The modern writer is as much artisan as artist, creating entertainment and elucidation from little more than imagination, research, and electrons. But creation may be the easiest aspect of the writer’s life, especially among those who write short stories “on spec,” with no guarantee of publication. Next comes the harsh and often painful process of marketing those stories.
In previous blog entries, I’ve discussed the need to stick with standard manuscript and submission formats to heighten your chances of success. I won’t discuss them again here, except to say that you should strictly follow these rules set by the publishing industry. While they need content, they’ll do everything they can to discourage you and limit the number of manuscripts they have to wade through to get it. The short story market in all its genres is tighter than it’s been in decades, despite the growth of electronic markets. There are more writers competing for paying slots than ever before, and more entertainment options competing for the reader’s attention. I don’t think it’s true that people read less, but the formats they read have changed from short-form magazine fiction to novels, web content, and ebooks.
One thing you may have noticed while reviewing magazine guidelines is that most editors don’t want you to send your story to anyone else while they’re considering it. Many state flat-out that simultaneous submissions will not be considered. Their reasoning is simple: they don’t want to make an offer for a story, and then have it spirited away by some other editor who pays better or gets to it first. With rare exceptions-those exceptions being giants in the field who can get away with anything-if you do that to them and they can prove it, they’ll blacklist you. It happens. More than once, editors chatting over coffee have discovered that one writer has submitted the same story to both of them-which resulted in immediate rejection of that and every other story they saw from that writer.
Periodical editors hate simultaneous submissions.
On the other hand, periodicals are notoriously understaffed. Yet they still want to hold onto your stories for as long as it takes for them to make a decision-and it may literally be months before they get to you. If you’re lucky. Sometimes they’re so badly managed it can take over a year…and I’m not exaggerating. I’ve experienced such cases myself. You can only take so many months and so many unanswered requests for information before sending the story along to someone else.
Editors aren’t particularly sympathetic to the writer’s plight in this matter. Their answer for what to do during that long, empty gap while you’re waiting breathlessly for word on your story? Write something else to keep you busy. Get it out on the postal rounds and then write something else. That’s good advice, but it doesn’t really address the issue of having to wait overly long for your story to be either purchased or rejected.
So what can you do?
When I first began writing more than 30 years ago, the consensus was that writers should just grin and bear it. After all, we were only writers, forced to kowtow to the gatekeepers of publishing. Even the writing magazines and gurus seemed to be of the opinion that we were lucky if publishers deigned to notice us at all. And if they did buy something, expect to be told about it, and paid for it, when they got around it.
But writers don’t have to accept that kind of treatment from publishers. Many practical guides to writing no longer condemn the practice of simultaneous submissions, or “simsubs.” Some even recommend it, provided you’re careful not to mention you’re making simultaneous submissions, and don’t overdo it. I’ve noticed that many of the writers I work with and advise don’t hesitate to make simultaneous submissions, because they’re not willing to wait for months between submissions.
Personally, I don’t like making simsubs, but I see the desirability of it given the slow response time of many publications. It’s especially a good idea if what you have is timely or time-bound, and won’t work this time next year. If you decide to go that route, I advise you to be cautious, and don’t simultaneously submit the same manuscript to more than a handful of editors. Never send simsubs to editors who work for the same publishing group. They may share the same office, and pass around likely stories to one another…which could wind up in disaster if you’ve submitted to two or more in the same group.
Whatever you do, DO NOT reveal in the cover letter that you’re making a simultaneous submission. They’ll slap you down as soon as they see it, and may refuse to consider your manuscripts in the future.
But suppose you’ve submitted the same story to several publishers; what happens if you sell it to two magazines? You may think this unlikely, but it happens often enough that it was what caused the rule against simsubs in the first place. To keep this from happening, whenever you sell a simsub manuscript to one editor, immediately send letters to the others withdrawing your manuscript from consideration. You don’t have to tell them why. They may suspect you were making simultaneous submissions, but unless they see the story in print, they can never be sure-so they probably won’t blacklist you. Try not to do this more than once to any particular editor, however.
If you get two or more offers simultaneously, obviously you’ll need to pick the best (whether in terms of money or prestige) over the others. Turning the losers down can be very tricky. Just face the reality that an editor you turn down will probably be ticked off, and you’ll have at least two strikes against you in the future. Editors feel that they’re doing you a favor to publish your work in the first place…and no one likes an ingrate. Some may still consider your work in the future; some may label you a pariah for disrupting their editing process, especially since they’ve probably already started making plans for when they’re going to publish your story, along with the layout, art, associated advertising, etc.
Let’s face it: in the publishing world, the deck is stacked against you. This is ironic, since you and people like you create the product that periodicals consume. But the fact is, writers are usually among the last and least considered when editors are putting together their issues. While this isn’t always true, many editors do have the tendency to consider writers completely replaceable and, as I’ve mentioned, think they’re doing you a favor when they publish you. To some extent they are, since you get paid in both attention and money.
However, you don’t have to play the game entirely by their rules. You can’t afford to wait in your garret and twiddle your thumbs while they take their time deciding whether or not they want a particular story. As a practical matter, you may have to make multiple, simultaneous submissions of your stories in order to cut down on the ridiculously long wait times most magazines and journals put you through before they respond.
It’s up to you to decide whether you want to make simsubs. But if you do, keep what I’ve written here in mind. The publishing industry is full of landmines for the writer, and this is one of the worst you can encounter if you venture off the strait and narrow path that publishers demand you follow.