A guest post by Yi Shun Lai
“Good luck writing children’s books: It’s all you’re good for.”*
What is this? Has Aerogramme been hacked, or decided to turn abusive for a day?
This is a sampling of the reply letters to declines or feedback I and some editor friends receive each reading period.
Are you shocked? Well, thank you. The solidarity helps. But don’t be too shocked: Something like this happens several times per reading period. And I think we’re seeing more of this type of reply each year. But that’s not what I want to talk to you about. The fact that the Internet has made everyone bolder; that we say things to people online or in emails that we’d never have the nerve (or the bad taste) to say to their faces—that’s not up for debate. Nor is the idea that writers are sensitive about their work, and rightly so. Most editors I know are writers too, so we only need to look in the mirror for a reminder that it hurts to get rejected.
No; what I really want to talk about here is money. Again.
The Literary Magazine Ecosystem: A quick primer
I have a theory, see, about this kind of abusive behavior. I think it stems from the ecosystem literary magazines have helped to promote, this system of creative work being of low or no value. This, also, isn’t up for debate. While literary magazines and everyone involved in producing them work really, really hard to bring unheard voices and great work to light—and often make no money for it—the industry also doesn’t always pay contributors for their work. Plus, we charge reading fees. (At Tahoma Literary Review, where I edit primarily fiction, we pay writers and everyone involved in the publication of the magazine, although we do charge a submission fee ranging from $4 to $7.)
There are many magazines out there that don’t charge reading fees and who pay contributors for their work. I admire them and aspire to them. But overall, we have this…situation in which people pay for editors to look at their work. The bulk of the work gets rejected. This, too, is an unfortunate reality.
For comparison, in the consumer magazine world, it’s free to pitch or query a publication. And you get paid. The bulk of the queries still gets rejected.
Most literary-magazine rejections happen with a boilerplate letter. But a good number of editors I know add a line or two of feedback if they liked the work but couldn’t accept it for one reason or another. (At TLR, we formalize this: an additional $2 gets you actionable feedback on your work, if we have to decline it.)
My editor friends and I get abuse from both the boilerplate and the feedback declines. And I think the reason has to do with the grave inequity one feels from having to pay for someone to either send you a form rejection or tell you what’s wrong with your work.
Having the Hard Talk with Writers
I’m reading a book right now called Difficult Conversations. Written by faculty members at Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation, it outlines the reason many conversations go awry. I haven’t gotten to the part on how to fix these conversations yet, make them more productive, but what is striking me so far is how much conversations—any of them, all of them—depend on one’s image of oneself.
So let’s look at the editorial conversation I’m seeing pop up more and more often:
Writer: Here is my work. Please accept my money to read it and maybe tell me you like it enough to pay me nothing for it.
Editor: Thanks for sending it to me! But no thanks. Oh, and here’s where you’ve failed, just by the way.
Writer: You pretentious c@nt.
Well. That really hurts, doesn’t it? On both ends. And you can see how damaging it is, to both writer and editor. And this conversation leaves no opportunity for closure. What do you say to someone who’s just called you a pretentious c@nt, or told you to go f*ck yourself?
Nothing, obviously. You stew about it. You feel bad. And on the writer’s end, I like to think you feel a little remorse about having sent this thing across.
Or maybe you don’t feel bad. Maybe you feel righteous. I won’t argue that the sensation of being rejected is singular: And maybe you don’t actually believe your work needs feedback or critique. But all of that is conjecture.
Here’s what I think I know about the bulk of writers (again, with glances at a mirror for reference):
- You worked really, really hard on this story, or essay.
- If you’re anything like me, you probably experienced something very like the thing you’ve chosen to write about, so this is a subject matter or a theme that’s close to you.
- You’ve been working on this story, essay, or poem for a long time.
- You have some published work under your belt.
- You are proud of what you’ve accomplished with this story.
- You are proud of what you’ve accomplished so far in your writerly life.
- You may not have a lot of disposable income to throw at multiple rounds of submissions
- You are maybe going to submit this story five or ten times–or maybe once! You remember each rejection.
Now can I tell you a little bit about the editor’s life?
