A Literary Magazine Editor Explains How to Pitch Fiction

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June Thomas: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. More.

Isaac Butler: Welcome back to Working Overtime the Bob Weir of practical advice to regular workings. Jerry Garcia I’m Isaac Butler and.

June Thomas: I’m June Thomas.

Isaac Butler: June. There’s a lot going on in the world today. There’s a lot going on in the nation that you have moved to today. I’m going to ignore all of that and ask you what cultural thing have you been digging lately? Is there a book or TV show or something that is giving you life? Is the kids, I guess used to say.

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June Thomas: So a couple of weeks ago for an episode of Working that has already aired, I spoke with writer Casey Parks about her amazing new book, Diary of a Misfit, a memoir, and a Mystery. I read that book, and like many of the books that we read for, you know, to do an interview, I kind of went through it a bit. I was under a little you know, I was under the gun time wise, really loved it. And it keeps coming back to me. It really stuck with me. I think it’s really well done book. Very just very smart, very well structured. One of those books that just returns to your thoughts. You know, this week I was reading a review of a book about encyclopedias, and I immediately thought about just a very short section in her book, know maybe just a few paragraphs about wanting encyclopedias. And that’s a good sign. I think that’s a sign that a book is really it’s penetrated your noggin. What about you?

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Isaac Butler: Yeah, especially if you have to read it in the, like, speed reading way I sometimes do. Before. Before interviews. What about me? What have I been drawing lately? There’s this science fiction novel called Inverted World by Christopher Priest, who’s probably best known for writing The Prestige, which the Chris Nolan movies, based on a New York Review of Books, reissued it a few years ago. And I’m not done with it yet. I’m reading it right now, but I wanted something really fuckin weird and it is really weird. It’s about this society that is on a train. It’s not like Snowpiercer, though. The train goes a 10th of a mile one every day. I’ll have to dig up the tracks behind them and put it in front of them. And that’s just the premise. It gets so much weirder from there. I’m really, really digging it. And that TV show Bad Sisters, I’m obsessed with it. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s great. It’s everything I want to big little lies to be.

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Isaac Butler: So this week, June, you may remember that a few weeks back we had an episode that Karen and I did for working overtime about how to pitch nonfiction, how the pitching nonfiction world works. And, you know, I was really happy with that. It’s nice to give people some really practical advice from my own area of semi expertise, but we got an email from a listener named Sharon who was like, Hey, but what about fiction? How does that work? You know, I’m a fiction writer. How do I place things? And well, there’s one problem, which is that none of us who work here at working rate fiction. So I thought we’d phone a friend, as they say, and we’d speak to a former guest and dear friend of the program, Jay Robert Lennon, who goes by John. So we’re just going to use John for the rest of today.

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Isaac Butler: John is not only a prolific and gifted short story writer, but he’s also newly in charge of the literary magazine Epoch, which is the story lit mag of Cornell, where he teaches. Among other things, they publish the early work of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. I mean, this is a this is an important American institution. And I just felt he knows it from both sides. Who better to speak to?

June Thomas: Indeed. Who better? Well, let’s get to it. John, welcome to Working Overtime.

Speaker 3: Thank you, June. Thank you, Isaac. It is great to be back on the show. And I should also say we also published Joyce Carol Oates, very first short story.

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Isaac Butler: Was it about her foot?

Speaker 3: It was not, sadly, but I would it would be nice if if you were predicting that all those years ago.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, exactly. So could you explain a little bit about what the magazine is? And, you know, I don’t know how many times a year comes out and exactly what your role entails, because I know graduate students are also involved in it, right?

Speaker 3: Yeah, that’s right. I’m still figuring out exactly what my role entails. My predecessor, Michael Cook, is a wonderful editor, one of the greatest I’ve ever worked with. He passed away back in the spring and I’ve been still sort of getting my footing with the new graduate students as we figure out how to move forward with the magazine. Michael published it three times a year. I’m going to publish it twice a year. Same amount of stuff in the old issues, but they’re going to be thicker issues. I feel like in general, a literary magazine like ours, one that has a print edition, we only have a print edition and only put a few of the stories and poems that we publish online will publish anywhere from 2 to 4 times a year.

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June Thomas: Now, I know that there are some magazines out there that don’t really take submissions directly from authors. They either go through agents or they solicit stories from people they know. But that’s not how it works. As I understand it, you have open submission periods. If someone wants to submit to it, what do they do? And is that how it works? At most places.

