The Submissions Tracker

I’ve been falling behind on my submissions to publishers.

One of the most important steps a writer can take is to keep track of the submissions made. Below is an excerpt from my own tracker, a Google Documents sheet. You can click the image to make the text larger.

An excerpt from my submissions tracker

Publisher

When you routinely send pieces to publishers, you start to develop a gut feeling about those to avoid. One publisher seemed evasive about giving anything more than an e-mail address and a Skype number, while another promised a cash prize for the winner but stated that the piece wouldn’t be published unless they felt like it. If it feels dodgy, steer clear.

I now send my work almost exclusively to publishers rather than competitions, although I’ll make an exception on occasion. My main motivation is the cost of submission, which often seems disproportionately high, but I also tend to find them less well-organised than commercial publishers.

Submission guidelines

I can’t stress this enough: read the submission guidelines, then read them again, ideally out loud. The publisher will usually be specific about the type of work wanted, the word or line count, the format in which it should appear, the method by which it should be submitted, the deadline, plus any other relevant information such as a brief biography. Great story and poetry templates are available at William Shunn’s website.

Whether or not it’s requested, make an effort to find out the name of the editor or the person who’s taking submissions. Don’t worry if you name the wrong person; it shows you’ve at least done some research.

I’ve had experiences where submission guidelines for competitions have been unclear or even self-contradictory. If you’re in any doubt about them, don’t hesitate to ask the organisers. That signals to them that their explanation isn’t clear.

Deadline and Submission date

I know it sounds as though I’m insulting your intelligence, but don’t miss the deadline if you can possibly help it. The overwhelming majority of submissions are done online, and most publishers will accept entries up to 11:59pm on deadline day unless otherwise specified. For the few places that accept or insist upon postal entries, it’s worth checking whether the publisher wants your letter by the deadline, or whether the postmark date will be taken.

If your submission is late, there’s no harm in a phone call or an e-mail to the publisher regarding whether it’ll still be accepted.

Decision notified

We’d all love to be told instantly about the result. I once posted a piece on a Monday and received a rejection on the Friday morning, but that’s a rare experience. Publishers receive dozens or even hundreds of pieces, and you could be waiting up to six months for a response.

Always be aware that you might not receive any response at all. The New Yorker, for instance, advises contributors that owing to the volume of submissions, they should assume it’s a rejection if they haven’t heard within 90 days.

Title (s) entered

Very often, a publisher won’t allow a short story or poem to be under consideration by anyone else; that’s why it’s wise to have a number of other pieces to send elsewhere in the meantime. If you’re a novelist submitting to an agent, however, simultaneous submissions of the same book are acceptable.

I store each of my stories and poems in individual PC folders. Whenever I submit somewhere new, I always create a new file within the folder containing the latest revision and specifying where it’s been sent.

Entry method

Most submissions are done by e-mail and few are done by post, as explored earlier. Shorter pieces might be accepted by filling in a form on the publisher’s website. The Submittable  site is popular among some publishers. This not only accepts documents online but allows you to track the status of every submission.

Whichever online method is used, you’ll usually receive a receipt by e-mail. By post, place a stamped and self-addressed postcard in the envelope so the publisher can signal when it’s been received.

Overall submission count

Every year, I set myself a target of submitting 53 pieces to publishers; one a week on average, plus one for the extra day or two that comprises a year. It’s a generously low target, but my immediate mission is to catch up and keep pace.


Postscript

I normally try to stick to one theme per entry, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the Rappers Versus Poets event hosted by the BBC on Saturday night. I know a few of the poets, either personally or by sight, but I’ll leave you to watch it and find out whether they won or lost.

Paper View

Last week, a friend was complaining about a major writing competition that still only allows postal entries. I’d also submitted work because it’s a prestigious publication, but I agree with her point of view. Considering the hundreds of manuscripts that must be received – versus the tiny portion that makes the final cut – this seems a colossal waste of paper, not to mention the needless postage time and cost.

Many competitions offer the postal route as an alternative to an online submission, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there any issue with posting work that must be physically held to be appreciated. But there are still a bunch who want normal prose and poetry to be sent on paper.

English: A stack of copy paper.
English: A stack of copy paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until the 1990s, this was how submissions were made. Internet access and e-mail accounts were generally the domain of academics and computer enthusiasts. Come the next decade, however, and newer technology began to creep into people’s homes. Nearly 17 years after the millennium, online access is nearly universal in the Western world, and postal submissions now look incredibly outdated.

That’s not to say I don’t like a paper book. In fact, some recent research has concluded that sales of e-books are falling. But a book is the final product; the process of gaining the interest of an editor or a competition judge ought to be as quick and cheap as possible.

