You’ve written, you’ve examined the marketplace, you’ve formatted your manuscript, and you’ve submitted with a great cover letter. Time goes by. Months, perhaps even close to a year. Suddenly an email shows up in your inbox or a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) shows up. The moment of truth! What does it mean?
Getting a piece accepted usually becomes the high point of a day, a week, a month, and usually editors are as excited to be taking a piece as a writer is to have it taken. In that envelope is a publication contract to read and a questionnaire to answer. What are First North American Serial Rights? What about contributors’ copies? Are you getting paid?
And what if that envelope or email is just a rejection? How do you handle it? Is the editor breaking up with you?
Rejection and acceptance are the two outcomes of a cycle of publishing. Now that submission season is underway, let’s talk about judgements on your work and how to handle them.
It shouldn’t be new to you, but in case you haven’t heard it for a while, the first thing to know about any decision by an editor is that it’s a reflection of that single submission, not some statement on you, your style, or your writing as a whole. There are a number of reasons pieces get rejected. Maybe the journal had used their allocated number of pages or has a full editorial calendar. Maybe the staff was divided and ultimately chose to go with another piece. Aesthetics are subjective, it’s possible your piece just wasn’t a fit. The important thing to do is to take a look at your submission and decide if you’re going to make a revision or send it out again.
It’s exceedingly rare that an editor will provide commentary on a general manuscript (though, if you’re looking, there are often online or in-person workshops put on by some magazines. Those are exceedingly worthwhile.), but an editor could definitely include a note in a submission like “This came close, do you have anything else available,” or “We really liked what we saw here,” or “Send more.”
If you get that kind of feedback, submit again as soon as possible. And, breaking my previous suggestion about adding extraneous information to a cover letter, mention that the editor wanted to see more. We tend to remember to whom we give that feedback, but it doesn’t help to jot our memory if the reading period has been closed for a while.
Outside of a positive feedback scenario: DO NOT EVER RESPOND TO A REJECTION.
Look, rejection hurts. It’s the same in writing and publishing as in love, making the team, the job hunt, rejection just isn’t fun. It doesn’t feel great, we get it. But there’s such a thing as demonstrating you’re not mature enough to handle the possibility of rejection, and we’re probably not going to want to work with you ever again if you cross that line.
In the five-or-so years I’ve been working as an editor with direct access to the correspondence accounts for a magazine, I’ve had a dozen or so replies to a rejection that read “Asshole,” or “This is bullshit,” even a “scumbag,” when I (very politely) explained that we couldn’t consider a piece that had been submitted (via a hyperlink no less) because it had already appeared online. I’ve seen and heard from other editors who have had death threats, been harangued, harassed—generally been exposed to stuff that isn’t professional, polite, or fun. We remember you. It stands to reason that if this is your rejection behavior, others probably do as well. Don’t be that person, because that person probably isn’t going to see a lot of people willing to stand behind their work.
The same DO NOT RESPOND TO REJECTIONS extends to the backhanded thank you. If you write in to say “Thanks for your consideration, but I’m confident in my work and the work I sent you this time. You’re making a mistake in not taking this work(s), but I’ll be sure to send it to you again next year, when you have new editors. I’ll just send this somewhere else,” not only am I probably going to use you as a case study in what not to do, but I’ll also be sure to leave institutional record of your correspondence.
If the editor leaves you comments, go ahead and send a thank you note. But do not use a reply to your rejection as an assertion of ego. If you want to do that, use rejections as toilet paper. Paste them to a wall. Doodle on them. But outside of their publishing lives, editors are people, too. Our rejection is based on the merits of the single body of work you presented us with, not your entire personhood. That’s a two-way street. Maybe you don’t agree with our decision, but there’s no need to resort to rudeness.
First, consider the method the news is conveyed. If it’s by phone call (and our editors try calling first), remain calm. OK, you can probably let out any jubilant shouts or “WOOOOOO!” that you’re holding back, but at least do it away from the phone. We’re just as excited as you—I’ve WOOed when a piece turned out to still be available. Next, ask us any questions you’d like about when the piece will be available, but also ask if there’s anything we need from you. Be prepared, minimally, to send a digital copy of your submission, but note that, in most cases, we want the piece as it was submitted. There might be time to consider your most recent revision, but that’s entirely dependent on the production calendar.
Typically, the editor is going to let you know that they’re acquiring the First North American Serial Rights to the piece. First Serial rights mean that the piece has never appeared in print to an American audience. For the majority of magazines, that first appearance is also going to include online publication. Some magazines ask for permissions to issue reprints down the road or to use your piece as sample content on the website (you should agree to this, it means we think highly enough of your work to use it as a fine example for what submissions should do). Some magazines are asking for permission to include it in an eBook version in addition to First North American rights.
We’ll probably also detail your payment. Don’t get tremendously excited, it’s very likely that you’ll only be receiving a certain amount of complimentary copies of the issue in which your work appears. These are contributors’ copies. Some journals may also throw in a subscription and a discounted price for additional copies, but it’s probable that there’s no monetary compensation.
When you’ve finished the call, or finished reading the e-mail, feel free to do any/all of the following:
- Immediately post an all-caps status about your acceptance on Facebook/Twitter. This will get at least 30 likes.
- Call your mother. If you’re not going to tell your mother, call someone that will be unconditionally excited for you.
- Get some ice cream.
- Wear sunglasses where it is normally inappropriate to wear sunglasses. Today, you are exceedingly cool. A lack of shades would result in all those that look into your eyes to melt at literary badassitude.
After and/or during completing that list, start a new writing project. Ideally, you’d have done this the moment you finished submitting, but now’s as good a time as ever. By the time you’ve finished a few drafts of the new piece, your recent acceptance could be your latest publication, which means you’re in the perfect position to start the submission cycle again.