Submission Protocol: The Waiting Game

If you’re a writer who regularly submits short stories and who also uses submission tracking sites like Duotrope, then the following scenario will likely be very familiar to you.

You send your submission to a publisher, noting on Duotrope their average response times for rejections and acceptances, then sit back and wait. Your submission crosses the rejection threshold, and you dare to hope, “Could they be considering my story?” Then your story crosses the acceptance threshold, and you start getting really excited. “They’ve held my story so long they MUST be STRONGLY considering it for publication!” You wait a few more weeks, more hopeful every day an acceptance letter is forthcoming, and then . . .  BOOM! Form rejection.

So what happened? Well, there are a bunch of possibilities, but just because a publisher holds your story for longer than their usual response time for rejections or acceptances doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more likely to be published. I’m not saying it’s not being considered, but I’ve learned not to put too much stock in how long a publisher holds on to my story. I’ll explain why in a sec, but first a quick advisory note.

What follows is rejectomancy at its finest. It is the attempt of one writer to make sense of the grand chaos of the submission process by stringing together bits of disparate information that likely have no relation to one another. It is absolutely, one-hundred-percent anecdotal evidence and should be read with the clear understanding the author may be and probably is completely full of shit. 

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, here’s how I approach the waiting game. Like everyone else, when my story is held longer than usual, I get hopeful, but then I remember two things.

1) Submittable. If you send a lot of submission to magazines, e-zines, and the like, then I’ll bet huge sums of money you have a Submittable account. If you’re unfamiliar with this service, Submittable is a submission management platform that many publishers use both for submission intake and submission tracking. The author side of things lets you see what the publisher has done or is doing with your story via a number of different status labels. After you send a story, it’ll be marked RECEIVED, which according to Submittable means: “Your submission has been successfully sent to the organization and is in queue or being printed and read outside the Submittable system.” It may also be marked IN-PROGRESS, which means: “Your submission has been received and additionally handled in some way (e.g. assigned, commented on, etc.).” The other two status tags are DECLINED and ACCEPTED, and those are self-explanatory.

Okay, so here’s the thing, in my experience, the RECEIVED tag only lives up to the first half of Submittable’s explanation. Basically, the publisher has received it, and it’s in a queue to be read. It’s not until that status becomes IN-PROGRESS that someone is actually reading/considering your story. This is all anecdotal, of course, but many times a story of mine has languished in RECEIVED purgatory, and once it became IN-PROGRESS I received a response in a few days to a week. Not once, not twice, dozens of times I’ve seen this happen. So, if you submit a story to a publisher via Submittable, I wouldn’t get too excited until you see the IN-PROGRESS tag. Are there exceptions to this “rule”? Absolutely, and there are very probably publishers who are reading stories while they’re in RECEIVED status.

2) Further consideration letters. Okay, I feel like I’m on slightly firmer ground with this one. In my experience, bigger publishers have first readers or editors who sort through the slush pile and decide which stories are good enough to pass up to the decision-makers. If your story is chosen by one of those first readers, you won’t have to guess if you’re story is being considered because the publication will tell you via a further consideration letter, like this one.

Thank you for submitting “XXX” toXXX. One of our first readers has read your story and believes it deserves a closer look. We would like to hold it for further consideration. Good luck!

With these publishers, how long the story has been held probably doesn’t matter. Your story is likely not being considered unless you get one of these letters. Now, of course, after the further consideration letter, it’s anyone’s guess. With the letter above, I received a form rejection 28 days later (funny thing, the submission was a zombie story), which put my total wait time at 49 days. That’s about half their estimated wait time for an acceptance.

I can think of three pro publishers in the horror market that send first-reader further consideration letters, and I’d be willing to bet many others follow suit. Again, like with most things on this blog, this is anecdotal evidence from my own experience, and there are definitely going to be publishers who work differently.

***

So, why would a publisher hold on to your story past their usual rejection or acceptance thresholds and not be considering it? The simple answer is they have a ton of submission to get through. As I’ve said many times, the big, pro-paying markets receive hundreds of submissions a month, and it’s no surprise they get backlogged from time to time. Smaller publishers have the same problem; they might get fewer submissions, but they usually have less people to read them. Sometimes publishers just lose a submission. That’s happened to me a couple of times. Lastly, publishers go out of business. I’ve experience that scenario twice while one of my submissions was in the publisher’s queue.

At the end of the day, if your submission has been held for longer than seems typical, it’s probably best to send a status query to the publisher. Check the guidelines first, though. Some publishers only want status queries after a certain amount of time has passed (usually 60 days). In my experience, a status update query almost always speeds up the process, and I usually receive a response shortly after sending one.

How do you handle the waiting game? Any tips or tricks to share?

15 thoughts on “Submission Protocol: The Waiting Game

  1. This is a great thumb guide, even if it’s anecdotal. As of now, I have a depressing record on Submittable, with many rejections sprinkled in with a few “in progress” and one or two “received.” Great post, but I hope you don’t mind my crashing it for a moment, Aeryn. Can you point me to a post of yours (or give a piece of advice here) about what to do when a publisher accepts a work of yours but, when you ask if they have a contract or other paperwork, they’ve got nothing (and respond saying so). It’s a legitimate market, although this might be the first time they’ve pub’d a magazine. What say you, o Lord of Rejectomancy? (and many thanks in advance, whether you answer or not.)