Speaker 3: I think that just about every magazine from the very small up to say, The New Yorker, which is probably the most prominent short fiction publishing outlet, accepts both submissions straight from writers and will also solicit them or receive them from writers, agents, places like the New Yorker. Most of what they. Publishers likely to be agents in fiction from well-known writers. Most of what we publish is not. Occasionally we do get some agent at fiction. We have a submission period that lasts. If you want to send it through the U.S. mail any time during the school year, we’ll accept it. If you want to send it electronically, we have. August is open and January is going to be open. This past August, we got a little over 1000 submissions of fiction, poetry, essay comics and cover art. And over the next month and a half, the grad students and I decide which of the ones we like best. And then we’ll accept some and we’ll put our issue to bed sometime in early to mid fall.

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Isaac Butler: Amazing. Amazing. I want to talk later a bit about how you figure out which of those thousand do you like best, because that’s a lot. Oh, my God. But but let’s let’s talk about it for a moment. Like, let’s say I’ma write. I mean, I am a writer, but let’s say I’m a fiction writer and I’ve got a short story I think is is ready to go. You know, it ends in a wonderful place of indeterminacy where you think you know what’s going to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

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Speaker 3: Know it’s already not for us. Sorry.

Isaac Butler: But more seriously. Yeah, well, how do you figure out which magazine to submit to? I mean, I suppose I could go to, like, submit a bill is the main portal a lot of people use or some mishmash or whatever I could look at who’s got an open call and carpet bomb the whole scene. But like, how should I be thinking about how to submit my work and how do I find. The right.

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Speaker 3: Homes. Well, the main thing you want to do is read the magazines that you’re submitting to. If you live anywhere near a university, a university library usually has subscriptions to a lot of the major and many of the minor literary magazine. So you can go in there and just peruse them. You might also want to look at the Best American Short Stories anthology that’s published every year. There’s also the O. Henry Prize Awards, short story anthology, The Pushcart Prize Anthology. Look through there. And if you find stories that you like, see what magazines they were published in, and then check out the submission policy of those magazines.

Speaker 3: Most places now will allow you to submit through it, usually submit a bill, which is a great service, but there are a few others that do the same thing. They might charge a small fee for you to submit your work. It makes us able to turn around your submission more promptly. When we don’t, we don’t have to take it out of the envelope, put comments on the envelope, put it back in another envelope, put postage on the envelope and go to the post office with the envelope. We can just either reject it, sorry very quickly, or we can say, actually, we want to get in touch with you right away so we can start editing this piece for publication.

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June Thomas: You mentioned John Fees. When someone submits to Epoc, do they pay a fee? Is that standard? If you do take a fee or the for those places that do take a fee? What does it go to? And if Epoch does take a fee, how much is it?

Speaker 3: So I was surprised to learn when I took over that this subject was actually a little bit controversial. And I think it mostly comes from some online publications that don’t pay their writers. Nevertheless, charging a submission fee, which makes people, I think, justifiably miffed. Epoch for electronic submissions charges three bucks. One of those $3 basically goes for the service itself. We subscribe to submit a bill. We have a slightly more advanced version of their product that makes it easier for us to go through all the submissions. And though our parent institution, Cornell, is quite well-heeled, they are not giving that money to us, or at least not much of it. So we’re operating on a shoestring budget and are more labor of love than a profitable enterprise.

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Speaker 3: One of those dollars is going to submit itself. And the other of those dollars we are donating to the Cornell Prison Education Program, which is a local organization affiliated with the magazine that offers classes to incarcerated writers in upstate New York. And then we have a free weekend as well. So I’m usually on our Twitter page. I’ll say, Oh, next weekend’s the free weekend, and then a big deluge of submissions will come in. And one of the reasons we do this, other than to pay for the service, is that we really would like you to think just a little bit before you upload everything you’ve written in the past month to us. I think a lot of magazines and their submission guidelines say send your best work. And we don’t do that because I think it goes without saying, but we want there to be just that little impediment so that you have to think, okay, there’s a slight outlay here. Is this really the thing I want to send to these people?

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June Thomas: So I believe you said earlier that you do take submissions through the mail, through the post, as they say here in Britain. Is there a submission fee if you could do it that way?

Speaker 3: There’s not, but it ends up costing the the writer of rather more money. I came up in an era when that was the only way. And so for me, the $3 or you know, for some magazines is $2 or $5. The submission fee is a joy to behold. It’s so much cheaper than having to walk to Kinko’s, make another copy and buy a bunch of stamps.

