Thursday, February 5, 2009

Submitting Your Work: The Company You Keep

The slogan for New York Life Insurance is "The company you keep." In a lot of ways that slogan also applies to the publications where writers get published. The best company, of course, is the top tier journals that regularly appear in Best American Short Stories or the Pushcart or O.Henry prize anthologies, but new writers have more of a chance when they arent' competing with Joyce Carol Oates or Rick Bass. At the same time, just getting published––anywhere––isn't good enough. Having your work appear in the wrong company can end up to be more of a detriment than a credit, especially if that publication folds in very short order.

This is an especial concern when submitting to zines. The good news is that online publications are no longer automatically considered second class by print editors. With many print publications moving partially or totally online and other new online publications being created that pay well and attract big names, the playing field for online vs print is practically leveled. However, with zines continuing to be relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, writers still need to beware of fly-by-night publications likely to close down after the first few issues or those that simply aren't selective enough to be taken seriously.

Here are some things to look for when deciding whether a zine would make a worthwhile addition to your publishing credits.
  • Appearance: Does the website look professional or does it look more like someone's blog? Does each piece have its own page or is work simply posted one after another? Does the site have its own distinctive look or does it appear to be just a standard template? A standard template doesn't, in and of itself, indicate a non-professional publication, but it could imply that editors aren't willing to put much time and effort into it. Even a publication that has not yet produced a first issue should have a good, professional look to the website showing guidelines and some information about the zine's philosophy and staff and not solicit simply through e-mails or forums.
  • Editing: Does published work contain a lot of typos, spelling, or grammatical errors? Certainly small mistakes can slip through in the best publications, but if most pieces contain even just a few errors or if one piece contains several, it can mean the editors either aren't serious about what they do or don't themselves know any better. Either way this is likely to make a bad impression on other editors checking your credits.
  • Frequency of publication: Does the zine regularly publish on schedule? Zines can be monthly, quarterly, biannual, or even annual. There is often a variation of a few days to a few weeks from issue to issue, but if a zine doesn't specifically note the frequency of publication, i.e. the next issue will come out whenever it's ready, or if they describe themselves as quarterly but often go four or five months between issues, that should definitely raise a red flag. You could end up waiting ages to see an accepted story in print or the publication could be defunct in a very short time.
  • Writer bios: Being open to new writers shouldn't mean being open to any writer, and while selective publications that publish only beginners, like the old Beginnings, can be ego boosters for new writers, eventually your work has to appear alongside writers with previous credits if you want to be taken seriously. This does not necessarily mean publications where experienced writers are given a leg up. Of the two publications I have worked with recently The Rose & Thorn essentially has no slush pile and Sotto Voce has an anonymous review process where reviewers see neither the writer's name nor any bio when rating a submission. There was a time––and I know because I was there–-when the zines open to "new and emerging writers" received the majority of their submissions from the "new" while the "emerging" favored print. Those, like R&T, that established themselves over the years, eventually started attracting writers with solid credentials and now even new publications like Sotto Voce can be extremely selective. So these days writers who want valuable credits can and should look for zines that publish a mix of first-timers and those with some good credits in their bios.
  • The Company: Finally, the biggest determining factor when considering where to submit your work is a very subjective one. Would you be proud, or at least content, to have your work appear beside the other pieces in that publication? If the work in a certain zine seems amateur to you or you don't care for the style––maybe you find the stories too graphic or gory––then that credit would probably appear the same to an editor of a journal in which you aspire to be published one day. There's never any point in choosing an easy acceptance over good quality.
It can be tempting after being frustrated for months or even years, to lower your sights just to get that first publication credit. But remember, you are looking for credits that will have some value in the future. These days, even if you drop those credits from your bio, someone can easily Google your name to find out where else you have published. Those publications are "the company you keep," so choose wisely.


Kathryn Magendie said...

An intelligent post! I know i've sent to "new" zines before -maybe I was curious, or maybe something about them drew me in, or maybe I liked a slogan or a story they published or who knows! I dont' mind being in very small obscure places, but, I do always try to be mindful of where I submit and never submit willy nilly...good advice!

Nannette Croce said...

Submitting to new pubs can be fun, because, for one thing you don't have to read "a couple of sample issues" before deciding what to submit, but I find you can often tell by the looks of the site, if they list their staff, etc, whether it's going to be a serious pub.

Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

Great post with lots of good information. I'm getting back into freelancing more and this is very timely for me.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Very nice post, Nan. Going read your newest SV story now. (Congrats, and would you mind if I linked to this post soon?)

Angie Ledbetter said...

*clap clap* LOVED your story!!!

Nannette Croce said...


It would be an honor to have you link and thanks for the words about my story. It feels so good to have something out there again, as you know I had given up for a while.

Amy Nathan said...

Great advice here. What I tell newbie writers is that it's usually a slow build. They all want to know how to get the big fancy clips tomorrow. I suggest ezines and websites that look for content -- and try to prepare them for the fact that all pubs (or the ones you should want to be in) are selective. It's a tough lesson to learn...but well worth it!


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