Thursday, October 18, 2007

How Shall We Submit: An Examination of Submission Guidelines

How Shall We Submit: An Examination of Submission Guidelines

By: Charles P. Ries

I have tried to honor the submission guidelines the editors of both print and electronic magazines have created for me. I have stumbled only a few times—this mostly due to my being reckless and in a hurry. To those editors whose guidelines I have stepped on (and you know who you are), I apologize.

As a form of therapy and self-education, I wanted to understand why submission standards are necessary and who benefits from them. I invited fifty editors of electronic and print magazines to explain their submission philosophy. Twenty-two were good enough to reply. Of these, sixteen accepted simultaneous submissions and previously published work, five were strongly opposed to it, and one was open to both, but not simultaneous publication.

Although the concept of what can be submitted is simple (if one reads the rules), there is surprising variation with regard to expectations. Some wanted to know who accepted the piece first so credit could be given to that publisher; another was willing to run interviews, reviews, and essays that had appeared elsewhere, but not poetry. Still others would make exceptions for exceptional work. The majority that weighed in on this issue just wanted the best work to be published and read as often as possible.

No one representing an academically funded publication responded to my query. This may be more a reflection of the kinds of magazines I tend to work with than academic unwillingness to reply.

The circulation of the print magazines responding ran between “a few” to thousands. The electronic magazines ranged from hundreds of visits per month to many thousands per month.

The magazines that opposed simultaneous submissions or the practice of publishing already published work were equally divided between print and electronic. One might think that the lower cost of putting out an electronic magazine would make for more benevolent submission guidelines, but this didn’t seem to be the case.

Here is a sampling of the comments I received from various editors. As you will see (and I hope, enjoy), these reflect a wide variation on the theme of what work may be submitted to a literary magazine:

“I do print work that has been published elsewhere. I don’t think a magazine should feel so ‘precious’ as to only feature works never seen before. In Asia, where many of my readers come from, there is even less concern about reading new work because, for example, any poetry from the States featured in the journal is new to, say, readers in Hong Kong.” Cyril Wong, Editor, Softblow

“My goal is to publish and circulate work, not control it. While I wouldn’t choose to reprint a work that has been published many times, I actually encourage the multiple publication of works that have only been printed by small mags because of the limited audience and print runs for each mag. Although the small press can be a cozy little world, I would be willing to bet that if you matched up the subscriber lists of, say, Bathtub Gin, Poesy, Main Street Rag, and Heeltap, you would find very little overlap. I see reprinting as a way of helping an author find a larger audience.” Christopher Harter, Editor, Bathtub Gin

“We seldom reprint anything anymore, especially with a good chance our subscribers will see it elsewhere. There’s also too much good material out there for a duplicate printing to take the space of someone else’s possible lone chance. The Pushcart anthology is supposed to reprint deserved pieces, though I personally think Bill Henderson favors big budget, established university publications over ‘zines,’ and the famous (does Joyce Carol Oates need yet another credit?) over deserving unknowns. Someone should take him on with a true small press anthology/annual—but it’s probably impossible nowadays without the backing (on many levels) of influential people willing to be altruistic.” Phil Wagner, Editor, Iconoclast

“I don’t have a problem with previously published work or simultaneous submissions as long as the person is upfront with me about it. As a poet who submits her own work, I understand wanting a piece published in more than one place, and because of the long waiting period with some zines/magazines, wanting to send it out simultaneously.” Kathleen Paul-Flanagan, Editor, Remark

“We don’t have a problem with simultaneous submissions, but we don’t consider reprints. In the words of another editor— if you can write one good story, you can write another. Instead of sending the same piece out over and over, get off your ass and write something new. The goal of most literary journals is to promote new work. If it has been published, it isn’t new. If a writer is trying to build a reputation for him or herself, the best way to do this is to present a variety of work, not rehash the same piece over and over. The pool of readers of literary journals is pretty small.” CL Bledsoe, Editor, Ghoti Fish

We will take previously published work on a case by case basis. We are much more interested in previously published work if the author is deceased and/or marginalized, neglected, or banned. Pemmican is likewise open to considering simultaneously submitted work. As sometimes publishing authors ourselves, we understand how hard it is for writers to send to a magazine, wait around for months for a reply only to get a rejection slip, and then have to repeat the whole process. You’d be hard pressed, however, to find many magazines that look favorably on simultaneous publication, especially when the magazines involved are not aware of the simultaneous publication and discover it, say, by accident or by a tip. Writers who publish broadly without informing the respective magazines of such seem to be under the assumption that all magazines exist exclusively to promote their particular work and are only ‘good’ to the extent that they serve as useful stepping stones. Most magazines insist that authors, once accepted for publication in their pages, do not continue to send the work in question out for further publication for a specified period of time.” Robert Edwards and Ben Howard, Editors, Pemmican

