For writers who are just beginning to submit their work, the process often seems to include some secret handshakes that go beyond the individual submission guidelines. By letting some editors describe what goes on at their journals, even though they’re all run very differently, we hope to give you a better idea of what’s common across the board and what factors into their content and publication.
We’re very happy that William Pierce, senior editor at AGNI, and Jodee Stanley, editor at Ninth Letter, took the time from their busy schedules to talk to us.
WC: So I’d like to start by covering some general mechanics: What happens when a submission arrives? What do you look for first? How are electronic submissions treated differently, if at all? Why do you either allow or discourage simultaneous submissions?
JS: Hi everybody–
Thanks, Whit, for including me and Ninth Letter in the conversation. I agree that the whole submission process often seems a bit like a mystery cult to writers who have no idea what goes on behind the scenes at lit journals — I think it seems both more clubby and more intimidating than it really is. That’s why it’s so important to me to have young writers working on the staff of the journal — it’s a really valuable experience for them as writers, even if they don’t continue to work as editors after grad school, because it demystifies the whole submission process.
At Ninth Letter, we take electronic submissions through our website via the Submission Manager database, and we also still take snail mail submissions. All submissions go through the same general process, no matter if we receive them in hard copy or digitally. When a submission arrives through USPS, we log it into a basic computer database, so we have a record of receipt — online submissions are logged automatically, of course, so those are already recorded — and then the submissions are queued up and read in the order we receive them. Each submission goes to a first reader, either myself or one of our graduate student editorial assistants. The first reader reads the manuscript, jots down some comments (on a paper comment sheet or in the submission’s computer file for online subs) about why they feel the piece works or doesn’t, and then it goes back in the queue for a second reader, who does the same thing. Every submission gets two readers, minimum. If the two initial readers both respond negatively to the submission, it will then be rejected. If they both like it, it will be copied and distributed to the rest of the staff to read & discuss at an editorial meeting. If one reader likes it and the other doesn’t, a third reader is called in to be a tie-breaking vote.
These are our general procedures, but we’ve been known to break them now and then–for example, if a submission comes in and the first reader loves it so much he/she runs straight to me or to the poetry or creative nonfiction editor and says “We have to talk about this NOW” — in that case we’d skip the second reader part and take it straight to meeting. We love it when anybody gets excited about something! In fact, that’s what we look for more than anything — an emotional connection to the work. In general we are more interested in poetry and prose that shows a real emotional investment on the part of the author. We’re less interested in experiment for experiment’s sake, or for highly crafted work that lacks passion. We’d much rather see something a little rough around the edges that packs an emotional punch. And because we have a pretty large staff that rotates regularly, what an individual staff member might find engaging can really vary. Which is great, because it means that we will always have a wide variety of work represented that appeals (we hope) to a wide audience. For writers, that means you won’t necessarily be able to gauge what is a “Ninth Letter” story, so you are better off just sending us your work that YOU love best.
Regarding simultaneous submissions, we do allow them — we recognize that it’s unfair to ask a writer to give us exclusivity if we can’t guarantee a response within a relatively short amount of time. Our turnaround time is still pretty good, comparatively (about 8-12 weeks), but we certainly can get behind schedule, and I wouldn’t feel right about holding up a writer’s work for months when they could be trying to place it elsewhere. My feeling is, we hope you’ll give us a shot at getting your work, but if we can’t get to it in time and someone else snaps it up — well, that’s on us. We lost three (three!) stories we really liked last spring because they were withdrawn while we were still hemming and hawing about them, and we considered that a learning experience. If we want it, we better grab it! Anyway, as long as writers let us know a submission is under consideration elsewhere, and as long as we are notified immediately if it’s no longer available, we are fine with simultaneous submissions.
WP: Our process, in its mechanics, is very similar to the one Jodee describes — we too use Submission Manager and also take snail mail submissions. One difference is that the person who first sorts and screens here is our editor, Sven Birkerts. He’s at it every day. The 10 percent or so that he feels might be right for AGNI (this doesn’t mean “that might be good,” it means “that might suit our mix of tastes, our sense of what the magazine delivers best”) he passes to the masthead genre editors for a thorough read. There’s little turnover at AGNI — student interns are involved in nearly everything at the magazine except reading submissions — so the circle of readers remains remarkably stable from year to year. They give advice to Sven, and the stories, poems, and essays they recommend he reads more slowly and completely, and often forwards to me. And we discuss.
