June 16th, 2011

What Happens When a Literary Submission Gets Published in a Journal/Magazine

I don’t know how many Rose-coloured readers, if any, are aspiring writers, but it seems like there are a lot of articles out there designed to helps us cope with rejection of our  literary work. A useful skill, no doubt, but I don’t see a lot of guides to help us deal with acceptance of said work, which, while a much more cheerful circumstance, can also be quite confusing. In an effort to stay on the Rose-coloured path, I have assembled my humble experiences with acceptance (never as many as one would like, though still not inconsiderable) into a Rose-coloured Guide to Coping with Acceptance in journals and magazines:

How long should you wait for an acceptance? There is no standard answer except: longer than you think. If the submissions guidelines list wait times, go with that plus a few weeks. If they don’t…hopefully less than a year. It is true of many (not all) lit journals that a yes takes longer than a no. For a no, many journals just need several negative reviews from first readers, and into the rejection envelope it goes, while positively reviewed pieces get passed up the food chain, read again, discussed in a meeting, possibly held over for a future meeting, and eventually accepted. And then someone has to get round to writing you a personalized note (these are lovely) accepting the piece. These things take time. It’s not always the case that no news is good news–some mags are just backlogged and slow–but good things definitely take time.

Will I get an acceptance in my self-addressed stamped envelope? Nope. I have received 100% of my story acceptances via email, even when I’ve sent a SASE. I think editors just want to get the process started at that point–they need to make sure the story hasn’t been submitted/accepted elsewhere, discuss edits, sign a contract, etc.–and email is faster.

What if I *did* submit it elsewhere? If you submitted somewhere that accepts simultaneous submissions, just drop them a note and say, “I have to withdraw my piece as it has been accepted elsewhere”–no harm, no foul. If you did submit simultaneously when the journal asked submitters not to, your email will have to be a bit more cryptic. And no, the editors of the scorned journal *probably* won’t see your piece elsewhere, realize you broke the rules, and blackball you forevermore from their journal…probably. I don’t have experience in this, though, as simultaneous submissions remain a chance I’m not willing to take.

Will I have to sign a contract? What if I don’t understand it? Maybe. Most of the bigger journals have them; smaller/newer ones mainly don’t. I find them very simple–generally it just promises a period of time in which the piece will be published and an amount of money they’ll give you. Journals and magazines should generally be asking for “First serial rights”–they’ll put it in a periodical before anyone else. If a print journal wants to put some materials on the web, they need to stipulate that and you can generally say no to that part without refusing the print part. Sometimes a journal will ask that you wait a bit of time (1 year, maybe?) before republishing, but the odds of ever being able to republish something are slim anyways. If you find yourself het up about a contract, sleep on it, then reread. If still worried, get a writer who has published a lot to look it over, or just query whoever sent it to you about what things mean. I have almost never had an issue with these contracts; they are usually nothing to worry about. Just send’em in on time.

When do the edits come? Will they be scary? Short answer–no, usually not scary. But the long answer is very long, as no two pieces of writing need the exact same things editingwise. Let’s go through some broad categories:
Revise and resubmit–This is technically not an acceptance, but I’m putting it here because it often looks like one and writers get confused. An experienced editor will word an R&RS really carefully to be clear–“Sorry that we cannot accept but…” or the like, but others don’t, and then a letter full of feedback starts to look like editing advice. What an R&RS is is an editor’s very positive reaction to a piece of writing with (what s/he perceives as) some serious flaws. S/he doesn’t know if the writer is capable of doing the work to fix these problems or would want to, so has just sent his/her thoughts. If you act on the suggestions, the ed would be interested in rereading the work and *possibly* accepting it.


If the feedback doesn’t seem useful to you, or nothing you’d be interested in acting on, sleep on it, and if you still feel that way, tell the editor thank you and that if you make use of their suggestions you’ll be sure to resend the work. Doesn’t matter if you never do–it’s their time and energy you appreciate. I would not argue or debate what is essentially just someone’s opinion; however, if you don’t understand something, by all means ask–might as well get all you can from the advice.

If you want to act on the feedback, send an immediate thank you and, unless the editor asks for the work for a given deadline, *take your time*. It is too exciting when you get helpful thoughtful engagement with your work for the first time, and very tempting to rewrite it overnight and send it off at dawn. Don’t do that–take your work through another draft, have others read it, sit on it for a while, then read it again and send it off. Why not give it your best shot?

