Sunday, 26 January 2020

Five Things Short Fiction Magazines Might Want to Reconsider

It's fair to say that I've sent off quite a few short fiction submissions in the fifteen years I've been doing so.  Indeed, it appears I've got through somewhere in the region of fourteen hundred of the things, if my trusty spreadsheet is to be believed!  And it's equally fair to say that, while most of those submissions have been at worst a fairly neutral experience, there are those that have been needlessly irritating in one way or another.  And after fifteen years, it gets hard not to notice that those irritations tend to be the same handful of unnecessary slips that market after market makes.  But nobody wants to be irritating, right?  Of course they don't.  So, eternal optimist that I am, I reckon the problem is that nobody's taken the time to put together a blog post flagging up all of these issues so that no-one need ever drop these particular balls again.  I mean, that's got to be it, right?

Pedantic Formatting Requirements
Ugh, formatting guidelines!  This is actually the whole reason for this post, but I figured, why rant about one annoyance when you can rant about a whole bunch?  Anyway, here's the thing: expecting every submitter to reformat their story to suit your specific needs is a heck of a waste of everybody's time.  Has anyone stopped to work out the total hours that go into hundreds of writers changing their work into fourteen point Comic Sans with four inch margins and asterisks instead of quote marks and every third word highlighted in purple just because a particular editor likes it that way?  I bet they haven't.  And is it really so difficult to read subs in standard manuscript format, or even in something that's pretty close to it?  Here's my suggestion: if you genuinely can't be bothered to spend an hour or so per issue reformatting whatever you ultimately accept, why not just specify in the guidelines that submissions will have to be revised once they're accepted?  That way, maybe five people a month are going through this, and with good reason, rather than five hundred people for no reason at all.
Burying Charges
Not really one for the genre markets, thank goodness, but this is a personal bugbear because I have one damn poem that I've been trying to shift for who knows how many years now.  (And yes, I realise it's probably just terrible!)  For those poor suckers over on the literary side of things, submission fees are a standard feature of life, presumably because everyone accepts that the only way literary magazines can support themselves is by gouging their submitters.  But if you're going to charge, have the decency to be upfront about it, don't hide the fact three pages deep into your submission process, presumably in the hope that people will be so excited over the possibility of being paid three dollars for their work that they won't object to paying two dollars and ninety-nine cents to submit in the first place.
Waffly Guidelines
Halfway through the list and it occurs to me that a lot of these points add up to the same thing, which amounts to respecting other people's time.  It's nice when editors are enthusiastic, but when that enthusiasm takes the form of a page-long essay about how a childhood water polo accident gave them the emotional fortitude to, twenty years later, found a magazine, and the crucial information needed to submit is hidden amid the third and fifth paragraphs, that enthusiasm crosses over into being kind of annoying.  In general, submitting authors want to know what a market's after, how they want it, how to submit it, and what's offered in return, and they want that information to be up front and unmissable.
Bafflingly Worded Rejection E-mails
A few days back I got a rejection e-mail that said "We're afraid we're unable to publish your submission" and my instinctive reaction was, Wait, why?  I could totally get that they might not want to publish it, but that they were unable to?  That was a mystery right there.  Had the magazine closed down, or was there some darker possibility?  Maybe their hands had fallen off?  Maybe their office was full of bees?  Ought I to be contacting the emergency services?
Bad rejection e-mails tend to veer in one of two directions, and obviously the flat-out offensive ones are objectively the worst, those that are quite happy to leave a writer with the impression that the problem's absolutely with them and their work.  But sometimes it's easier to dismiss rudeness than e-mails that feel like they're ducking responsibility for the whole sorry business.  Nobody's ever going to enjoy getting a rejection e-mail, but all it takes is to say is that the story didn't quite work for you; it's hard to be offended by the revelation that not every editor in the world likes every story.
Demanding You Buy an Issue
Here's a confession: I've never once bought a magazine to get a sense of what they publish, however many times I've been encouraged to do so.  And while I'm far from being the best-selling short fiction writer of all time, I've done okay.  Obviously it's not unreasonable for editors to push writers toward also being readers, so I'm not at all suggesting that a nudge in that direction is out of order, or that writers shouldn't help to keep the markets they value alive.  But there are always those that take things too far, who spout cryptic nonsense and end with a declaration that the only way to work out their profoundly idiosyncratic requirements is to see what they've picked in the past.  All else aside, this feels like a general red flag, because not being able to articulate what you're after is hardly an appealing quality in an editor, nor is only selecting work that's of a piece with what you've picked in the past.
There!  Hopefully I've fixed the short fiction scene for all time.  Or, more probably, alienated every short fiction editor on the planet.  Then again, most of the markets I submit to regularly don't do most of these things, a big percentage don't do any of them, and in general, my experiences with short fiction editors have been pretty good, so ... hopefully not?  And, you know, I get that these are minor niggles at most, but wouldn't it be a slightly better world if everyone quit doing them?  I think it would. 

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