Emily Thorp, Managing Editor of Sotto Voce, recently took time out from working toward the second issue to answer some questions about starting a new publication, publishing online, what SV is looking for and more. You'll also find, for the first time, mention of new plans for the print edition.
The first issue of Sotto Voce has gone live. Congratulations! How does it feel?
Wonderful! I hadn’t really understood the scope of what we had accomplished until I saw, for the first time, the first issue up and live on the Web site (www.SottoVoceMagazine.com). I am extremely proud—of the editors and reviewers as well as the contributors. I think we have created an exceptional issue by the standard of any literary publication—let alone for an inaugural issue.
A lot of thought and a lot, a lot, a lot of work went into this issue—on everyone’s part. One of my editors e-mailed me recently and said, “When I first saw [the issue on the Web site] a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t prepared for the sense of satisfaction & fulfillment I felt. Having read through each of the stories we had [read] a couple of times already, I was surprised how ‘fresh’ and excited I was to read them again! . . .” I couldn’t have said it better!
What kind of feedback are you getting?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive. (Notice I don’t say “all positive”—that would be untrue—but the only negative feedback I’ve received so far is from those who were turned down for the first issue, and I take heart that even those naysayers have generally gone ahead and submitted work anyway for the second issue.)
Since the first issue went up live on October 22, we’ve had 12,000+ unique visitors to the Web site (as of writing this—November 5). That’s over 800 new people a day coming to see us! And although we haven’t even begun to look at how the votes are stacking up, I can tell you that we have received over 4,000 votes for our annual print anthology, which is going to be strictly “Reader’s Choice.”
You have a background as a freelance editor and copyeditor. What was it that prompted you to start a new publication? Was there a particular niche you wanted to fill?
I’ve been working for years as a copyeditor for textbooks and education titles to pay the bills, and taking lower-paying freelance editing jobs for emerging novelists, short-story writers, and poets. I’ve always enjoyed working on the creative side with these writers, and I was ready to take the next step: creating a new market for writers, artists, and poets.
The niche that Sotto Voce fills is not defined in terms of content—let’s face it, a journal that is seeking primarily contemporary and mainstream fiction, nonfiction, art, or poetry is not exactly a unique entity. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing—there’s a reason why there are so many similar journals out there—people want to see this type of work! However, what distinguishes Sotto Voce from the crowd is in the back-end—the submission and review processes—to which most of the readers will always (as well they should) be oblivious.
The Sotto Voce submission and review processes were conceptualized and implemented from the start as fully functioning database-driven Web-integrated systems that allowed us to, from the very beginning, handle large volumes of submissions and reviews from a large group of reviewers. What that means, in simple language, is that we started off big, instead of starting off small and then growing (with accompanying growing pains!). I felt that if we laid the foundations first (our database and Web form designer started working on the back end months before we “came out”), we could hit the ground running in a big way with the first issue. And it worked! We launched our site, started accepting applications for reviewers and editors, and then opened submissions, and next thing we knew we were processing dozens of incoming submissions each day, getting back hundreds of reviews, and so on and so forth. Because we had spent all that time figuring out how things should work, once we got started, they did!
Was there ever a question as to whether SV would be published online or in print?
Well, from the beginning we planned to publish online quarterly and then to publish a “Reader’s Choice” anthology once a year where the readers get to choose the work they want to see published in print. This was dictated primarily by budget; we agreed from the beginning to provide three copies of the print issue to each contributor as well as one copy to each reviewer/editor, so we knew that each print issue was going to run us about $1,000 just in terms of complimentary copies (not to mention the time to put together the publication).
However, I am delighted to tell you (we have not announced this yet, so you’re the first to find out) that we have decided to compile a print publication for each online issue, beginning with the first (current) issue. Our graphic designer has graciously agreed to contribute the time to put the publication together, and they will be available on-demand from Lulu (www.LuLu.com). We’ll be announcing this within the next month or so on the Web site, once the print issue is ready for printing and purchase. While we won’t be providing complimentary copies of these to contributors or reviewers/editors, anyone will be able to purchase a copy at cost from LuLu. While online publication is great, there’s really nothing like seeing your work on the page!
Can you tell us a little bit about starting up a new publication? How did you assemble your staff? How did you get the word out?
