Skip to main content

We Are Altogether Too Efficient


PUBLISHED: November 27, 2007

We thought we knew what to expect from The Angry Letter. These have arrived periodically for the past – and I’m guessing here – eighty two years, always an author who submitted something to us months or even years ago, and he’s heard nothing from us. Generally he’s right to be angry (two and a half years is rather a long time to read a single poem), and we have to track down the errant envelope, whether it’s lodged under a seat cushion or affixed to an unrelated submission. Failing that, we have to beg forgiveness and a resubmission which, in these days of computers, is less disastrous than it was when people would send us their sole copy.

The Angry Letter has taken on a radical new form, now that we have a whizzy new electronic submission system. At least a few people each week are upset because they heard back from us too quickly. An author e-mailed us just this morning, lamenting the “exceedingly quick response time” and asking whether “[her] story was so far below [our] standards that it didn’t warrant further reading beyond the first paragraph.” We’d declined her work fifteen days after she’d submitted it.

It’s understandable that some authors would be puzzled. The expectation has been established that it will take many months for a reply. So it’s logical to assume the worst when a response goes out two days after the work is submitted.

Thing is, we’re not reading any faster than we always have. We’re just moving submissions around faster.

They used to come in via mail, pile up in our office until we opened them and date stamped them, and sit around in genre bins until a reader had time to come by and pick up a bunch to take home and read. After she’d read them she’d scrawl a note on the cover letter and bring them all back, where they’d sit in a pile in our editor’s office. Most submissions could be declined based on the reader’s recommendation, and his assistant would put the submissions back in their SASEs along with our stock declination letter and mail them back.

We do the same thing now, only minus the paper, mail, and piles. We receive the work instantly. Within hours, our load-balancing distribution system assigns it to the reader who has the shortest queue. Generally within a week or two the reader reads the submission right in his web browser, writes a short review, and issues a recommendation. Depending on the recommendation, it may be automatically queued for another reader for a second opinion or passed along to the editor (Ted) for his opinion – again, this happens instantly. Our editor reviews all of these recommendations every few days, looking at the comments that readers made, the consensus view of everybody who read that work, the author’s publication history with VQR and, of course, the submission itself. Then he renders his verdict to accept or decline, with his decision being dispatched to the author by e-mail immediately.

This efficiency is something that we take seriously. Our guidelines discourage simultaneous submissions, so every day that a work is sitting on our (virtual) desk is a day that it’s not sitting on another publication’s desk. Every time Ted sits down at his computer, he’s greeted by a suite of charts and graphs that illustrate the state of our submission process. At this moment, it’s informing him that we’ve received nineteen submissions this morning, 232 submissions are recommended for declination by readers, eight are recommended for acceptance, 1,469 submissions are currently in the hopper and readers have made six recommendations today. September submissions required an average of 18.89 days for a final decision to be made, October averaged 14.84 days, and November is at 10.5 days (though those numbers will continue to drift upwards as we process the stragglers.) We track this stuff because it matters.

We’re not sure of what to do about the new form of The Angry Letter. We’ve considered artificially delaying declination letters, but that hardly seems fair. We’ve got a sort of a stock letter we’ve been sending in response, but surely there are even more people who don’t bother to write, but still feel miffed. As more magazines move to electronic submission systems, maybe quick responses will become normal, and expectations will readjust.

Between now and then, though, spread the word, would you?

6 Comments

AB's picture
AB · 12 years ago
When David Wagoner was at the helm of Poetry Northwest, he managed to maintain about a two week response time. Most poets felt grateful rather than slighted at his prompt attention. I think that’s primarily the case here with VQR’s new system. Maybe artists distrust being treated with respect?
+1
-4
-1
Dave Clapper's picture
That angry letter is one that’s all too familiar to me. Because we’ve always handled our submissions online and because we had the raw energy of crazy youth when we first started out, we often read submissions the same day they were received. And, consequently, we often sent out rejections the same day. Commence the angry emails. So we started to sit on subs at least a couple days before rejecting. It didn’t change the quickness with which we read submissions and decided on their publishability, but it did reduce the angry letters. Anyway… kudos to you for going online for your subs. Would that every publication did so. It improves the time that submissions sit on editors’ desk by leaps and bounds.
+1
+41
-1
Waldo Jaquith's picture
Dave, I was just admiring y’all’s stats on Duotrope a few hours ago. Your 8.5 days average per rejection made me wonder how in the world you handled the angry e-mail – the possibility hadn’t occurred to me that an artificial delay was already built into that marvelously speedy turnaround time. It’d be interesting to figure out the decay rate of angry letters per declination as the response time increases.
+1
-11
-1
lj rey's picture
lj rey · 12 years ago
Thank you for explaining how your selection (and rejection) process works. I fully understand why editors do not (cannot) comment on each submission. It is enlightening to know you have a procedure i place. I would like to think all editors have established the same. It would be considerate if they would publish an explanation as you have done.
+1
+45
-1
Waldo Jaquith's picture
It occurs to me that this brings up a separate problem, too: the work that’s good enough that we hold onto it for weeks or months while we decide if we have a place for it. That’s not going to speed up, no matter how much we automate, because that’s a function of Ted’s brain. So those authors who become accustomed to a two week turnaround time may well be puzzled or even frustrated at a three month delay. I guess they’ll have to learn that this sort of a delay is a good thing.
+1
+42
-1
Chris Blanc's picture
As someone who has been on the receiving end of submissions for a publication, I can attest to how difficult it is to satisfy everyone. Most submissions are, as we like to say politely, “not ready.” This doesn’t mean the author is an idiot, but often, that they’re still learning their craft, but not everyone can be an author. For the small zine I was editing, most submissions that came in looked like they had been written hastily, were designed for another publication, or repeated some very well-worn themes but not as well as others. It can take as few as fifteen seconds to recognize this pattern and hit “next,” and it makes sense to liberate editors from having to slog through too much of this stuff so they can find the few things that are worth publishing.
+1
-11
-1

Recommended Reading