Isaac Butler: John, I have a lot more questions for you about this. I know John does, too, but we’re just going to hold off for a second and talk to you some more after this.

June Thomas: Hey, listeners, what’s your experience been with submitting short stories or getting your work out there at all? Get in touch and share your advice. You can email us at working at Slate.com or even better. You can call us and leave a message at three or 49339675. That’s 304933.

June Thomas: W. O. R. K. Okay. So you mentioned, John, that in August of 2022, you received, I think you said about a thousand submissions.

Speaker 3: Nearly 1100 to be more, more precise.

June Thomas: 1100. Do not forget to mention any of them.

Isaac Butler: I’m feeling exhausted just hearing that number through.

Speaker 3: I’m just I’m just glad it doesn’t take the form of a giant pile of envelopes. That’s all right.

June Thomas: Yeah. Oh, I know. So you’ve got this effectively giant pile of words. How do you saw the wheat from the chaff? What is the system you and your readers have to get through all those stories and other works and really give them a chance.

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Speaker 3: The method I am attempting to execute right now, it’s probably akin to what other magazines of our size do, is divvy up the stack, give equal amounts to each of our graduate students in that discipline. So the poets get the poems, the fiction writers get the fiction. I took the essays for myself, but I’ll have everyone read the essays later, and I just say to them, Be ruthless. We’re looking for stuff that we, you know, we don’t want to publish either. It’s just not very accomplished or it might be accomplished, but not the style of thing that publishers or that our editors are interested in those. They give it a thumbs down and I reject them all. So we hoping to get rid of maybe three quarters that way.

Speaker 3: At that point, I’m going to assign everybody everything, and we’re all going to read everything and we’re all going to vote. And I’m going to take about a month to do that. I think I’m going to a list, enlist the help of some former graduate students, perhaps, who used to be editors of the magazine. If we need the help, going to enlist the help of some senior advisers in the magazine. And this is where I just know from the experience at other magazines, it’s really a pleasure to kind of sink into these and you get to the point where these are all pretty good poems and stories, and you have to decide which ones are best and then have the pleasure of telling the writers you would like to publish it.

Isaac Butler: That’s really fascinating.

Isaac Butler: You know, I remember when I was in an MFA program, there was sort of all this lore around what kind of rejection you received. Like, did you get a form rejection, Did you get a handwritten rejection? Did they reject you by name? Is this a thing? Was I totally misinformed? Can you help me demystify the different tiers of rejection one might receive?

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Speaker 3: I think there are different tiers of rejection. On submitting all, you actually get to write up a different form for each stage of the evaluation process. So for this round I’m just issuing a pretty generic rejection saying, I regret to tell you that we are not going to publish your work in hop, but thank you for sending it to us. Round two though, we’re going to be reading each one of them. We’ll probably have a few comments. There’s a little message box where each of the editors can put a comment, something they think about the story, and if there are good comments in there or critical comments that might be useful to the writer. When I reject these, I’ll add these to the to the rejection letter and say, you made it to the second round. We liked it, but here are the things we thought were problems. Try someone else or, you know, try us again with another story. And if someone is a former contributor and that’s listed in their bio that they send along, I’ll say it’s great hearing from you. Again, we’re pleased to have published you and we want to publish you again. Or, you know, this one didn’t make make it, but we’re always open to your work, that kind of thing, or.

Isaac Butler: You are now dead to us.

Speaker 3: Yeah, exactly. Well, when I was in graduate school, we actually did give a lifetime rejection to to one writer who kept kept writing it, kept sending us pornography rendered in childish language. And we were like, no, never again.

Isaac Butler: So never again. Yeah, we had. And this was something they had done multiple times.

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Speaker 3: They had and we had had enough of it. Oh boy.

June Thomas: Ever darken our submissions pile again.

Speaker 3: Or dampen it for that matter.

Isaac Butler: Right. You know, I just want to highlight for people listening to this that, you know, 1100 submissions, If you’re one of those 1100, you’ve got to think about what that means, right? That like you don’t have a lot of time to establish with the person on the other end reading what’s called the slush pile. Right? You got to establish that, you know, what the heck. You’re doing pretty, pretty early on. Do you know what I mean? There’s that feeling. It’s sort of like when you go to see a play and like maybe actually eventually the play gets good, but the first 5 minutes aren’t well-directed and you can just feel the whole audience be like, I’m not in good hands anymore. Oh, shit. You know, like, like that feeling as someone who’s judged a prize before, you know, that feeling readers feel, you know, that’s that’s a thing that happens, You know, as someone who has to weed through all this stuff. Is there other advice you have for folks who are who are sending their work in?