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    • Hi, Leigh, that’s a great question. My honest answer is run for the hills. A publisher that doesn’t have some kind of contract or at least something on their site that explains the rights they’re acquiring isn’t protecting you or themselves. I honestly can’t imagine why a publisher would NOT have something like that. It’s just bad for both parties.

      Hope that helps.

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      • Don’t get me wrong; I’m not implying any kind of duplicitousness on their part. They’re likely not trying to screw you over or anything. It’s just a bad idea not have some kind of contract in place, as I said, to protect both parties.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Submittable and the other online submission programs (Moksha & the one used by Dell magazines) are great for helping track the status of submissions, giving hope (sometimes false hope!) that my stories are rising from the slush. The flip side, though, is that I too often check the status of my submissions, which means killing time I should spend writing by checking on several stories.

    Back in the day, I only paced nervously when I knew the mail was about to be delivered. No matter what response I received from editors in that day’s mail, I knew I had about 24 hours before I needed to start pacing again. Now I can check the status of my stories 27/7. Gah!

    In response to Leigh’s question above, not every publication uses contracts. I’ve written for many publications that send an acceptance letter (or letter-of-agreement), and the letter contains the terms of the acceptance. Don’t like the terms? Withdraw the story.

    When I began writing (some of those stone tablets may be collector’s items now), the presumption was that in the absence of a formal agreement to the contrary, all that transferred from writer to publisher was one-time rights.

    Is that presumption still valid? I have no idea. Thanks in part to how easy it is to publish these days, a great many people are entering publishing who have no knowledge or background in fundamentals such as copyright and contract law.

    But here’s an idea: Why not send the publisher your own Letter of Agreement that says something like:

    Dear Astute Editor,

    Thank you for offering to publish “My Magnum Opus” in a forthcoming coming issue of THE BEST STORIES EVER. I understand that I will receive [an ungodly amount of money (or insert actual figure here)] in exchange for [one-time publication rights or whatever the terms of agreement are].

    Unless I hear from you to the contrary, I will presume this constitutes the entirety of our agreement.

    I look forward to working with you again in the future.

    Sincerely,

    Totally Stoked Author

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • I’m old enough to remember having to wait for my SASE to come in the mail. 🙂 But, yeah, the almost instant access to the status of your story can be somewhat distracting.

      Great advice on Leigh’s question. I find that magazines that don’t send a contract usually list the rights they are acquiring in their guidelines, which is often one-time, non-exclusive publication rights. Has that been your experience, Michael?

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      • Rights acquired vary, but these days many publications do list them in the submission guidelines they’ve posted online. If an editor doesn’t send a contract, letter of acceptance, letter of agreement, or something specifically addressed to the writer, it is a good idea to make a copy (a printed copy if you’re my age, perhaps a screen capture of some kind if you’re much younger) of the submission guidelines posted at the time you received your acceptance. Guidelines could change, for good or ill, at some point in the future, and a good way to protect yourself is with documentation rather than memory.

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  3. I think the most important thing to remember about turn-around times is that they’re typically posted as an average. If the average wait-time is 2 weeks it could mean that a majority of the stories get a response in 14 days OR half the stories will hear back sooner, and half later. It’s not a set-in-stone figure, which is why looking at other data (median, outliers, etc) is important when you’re trying to predict this.

    That said certain things are a little easier to gauge. A contest? Yeah, they’ve usually got a deadline to meet. A themed issue? Similar. Any publishing house that has multiple imprints might take longer if they swap subs amongst themselves if your piece has promise.

    And regarding further consideration letters: the only time I haven’t received one was for a contest issue. In every other acceptance (and sometimes ultimately rejections) they’ve let me know that they’re looking at it. I’ve noticed that publishers who allow sim subs do this more often, probably because they want to check in and make sure that you’re still interested.

    I’m almost afraid to query on a sub… it’s that old adage, “if you need to know now, the answer is ‘no.'” But on the other hand, I’ve had some “yes, we’re still thinking about it!” answers so that helps. I tend to think that if they’re holding your piece for a long while it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more likely to be accepted, but more likely that someone liked something you’ve got going on in there and they haven’t decided if it’s a good fit yet, for whatever reason.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • Good point about average wait times and outliers.

      Yeah, it can be a bit nerve wracking to send a query letter, but it’s part of the gig, and most publication actually ask you to do it if you haven’t heard from them within a certain amount of time.

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  4. 1 bourbon, 1 scotch, 1 beer. That’s my advice for what to do while waiting for editors’ response….But seriously, try to get out, go for a walk, don’t think about it. Write some other stuff. Submit the story to other markets. In my mind, I try to think of the story as already rejected when I send it, so I can focus on other things. It doesn’t always work that way. …Alright, gotta go, time to check my email again to see if any rejections have come in…

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  5. I tend to check The Grinder to see how the market rejects. Some markets reject in the order they recieve. Say that 100 stories are rejected, all submitted after me, and my story is the only (or one of the only) not rejected at that time point. Then I assume it has made it a round further.

    But here’s the thing, some markets seem to have no correlation of the chronological order of submission to the chronological rejection. By these markets (where I always seem to be rejected last, but this may be bias) I am assuming they read by alphabetical order of your last name (mine starts Su) in a certain block of time, or at least seperate the stories to slushers by last name. So the later rejection may be because of a slow slusher or an unfortunate last name, and not because everything I write is under consideration.

    Yeah, I know, I’ve totally rationalized the irrational, but that’s how I work.

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