The good thing about handling submissions this way is that our readers know, from the first, that Sven has seen something in each piece — so they give it the benefit of the doubt. They read with an extra jolt of sympathy. The flow here is designed to preserve idiosyncrasy, to keep quirkiness, inflection, and structural obliqueness in the running.
Like Ninth Letter and many others, we encourage writers to submit to more than one journal at a time. Almost no writer that I’ve encountered (including myself, God knows) can edit their own work with the same skill they bring to reading and commenting on other people’s, and likewise it’s nearly impossible for a writer to say correctly of her own work, This belongs with this editor and that belongs with that one. None of us at AGNI are reading for what Sven wants, we’re reading for what we want and trying to persuade — in that spirit, we hope writers will send the work they feel is most compelling and fully realized. We love to be convinced. A recent example: Joan Wickersham sent “The Boys’ School, or The News from Spain.” I’m skeptical, Sven is too, of second-person narration. It rarely works. So if Joan had been trying to psych out what’s right for AGNI, it’s likely she never would have sent “The Boys’ School” — which we accepted very quickly and without hesitation. If writers focus on magazines they enjoy reading, magazines they respect and admire, and send the editors all of their best stuff, one submission at a time, they’re likely — eventually — to connect.
WC: AGNI publishes web-specific content. How does a piece end up on the web as opposed to print editions? Are the submissions tagged by the writer or is it an editorial decision?
WP: It’s an editorial decision. Everything submitted to AGNI is considered for both print and online, and sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. As each print issue comes together, it starts to take on a feel. Who knows how it happens? The issues even develop unexpected themes — so of course anything that deepens the vibe we’ll take for print. It’s easy to say that short things play well on the Web and long prose sits more naturally on paper. But our most recent print issue is filled with short prose, and sometimes a long story wants to step out by itself, without the feeling of accompaniment that the print issue gives. Maybe that’s the biggest distinction here: AGNI Online isn’t composed of issues so much as salvos, each piece launched on its own, maybe grouped with a few others on the homepage for a while but then soaring out there, building an audience on its solo merits. I guess they represent different sides of our reading lives: the solo reader sits with a community of pieces in the print issue, and online the poem, story, or essay is taken up by virtual communities and passed along like a beach ball in a stadium.
WC: Both Ninth Letter and AGNI are associated with university creative writing programs, UIUC and Boston University respectively. Both of you are editors (and writers) as opposed to writing instructors. How do students fit in the process of getting an issue to publication? Do the magazines figure in their academic work?
WP: None of us on staff at the magazine teach in the creative writing program. And we don’t have students reading for the magazine. But we do very much rely on our interns — they help with proofreading, webmastering, order fulfillment, and many of the other administrative and editorial tasks that keep the place running. They don’t get academic credit for working here, unfortunately.
JS: At Ninth Letter, I am a full time editor — my position is classified as an academic professional in the creative writing program. We have students as well as faculty pretty heavily involved in both the editorial and production sides of the journal. Creative Writing faculty act as genre editors, rotating on a semi-regular basis. Our creative writing grad students work as editorial assistants, reading submissions and assisting with content selection, copyediting, and related tasks. They get course credit during their first semester doing work for the journal, and if they want to stay on staff, they have the option of volunteering and/or applying for a paid assistantship to do more work. We have a few different assistantship opportunities for grad students in their 2nd and 3rd years, and with those positions come a bit more responsibility in terms of office management work.
On the design side, the University of Illinois graphic design program offers a print production course that is focused exclusively on the production of Ninth Letter, so design students who enroll in that course actually do the layout and design of the journal, under the direction of the graphic design faculty, who take turns acting as art director. That class is made up of mostly junior and senior design majors, and they have to submit a portfolio to be accepted into the course, so it’s pretty competitive, but the students do an amazing job with the production — we’re fortunate to have a deep well of talent in both the students and faculty in our School of Art & Design.
For both the writing students and the design students, the experience of working on Ninth Letter is an important part of their academic experience — not only does it give them practical experience beyond the world of class lectures and textbooks, it provides them with concrete work examples that they can use on their CVs and in their portfolios.
WC: So am I imagining things or has the number of literary publications grown over the past few years? If so, why do you think that is?
JS: I do think it has grown, though I don’t have the concrete numbers to back that up — it’s also the case that we as a community are way more aware of new small journals because of the ubiquity of the internet. Thanks to being constantly plugged in, we can now know everything about everything. I think the proliferation of publications has a lot to do with the relative ease with which anyone can now put together a decent looking magazine, either in print or online. With user-friendly content management systems and desktop publishing programs, with short-run and on-demand printing, anyone who wants to invest a little time and a little money can put together a nice looking publication.
