Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Treat 'em mean

One of the most frustrating, gruelling experiences for any writer is the process of submitting your work. It's scary enough putting yourself out there, but some publishers seem to make it unnecessarily hard, putting up all kinds of unexpected administrative barriers. Barriers than can leave a sour aftertaste and ultimately turn your audience away.

The number one rule spelled out to any writer is to follow the submission guidelines. I would like to counter this by asking that publishers make their guidelines clear, concise, and easy to follow. If you are receiving submission after submission in a way you don't like, chances are, you haven't made what you want very clear. Some publishers don't have a 'submissions' section on their website, or if they do, they simply say 'format in the usual way'. You'd be surprised how what publishers want varies. Not just formatting, but whether or not to put your name on your manuscript or story, whether you accept email submissions, whether you want a cover letter and what that cover letter should contain. State the obvious. You might be the first publication a budding author has tried. And if you want specific information, provide a form or template. All of this will make your lives easier.

Further, the submission guidelines should be up to date and accurate. Writers often encounter shifting deadlines, announced themes for issues that later disappear, or entire issues advertised that never eventuate. If you are not currently accepting submissions, keep a submissions page in place and state this on there. Give an estimate of when submissions are likely to re-open, or if you are taking a break from publication, let your writers know.

Consider posting what happens after a writer has submitted. Will submissions be acknowledged, by when, and how? When are writers likely to know the outcome and how will they be notified? Can writers expect to receive feedback? Do you have any feedback from previous submissions you can provide to steer writers in the right direction? Reading back-issues is always helpful, but it doesn't tell the writer what you have previously rejected and why. If there are particular things you don't like, specify them.

Of course, things don't always go to plan. If submissions don't open as expected or previously published information changes, update the information on the submissions page. And if you've published a closing date or a theme and this changes, give previous submitters the opportunity to revise to the new theme/deadline. But most importantly, acknowledge the previous information, advising how it has changed. Give your audience an indication that the information you are providing is reliable. Once your audience loses confidence in your online information, they will resort to contacting you directly, time better spent doing what you do best, searching for and publishing great work.

Now that your prospective authors know when and how to submit, what do you do with all those submissions?

An email acknowledgement goes a long way. Cheap and easy (especially if you keep a spreadsheet of the submissions as they come in), this will reduce the number of queries you field post-submission, and set expectations for when submitters can expect to hear the outcome. Then, stick to your schedule. Things don't go to plan? See above.

Don't have time to give individual feedback? Post some general feedback. What stood out to you? What should your writers be aiming for next time? Give them some pointers. Your judging team will have formed some impressions along the way, wading through. It might have been, 'Please don't make me read another story about X, Y, Z', but writers need to hear this. The result? Better quality, more appropriate submissions.

This is especially important if you have accepted money for submissions. Submitting work takes time and money. Often emerging writers don't get paid even if their work is accepted. At best they might receive a courtesy copy of the finished product. Acknowledging that commitment with some feedback or pointers (and I'm not talking an essay, but a few tips and tricks) goes a long way to keeping the relationship symbiotic, not parasitic.

Remember writers are also your readers. A bit of organisation and effort goes a long way. Employ your interns to do the leg work; that's what they're for. Because it's not whether you accept or reject a submission, it's how you accept or reject it, that will keep your audience loyal, and that means higher quality submissions, a bigger audience, and higher sales. And that is a win-win.


Anonymous said...

My favourites are when the rejection letter is addressed 'Dear Author', or when the submission guidelines say 'if you don't hear from us by XXX, assume you've been unsuccessful'... except your submission hasn't even been acknowledged, so you can't be sure they got it to reject it in the first place.

Christine Priestly said...

I just saw this article on Twitter and thought it was particularly pertinent. From an agent on why they don't give writers feedback...