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The Possibly Impossible Task of Ranking Literary Journals

Updated: Apr 5, 2023



I wrote a post not long ago about how I evaluate literary journals, focusing mostly on smaller and usually newer ones. These journals are important, especially for the second rounds of submissions, because they give writers the best chance of finding homes for their work.


But what about the “better” journals in my database? How do I decide that a journal belongs in my top tier? What about the next tier down?


First of all, I don’t pay a ton of attention to other published journal rankings, of which there are several. The most popular ones are Erika Krouse’s, John Fox’s, and Clifford Garstang’s; there’s also a new one by Brecht De Poortere with over a thousand journals. While most of these tend to agree on the “best”* journals, once they get past the top fifty or so, they can vary markedly. And some are only based on one or two anthologies, and nothing else. I’ve also found them to be somewhat out-of-date (newer journals are often absent).


So how do I rank my journals? My criteria are below. Note that a top-tier journal—I have roughly fifty of them—will generally perform very well in all of the following categories. The next tier down—roughly eighty journals—will usually perform well in most of the categories.


It's about reputation, pure and simple.

My top 130 or so journals are all reputable. In other words, writers who are familiar with literary journals will almost certainly have heard of them and think highly of them. These journals pop up again and again—in author bios, in anthologies (see below), in conversations with writers, in newsletters and blogs, and so on. If you get published in one of these, you’ll want to add it to your bio in flashing font (if only we could). These are the journals we’re all shooting for (and, sadly, often missing—they’re hard nuts to crack).


Top journals show up in anthologies.

There are several literary anthologies out there. I read the following, roughly in order of importance (most to least): The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The O. Henry Prize, Best of the Net, The Best Small Fictions, and (previously) The Best Nonrequired Reading (RIP). When I consider smaller journals, I’m primarily interested in activity with these anthologies—that is, I like to know that they nominate their writers’ work. But top journals need to actually show up in these things. This is usually the difference between a top-tier journal and one of the journals in the next tier down.


Note: Reading these anthologies, as I do every year, is also a great way to keep my algorithm up-to-date, especially with those journals in the top couple of tiers. And once I get past The Best American anthology, I often discover newer and smaller journals. Every writer should probably read a few anthologies every year. It’s pleasant homework.


How good is the journal’s masthead? (Does it have a masthead?)

If I’m on the fence about a journal, particularly if it’s hovering between tiers, I’ll take a look at the masthead. In my previous post on analyzing smaller/newer journals, I talked about the importance of checking these mastheads. I look for four things: (1) there simply needs to be a masthead (many journals don’t bother to say who they are); (2) I prefer multiple people on the masthead, generally more than two, with clearly defined areas of expertise (journals with one- or two-person mastheads seem to come and go); (3) I like to see members with past or present experience in publishing, preferably as an actual publisher, but at least as a writer; and (4) I definitely want the members to be, as far as I can tell, out of college (there are many journals started by students—high school and college—that rarely last).


With the better journals, I focus mostly on #3: the members of top journals should be experienced publishers, perhaps affiliated with publishing houses or other literary journals (past or present), and/or they should be seasoned writers, with robust and impressive bios. Not surprisingly, journals with exceptional staffs are usually exceptional journals.


Just for fun, I went to New England Review’s masthead, and then checked out its editor Carolyn Kuebler’s bio. Perfection. The masthead is long and diverse. Kuebler’s bio is filled with considerable publishing experience and writing success. This is obviously a top-tier journal.


Most of the best journals are a little long in the tooth (which is good!).

I’d like to believe that top journals have staying power. I just checked my fifty best journals: the average inception date: 1967. And none of them has been around for less than a decade. Clearly, there seems to be some correlation between a journal’s age and its quality.


Of course, there are no guarantees. Some great, long-standing journals have gone defunct since I started Submitit (Tin House, Glimmer Train, and The Seattle Review, to name just three). But checking the inception date is definitely a part of my journal-ranking criteria.


Healthy journals are (at least eventually) responsive, up-to-date, and honest.

Finally, I consider a journal’s general health. Healthy journals update their websites and blogs, stick to their publishing (and contest) schedules, are open for submissions when they say they’ll be, and respond to submissions (like, eventually).


Once a year, using Duotrope, I go through every journal in my algorithm. I update things like acceptance percent, changes to submission guidelines, and submission volume. The last of these especially, in terms of a journal’s health, can be useful. If a journal’s submission volume has slipped noticeably, that’s probably a bad sign. Either the journal hasn’t been open for submissions or writers, for whatever reason, are not gravitating toward it. All the best journals, I’ve found, have high submission rates (which of course is part of why they’re so difficult to get published in).


I also check Duotrope’s non-responsive stats. It’s usually not good if a journal doesn’t respond to its submitters (unless the journal clarifies its non-response stance upfront (see The New Yorker and a few others)).


Here are a few examples (stats via Duotrope): In the past twelve months New England Review had a high number of submissions (335 reports) and a fairly low 8.06% non-response rate. AGNI, another top-tier journal, had 452 submissions and a non-response rate of 5.97%. PANK, once a solid journal, last I checked had a modest submission volume (121 reports), but a whopping 81% non-response rate. Not only did this drop PANK from my top tiers of journals (it was a four-star journal); it also dropped them completely out of my algorithm, at least for now.


*


I don’t share my rankings.

One final comment on my rankings: I don’t share them (at least not in detail). While I’ve tried to create an objective approach to organizing the journals, the process is still somewhat subjective. Writers may disagree with my rankings, which is why we share algorithm results with clients before submitting their work. And certainly some journal editors will disagree, a big part of why I keep them to myself.


Also worth mentioning: Even my lower-tiered journals are ones I’ve carefully vetted (again, you can read more about this here). Calling them one- or two-star journals, if compared to the entire universe of literary journals, really does them a disservice; there are hundreds and hundreds of journals below them (let’s call them zero-star journals) that simply don’t make my cut. In other words, even one-star journals are good journals, as far as I’m concerned. But do I think this idea might get lost with some of my clients? Well, you can guess the answer.


Think of one-star journals as “tall” in Starbucks terms.

I’m reminded of how Starbucks calls its small coffees “tall.” This has always bugged me, but maybe I should try something similar with my journals: good, very good, great, very great, excellent. It’s an idea. I’ll mull it over, over a tall coffee perhaps. Maybe someday I’ll share these rankings. But until then, I hope the above at least gives you an idea of how I organize the literary journals in my database.


*I’ll stop putting words like “best,” “better,” and “quality” in quotes. Much of this is subjective. You get the point.

 

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, Blood Orange Review, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and many others, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. He has a novella forthcoming from Buttonhook Press.

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