“The limiting boundaries of the small press preclude many readers from being exposed to work that is bound by the exclusiveness of some publications. No one can afford to pay for, or read, all of the many fine venues that exist. Therefore, it is unfair to the writer as well as the reader to put them away once they have been exposed to a rather limited audience. Publication of previously published work gives each publication a chance to vote on the quality of work submitted and the poet writing it. Each time a work is published, the press publishing it is voting on it. And thus adding to their editorial prowess and judgment.” Thomas Conroy, Editor, The League of Laboring Poets

“When I see in my favorite magazine the same poem that I just published, or planned on publishing, it is sort of a let- down. Like, okay, there is one page of my magazine that someone will skip over if they just read it in Free Verse or Blind Man’s Rainbow that same month or the month before. It detracts from the beauty of the magazine, so I stopped accepting simultaneously submitted work. But, there are always exceptions. If it blows me away, I will publish it even if it appeared somewhere else. But as a standard, I prefer not to look at recent simultaneously submitted work. I guess there is a fine line. Reviews and articles should always be simultaneously submitted. Poetry is a different ball game altogether...” Brian Morrisey, Editor, Poesy

“We put a lot of effort into pulling together the content for both a print and online edition each quarter; we feel we owe it to our readers as well as to our writers to choose the best of the original work we receive, and it is a vexing problem to deal with undisclosed simultaneous submissions or previously published work. Given our tight schedule, we prefer not to read work that falls outside of our submission guidelines.” Eric Lorberer, Editor, Rain Taxi

“Really? You want to read the same thing over and over again? Why not just read the same magazine over and over again? And what about the writer? Should he never write anything new? Just publish the same piece repeatedly? As a reader, I don’t get it. A publisher is eager to find that newcomer who hasn’t seen print before, whose work the publisher may have interacted in, making suggestions for changes, tightening it up, building suspense, correcting spelling and grammar errors. You get the kid still in college (or even high school) who has finally gotten the guts together to venture out and place his work before a critical stranger and you publish the first thing he’s ever sent out, or the second, then you’ve fulfilled some kind of higher purpose. You’ve given more sincere praise to that kid than any professor’s marginal note could. Keeping an already-published piece in circulation is the purpose of the anthology. Finding and presenting new work or promoting new work in whatever way possible is the purpose of the magazine. The cost of publishing is a pittance now compared to when I first got the publishing bug back in the 60s. There is no reason why anyone with his own slant on writing shouldn’t be publishing a magazine and gathering anthologies. There is a way for everyone to win in this situation, as long as everyone sticks to his or her mandate. There is no reason for magazines to become anthologies or anthologies to become magazines. There’s a good reason we have both.” Robert Bixby, Editor, Parting Gifts

“I’ve always thought that the purpose of a mag or ezine is to be a vehicle for the writing, not the other way around. Here I’m also writing from the perspective of poet myself, so I know the frustrations of submitting work to mags only to have them sit on a poem for months, if not years sometimes. I used to follow the rules when it came to submitting work, but now I confess that I have sent out poems that I think are really good to any number of mags and not advised the editors that they are simultaneous subs. I want my work to be seen by as big an audience as possible. I know that this isn’t such a good plan, but I’ve grown tired of playing the game and being taken advantage of by this ‘first time published’ rule. In fact, it was this limitation that was partly an inspiration to start the Lummox Journal in the first place.” RD Armstrong, Editor, Lummox

“Poems deserve to be seen, heard, and read by a wide audience. If this means a poem is printed at the same time in two or more magazines or online zines, then that is legitimate as far as I’m concerned.” Irene Koronas, Editor, Wilderness House Literary Review

“My opinion with regards to reprints is probably not typical because I run a print magazine in South America, and my readers are mainly South American. For this reason, I can and do use reprinted material (even material that has appeared online) since my readers are unlikely to have read the pieces previously. And this is important, since, in the end, editors are mainly interested in keeping our readers happy. If we give them bad stories, they won’t be happy, and if we give them stories that they’ve read before (and make them pay for the privilege), they won’t be happy. The trick, in my opinion, is to try to sell it to an editor who has a different market from that in which the story has previously been seen. If this is the case, and you are honest about the publication history, many editors will give a good piece a home. Despite popular misconceptions, truly good stories are not all that easy to find—especially for the small press.” Gustavo Bondoni, Editor, Buenos Aires Literary Review

“I don’t believe that a single reader has ever been harmed by reading a good poem twice. Furthermore, I believe that publication by small journals has all too often been the ‘kiss of death’ for poems. A poet puts all his inspiration, skill, and craft into a poem. The poem is read by a handful of readers and then is consigned to the literary graveyard called ‘Previously Published.’” Michael R. Burch, Editor, Hypertexts