Speaker 3: I feel like some of us who have studied creative writing and in academic context have the opportunity to bounce our work off of other people who are good at it. And if you are not in that situation, it can be difficult to know am I any good? Maybe I am. I’m not sure. And so I do understand how someone might end up sending us something that’s really not appropriate for our magazine at all. But I do think if you. Want to actually have a decent chance. Familiarize yourself with the places that you’re sending to. If you just see an open call on Twitter or you read it in a book of, you know, a book of magazines to submit to an and actually don’t know what they publish. Don’t waste your three bucks or your postage sending something to them. Definitely look into what it is they actually publish. And, you know, if you if you ask in your cover letter.

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Speaker 3: I’m new at this and I would love some if you reject this, I would love some comments about how to improve it or why you’re rejecting it. If I see that or one of my my my assistant assistant editor sees that, you know, will flag it and will respond to you, or if you email and say like, you know, you rejected my story, I understand. But, you know, can you tell me why you could do that? So it can be a really intimidating process.

Speaker 3: When I was coming up as a writer and I should say about half of my work is still rejected, the first one, two, three times that I submit it somewhere, even though I have a fairly successful career and I published in some some reputable places, it’s not a home run. Every time I write a short story and I don’t even know if it’s any good, a lot of them never get published, but it can be really intimidating and I always like to think of it as it’s not, even though it’s a person who’s reading it. I think it was more of a kind of machine, you know, you just feeding the work into the machine. Sometimes it spits it back out at you and it’s nothing personal, and ultimately it really isn’t anything personal. It’s that it didn’t match someone else’s taste. And that doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible writer. And if you aren’t a great writer, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be one forever. So chin up and don’t be too disappointed when we or anyone else rejects the first story you send us.

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Isaac Butler: Yeah, my own essay submission track record is terrible. Yeah, it’s really it’s really terrible. And that doesn’t say anything about, you know, me as an essay writer or whatever, You know, it’s just like I was finding the wrong venues or wasn’t the right work or, you know, we.

Speaker 3: We only know what we feel like doing, you know, and we don’t, we don’t know who it’s gonna people who’s going to react to it and how and often the things of mine that seem to have some degree of staying power or that I get a lot of comments on are not things that I thought Oh, this one’s a home run. It’s often stuff where I just am amusing myself thinking this is never going to be published because it is too silly. And lo and behold, it turns out to be something that people actually like.

June Thomas: So you never know. Okay. We’re going to take a break, but we’ll be back with more from Jay Robert Lennon right after this.

June Thomas: John, I am very aware that in this world of small magazines and short fiction and poetry, there are these things called competitions. There’ll be some kind of prize and the author maybe pays a steeper submission fee, but there’s also a chance for them to get some cash on the other side of it. Are these a scam? Are they worth applying to? What’s your view?

Speaker 3: I am not going to do them. I’ll put it that way. I do not think they’re a scam. A lot of like I said earlier, our magazine does not make a lot of money, and our institutional funding is not super generous. So I do understand magazines wanting to bring in a little extra money by having a contest. Also, they can bring attention to what the work that they have done by inviting a well-known fiction writer or a poet to judge the contest. And that person gets a small fee as well to do it. And if the contest has a fairly big profile and you’re an unpublished writer, if you win it, that would be a great way for you to debut. You’ll get more attention than you would if you had just published in an Ordinary way in a literary magazine. But the clerical burden is rather large, and my staff is very small, so I’m trying to keep my expectations fairly low and just put out a good, solid magazine in the conventional manner.

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Speaker 3: Maybe down the line we would do a contest, though, but I think the writer really has to really has to weigh, you know, telling people to weigh whether or not they want to send us a manuscript for three bucks. If you’re paying 25 bucks for a contest or a hundred bucks for a book contest or something like that, you really should think, okay, is this worth it to me? Here’s the judge. Do I like that person’s work? Do I think that person might like my work? If you think you’ve got a chance, go for it. And often you’ll get something for your submission fee for these contests. You might get a year’s subscription to the magazine and you might get a tote bag or something. And it’s kind of worth having that as a keepsake even if you do not win the contest, right?

Isaac Butler: You can stare at it and be like you. You rejected a physical coffee mug.

Speaker 3: That’s right. You just hang the tote bag on the back of your bedroom door to loom over you as you sleep, reminding you that you were a failure.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, exactly.

