Submit With Salt
Long-time submitter shares insights and experience
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
I have been submitting stories to the shadowy arbiters of literature—lit mag editors, publishers, agents, indie book reviewers—for years and years, with a dismally low rate of success. Time and again, I fill in the windows on Submittable, or on a website’s customized questionnaire, compose a pithy cover letter, attach or paste in my latest effort, and send it off into the catacombs.
From the literary mags, I will, on rare occasions, receive an encouraging rejection—“We like your writing but will have to pass this time. Please try us again”—though far more often receive the standard, oh-so-patronizing form rejection—“Please know our decision is a subjective one and in no way reflects on your ability as a writer”—whereas from agents and publishers I generally receive no response at all. (Indie book reviewers, who charge for their services, do respond in a timely manner, although, as I will discuss below, their process is every bit as shadowy.)
The main problem is trying to discern a rationale behind their decisions, as the range in reader tastes, from magazine to magazine, as well as within individual staffs, is bound to be incredibly wide. And though at the smaller outlets you have a better chance of being read by a senior editor, many of these still rely on volunteers or interns to filter their slush piles. In fact, over the years, of the occasional personal responses I’ve received, most have been from higher profile magazines, places like The Kenyon Review, One Story, and The New Yorker.
When it comes to the fickle, crap-shoot nature of the submission process, one particular experience I had not long ago stands out. In 2020, I submitted a short story collection to Kirkus Indie, the book review arm of Kirkus that appraises self-published books. My submission was titled Night Life: New and Selected Stories, a book that had already received two glowing reviews (one from a talented IndieReader reviewer named Lisa Butts, the other from Joan Baum, formerly of NPR and now a reviewer for The Southampton Press on Long Island’s East End where I live). Further raising my expectations for a strong review, my prior submission to Kirkus (the novel Sparrow Beach) had received a thorough, thoughtful, and ultimately very positive write-up.
Well, this time Kirkus, in what felt like a sucker punch to my solar plexus, trashed the book.
What I found objectionable, however, wasn’t that the Night Life review was negative. Not liking a book is well within a reviewer’s rights. But here, unlike Kirkus’s earlier review of Sparrow Beach, this one offered opinions that were entirely baseless, unsubstantiated, the few details cited being random, extraneous, unconnected to any of the collection’s prominent plot points or themes. The review, anonymously published per Kirkus policy, sounded like the work of a college freshman eager to trot out the new critical terms they’d learned, with no attention to what they were actually reading.
And so, after firing off a couple of complaints, I released a heavy sigh and reassessed, deciding that, rather than market Night Life, I would repackage it as a linked set of stories set on Long Island’s East End. I dropped two of the fifteen original stories not amenable to an East End setting, added two other short-shorts that were appropriately set, chose a new title, had a new cover designed, and re-entered the fray.
Only once this new, slightly modified version, now titled Louse Point: Stories from the East End, had garnered a couple of strong appraisals, did I decide to again send it off to Kirkus. This time, lo and behold, the book got a starred review. Hardly changed, the collection went from being soundly trashed to being singled out as a work of “exceptional literary merit,” as Kirkus itself says of works that receive the coveted Kirkus star.
In the end, I felt gratified, proud to have received the honor; yet at the same time, the visceral blow of the first review far from forgotten, I couldn’t help but feel nonplussed, miffed at the arbitrariness of the process. In the space of one year, I’d gotten two reviews from the same outlet that could not have possibly been more polarly opposite—for what was essentially the same book.
Which is, I suppose, just how it goes. For although talent, determination, and stamina certainly help, when you take the inherent biases of any particular organization, factor in the extreme range of talent and experience on most editorial staffs, what you get is a roll of the dice, anything at all possible, from snake-eyes to double-sixes.
In sum then, my experiences as a long-suffering submitter of fiction to the arbiters of literature has led me to develop my own 3-R mantra, which I repeat regularly through clenched jaw: Write, Reach out, Remember.
Focus on writing, not publishing. Sometimes difficult to do, but having a new piece, taking new creative risks, is energizing and, well, why I began writing in the first place.
Regardless of my attempts to publish, it’s crucial to find actual people who will read or listen to my work. Sending work out into the digital ether is of course fine, but it’s also important to find actual living, breathing readers, be they via community print publications, lesser-known online zines, or people you already know—friends, family members, mates on social media—anyone from whom you can get a personal response.
Once you hit “Submit,” you relinquish your piece to the decrees of a shadowy group that, like the putative gods quarreling atop Mount Olympus, turn out to be fickle, unpredictable, temperamental—in short, not godly at all. Just like the rest of us.
So submit, submit, and submit again—but always with a grain of salt.
The rejections that say things like "We know how hard it is to be rejected" or "We know how hard it is to submit your work" feel unctuous to me, even though the editors mean well. I guess. And Kirkus (or Jerkus as some call it) is notorious for gratuitous nastiness. I wrote about it here in passing and posted that substack on a listserv (I'll keep it anonymous) and people defended Kirkus as determined to help readers avoid bad books. And "objective"! Someone even felt that need to defend Virginia Kirkus--who died in 1980.
I would also add that as far as the quality of the reviews I've received for my 3 self-published books, IndieReader has the best stable of reviewers. Just not as much clout as Kirkus. And IndieReader costs less. So if you want a solid appraisal (for promo/cover blurb, or just for yourself), I'd recommend them.