Yet I would like to understand the other side of the argument. Do you run a publication that only wants submissions on paper? How does it benefit you? What would make you consider accepting online entries?

 

Right to Resubmit

On 26 June, I received an e-mail from Strange Musings Press saying they were to close and that the rights from the stories they’d published would immediately revert back to their respective authors. This frees up my short story Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse, which appears in their Alternate Hilarities anthology.

It isn’t well known,  even among authors, that once a piece is published, the publisher usually only holds the rights to it for a fixed period of time before said rights revert back to the writer. Some publishers accept reprints, and some original publishers insist that you credit that publication before it’s placed in a second home. It’s a good idea to credit the original publisher anyway, even if it isn’t insisted upon.

By now, it’s probably safe to resubmit my other two published stories, though I would still check the small print if I still have it, or e-mail the editors if I don’t. While it’s impossible to say how an individual editor feels, I know I’d be more inclined to accept a story if I knew it had been published before; a phenomenon known as the halo effect.

In the longer term, an author can retain copyright for a whole lifetime plus 70 years after death, which is why it’s so important to leave a will.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (soundtrack)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1971, Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was made into the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder. The author was so displeased that he specified in his will that its sequel Charlie and the Glass Elevator must not be made into a screenplay.

However, this didn’t prevent the 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp, which included some elements of the sequel. It will be interesting to see what happens when the novel falls into the public domain in the second half of this century as anyone will be able to use the work without charge. The question is whether people will still respect Dahl’s wishes at that point.

Keeping on Track

It’s great having a polished story or poem ready to be sent to a publisher or entered into a competition, but then comes the difficult part: waiting for a response. Often it takes months, sometimes it takes weeks, and a select bunch answer in a few days. This is unavoidable.

But here’s what separates a beginner from a seasoned pro: the former often sits and waits for a response, while the latter almost always uses the time to work on another piece. It’s desirable to build up a portfolio because many publishers, and almost all competitions, say you can’t send the same piece to two or more different places simultaneously.

Novel submissions are different in this respect. Most agents recognise that a book is an all-consuming work, and that it could be sent to a number of other places. It’s good practice to inform the other agents if one takes it on.

Whichever situation you’re in, it’s important to keep track of what you’ve submitted to where. It might be a simple as keeping a list if you’ve only a few pieces, but I have dozens in different places, so I use a spreadsheet to record the details:

Submissions tracker

I’ve edited out the names of the publishers and the links to their submission guidelines as I might want to resubmit in the future. The last column keeps track of how many pieces I’ve sent out during the year. My target is at least one piece per week on average; I have a poet friend whose target is an average of at least one piece per day. Otherwise, the tracker is self-explanatory.

 

It’s also important to keep track of what you’ve had published. These appear on another spreadsheet, and I keep the manuscripts in their own directory.

In many cases, the rights revert back to the author after a period of around six months to a year, so the same piece could potentially be sent to another publisher further down the line. If you’re unsure, ask the editor.

And now we wait.

Between my MLitt essay and the EP, my submissions to publishers had been put on hold. Now I have the time to submit material, I’m sharply reminded of how slow the process can often be, and it’s the exceptions that prove the rule.

I submitted to two places that said they would give a response within approximately two days, and they both kept their respective promises. But because they’ve been so quick, it makes the other two seem painfully slow as I won’t hear from them for between two and six months.

It’s common to find publishers that use Submittable, a website that provides a semi-standard way of submitting work and tracking your correspondence. I rather like doing it this way.

Where paper reincarnation happens
Where paper reincarnation happens

For instance, I’ve had to send in a query to an editor as two of my pieces have been outstanding for six months with nothing more than an acknowledgement. However, if I don’t receive a response in a reasonable timescale, Submittable allows you to withdraw your work.

I also like the ability to attach Word or PDF documents, or whichever format the publisher wants. It’s a personal view, but I dislike having to paste my work into the body of an e-mail. Many writers use Word or Scrivener, or a number of other programs. Whenever you copy from a program, the formatting often goes pear-shaped after pasting. When pasting into Gmail, I sometimes find the line spacing changes to 1.5 and can’t be altered, or the font changes and can’t be harmonised. Ctrl+Shift+V will paste the text without formatting, but you then have to reinsert any bold or italics, or unusual spacing.

Another pet hate is a requirement to submit by post. The cost of postage is an irritation, although my main concern is how much paper must be wasted in the process, as editors select only a fraction of the material submitted. It seems an archaic practice in the age of electronic communication. If I ever have to print a document and notice a mistake, I keep it in a folder so I can print on the blank side in the future. Any paper that can’t be reused goes into the house recycling bin.

While I’m waiting for responses, I would like to know why publishers ask for copy-and-paste or postal submissions. Is there a compelling reason why these practices still happen?