A Lesson in Submissions

:: in which we wonder how anything is ever published ::

I wrote a poem. (Wait for applause to die down.) I don’t write many poems. Mostly I write unfinished short stories, boring novels, and this blog. It’s true, I do all my own writing for this blog. And you thought I hired a ghostwriter.

I really like my poem, so of course I want to publish it. Unfortunately, this is no easy task. “Well of course not,” you say. “Your poem’s probably not very good so publishers are going to reject it.” Possibly true, but that’s not even the hardest part! The hardest part is finding places to submit the poem for publication. I’m ready for the rejection, but I need to know where to line up to get it. I know it’s a numbers game, and you have to collect a lot of rejections before you get one YES. So I planned to submit my poem to 100 places.

But here’s the problem—I couldn’t even find 100 places to submit to. I couldn’t even find 20! Finding a market for your writing involves making a long list of the possibilities and then whittling that list down. It’s exciting to sit down with your copy of Writer’s Market and start compiling a list of all the places you can submit your work. At this point the possibilities are endless. I started with a long list of options. But as I went through the book and learned about each publishing outlet, the list quickly dwindled down to a handful of viable options. You start to wonder how anything ever gets published.

Good thing I like making lists

I don’t know enough about being published in the US, let alone being published in another country. Would I have to do a book signing in Belfast? Would they pay me in drachmas? I’m not even going to mess with these ones. If a publisher is in another country, it gets crossed off the list.

Does Not Accept Simultaneous Submissions
Excuse me for being frank, but what kind of bullshit is this? A simultaneous submission is where you submit your writing to more than one place at a time. Places that say “no simultaneous submissions” mean they will not even look at your work if you have it out to anyone else. The problem with this is that publishers will take up to six months to get back to you, and often not even then. Am I supposed to write one story, submit it to one place, and wait six months? Then if it is rejected, submit to one more place and wait another six months? That’s stupid. The only place I would do that for is the one place I really, desperately want to be published in, The New Yorker. And truth be told, I just submitted a short story to them and then I went ahead and submitted it to eight other places because I just couldn’t handle waiting 3–6 months to hear back. Why I allow The New Yorker to hold me emotionally hostage is a topic for another blog post.

Book-Length Only
When it comes to poetry, you don’t want to submit straight to a publisher unless you have a book-length collection of poems. Most publishers will not accept a single poem even if it is amazingly great, as my poem obviously is. Your best bet for poetry is to submit to a poetry journal or literary review. Or hey, just scrawl it on a brick wall in a public place. Voilà, it’s published!

There are a surprising number of publishing houses and magazines that deal only with authors from a specific geographic region. Take a look at these examples from Writer’s Market:

• “Considers work from poets living with 75 driving miles of the U.S. Capitol (Baltimore area included!)” Is there any stretch of the imagination that would include Michigan in the greater “Baltimore area”?
• “Accepting manuscripts that focus on the greater Pacific Northwest”
• “Books about Kentucky, the upper South, Appalachia, and the Ohio Valley.” I know from the weather channel that I live close to the Ohio Valley, but I thought they made that name up.
• “Must live west of the Central Time Zone”
• “Canadian-born only”

So far I haven’t found one that wants authors who used to live on the West Coast and now live in the Midwest, whose family originally came from Russia by way of New York, and who once spent the night in Kansas.

There are some I ruled out because they have a very specific focus, such as these:

• Work “must have abundant, explicit, and graphic erotic content.” Eeeee-uuuwww.
• “Works must be about ships and the sea.”
• “Audience is genealogy hobbyists.”

How can you be upset when you get a nice rejection letter like this?


Charges a Reading Fee
They always say you shouldn’t ever submit to anyone who charges a reading fee. But you know what, a lot of them do charge a fee. Most of them do, now that everyone is using online submission management websites. And I’m not trying to shell out $3,000 to build my collection of rejection letters.

