exactly is the allure here for publishing people if they aren’t really going to read the submissions, searching for material?
One reason occasionally floated is that book publishers and magazines urge authors considering submissions to check out what they publish before doing so. This is mainly because editors hope to cut down their time spent reading material sent to them that plainly doesn’t fit their lists or publications. But some interpret it as the editors trying to get authors to buy books or subscriptions, or in the case of free online magazines, get their views for the advertisers. But there are many problems with this notion. First off, it doesn’t apply to literary agencies or most anthology editors, and yet those folks still get the same complaint that they aren’t reading submissions. Second, although they ask for it with hope in their hearts, editors know full well that nine out of ten authors won’t buy books from their list or buy/read issues of their magazines before submitting to them. As a way to profit and raise circulation numbers, it’s largely a bust. Third, there are dozens of other types of promotions they could try that would have a much greater return in customers and viewers and do not cost them the hours and hours of valuable time processing submissions, or lead them to have buyers/viewers who are then very unhappy with them and will do no further business due to submission rejection. You get the idea here. Unless some sort of reading fee scam is involved, it simply doesn’t make much sense, and well known agents, publishers and magazines are not running fee scams. What profit they manage comes from the other end, when they put out product into the market. Which is why they are willing to slog through a lot of stuff they don’t want in search of what might be the best thing for them that they’ve ever found.
So the claim seems to come from deep mistrust that some authors have of the very institutions with whom they are trying to work. Even though there is no viable reason for believing that a returned submission has not been read and considered, they tend to treat it as if a blind date has stood them up entirely. But when an author is rejected by an editor or agent, it’s important to remember that all it means is not this story at this time with this person/organization. It doesn’t mean all selling options are closed or that circumstances won’t change. And quite often it can turn out to be a good thing as a better opportunity may come up that would have been missed if the author hadn’t gotten a rejection. Writing fiction is creating, but selling rights to it or placing it is resilience. And understanding that even your best work, which someone will love, may still leave the brightest editors and agents cold because the field is subjective.
After they read it. Really, they read it.