Conditional acceptance–this is pretty rare with creative work–it’s a term carried over from academia, where you can ask a writer to add more data or examples or whatever in specific ways and know that you will like the result. It’s very hard for an poetry/fiction/creative nonfic editor to suggest edits so specifically that s/he knows that the piece will be acceptable after those edits have been done. Basically, I’ve seen this only applied to cuts–“We’d love to take this piece, but we’d like to remove the 7 pages in the middle that are exclusively about cats. Ok?”

If you don’t feel comfortable with the edit requested, it is totally fine to offer an alternative change–“How about just 6 pages?” “How about the dog section goes instead?”–keeping in mind they might say no. Some in the industry would call this “push back,” or simply “engaging with the editorial process.” Whatever, it’s normal. You might offer a brief explanation for why you prefer your alternative change. Also, if you feel you can’t make the change suggested nor any other, say so politely and with a brief set of reasons. Unless of course your reasons are that your work is inviolate and no one is allowed to edit it; in that case, you shouldn’t be submitting to publications run by non-relatives.
Acceptance, with some edits. You might get an enthusiastic acceptance with a small suggestion to re-examine your ending to make sure it’s totally clear (this is something I’ve heard several times) or to strengthen some bit of character development, etc. etc. As with all of the above, my advice is the same: think about it, sleep on it, try doing what’s been suggested and, if it really doesn’t work for you, propose an alternative and say why. Remember: editors have been doing this a long time, and more often than not wouldn’t waste their time offering you bad advice.

Will the editors make any changes I don’t know about? One would hope not. The major edits mentioned above should come in an email (or notes on a hard-copy, if you have a time machine). Then there will be a copyedit later on–in track changes in a Word file (or equivalent), a list of changes and locations in an email, or perhaps markup on a PDF of the typeset file (or again, hard-copy markup in the mail, but that’s so rare as to almost be not worth mentioning). Most copyediting should have to do with spelling, grammar, punctuation, continuity errors (this person used to have green eyes and now they’re blue; didn’t the main character already get his marriage license on page 8?) Some copyeds will try to help with awkward or confusing phrasings. You should get a chance to review the copyedit, and likely accept most of it; anything you don’t agree with you can stet (editorial speak for reject).

*Sometimes* if the copyedit is very light–just spelling and punctuation–you won’t be given it for review. I’ve generally found this fine, though everyone has heard the story of the copyeditor incorrectly changing a comma in a pivotal spot and thus changing a meaning. Don’t make yourself crazy over this one–it’s almost unheard of. Also, some small-staff journals just don’t do a copyedit, and they’ll publish your piece warts and all. You can simply ask, when your work gets accepted, “Should I expect to see the copyedit? If so, when? I’ll be sure to make time to review it.” And then you’ll know where you stand.

I have never run across a case–for my own work or anyone else’s–where an editor made content changes and then just ran the piece without the author’s approval. That would be pretty unheard of, as well as ghastly. More common, although still pretty rare, is to be sent a document containing your edited work with no indication of where the edits have been made (ie., no track changes or markup). I hate that! If it’s in Word, you can just run a “compare documents” with your original work (I’m sure there are equivalents in other word-processors, but I don’t know what they are). Compare documents is a hot mess to view, especially if the changes are extensive, but you can get through it, see what’s been changed, and send a list to the editor of what you want further altered or stetted. You might mention what a hassle it is for these changes to be made invisibly–maybe it never occurred to them.
Now what? You might get to review a PDF of the typeset pages–good time to check for typos one last time, as well as weird word breaks or loss of formatting (italics disappears in typesetting pretty regularly). Follow the deadlines the eds give you for these, or your changes probably won’t be included. This step might not happen at some journals, and I wouldn’t worry too much about it–you can’t, anyway, because when you realize that you didn’t get to proof pages is usually when you get your printed copy in the mail. Assume that they’ve proofread really carefully themselves.
Do I get to read at the launch? Maybe! Consider it a compliment if you get invited to do so! And even if you don’t get asked to read, do attend the launch if you can, and bring your friends–it is so fun to celebrate your work with others who like it too. If you live far away from the home of the publication, send your best for the launch–and certainly volunteer if you’ll be on vacation nearby and would like to stop in. Not every journal has launches, or not for every issue–especially if it’s online and the contributers/editors very dispersed. But if you get a chance to go, I’m pretty sure you’ll have fun.
When will it be in stores? If you have received your contributor’s copies, probably soon–you could ask the editor or the distro person at the journal and find out not only when but where: not every literary journal is stocked in every bookstore (sigh). Folks are usually very helpful in finding you places to buy their wares. And you could always ask for your journal by name, and encourage others to do the same. Some shops will order something in if there is a groundswell of support for it.