- Last year, I logged 275 hours of work for Tahoma Literary Review, not counting appearances on the magazine’s behalf (panels, educational seminars, so on).**
- I earn $500 per issue from the magazine directly. My associate editors earn less than that.
- I read, with my team of two associate fiction editors, somewhere between 400-600 pieces of fiction each reading period.
- I provide direct, personal feedback on roughly half of those.
Here is the difference between what I know about the writer and how I choose to identify myself as an editor: The description of the editor is a business proposition. If we were ever to sell Tahoma Literary Review, the person buying it needs to know how much work goes into it. As a businessperson, I need to know how much time (read: money I would have otherwise earned using the 275 hours I would have back) I can spend on this magazine before I go completely bankrupt.
The writer’s side looks more like a work of love, even though the editor’s side takes just as much passion and internal drive. (Because, well, you have to be a little in love with something in order to justify getting paid a third of California’s minimum wage doing it.)
I don’t want to imply that I think writers don’t view themselves as professionals. If I had an accounting of the number of hours our contributors work at their craft, I bet it would rival, or maybe surpass, to the number of hours I spend on publishing and editing the magazine.
And yet. The communications we get seem to belie that level of dedication, professionalism, sheer drive.
What we have here is a communication breakdown: I present for you a model by which you can get feedback on your work and fans for the rest of your writing life in the staff of TLR and the readers you reach. You are giving to me a piece of work about which you feel passionately, over which you have toiled, and about which you feel strongly.
But we agree on one front: I feel strongly about your writing, too, even the stories we don’t publish. This is why I am giving you the feedback I am giving you. This is why we continue to champion your work.
We have a long way to go on the publisher and editor side of the literary magazine business before we can call ourselves true professionals, I believe. (It’s telling that Duotrope lists “semi-pro” rates.) I can only justify the time expenditure because I also earn money from writing and editing gigs, and appearances, that stem directly from my position at TLR. (20% of that income goes right back to the magazine.)
But in the meantime, I think it’s good to examine why submitters to literary magazines react the way they do when faced with criticism or rejection.
Would you send a “f*ck you” to GQ’s editor, or the OpEd editor at the New York Times, if they didn’t want to publish your short story, or didn’t reply to your editorial? Would you call someone pretentious over email if they sent you a boilerplate reply? (I’m not even going to address the c-word, because I can’t think of an appropriate situation for that word, ever.)
Would you tell someone at your office they were good for nothing if they turned down one of your ideas?
Why do we behave so differently when it comes to things we’re passionate about?
Years ago, I decided to stop telling young creatives that they should find what they’re passionate about. Now I tell them to hunt down what they’re willing to work towards. (I stole this from someone on LinkedIn and can’t remember who now.)
“Work” is the key word here. Editing is work. Publishing is work. Writing is work. It is business. And if we writers are willing to put our hearts on the line in the form of stories and essays and poems we’re driven to write, time after time again, it behoves us to think of the text we produce, the things we send over, as similar products of our business.
We must communicate in businesslike fashion.*** We owe our work that much.
I have no doubt that there will always be writers out there who feel like their passion for their craft excuses their abuse. I’m beyond the point where I can call it fine: I think your work deserves more than just your passion. I think it deserves a keen business eye.
*For the record, there’s nothing insulting about writing children’s books. I aspire to it.
**This is just my tally. I work in a team of 6 total individuals, so just multiply this number by six, and you’ll get a rough estimate of how many hours we spend annually on this publication.
***At some point I lamented in a private group the number of cover letters I get mentioning people’s pets: “XX YYYY lives in American Town with her husband and her two lizards/cats/fish, who are her in-house critics,” say. An acquaintance who works at a consumer magazine suggested this reply: “We are unable to take your work seriously until you take yourself seriously.”
More from Yi Shun Lai:
- Cover Letters: Advice from a Literary Magazine Editor
- We Need to Talk About Money: Practicality’s Place in a Writing Education
Yi Shun Lai is a prose editor at, and co-owner of, the Tahoma Literary Review. Her debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Her column about the craft of writing and the art of publishing, “From the Front Lines,” can be read monthly in The Writer magazine. She teaches in the online MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University, and at the University of La Verne. Find her online @gooddirt on Twitter and at thegooddirt.org