RPCV John Givens on literary journals, part two

In  late Septemer of this year, TriQuarterly, one of the most respected print literary journals, announced that it was converting to an online format. TriQuarterly’s blog currently offers subscribers a chance to purchase the “last three issues of TriQuarterly in print.” It’s only one journal; but this feels like a big deal, particularly in today’s world of Kindles and eBooks and POD. Evergreen Review, one of the greatest and most provocative of literary journals, began life as a trade paperback, shifted to glossy magazine format, and ceased publication in 1973. In 1998, it was resurrected as an online journal and pushes ahead today with new content as well as reprinting great work from its past.

For the sake of this discussion, we can divide the world of literary journals into three permutations, with some overlap:

  1. Print journals that require hard-copy submissions by snail-mail. The old stalwarts we’ve always known include: Granta, The Paris Review, Conjunctions, Epoch, The Southern Review, The New England Review, The Iowa Review, etc. There are also interesting new urban magazines such as NYC’s Noon and Bomb and Literal Latte, and San Francisco’s Zoetrope: All Story.
  2. Print journals that accept electronic submissions, either via a dedicated online submissions manager or email. (Most print journals that prefer electronic submissions will also accept hard copy submissions.) In this group are well-established university-based journals and attractive new journals: Tin House, AGNI, VQR, A Public Space, Willow Springs, Fence, Boston Review, and a long list of others that are worth exploring. (We’ll look at how to do this later.)
    There are interesting hybrids like The Mississippi Review, which also has an online journal with its own style and content, as does the Kenyon Review and n+1. One Story delivers a single story to subscribers. GUD is sold as a PDF or POD. Annalemma combines weekly online content with a biannual print edition, as does the well-known Monkeybicycle. Redivider, and many others, put part of their content online while Unsaid Magazine puts all of past issues online, as do some other journals, so what are they? It is a shifting landscape.
  3. Online journals. I’ve already mentioned the elegant new Cerise Press, and the print/online hybrids, but the range of options in this group is impressive: Night Train and Word Riot, Blackbird and Memorious, The Collagist and Anderbo.com, Wag’s Revue and Guernica and Freight Stories and Failbetter … the list goes on and on. These are all web-based, of course; but Electric Literature also provides content in various new-media forms, including e-book, Kindle, POD, iPhone and soon even audiobooks. At least one story is going to be tweeted.

There is another way to segment this industry: money. Most journals don’t pay their authors, but a few do. The classic print journals typically pay by the printed page. Electric Literature pays $1000 per story; Glimmer Train runs contests that have cash prizes at the end, as does Narrative Magazine although these latter two both charge reading fees (other than during specified periods). But if you hope to get rich by submitting stories or poems to literary journals, you might be well-advised to take up another occupation. Print journals also pay in author’s copies which in a pinch can ease the ache in the belly although there’s not much real nutrition there. Think of it this way: what you’re doing is building your brand into a platform that will entice publishers. Once you’re as famous as Sarah Palin, you can start demanding to be paid for every word you write. Or every word you tell somebody else to write for you.

There are also other ways of segmenting this industry in terms of convenience:

  1. Most journals accept simultaneous submissions but a few of the troglodytes don’t. This is an important consideration because all of them are inundated so long long long waits for a decision are common. You may have a story rejected the next day (lucky you!) or after three months or after a year. Six months seems to be about the norm for a piece that got past the initial reader-rejectionist. These long waits mean there’s no reason to submit things sequentially, and most journals recognize the reality of the situation and ask only that you inform them as soon as another journal has snapped up the piece you so lovingly crafted and so yearningly sent to them. However, The Sewanee Review, The Hudson Review, The Barcelona Review, The Antioch Review, The Kenyon Review, Epoch, and Five Points all decline to read simultaneous submissions. So what do you do about that? Send out multiples anyway? I mean, it’s not like you’re a spammer or anything; you’re just trying to enrich their world with your literary nous; and what can they do to you anyway? Refuse to publish any of your stories? I mean, they’re almost certainly going to reject your work anyway. So what’s the big problem?
  2. Many journals accept submissions year-round but quite a few are attached to universities and so tend not to read in summer. A few journals have even more restricted schedules, no doubt reflecting the agony of a small staff of readers overwhelmed by submissions. Almost all journals limit the submitter to one story or essay at a time, or a handful of poems; but again, there are surprising exceptions. It would be tempting to argue that the more prestigious journals are the most restrictive, but this isn’t necessarily always the case. Granta, the UK print journal many would place near the top of the heap, will accept submissions of multiple short stories in a single snail-mailing, and so will the excellent n+1 — electronically. All journals have websites and somewhere on them are guidelines that explain the rules; wise submitters obey them scrupulously or pretend to.

So how do you go about getting it done?

