In 2019, the rejection counter resets. The work I've done in the last year is not indicative of the work I will do going forward. Writing is, at this stage for me, feast or famine and I'm not foolish enough to think that my trajectory will be a clean, upward line. By this time last year, I'd received an acceptance, this year I have not. There is zero guarantee that anything I send out this year will be accepted at all. I have only tentative expectations. That's the game. I've covered the emotional side of submitting work a lot over the past year of this blog, but I want to start this year off by talking about the financial cost of being a writer.
I saw a tweet earlier this year from a fellow writer who is, from what I can judge on twitter, a little bit ahead of me in their career. Not miles and miles and miles ahead, but clearly ahead. (Apologies to this person if they are significantly ahead of me and the comparison is offensive.) They had spent almost $700 on writing submissions last year. They acknowledged their good fortune that cost is not prohibitive to them, but dang, that's quite a sum. I spent nowhere near that, I don't have that kind of disposable income at this juncture, but being a writer is expensive and that tweet was a stark reminder of how much money emerging writers pay for their rejections. And of course some of us win, and some of us get shortlisted, and some of us get special mentions or published with or without pay, but overwhelmingly we are rejected.
Fees are often not really even the fault of the lit journals in question. Having worked in arts administration and creative non-profits for years, I know how incredibly taxing it is. It's a ton of work for no thanks at all (and a ton of complaints by people who don't have the slightest idea of how much work you do just to keep things running at the level they're running at) and even less money (I was paid less than 5 cents an hour for the hardest work I ever did. You read that right.) While we continue to live in a capitalist paradigm, I am highly in favor of arts administrators getting paid fairly. To be paid fairly, an organization needs capital. Lit journals, magazines in general, do not make money. The hard business people among us (what are you doing here? How did you find this space?) would say that these journals are no longer viable and that's that. But while lit journals might not contribute to the economic sector, they're important. Being published in these smaller magazines is the way that most writers are able to get grants, make connections, and accrue value to publishing houses. There are alternate paths, of course, but by and large, lit journals are how it's done. So we have a problem, and like Jochebed in the DeMille film version of Ten Commandments (niche, but that's where my brain went,) we're stuck between a rock and a hard place. What do we do when we want people to be paid fairly, and create opportunities for new artists, but it doesn't make money?
Here's some anticlimax for you, I don't know.
Facebook recently showed me a "memory" from a past year, and it was this status:
I understand that most lit journals are underfunded, run by volunteers and/or very poorly paid individuals, and spread thin. But if one of the main ways to achieve grants and or credibility for shopping a manuscript to agents is acceptance in these lit journals, and if contests are sometimes the only time that unsolicited [x genre] are accepted, what are the people who can't easily pay the $25-$45 entry fees supposed to do? What about the compounding of $3-$10 submission fees for non-contest submissions? Is there a way to reformat without losing our lit journals and overburdening the already heavily taxed people working for them? The answer might be no. I know how much effort the people working in our cultural institutions put forth, and I know this isn't their fault, and that these fees are not coming from a place of greed. If the answer is no, we can't reformat, shouldn't we at least talk about the inaccessibility of this structure for workers and writers alike? #litjournals #nosimultaneoussubmissions #helpmakeourartscommunitiesmoresustainable
In short, the systems have not changed. More and more magazines are asking for reading fees or shutting down altogether. (RIP Tin House, Poetry is Dead, Glimmer Train, all you others out there.) The large and small journals alike are being affected.) In fact, the smaller magazines often cost their creators a chunk of their savings and they never see a financial return, only cultural. Being a person working behind the scenes in the Canadian arts community, carving out opportunities for artists, can be a cannibalistic experience where you do your best to serve the community and it eats you. I'd love to say this only happens to crappy arts administrators, but it doesn't. The closest if not slightly dramatic analogue I have found to the experience of being arts admin is the phenomenal Ursula Le Guin short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. I recommend it.
All this to say, editors, organizers, and administrators don't have it easy. They work their asses off, and it's important to be both grateful for the work they do, and polite to them. At the same time, it's fair to be frustrated by reading fees. They can be completely alienating. We're left with an unfortunate bind.
Today's writers are standing on the cusp of an interesting and precarious time in publishing. I haven't done a comprehensive study, but by my observation this extends beyond writers to a broader demographic of creatives. It seems like everywhere I turn, the world is antiquating somebody's passion. Medium-sized arts venues are closing and another wide-windowed, white-walled, succulent-adorned coffee shop is opening up selling $7 tumeric lattes and $16 avocado toast with himalayan salt. (And no shame if you enjoy this. Enjoy whatever you can in this life, honestly. Also, what is a tumeric latte? Is it what it sounds like?) The absence of these medium venues creates a problem. Without them we're left with the small coffee houses that host weekly open mics and the phone-or-bank-sponsored concert halls where Beyonce and The Foo Fighters play. How do we grow local artists if there is only room for those just starting out and mega-successes? Where do people go when they've sharpened their talents past coffee house? How, without this middle step, do we create a sustainable, local arts scene?