Something’s gone wrong: my piece isn’t in the issue it was slated for; I didn’t get my contributor’s copies; I didn’t get paid; etc. Sigh. Give everybody the benefit of the doubt: life is confusing and many journals are swamped and understaffed. Just ask, very politely, when you should expect A to happen, and/or why B is happening instead. If you don’t get a response, or the response tells you something will happen that then doesn’t, just keep sending polite emails on a regular basis. If your publication keeps getting put off, you can decide when it’s appropriate to withdraw the piece and do so–only the writer can really know when a given publication has become more trouble than it is worth. Once it’s published, that’s not an option–but really, I’ve never *not* been sent my $$ or contributor’s copies, though it’s sometimes taken much longer than I’ve expected. Gentle friendly nagging is, I’ve found, the best (and only) option.

Wow, this piece is more than 2000 words long, and covers some stressful situations. If you’ve not published work before, I don’t mean to scare you–it really is usually as fun and lovely as you’ve been hoping. But the procedures are so varied, and as a novice it’s easy to feel you don’t get to say anything or ask any questions. A few times recently, folks have asked me some of the questions listed above, but I’m hardly an expert on anything–if other people have different experiences or opinions, please do share. Really, everyone who has read this far is to be congratulated!

11 Responses to “What Happens When a Literary Submission Gets Published in a Journal/Magazine”

  • Frederique says:

    I am not an aspiring writer but I’m always curious about what happens behind the scenes of the glamourous world of publishing. Very cool. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Fred–I’m glad my work is interesting to you, because yours is fascinating to me! Have a great time in SC this weekend!

  • Bethany says:

    Really enjoyed and appreciated this piece. You’re right, there is very little (if any) accessible information on how to proceed with acceptances. Goodonya.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Bethany–glad you found it helpful!!

  • Some things I read this month | The Remainder Table says:

    […] Rosenblum, “What Happens When a Literary Submission Gets Published in a Journal/Magazine” (Rose […]

  • JS says:

    Hi, nice piece! Thanks!

    Stupid question, but:

    I submitted and got a reply in this regard – thanks for submitting. We’re interested in piblishing … just clear up the following for us so the reader can relate …

    I take it that I’ve been accepted with some edits needed.

    HERE’s what I want to know:
    is this a definite acceptance and can I count on being published, or is there a chance of still being rejected? And how do I prevent that if so?

    Thanks for the piece and your time!

  • JS says:

    Hi JS,

    Congrats on this encouraging response to your submission. I wouldn’t say it’s quite a definite acceptance, but it sort of depends on how they’ve worded it. If they use the terms “edits” or “editing” AND give you a contact person to send the revised version back, then, yes, probably it will be accepted if you complete the edits as they requested, or they might have further feedback but you can get there. If it’s more, why don’t you resubmit after accepting this “feedback” to the general submissions pile, probably not a real acceptance–although your odds still have gone up. Of course, things go wrong and people behave oddly all the time, but that’s my best guess on this. Hope it helps!

  • John Eustis says:

    Thank you for this article. I have recently had my first poem accepted, signed FNASR. I’ve avoided emailing it to my friends so far, so it wouldn’t be out in the world before the journal publishes. Once it is published, can I email my friends, or will that undermine the journal? Is it okay to Xerox a page from the journal and snailmail my friends?

  • Rebecca says:

    Hi John! Congrats on the acceptance! This is really more of an opinion question–you wouldn’t be breaking copyright or anything terrible like that if you were to share your own poem with a small group of people (like a couple of friends, not an email mailing list). But the way I think about it, journals are counting on their writers to be part of their marketing, as in, “ooh, this journal has a piece by X, so I’m definitely buying it.” That’s how they generate revenue, and stay afloat. And as writers, we want journals to have support, and money, so we do what we can to help them. Definitely, if it’s a friend who lives beyond where the journal is is distributed or who is just broke at the moment, I’d be happy to send them a copy, but otherwise I’d probably leave it as “you can order your copies at http://www.cooljournal.com” and leave it at that.

  • john eustis says:

    Thank you, that helps. I went overboard and bought 12 copies of the journal to give to family & close friends, but others are unlikely to buy a literary journal just because I’m in it–especially nieces & nephews.

  • Rebecca says:

    John, that’s a really lovely way to solve it–very kind of you give so many journals as gifts!

  • Leave a Reply

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

Now and Next

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow Me

Good Reads

What People are saying!


Search the site