The Magazine Looks Freaky
There’s a literary magazine that keeps putting out a call for submissions, like they’re just begging to publish your work, but every time I look at the magazine I decide against it. They publish everything in one magazine, including erotica and freaky abstract art, and I am afraid my sweet little poem will end up next to a painting of a dog-headed witch riding on the back of a naked Santa Claus. And I will buy 30 copies to send out to my grandparents and cousins before I realize it.

They Don’t Want My Work Because I Already Submitted There and Was Rejected and Now I Have to Wait One Year to Submit Again

Requires Too Much Extra Work
“Include brief bio and prospectus.” “Include marketing plan.” “Include other random nonsense that our office should really be doing ourselves.”

Um, no thank you. I already wrote the poem, man. You’re supposed to do the rest of the work.

No Electronic Submissions
Ugh. I printed sheaves of paper and packaged them in perfect little envelopes and shipped them off for my book, but I’m not doing that for a poem or a short story. I’m all for being old-fashioned, except when it comes to submitting writing to publishers. Come on guys, it’s the new millennium, and then some. You can take online submissions, I just know you can. Give it a try.

Agented Submissions Only
A lot of the best publishing houses—the ones whose names you would recognize—only look at your work if you have an agent. Writing advice books will tell you to go to the bookstore (if your town still has one), browse the shelves, and find books similar to yours. Then see who published those books. Those are the publishers you’ll want to query for your own book. But this advice is almost useless, because most of those publishers will only work with agents. What the writing books should say is, “Get yourself an agent.”

Then there are the ones that are jerks, but you can’t think of any reason to rule them out so you submit anyway, knowing before you even put your work in the mail that they are going to hate it and snark at it all week. And they’ll print it out and pin it to the bulletin board in the break room with a header over it: Idiot Submission of the Week. I know they will do this, because this is what I used to do with resumes when I was a recruiter. I know that’s hurtful, but some resumes are just too funny not to share with your coworkers, and I’m sure some writing submissions are the same.

Listen to this warning from an actual publisher: “Your work must not suck. Bad art should be punished; we will not promote it.”

Usually, the worst that can happen is they say no. But in this case, I’m thinking… is the worst case that they punish me in some weird, artistic way? I’m scared. The funny thing is, I submitted to them anyway, and I received a kindly worded email back.

Non-Paying Market
At this point in the game, I do not rule out non-paying markets. I need publishing credits, so I will take what I can get. (I should write self-esteem manuals, right?) But later, after I’ve been published all over the place, I will probably only submit to places that actually pay for my writing. I hope this will happen one day.

Update! I published my poem. Some kind, saintly soul thought it was good enough to include in their magazine. (Check it out here! Picasso’s Diary: http://www.talbot-heindl.com/2016/02) I submitted to 18 places, was rejected by 4, and withdrew from the other 13 after I was accepted. I mean, after the poem was accepted. Freudian slip. But after all, that’s what getting published is really about, isn’t it? Being accepted.

3 thoughts on “A Lesson in Submissions

  1. I’d love a quick mention of a couple of other places you’ve submitted your poem to. So many presses seem to be looking for large poetry collections rather than a single poem or a smaller group.
    When you withdrew your work from the 13 other places, did you just shoot them an email? That might be a stupid question but I stress over weird details. By the way, congrats!


    1. I’m happy to share! I submitted the poem to Poetry, The New Yorker, Rufous City Review, Rattle, Blazevox, Wisconsin Review, The 3288 Review, Bayou Magazine, Belleville Park Pages, Cimarron Review, FishFood, Barnstorm, Zymbol, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bitter Oleander, and Black Fox Literary Review. I also submitted to Wergle Flomp and that one is still pending because they take previously published work for their humor poetry contest. The poem was published in The Bitchin’ Kitsch, a magazine I now love forever.

      Yep, when I withdrew my poem, I either emailed the publisher or attached a note in submittable, depending on how I submitted in the first place. Good luck with your submissions!


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