Also, online communities and social media allow authors and literary folks to be more engaged with a broader audience, so a new journal can more easily find an audience now than one could 10 years ago. Publishing a journal or starting a small press has become another way for writers to engage with other writers, making the whole creative process a bit less solitary.
WP: I think the cause of good writing is served well by the rise of these new magazines, but I want to make a pitch for devoting energies — insistent, joyous, demanding energies — to existing magazines also, sometimes for the purpose of changing them, always to keep them fresh. The risk is that dispersal can weaken the sense that we have a “literary culture,” something that’s fought over and argued but also shared. The Web lets us atomize all the way down to the single author publishing his or her own work. But when I’m reading, I often want the benefits of a filter I trust, which means an editorial sensibility that I’ve consciously turned to (when so much of the time we’re being funneled and chuted without knowing exactly how). A magazine’s task — sorry for the long aside here, but I think a magazine’s meaning, and a good justification for a new one, is to advance a sensibility of that kind, to read ceaselessly in the service of it, and to look for unexpected manifestations and bold steps forward along whatever lines the editors are drawn to. Then it’s the reader’s job and pleasure to choose among magazines. I guess I’m saying this: the best new magazines are those founded by writers (or others) who want to share the way they’re reading and what they’re reading for, what excites them particularly, and how they think the idea of literature or “the literary” ought to be constructed or deconstructed.
WC: With the economy in the shape it’s in, and with funding for the arts dwindling, how have Ninth Letter and AGNI tried to adjust and what do you hear from other, more traditional literary journals? What kind of change in revenue from subscriptions, donations, and other sources have you seen? Are you able to take advantage of the same technologies that make starting a new publication so much easier?
WP: People have pulled back in everything of course, and spending on magazines is no different. In fall 2008 we sent a direct mailing just as the sky was coming down. Wonderful timing. The response was barely half of what we’d gotten in previous campaigns — and since then, that lower rate has held. It doesn’t help that so much is available for free, but I’m convinced that if the economy were humming along, and people’s jobs felt more secure, we’d see a big increase again — not all the way to 2007, but close enough to say that the internet complements and doesn’t replace.
We’re close to launching AGNI in e-book form so that we can offer digital subscriptions. That will gradually encourage us, I think, to stop duplicating genres between AGNI Online and the numbered issues. The website will become more dedicated to reviews, interviews, conversations, blog-style journals, video, and audio, and the “print” issues, with stories, poems, and essays, will be available across multiple platforms, including the format that’s been at the heart of the enterprise from the beginning.
Our advertising income was never huge, but it’s fallen off a cliff. And grant money … well, we’ll see in November! But state funding for AGNI is down by about a third again this year. We always operate on a shoestring — and you know how it is when your lace breaks. You stop to rejigger what’s left, then you keep moving.
The one financial bright spot is support from donors. Some have had to give less, of course, but others have taken up the slack. It makes all the difference for us — not just because the dollars help to fund the
enterprise, but also because the gesture signals community and keeps us energized in that way too.
JS: Considering the state of the economy and particularly the disaster that is the Illinois state budget (including the University’s funding), I feel extremely grateful and lucky that the U of I continues to support Ninth Letter. The amount of support they are giving has been reduced, though, and our sales revenue has dropped a bit, so we’ve had to restructure our operations budget to account for that. The drop in sales revenue seems to be primarily in bookstore/individual copy sales–our subscriptions are pretty stable. Our grant funding has dropped, too, but donor support remains pretty solid. People are still giving what they can, even if it’s just a little here and a little there.
We’re trying to do more with less, as everybody is these days. It’s actually kind of interesting in terms of our print production, to see how creatively our designers respond to budget restrictions–but I don’t want to cut their money too much. So much of our mission based on the importance of a printed object, I feel that that should always be our top budget priority.
One of the ways we’re saving money is by utilizing the internet and especially social media to do the majority of our marketing. I’m no longer willing to spend the kind of money we used to on printing and mailing marketing materials that seem to generate fewer responses than email campaigns or even Twitter and Facebook promotions.
William Pierce is senior editor of AGNI. His short stories have appeared in Granta and elsewhere, and he is just finishing a novel, Heartwrap, whose main character is a cardiac surgeon.
Jodee Stanley is the editor of Ninth Letter, the award-winning literary/arts journal published at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and has published her fiction and nonfiction in Crab Orchard Review, Mississippi Review, 580 Split, Margin, and elsewhere. She is also co-editor of Midwest Gothic Stories.