Write your story or essay or set of six poems (it’s remarkable how many journals seem to stipulate six). Then edit it and cut out all the flamboyant crap and rewrite what’s left about a thousand times. And then craft an intro letter. Keep it tight but make sure it stipulates why you and your story are unique entities in the world. Every journal (and publisher and agent) has readers whose job is to reject everything that can possibly be rejected without burdening anybody upstream with it. Your letter’s job is to get past that rejectionist and pique his or her curiosity sufficiently to set up the possibility of a positive reading experience. That’s it. That’s all you can do. Keep it clean and simple to indicate that you trust your stuff. An RPCV should have a built-in advantage because most of what accumulates on the desks of those overburdened readers is all the same. So after a few hundred stories about a feckless young wastrel who drinks too much and can’t respond to the emotional requirements of others, a story about protecting your goat herd from the depredations of baboons will stand out.

I’ve mentioned a few above, but the number and variety of literary journals is daunting, and they seem to breed like bunnies and die as easily as hamsters. There are, however, good ways to start exploring the current online literary landscape.

RPCV Clifford Garstang’s blog Perpetual Folly has a section under “Writers Resources” that ranks major literary journals in terms of Pushcart Prize winners or mentions.

Web Del Sol has a page called “Top Fifty Literary Magazines” that usefully provides a brief sketch of each and a link to its site.

Literary Ezines & Journals has a comprehensive international list of online journals.

Duotrope’s Digest is a searchable online database listing over 2,675 current fiction and poetry serial publications. You can limit your search by specifying attributes such as genre and turn up suitable possibilities.

New Pages includes often detailed reviews of the current content in various journals that can be useful in deciding which to approach.

So as Gordon Gekko said to Bud Fox: Now get to work!


  • What a valuable and thorough two-part piece you’ve given us, John! Thank you for this clear-eyed look at the benefits of submitting to literary journals. One more benefit I’d like to add: Having a story or essay (or six poems) accepted by one of these journals offers a much-needed shot of encouragement, especially when the book proposals are going nowhere…

  • John, you’ve capture the arms race between writers and publications.

    As publications (like VQR) make it easier for people to submit, the number of submissions that we receive skyrockets. We got twice as many the year that we moved online. We also receive a great deal more submissions from people who clearly don’t have the faintest idea of who we are. We’re drowning in submissions, upwards of 10,000 each year. There are only five of us here: two of us are on the business side of the publications, one is the editor, one spends most of her time in her capacity as circulation manager, and one is the assistant to the editor. How in the world are we going to read 10,000 submissions? Our solution is to pay readers $2.50/submission. That was expensive at 4,500 submissions annually. We’re on target for 12,000 submissions this year. That ain’t cheap. Basically, we’ve assumed writers’ the cost of submitting work, and now that it’s free, they submit more.

    The effect is a vicious cycle. As we get more submissions, we get more backlogged. As we get more backlogged, our 20 day response time becomes 40. Which means that writers, impatient, want to submit the work to still more publications, whose response times also lengthen. And writers impatient with them submit more work to us, and our 40 day response time becomes 60. Repeat ad infinitum.

    (None of this is to say that publications aren’t at fault here. We should all be working harder to get back to authors faster. At VQR, we have a page full of gauges that we all check multiple times daily, telling us what our response time in, how long people have been waiting on average, who has been waiting the longest, which readers aren’t reading quickly enough, etc. In this manner we cut our average response time from six months to under a month, although, as I said, sheer volume has it creeping up again.)

    Submitting work to multiple publications including ones that prohibit doing so is kind of like attending a stoning and throwing just one little rock. What’s the harm? Well, individually, probably not much. But it sure is adding up.

  • Waldo Jaquith of VQR makes a good point about journals being overwhelmed by submissions although I’m not sure I agree with the concluding metaphor. I was, I thought, being ironic about violating the no-simultaneous rule. And if VQR’s response time is a month or even slightly more, than you are doing wonderfully well indeed, because much longer waits seem the norm to me.

    Some journals charge a small fee of $2 or $3, and I think that could be one possible way to at least partially unclog the pipes. Even such a small amount might nevertheless encourage writers to make an effort to determine if their piece really is suitable for a given journal — as all journals all request in their guidelines with a fervor that smacks almost of desperation.

    These are painful times. And literary fiction writers are going to have to get used to being treated as no better than poets.

  • Let me ask: Should we start an on-line literary journal with short fiction, poetry and essays written by RPCVs and HCNs, and concentrates on the countries were Peace Corps Volunteers have served since 1961? The journal could be quarterly.

  • Joey–We are still trying to think our way through this idea.
    Thanks for your kind offer of help.

  • I do some slush monkey reading for a small online fiction magazine and even we get deluged from time to time. Many of the submissions are simply unusable and are easy for us to send back. I think we are currently keeping something like 5 pieces (combined poetry and fiction) for every 100 submissions and some days it seems like even that is too much.

    I’m curious to know what ratio of acceptances to declines a publication with 12,000 submissions has.

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