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How Submitit Evaluates Smaller Literary Journals (So You'll Know They'll Stick Around)

I’ve written a lot (most obviously here) about the importance of submitting stories and essays to smaller, newer, and (ostensibly) more accessible literary journals. If I only submitted stories to the “top” journals in my algorithm—ones like New Yorker, Ploughshares, AGNI, and so on—I would not have achieved a remarkable (in my humble opinion) 66% publishing success rate with my clients.

So I’m always on the lookout for these smaller journals. But I have to be careful. The truth is, literary journals come and go with surprising frequency. Apparently, journals are pretty easy to start, but pretty hard to run. I have a journals “watch list” in my algorithm—newer journals that I’m keeping an eye on to see if they’ll blossom into long-term successes—and I’m amazed at how many go defunct.

My goal is not only to get my clients’ work published, but also to get their work published in relatively high-quality journals with staying power. I could probably raise my 66% success rate significantly if I didn’t take journal quality into consideration, but this goes against my belief that most of my clients are concerned about where their work ends up.

With all this in mind, I thought you might be interested in what I look for when I’m adding journals to my algorithm. . . .

1. The quality of the journal’s website.

It’s not hard to create a decent-looking website these days. Journals just need to find a good template and make some decision on colors and photos and such. So when I check a journal’s website (always my first step), if it looks like it was put together by a team of intoxicated monkeys, I run away.

I also check the site’s functionality. If links don’t work, or if the pages don’t fit on my screen, or if I can’t even figure out how to submit a story (it happens), I usually pass on the journal.

I trust my first impressions. If the site stinks, the journal might not be around for long. And even if it does survive, I’m not sure you really want the journal publishing your work.

2. The masthead.

If the site passes my eye test, I move on to the masthead (a literary journal’s editors and staff). In many ways, I think this is the most important step of all. It’s an easy deal breaker. First of all, if the journal doesn’t display a masthead, I typically move on. A masthead is how journals say who they are, literally. Very few serious journals lack one.

Furthermore, I usually stay away from single-person mastheads. If a journal was created by some guy named Ted living in his parents’ basement in Tucson, I’ll skip it. These journals don’t usually last.

Slightly better journals might have two or three people on their mastheads, but I read the fine print. These people should have some publishing experience, or, if they’re writers themselves, I want to see decent publishing credits of their own. Additionally, journals that publish multiple genres and forms (e.g. fiction, nonfiction, etc.) should probably have multiple specialized editors.

In short, a small or non-existent masthead—or one with editors/writers with no or little publishing experience—usually equals a short-lived journal.

3. Site ownership.

Do you ever come to a website and see advertising for the hosting service (Wix, Squarespace, etc.)? I consider this is a bad sign. It suggests the journal wasn’t willing to invest in really “owning” the site. I believe a journal that’s serious about publishing great stories or essays will pay the small fee to get the web host’s advertising off the page. Sometimes I might add the site to my watch list, assuming everything else looks pretty good, but usually I’ll steer clear of these journals.

4. The journal’s description.

I try not to use the journal’s description to figure out what kind of writing its editors are looking for. That’s what reading these things is for. All of my data in Submitit’s algorithm comes from actual reading. Countless times I’ve come across journals that want “new, fresh, and exciting voices,” when the stories I read are “old, traditional, and boring.” (Or, somehow, vice versa.)

But I do use the description as part of my selection criteria. Some are just terrible: grammar errors, misspellings, and just all-around bad writing. If a journal can’t write a good description of itself, I suspect my clients won’t want their stories gracing the journal’s pages.

5. Submission guidelines.

I realize that one of the reasons writers use Submitit is so they don’t have to concern themselves with literary journals’ myriad and often convoluted submission guidelines. I have to admit, navigating these guidelines is one of the most difficult parts of my job. So, yes, I have to read these guidelines carefully before submitting. (You’re welcome!)

But I also use submission guidelines as part of my vetting process. Most of the top journals request “industry standard” formatting: 12 point Times New Roman font, double-spacing, one-inch margins, etc. (If you’ve ever wondered why I format your work in this way, now you know.)

What’s interesting is that many of the journals that don’t seem to stick around—newer journals, smaller journals—have outlandishly long and often ridiculous guidelines, or ones that contradict the industry standards. (And yes, in terms of submissions, this drives me absolutely crazy.) This tells me that the journal is either out of touch with what most publishers expect with their manuscripts, or they are not interested in making things easy for submitting writers. Either way, I often leave these journals alone.

6. Financial backing.

For the most part, if a journal has financial backing (the most common being from a university), it has a good chance of staying in business. Of course, many of the most well-known journals—that is, the ones with the lowest acceptance rates (think: AGNI, Alaska Quarterly Review, American Literary Review, Arts & Letters, to name just a few starting with “A”)—are affiliated with universities. However, there are many smaller and assumedly more accessible journals connected with universities in some way. This is definitely something I look for.

Other forms of financial support also pop up from time to time, such as grants from individuals or organizations, or geographic affiliations, such as a city’s or community’s arts collective. I consider anything that suggests some infusion of cash or support to be a good thing, because Lord knows literary journals are probably not making money otherwise.

7. Activity with anthologies.

I think many of you know that I’m fanatic about reading the various literary anthologies, from the big ones, like Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories, to the smaller ones, like The Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net. I definitely read these for my own enjoyment and edification. But, in terms of running Submitit, I consider reading these anthologies essential for two main reasons: (1) I often discover new journals, and (2) I strengthen my algorithm (stories and essays that end up in anthologies are often ones individual journals nominated, which means these stories are good measures of a journal’s preferences).

I’m also interested in journals that simply nominate stories, or ones that have received honorable mentions. Bottom line, any affiliation with these anthologies tells me that the journal is serious about its publishing and is probably a safe place for me to submit my clients’ work. Plus, who knows: you just might get anthologized!

8. The journal’s longevity.

As I mentioned above, I love submitting to newer journals. Their acceptance rates are often higher, mainly because they’re not yet inundated with submissions. My seven points above, to a large extent, are my ways of ensuring that these newer journals might stick around for a while. However, I definitely come across smaller journals that don’t necessarily pass all of my tests above, but because they’ve been around, they have the advantage of staying power. If I’m on a client’s second round of submissions and the journal has a high acceptance rate and a high match percent with whatever story or essay I’m submitting, I’ll often give these older journals a chance (click here for more on my two-round submission strategy). At lease we know the journal will likely not be disappearing any time soon.

In conclusion, submitting to more accessible journals is an important part of my submission strategy with Submitit, especially in the second round of submissions. The challenge is finding journals that are small and often new, but will also likely be publishing for the foreseeable future. I hope that all of my clients take comfort in knowing that any journal I submit to has passed at least most of the tests above.


Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.

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