“As for the legality of publishing poems that have already been published and for which other publishers have taken first rights, and that have been returned to the poet (which is almost unanimously the case), the attorneys I’ve consulted about this, two of whom were literary attorneys, agree that there is no copyright problem.” Ellaraine Lockie, Poet

“I’ve been duped multiple times by some of the biggest names in the small press who ignore the fact that we are not interested in previously published material. Since they MUST sign a Publishing Agreement to have their work featured in Main Street Rag, they have shifted the burden of responsibility for copyright infringement back to themselves, meaning if someone sues MSR, all we have to do is show the signed agreement and they must then go after the author because the author lied on a legal document. I am a legally registered business. I pay payroll, state taxes, federal taxes—and all the other crap that comes along with being a legal business. Many small press people do not register as a business, don’t collect and pay sales taxes or income taxes. It is among these folks that you will find the most prevalent attitude of sure, we don’t care if it’s been published before. And why would you expect anything else: they’re flying beneath the legal radar for everything else, why expect them to abide by copyright laws? Is that good for the author? I don’t think so. It means their work may not be protected by copyright laws.” M. Scott Douglass, Editor and Publisher, Main Street Rag

“The rule for poeticdiversity is that, as long as you include the name and date of WHERE and WHEN the work previously appeared, we will more than likely republish it—at least 80% of the time. Unfortunately, the rule for ‘exclusivity’ creates a dishonest chord between the poet/writer who isn’t willing to commit 100% to their work by omitting this relevant information to the editor of the publication in question. As a poet and writer who submits her work to a variety of journals, I understand the frustration of running up against the ‘status quo’ rule of ‘no previously published work,’ and I choose to take my chances with more sympathetic journals. On the flip side, while I do believe that a poem/story/article should be read by a wide audience, disseminating it to as many journals as possible in a short space of time undervalues the work. It’s like hearing the same batch of poems from a poet at an open mic six weeks in a row. I’ll stop listening after the second time.” Marie Lecrivain, Executive Editor, poeticdiversity

“We have no restrictions. We believe the property belongs to the writer. If a work has been previously published we only require permission from the publisher and writer, and take care to mention its previous publications in our journals and chapbooks.” Diana E. Saenz / Marshal L. Harvey, Co-Editors, Boston Poet Journal

I subscribe to over twenty-five small press literary magazines, but given the pace of my life I can’t read them all—I don’t even come close. Most I scan, and a few I will read from cover to cover. But I think we all realize at some point that there are more things to read than hours in the day to read them. This is why I believe that great work should be allowed to be submitted again. With thousands of outlets for writing, the chances of reading the same published work of one writer twice in separate publications are slim to zero. Even if this should happen, why make the exception the rule?

As for the imperative that writers who can’t continually generate new and exciting work are failures, well I think that logic is flat-footed. Over a nine-year period, I produced about 300 poems. Right now I am not writing much poetry and have begun to focus on other writing forms. So when all of my poems have been published, do I cease to submit them? Maybe there is a middle ground; perhaps an editor can accept already published work if it has not been published anywhere within the last year?

Regardless of how we feel about submission guidelines, we must honor them and those who publish us. If editors insist on a once-and-done code of acceptance, then I would ask that they explain the philosophy along with their submission rules. Such explanations would allow the writer to become a participant in the ethos of the publication. Phil Wagner’s simple statement that, “There’s also too much good material out there for a duplicate printing to take the space of someone else’s possible lone chance” resonated with me not because of its logic, but because of its goodness.

I have sympathy for the publisher who has no university backing and/or must live on subscriptions. I can understand why they might begin to feel the pressure to publish only the “first,” the “original,” the “breakout piece of prose” when sales matter. But do such restrictive submission guidelines serve the work or do they serve the publisher?

Note: This article appeared first in print in Free Verse, and it first appeared electronically on

Web Sites of Magazines Noted in This Article:

Ø Buenos Aires Literary Review:
Ø The HyperTexst:
Ø Main Street Rag:
Ø Lummox Journal:
Ø Remark:
Ø Softblow:
Ø Bathtub Gin:
Ø Ghoti Fish:
Ø Poesy:
Ø Rain Taxi:
Ø Wilderness House Literary Review:
Ø Poetic Diversity:
Ø Boston Poets:
Ø Pemmican Press:

Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over two hundred print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory and five books of poetry — the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot (, Pass Port Journal ( and ESC! ( He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore ( He is a member of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission and a founding member of the Lake Shore Surf Club, the oldest fresh water surfing club on the Great Lakes. You may find additional samples of his work by going to:

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