Sunday, 27 February 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 1: Non-Grudging Acceptances

Let's start with one that any editor can do without spending one cent, penny or ruble, and without wasting more than a minute of their time.

First, though, a bit of theory that will be important for this blog series thingy as it goes on.  Apart from financial gain, why do writers give their work to publishers?  It seems to me that there are only a very few reasons to entrust someone with your story if they're not paying you a substantial amount of cash.  Anyone who writes, and anyone who edits, is probably overly familiar with these, and I've mentioned most of them in past posts, but let's quickly run through anyway:

- To build up a readership for when your novel / collection / one woman performance art stage show comes out.
- To be read at all by someone other than friends or family.
- To see your work appear officially in print / web page / podcast / sky-writing.
- To have your work critiqued.
- To have your work appreciated.

There are probably others that I can't be bothered to think about, but that'll do for now, especially since it's only that last one I'm talking about here.

So, in the interests of sounding vaguely scientific and knowledgeable, here's a hypothetical situation: a hypothetical author, who we'll call Hypothetical Author A, submits his hypothetical story "The Hypothenator", to a hypothetical editor, Hypothetical Editor Z, for his hypothetical magazine, The Hypothesisor.  It's Hypothetical Author A's first and only story, and he's laboured for seventeen hard years over it, until every syllable of every word is as damn near perfect as he can make them.  Hypothetical Author A waits and waits, and waits some more, and finally the reply comes back:

Hypothetical Author A,

The Hypothesisor would be willing to accept your story.


Hypothetical Editor Z.

Hey!  Great news!

But doesn't the phrasing leaves something to be desired?  In fact, the more Hypothetical Author A thinks about it, the more he wonders if Hypothetical Editor Z likes his story at all.  Perhaps he just had a gap that happened to match the word count of Hypothetical Author A's story.  That thought nags around and around in his head, until soon its all he can think about.  His life's labour, sold to an editor who couldn't care less about it!  Until finally, Hypothetical Author A goes and throws himself off a hypothetical cliff.

A tragic hypothetical tale indeed - and so easily avoided.  The irony is that Hypothetical Editor Z dug the hell out of "The Hypothetanator", he just didn't want to look like a big nerd by saying so.  Yet thanks to Hypothetical Author A's unexpected and splatty death, it's the last story he'll ever write.

This is an example of what I've come to think of as a grudging acceptance - and the fact that I've had enough of them to bother coming up with a name is a good indicator of how common they are.  While they may not be such a big deal in and of themselves, grudging acceptances do tend to unnecessarily sour the experience, and they're also a good indicator of an editor's wider attitude.  Any editor who can't manage a few extra words to tell you they liked your story is generally not one given to communication full-stop.

So, since these articles are supposed to be helpful, rather than just grumbly, here's my advice: if you're a Small Press editor and you like a story enough to accept it, why not say so?  At the very least, come up with a form acceptance e-mail that's positive rather than functional.  But really, is it so much work to go the extra mile to say something like, "I enjoyed your story, particularly the clever use of irony and detailed descriptions of ugly aliens."  By accepting a story, you're probably already making a writer's day ... but why not push the boat out that bit further and actually make their day?

And if you want to go yet a step further?   Well, giving authors a decent amount of space for their bio rather than confining them to a couple of lines is a good start - maybe even offering advice on how best to promote themselves.  Want to really push the hell out of that boat?  Why not briefly interview them about their stories, perhaps as a quick and easy way to bulk up your Internet presence?

Long story short: writers respond to a little praise and encouragement, not necessarily because we're a bunch of vainglorious egotists but because we spend most of our time working in a vacuum where it's bloody difficult to judge the merits of our own work.  It's nice to be told it doesn't suck, and nicer still when that message goes out to a crowd.  And from an editorial point of view, a happy writer is a writer who'll promote you, who'll submit again, and who'll send you their best work in the future, perhaps even over higher-paying markets.

Surely that's worth the effort of a few extra words?

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