Again, I don't know. Identifying problems is easy. Solving them is not. I know there are people out there trying, with varying success. The problem for emerging artists is pervasive, and by my reckoning, that's not even in our top 10 societal problems. FOCL. (Fuck our collective life.) (How did you not get that?) (Duh.)
But back to the world of writing. I understand that a lot of lit journals need to charge, but do they need to charge so much? For example:
Basically, if ten people enter the above contest, the prize is paid for. Is that really a fair price? Are you only expecting ten people to enter? Ten seems like such a small number, but twenty five seems like so many dollars? #RelativityIGuess
My personal rule is that unless a contest is particularly prestigious/will bring the writer a lot of publishing house attention, I will not enter a contest where the fee constitutes more than 5% of the grand prize. To me that seems fair, but it's astounding how many contests this limits me from entering.
I'm very gung-ho about submitting often and doing the work, but let's face it, there are a ton of barriers in place. Emotionally, rejection literally sets off a pain center in your brain (I'm paraphrasing and in no way a neuroscientist, but I've researched this and will dig it up if you're interested,) and a lot of us live in a city we barely scrape by in without submitting to contests or journals with reading fees. Might I have hit more rejections/acceptances if I had felt financially comfortable in entering more contests? Probably, and I'm doing better than a lot of people I know. (Which is a bummer on a few levels.) Are there a ton of creative forces who can't afford to enter any contests at all? Definitely. Are we missing out on a ton of great voices because they can't enter? Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
And what a damn sadness that is. If anyone knows of any pieces that discuss this issue from the point of view of people who feel/are completely barred from the literary community due to finances, please send them my way if you have permission. I'd love to share them (again, with permission. Gotta ask, friends.)
To segue off of the word sharing, I'm going to share some rejections today, because that's the conceit of this blog. But I wanted to start the year talking about this because it's been a gatekeeper for me and I know it's a gatekeeper for a lot of people in my creative community. The fact that all of these word artists are out there trying anyway makes me incredibly proud. I personally probably spent around $100 last year, and that's with me saying "no" to a ton of the major contests. I see you, writers who can't spend the money, who aren't winning the contests because they can't enter, and let me tell you, the quality is often every bit as high. Thank you for continuing to share your brains. They're worth it.
Okay. Enough business, more schadenfreude, amiright? Let's get down to some rejections!
[WRITING REJECTION 1/100]
Dear Erin Kirsh,
Thank you for entering the 2018 Emerging Writer’s Prize in Fiction. Although you were not selected as a finalist this year, we are thankful for the chance to have read your work.
Thank you for your interest in the Arkansas International, and we hope you enjoy your complimentary subscription!
You’ll receive your first issue this spring.
The Arkansas International
[WRITING REJECTION 2/100]
Dear Erin Kirsh,
Thank you for giving the editorial board at Arc a chance to read your poetry. Unfortunately, we will not be accepting "Ontology of Canadian Poetry", "In the Cards", or "If everyone else forgets" for publication at this time.
We hope you understand that a rejection is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of your work; in fact, many factors come into consideration throughout the selection process. Due to the voluntary nature of this board and the sheer volume of unsolicited submissions we receive each year, we are unable to provide a detailed critique for you at this time. Nevertheless, we never wish to discourage poets and writers, so please keep writing and submitting!
Feel free to contact us with any questions, and many thanks, again, for considering Arc.
Arc Poetry Magazine
[WRITING REJECTION 3/100]
Dear Erin Kirsh,
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider ‘Good Form’. Unfortunately, this particular piece is not right for the magazine.
We wish you the best of luck with your writing.
[WRITING REJECTION 4/100]
Dear Erin Kirsh: Thank you for submitting to the 2018 Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest. While your entry was not selected for publication, we appreciated the opportunity to read your work. As is often the case, we had a number of high-quality submissions this year, and the contest was quite competitive. We regret that we had to pass on many fine, engaging, and high-quality submissions.
Also, don't forget that your entry fee includes a digital copy of Quarter After Eight. Your digital copy of QAE's 25th Anniversary issue, including this year's contest winner and much more, will be sent out in April 2019; please notify us if you need to update your email address.
We hope you'll participate in next year's contest, which opens on November 1st. In the meantime, our general submissions remain open through April 15th, 2019.
Thank you for supporting Quarter After Eight, and best of luck with your writing.
Quarter After Eight
[WRITING REJECTION 5/100]
Thank you for submitting your work to the WORK MATTERS issue! We received so many wonderful submissions and appreciate your contribution. Actually, we received enough to fill the next three years of Prairie Fire!
Unfortunately, we only have space for a fraction and regret having to let you know that we can't accept your work at this time.
Please do try us again as we are always accepting regular submissions.
Thank you so much for allowing us to consider your piece.
We wish you all the best with your writing!
So there we go. 2019's first 5 rejections. They're all super lovely and encouraging. Because that's the thing about folks working arts admin: they're almost always lovely people who are passionate enough to work themselves dizzy.
Hug your local editor (with consent, of course!)
Until next time,
- E.B. Kirsh