The Math of Simultaneous Submission

My story is the 247th from the left. No, not that one. The other one. No. Nevermind.

In honor of the beginning of submission season this month, in which we cast all our hopes and dreams at the feet of first-year grad students (no criticism express or implied; we were all there once), a conversation about math:

I had never considered the mathematical implications of simultaneous submission. Or, to be a bit more honest, I had only considered the math from the perspective of a writer. I had thought: As a prose writer, I’m doing well to have three pieces ready for submission at any given time, and if I only submit each piece to one journal, that means–what?–three rounds of submission for each piece in a school-year submission cycle. Given the ten billion-to-one odds that some diligent reader pulls my story out of the slush on a day when she is awake, not hung-over, not distracted by the myriad other responsibilities piled on grad students, and that she then proceeds to read the whole story with a mind open to the possibility of literary success, not crippled by a narrow aesthetic, not in the workshop-engrained fault-finding mode in which everything except that one Alice Munro/Flannery O’Connor/Ray Carver story fails, given those seemingly insurmountable odds, the idea of three reads per year per story feels as arbitrary and futile as a lottery ticket.

So, for the most part, I only submitted to journals that accepted simultaneous submission, or occasionally, on the advice of older, wiser, and more cynical writer friends, simply ignored simultaneous submission requirements altogether. I don’t think this is uncommon. I think that most of us who spend the majority of our writing lives staring at the business end of a rejection letter can barely imagine any other perspective on submission. Forbidding simultaneous submission feels despotic and impossibly unrealistic.

This spring, Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald, co-editors of the Beloit Poetry Journal, held a skype-in conference with my undergrad literary magazine class. The BPJ doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions. Sharkey, a terrific poet on top of being a great editor, helped us understand the math from the other side of the slush pile, which, despite my work on Willow Springs and, now, as faculty advisor for my college’s little undergrad magazine, I’d never really thought through. If every writer in the English-speaking world is submitting every “finished” piece to three or five journals, instead of one, obviously that increases the number of submissions in the universal slush pile exponentially. An exponentially-expanding slush pile produces that impossible, arbitrary literary slot machine. Each piece gets less-than-thorough treatment from the editors (if it’s even read by an editor at all), and gestures like providing a line of meaningful feedback to writers seems laughably naïve; a one-month turnaround, farcically idealistic. The slush becomes a chore to readers and editors and, truthfully, not a real source of content for many magazines, much of which will necessarily come from solicitation. Cut out all of those simultaneous submissions, though, Sharkey says, and the machine runs smoother. The ideals seem less naïve.

Within twenty-four hours, a poem submitted to the BPJ has probably been read twice, and if it is not under serious consideration, it is usually rejected within a week or two. Each poet who submits receives feedback from one of the two co-editors, and the magazine avoids relying on a stable of solicited writers to fill its pages. There are lots of factors that enable this, but one of them is the no-simultaneous-submission policy.

So this changes my thinking a little. Will it change how I submit what I submit this fall? I don’t know. If I can find the prose equivalent of the BPJ, maybe. I haven’t found it yet. Have you? One way or another, talking with diligent and dedicated editors like Sharkey reduces my cynicism about the process, and that’s a good thing.

10 Comments

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Great post! I think about this (though not in such a well thought-out manner) a lot, especially when thinking about my fiction friends. Whereas I can usually send around 5 poems to each journal, fiction typically gets 1 story.
    That’s a lot of the reason I’m WAY more excited for fiction friends who have things accepted than when a poem gets accepted.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Yeah. I often feel sorry for myself in this regard. Especially when you add in the fact that, in any given issue of a literary magazine, they’re likely to publish 10-20 poems and only 1 or 2 stories/essays.

      But, before the self-pity gets too overwhelming, I remember that I’ll never be in the position of trying to publish a book of poems. Just trying to find the poetry section in Barnes and Noble is enough to make me worry about the fate of humankind. So, there’s that.

  • I love it when you go all mathy on us. :-)

    Although I understand the BPJ editors’ point, I don’t buy it. Even if all writers in the world only sent their finished pieces to one journal, there would still be editors that wouldn’t bother getting back to people in their slushpile. And so writers would sit and wait forever. Although I guess the solution to this is to give yourself a deadline for submitting elsewhere.

    In the genre fiction world, most editors and agents assume you are submitting to more than one place. The motivation for them to read the slush is to get to the outstanding work before someone else snaps it up.

    No matter what genre you write, you should of course, notify everyone you’ve submitted to if your work is accepted.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      I even considered including numbers, but then I realized that someone would inevitably check them and my facade of arithmetic competency would be undone.

      Sadly, you’re right about the fact that not all editors are as diligent and committed as the folks at the BPJ. But some are. And, if I could figure out where those folks are, I think I might be more willing to abide by a no sim-sub policy.

      • Shira Richman says:

        BPJ is a great model. If all journals who don’t accept simultaneous submissions could be so fast, the system could work. I’ll be on the look-out for others that are quick. You’ve given me new respect for the policy (no simos)that had seemed to me as mostly snotty.

  • Great post, Jonathan! For quite a while, I’ve been submitting to journals first that do *not* consider simultaneous submissions and if the turnaround time is fast (as above), it makes a lot of sense for all.

  • Vic says:

    threepenny review

    conjunctions is pretty good this way too. then again that might only be for stories rejected early in the process. if a story makes it up the chain a bit they seem to take longer (> 2 months).

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