The Art of Timing When Submitting to Literary Journals
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
I’ve been running Submitit now for about a year, and I’m happy to say that we—I must say we, since the stories are yours—have had some success: I’ve helped get over twenty stories accepted by over a dozen journals. The success rate is currently excellent (I’m going to blog about this soon, with real statistics, but (spoiler alert) I’m well over 50%, in terms of getting stories published, which is better than I could have hoped when I started this thing). I’ve definitely failed to get some outstanding stories published (although many of these are still officially “in play”), so it’s not all whiskey and roses (or however that goes), but so far, so pretty good.
Most of Submitit’s writers have (I should say: had) never been published before, and anyone who’s gone through the submission process knows how challenging and toilsome (and usually futile) it can be. I’m happy to have helped writers overcome these challenges.
But, despite my company’s success—or perhaps because of said success—I’ve decided to make a fairly significant change in terms of the timing of submissions. First, a little background. . . .
In a Perfect World
The perfect submission plan, in terms of timing, is elusive, but it would probably go something like this: I’d rank every journal in my algorithm, from #1 for the “best” journal (maybe New Yorker? maybe Ploughshares? maybe New England Review (we’re already in trouble, but let’s keep going)) to #470 for the “worst” journal in the algorithm, run by some guy named Sam from an igloo in Alaska. (This last journal wouldn’t really make it into my algorithm, but you get the point.)
(By the way, side note: when I wrote “#” above, it meant number, not hashtag, which latter I don’t really understand (an admission).)
Then, after ranking my literary journals, I’d determine how long, on average, each one takes to respond to its submissions (not really possible, but roll with it), add a few days as a cushion, and submit accordingly, starting with the highest-ranked journal on a client’s match list—that is, I’d stagger each submission, so that (in theory!) we’d hear from the best journal first, then a few days later the second-best journal, and so on. If we submitted to, say, twenty journals (over the course of many months), we’d hear from all of them around the same time (probably six months or so after the first submission), in order from “best” to “worst.” (I keep putting “best” and “worst” in quotes, since this is totally subjective—I’m thought-experimenting here, everyone!)
Another, more realistic, option would be to place the journals into ranked tiers, let’s say five of them. Then I could submit tier by tier. But we run into the problem that journals in one tier do not necessarily have matching response times. My head already hurts.
In an Imperfect World
It’s possible that a single writer, handling his or her own submissions, and using Duotrope’s journal statistics for response time estimates, could handle the above approach (probably the tiered method). But journals are not particularly consistent in their response times (and data for newer journals, an important part of a good submission strategy, is non-existent), and, in any case, it’d be a heck of a lot of work.
As far as running a submissions company like Submitit, the one-by-one-staggered method, or even the tiered method, would be a huge challenge without automation, and automation is probably unfeasible: the journals’ various submissions guidelines are just too dissimilar: some read “blind,” some require bios at the ends of stories, some have rules about file names (annoying!), some want block paragraphs (as opposed to indents), some want client information in footers, some prefer headers, some use Submittable, some use emails, etc., etc., etc.
The Two-Round System
So I landed on my current two-round system. As you know, the first round of submissions includes relatively high-quality literary journals that share a number of characteristics: they’ve usually been around awhile and are well-known; they have expansive and experienced mastheads; they’re active (and often successful) in the various literary anthologies (from Best American Short Stories and Pushcart to Best of the Net and Non-Required Reading); they’re often financially backed by a university or other entity; they usually offer an attractive presentation of their work (either print or online); oh yeah, their work is often of high quality; and, importantly, they tend to have very low acceptance rates, usually less than 1%, and very high submissions volume.
My second-round journals are often newer; mastheads tend to be smaller; they usually are lacking university or other financial backing; they may be less consistent with their publishing schedules and, sometimes, the quality of their work; and so on. But these second-rounders are also the journals with the higher acceptance rates, and they also usually have much smaller submission volumes (which, of course, is part of the reason for the higher acceptance rates).
In short, the second round is usually my “money round.” Of the twenty-three stories I’ve helped get accepted in the past few months (I hope this will be out-of-date by the time I publish this post), all but four of them were second-round submissions. Again, this isn’t really surprising, for reasons mentioned.
But there’s an important question to be asked, which is the essence of this (overlong?) post: how long should I wait between rounds?
With enough data to finally take a quantitative look at this, it’s become clear to me that I should wait longer between rounds. I had been waiting around six weeks, thinking that this gave the first-round journals enough of a head start. But many of the second-round acceptances have come in a matter of just a few weeks, sometimes even sooner. And the first-round journals are taking, on average, between four and six months (!) to get back to us.
It’s a little like applying to Harvard and West L.A. City College (just down the street from me—go Wildcats!), and committing to the latter before we’ve heard back from the former. (Of course, my analogy sucks, because we can sit around waiting for all of our college acceptances to come in, which is a bit of a faux pas in the publishing world, but you get my drift.)
So, after much thought, and after talking to a few of my clients, I’ve made a change: I’m going to start waiting roughly four months between rounds (167% longer than my original approach). This should allow us to hear from most of the first-round journals before moving to the next round. If we get a number of positive personal rejections, we might even choose to wait longer.
Yes, there is a catch to this approach, and I think it is obvious; it is simply this: most of us aren’t getting into Harvard! As I mentioned, the top journals tend to accept fewer than 1% of their submissions. What this means, of course, is that my clients are going to usually have to wait much longer before their work (hopefully) gets accepted. Importantly, the odds don’t go down, but the wait increases. We’re basically trading speed for the potential of a higher quality acceptance.
It’s really no skin off my back. Many of my check-in emails will simply move between rounds, rather than after the second round. I’m still keeping track of everything. And I’ll remind you from time to time that the second round is coming (so be patient, write some stories, write some more stories, and write a few more (and send me one or two!)).
But what if you’d rather not wait for, literally, months and months, before moving to the easier second round? That’s totally fine. I can handle this in two ways: (1) I can actually start with more accessible journals (I sometimes do this anyway, depending on the match percentages that my algorithm spits out), or (2) I can move the second round up. Or I can do both of these things. Option 2 might especially make sense if we’ve gotten a number of first-round rejections relatively early in the process. The tea leaves might be telling us something.
I think it’s important to reiterate: my algorithm sometimes makes the decision for us, in terms of first-round journals; some stories just don’t match well with top journals (for many reasons: not only, or not necessarily, because of a story’s “quality” (whatever that really means)). I can usually trust the algorithm. It’s what makes this whole Submitit thing work. But there’s always flexibility vis-à-vis the time between rounds.
So what to do? Of course, I could advise a client, based on my own sense of his or her work and my knowledge of literary journals (having read probably more of them than anyone else on Earth), but it puts me in a sticky situation that I’d rather avoid. So please consider where you are in your writing career. If you’re hoping for your first published story, or if you’ve only been writing for a few years, let me know, and I’ll move the second round of submissions up and potentially start with more accessible literary journals. On the other hand, more experienced writers, or those with multiple publications already under their belt, might stick with my default plan (waiting for around four months between rounds). It’s really up to you.
Thanks for reading. I hope everyone’s having a great summer.
Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.