Isaac Butler: I didn’t want to let you go without talking a little bit about you as a as a writer. I mean, you mentioned before, you’re a well known and respected writer. You’ve got pieces for the left hand. And let me think through Your two short story collections are wonderful. I hope everyone goes out and gets them. Thank you. And you’ve been in this game a while. Success rate still 50%, right? For people who are just getting started, I know for me then this is the trouble I have Pitching non-fiction pieces all the time is actually like clicking the send button, you know, getting to the point where you’re like, I’ve worked on this thing, I’m thinking about it now. I’ve got to like, send it to the world and get other people’s thoughts on it. And I don’t know what if they hate me and then I get hit by a car? I have no idea what the neurotic thinking actually is.

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Speaker 3: You know what? Maybe you should be a fiction writer. I was quite. It’s quite a tale you spun.

Isaac Butler: Exactly. I’m just wondering about how you conquered that voice. Or maybe you don’t have that voice, but just advice for young fiction writers starting out who were maybe little believe in their work, but are also bashful about the exposure of, you know, sending it to people to be evaluated.

Speaker 3: I don’t think I’ve changed that much since I was a young writer. There’s a part of me that’s overconfident, right? And that kind of enables me to try to do things that I might not otherwise have done. And there’s a part of me that’s overly self-deprecating. Well, I’ll give you an example of the sort of two poles of my short fiction writing career. Every now and then, I publish a short story in The New Yorker, which is a great place to publish. Everybody reads it and you get some money for it. I self-edit. I don’t send everything that I write there because I know my editor there. I’ve known her for a long time and I’m not going to waste your time. I think they probably reject about half of what I send them, but if I sent them everything that I wrote, they would reject almost everything that I sent them because I’m sending them stuff that I think my editor might like when I’ve written something that’s peculiar, very short, experimental, out of the ordinary in some way.

Speaker 3: I will usually hearken back to the time when I was first starting out and I actually didn’t know if I was any good and who would like me. I look to see what the new magazines are, even ones that don’t pay, and I just send them some stuff. And the real war there is I get to know the editors at these small magazines when I go to the AWP conference, the annual writers conference that happens in a different city every year. I go up to the table at the book fair of these magazines, tiny magazines where I publish tiny things, and I say, Hey, I’m one of your writers, and they say, I’m your editor, and now I know those people, right? So I feel like gradually getting a sense of what kind of place in the world each thing you write might have and trying to nudge it into that space. And again, you’re going to fail a lot.

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Speaker 3: But I think that my failure rate has gone down as I’ve gotten older, in part because I’ve become a better writer, but also in part because I’ve learned what my career is and how to navigate the outside world vis a vis the things that I write. So I think that it’s inevitable for someone just starting out to just flail around for a while because you don’t you can’t see the walls around you until you start bumping into them, right? Just try some stuff. It’s not a huge outlay in in money or time to send your stuff to a bunch of magazines, ask for comments, see what people think. And once you’ve published a couple of things here and there, you’ll be able to list them on your CV and tell people to there and you get reactions from them and you’ll understand what people think of your writing.

June Thomas: John That’s amazing advice and just really wise. Thank you so much for helping us out this episode. You’ve given us an insight that we absolutely needed and were unable to provide on our own.

Speaker 3: It is my pleasure and people, by the way, should look for it back online at Epoch Literary dot com, We have an archive of our issues going all the way back to 1947.

June Thomas: Good grief. Definitely.

Isaac Butler: Well, that’s all the time we have for this week’s episode. But I want to leave you with one last piece of advice. You should really subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. And if you do subscribe to it already, why not give us a nice review or a high ratings that other people subscribe to or to? You could just share the love with the world. And if you have ideas for things, we could do better. Questions you’d like us to address. Problems you’re having, guests you’d like to hear from. We would love to hear from you. You can send us an email at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933w0rk.

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June Thomas: And if you’d like to support the work that we do, sign up for Slate Plus at Slate.com slash working.

June Thomas: Plus you’ll get bonus content, including exclusive episodes of Slow Burn and Big Mood Little Mood, and you’ll be supporting what we do right here on Working.

Isaac Butler: Big thanks to Kevin Bendis and to our series producer Cameron Drews and to our wonderful guest, Jay Robert Lennon, whose latest short story collection is Let Me Think. We’ll be back on Sunday with a brand new episode of Working and a two weeks we’ll have another working overtime. Until then, get back to work.