Well, we started with a Web and database designer working on the design of the submissions/review system, and once the site launched we started taking applications for reviewers (at the same time, we started taking submissions). I selected editors from among the most prolific reviewers whose taste and aesthetic were what I had envisioned for Sotto Voce.
To get the word out about the site and the magazine, I worked with our database designer to compile a list of professors and grad students from about 100 universities around the world, as well as editors of and contributors to online literary publications. We sent an e-mail announcing the launch of the site as well as a call for submissions, and the ball just started rolling. In a spider-web fashion, the recipients of the initial e-mails forwarded them around, and within a month we had literally thousands of subscribers and we were picked up by a couple market lists (Duotrope’s Digest, in particular, referred a number of contributors).
What did you learn from putting together the first issue? Is there anything you would change for the next one?
I don’t think we’re going to change anything for the second issue; we really did try to take as much time as possible to think everything through before we began so that we wouldn’t have to make any major changes in subsequent issues. The biggest change I made during the process of creating the first issue was in how we returned feedback to authors whose work was rejected. We ask our reviewers and editors to be as candid and honest as possible in their comments regarding work; those comments are used to make decisions about which pieces to accept and reject. At first, we compiled and returned those comments totally intact to the authors, with a warning in the cover letter that said, in effect: “We have included unedited and uncensored comments from our reviewers; if you don’t want to see them, delete this message now.” This turned out to be a really bad idea. While we had the best of intentions, it turns out that many authors really do not appreciate honest and candid criticism. While we still return feedback with each and every rejected piece, I have had to implement an editing policy to ensure that every comment returned is constructive and helpful (even if negative), and that excessively harsh (albeit usually accurate) comments are deleted.
[Emily Thorp wishes to add the following clarification to this response based on comments she received after the interview was posted.]
Clarification: I did not mean to imply that we no longer respond with frank criticism. We still do honest, and we still do candid. We just started removing criticism from reviewers if it was mean-spirited and/or completely unhelpful (e.g., "This sucks"). While certain pieces may, in fact, "suck," we realized that including that in our feedback did not help anyone, even the author, and that it engendered needless bad feelings from contributors who, after all, took the time to send work to us.[12/8/08]
“In the spirit of authentic feedback, however, if the feedback says, "This sucks because ..." and goes on to detail the issues with the piece, it stays in!
Sotto Voce is Italian for “in a low voice” or whisper. How did you come up with that name?
It’s all about the type of work we’re looking for: something that speaks to the reader without “shouting.” So many contemporary writers and poets seem to think that every piece has to have a shock factor or a wild plot, but the work itself seems to get lost along the way. For instance, swearing: using “fuck” or “shit” or “goddamn” every other sentence will not, in and of itself, make a piece worth reading. My advice: take out all the swearing. If the piece has nothing left, no substance, then it needs to be reworked. Once the piece is strong enough to stand alone without the swearing, then you can add it back in where absolutely necessary. That’s not to say that a foulmouthed character can’t be extremely vivid and realistic, but if excessively bad language is all a piece has to set it apart, then it just doesn’t work.
The same goes for sex, drug use, rape, incest, and so on. If the shock factor is the primary focus of the piece, then there’s not much left for the reader to relate to.
How did you choose the look of the publication?
We tried to keep it in sync with the intent of the publication. The look of the Web site is secondary to the content; we didn’t want the focus to be on the flash rather than the substance. So, we tried to keep the look unobtrusive and simple, and to focus on the content. The look of the print issue will be something else entirely, and I’m very excited about it, but you’ll have to wait to see it!
You note in your guidelines that "all identifying information will be removed" before submissions are sent to editors for review. What made you decide on that process? Not all publications handle submissions that way.
That is one policy that I absolutely mandated from the start, and wouldn’t budge on. No reader’s mind is going to be changed about a piece by the writer’s credentials at the end of the piece or the publication. If readers don’t like a piece, they’re still going to dislike it after seeing that the author or artist has been published in a dozen other prestigious publications; conversely, they’re not going to decide they no longer like a piece if they get to the bio section and find out that it’s the author’s or artist’s first time being published.
To that end, submissions are stripped of all identifying information before they are processed; for the duration of the selection period, not a single one of our reviewers or editors (including me!) has any information about who has submitted the work. None of that information is released until we’ve selected a piece for publication; then, our database manager releases (to us) the name and contact information of the author or artist, and we continue with the publication process.
Ironically, I received an e-mail from a disgruntled contributor (he was rejected for the first issue) who said that “[Sotto Voce] only recognize[s] three letters of the alphabet. MFA.” I set him straight, but I had to laugh at his misconception. Any skewing of our contributor pool in favor of those who have formal education in writing or art demonstrates one thing: that formal education will make you a better writer, poet, or artist. Of course, there are the few-and-far-between natural geniuses but, in general, those who devote their time and energy towards learning their craft will be better at it.
Can you tell us a little more about the review process and how it works?
When the submission comes in, as I already detailed, all identifying information is removed. Then, it is “processed” (added to the database) and distributed to the next available reviewers in our queue. Each reviewer reads the piece and submits an online review, scoring the piece on a scale from “Strongly recommend publication” to “Strongly recommend rejection.” Each piece that is submitted to Sotto Voce is reviewed by twenty-plus reviewers, including at least one editor, before its scores are tabulated to determine rejection or acceptance. This puts most submissions into the “rejected” group, and a very few into the “accepted” group based solely on reviewer consensus. The rest go to our editors for group review and decision.
Handling the volume of submissions we handle would be impossible if we didn’t have this automated system, and we would have overlooked some of the best work in the first issue if we didn’t have a wider reviewing panel. If you only have one or two editors reviewing work in a particular genre, you’ll end up with a very narrow aesthetic that basically reflects only those editors’ tastes.
About how many submissions did you receive for the first issue and what percentage did you accept?
Actually, I can give you exact numbers (the wonder of being high-tech!). We received 4,753 submissions for the first issue: 1,087 fiction; 2,891 poems; 239 nonfiction; and 536 art.
4,441 (93%) were rejected based on reviewers’ scores; 312 (6.6%) were passed on to the editorial staff for review. We accepted 30 pieces overall (0.6%): 7 fiction (0.6%); 14 poems (0.5%); 1 nonfiction (0.4%); and 8 art (1.5%).
Sotto Voce is a paying market, which is becoming increasingly rare these days, even among print publications. Did you think it was important to be able to pay contributors?
Absolutely. Although our pay rates for the first issue were what you might call “token,” we hope and expect to be able to increase them proportionally as the publication grows. Although we haven’t announced it yet, they are slated to double for the next issue. We eventually hope to be able to sell advertising (although I don’t see us advertising on the site, we may be able to sell advertising in e-mails to our subscribers). We would use 100% of that profit to increase our pay rates for all genres of work.
We also expect, mid-2009, to run a contest for a special print issue. We will have two categories: paying and non-paying. Those who choose “paying” will pay a minimal entry fee, $5 or $10, and will be eligible to win 50% of the entry fees in their genre. The remaining 50% will go to fund increased pay rates for our regular issues. Those who choose “non-paying” will not be eligible to win any money, but the non-paying winners’ work will be included in the contest issue.
How are submissions going for the second issue and do you have a target date?
Submissions are going very well. We have over 4,000 submissions to date (as of November 5), and our submissions period is not slated to end until November 19. Our target date for publication is mid-January of 2009.
What advice would you give to writers who are considering a submission to Sotto Voce?
First, and most important: read the current issue to see the kind of work we’ve already published. If you can’t imagine your work fitting in, our reviewers and editors probably won’t be able to, either. Second: proofread your work! Read it out loud! You’ll be able to hear where dialogue sounds awkward or stilted, or where the narration drags. Many submissions we receive are not truly in “final” draft; they need editing and revision.
Don’t: submit a story that ends with a one-sentence “twist” or “reveal” ending, e.g., the guy is dead, the narrator is a dog, or the whole thing was a dream. Do: write about what you know! It’s been said a million times, I know, but there is an authenticity and a genuine feeling to a piece that is rooted in experience that is simply missing from a wholly fabricated story. Of course every piece can’t be autobiographical, but if you know nothing about it (whatever “it” is), you likely won’t be able to make your reader feel anything about it.
Finally, looking into your crystal ball, what do you see in SV’s future?
Oh, so much! I’ve already mentioned our contest issue and our added print issues, and I can’t wait to see what happens over the next year or so. I never expected the extent of our success, although I hoped for it, and I can’t wait to see what the next few issues bring.
Read the current issue of Sotto Voce.
Read the guidelines