My friend Ann and I have been running the magazine PodCastle for the past two years and reading slush for it for almost three. I’m nominally the editor and she’s the associate editor, but we chose to work together because, well, we work together well, and as a consequence our tasks often bleed into each other. She picks up the slushy slush when it comes in and filters out the stuff I need to see — or, sometimes, I go and do that myself. I have the final say on what gets published, but her opinion weighs heavily.
I’ve also read slush for 580 Split and the Iowa Review, and helped with one time slush-clearings at Escape Pod and Electric Velocipede. Suffice to say, I’ve read a lot of slush.
I could tell you lots of things about slush. I could tell you, for instance, that if you are submitting an unsold story to a reprint market and your name isn’t Tim Pratt or Greg Van Eekhout, you are not going to sell that story to me. Why? Because you’re competing with stories printed in the best magazines, chosen by the best editors in the business. If your story was ready to compete with top-level stuff, some other editor would have seen that before your story made it down the market list to find me. Could there be an exception? Sure. There are exceptions to everything. But so far, I haven’t found one to this rule.
Ann and I have been watching the recent internet spat over at John Scalzi’s blog about the pay rate offered by Black Matrix Press. We’ve discussed this and decided to blog about it in light of our experiences as editors. Ann’s excellent entry is here. This is mine.
Some authors who’ve published with Black Matrix (and presumably been paid their fifth of a cent per word) have leapt into the fray to defend their decisions. They have a number of reasons for having decided to publish with Black Matrix, and some of their reasons may well be legitimate, but as people who have read read slush, Ann and I can tell you one that’s not:
You do not need to publish in crappy venues in order to get a publication credit that will make the editors of better venues look at your work.
There’s this terrible, oft-repeated canard that editors won’t take you seriously if you don’t have any credits. It’s not true! Many editors have spoken in numerous locations about their desire to find new authors. It’s true that I, as the editor of PodCastle, have no desire to find authors no one else has found — but that’s because I’m in the business of reprinting things. I want to reprint the genius story by an unknown that someone else scooped up out of the slush.
Let me say it again: You do not need to publish in crappy venues in order to get a publication credit that will make the editors of better venues look at your work.
In fact, sometimes putting a crappy credit in your cover letter will have the opposite of the intended effect.
I’ve read a lot of cover letters in the past two years. Taken in general groups, they do actually give me important information about the contents of the submission. If someone’s story comes in as a prospective reprint from Realms of Fantasy then I need to take a look at that story because it comes, as it were, endorsed by Shawna McCarthy. If a story comes in that wasn’t in Realms of Fantasy, but the author has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, and Strange Horizons, then I will still probably take a look, because better editors than I have found merit in other work by this author. I won’t necessarily like the story, but I do give it the benefit of the doubt, or as Ann says it’s one of the submissions that I “will start reading with the expectation that what [I'm] about to read is not, in fact, going to be the sort of headdesky slush that gives the slushpile its name and reputation–a reputation, I might add, that is thoroughly deserved.”
It’s this benefit of the doubt that I think newer authors are trying to curry when they say the point of publishing with a market like Black Matrix is to get a credit, any credit. (Either that or they think submissions with creditless cover letters are thrown into an automatic ‘no’ box with a malevolent editorial cackle.) But I’m not giving that benefit of the doubt to a credit, any credit. I’m giving it to authors with work published by editors I respect.
In general, mentioning a few mediocre or poor credits has a completely neutral effect. I’ll just skim over them and get to reading. But just as a credit from Fantasy Magazine will signal me that what I’m about to read is not “headdesky slush,” there are certain kinds of credits that signal me that what I’m about to read will probably be more headdesky than usual.
To a certain extent, this is a matter of taste. There are some editors whose tastes I disagree with to the extent that theirs is almost an anti-recommendation. I’m sure there are editors like that for every person in the field, and that we would all disagree on which ones they are. I’m sure I’m the editor like that for some people. If a story comes in with a credit that indicates it came from Respectable Magazine X — which could also be titled, as Ann quips, Journal of Stories I Don’t Like — then I can expect that this one, too, I probably won’t like.
But there’s an aspect of it that isn’t just a matter of taste, too. There are markets that accept nearly every submission, or that always seem to end up on the bottom of the pile. I’m sure that good authors have published in these magazines, but in every instance that has turned up in the PodCastle slush, if a story comes in by authors who are still mentioning these magazines in their cover letters, the story will be worse than average slush — including stories that have never been printed anywhere.
I’ll note that I didn’t assemble this list of bad-sign markets from a priori assumptions. These aren’t markets that I came in with a bad impression of, or that I had even necessarily known much about. These are magazines whose names I began to remember because I saw a pattern in the slush.
It’s even worse when the cover letter comes in with credits from a large number of magazines that I’ve never heard of. At the beginning of our run, we had someone submit with a full resume of over one thousand publications, none of which I’d heard of before. These are, I assume, the fly-by-night for the love markets which publish for a month or two before dying, only to be replaced, hydra-like, by two more.
These stories have almost always proven to be substantially worse than average slush. I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect some writers get themselves into some kind of pernicious, spiraling death dance with these markets. They submit something bad and get accepted and feel that rush of acceptance joy. Next time, rather than feeling the need to push themselves to write a better story, they do the easy thing that gets them a reward. Somehow ambition withers and soon they aren’t striving to make their work better.
New writers, though — new writers have potential. Am I going to be publishing someone who has no credits when they put their story before my reprint market? Almost certainly not, for reasons stated above — we’re a reprint market after all. But new writers, writers with no credits, writers who are still finding their voices and figuring out what kind of writer they’ll be… their work often has strengths they haven’t discovered yet. I can see where it will become robust and excellent. And sometimes I’m excited to read their writing as it develops.
New writers almost always turn out stories that I’m happier for having read than the ones with crappy credits that, I’m sure, their authors thought at one point would help them get published in better venues.
So, the moral of the story is, again, you do not need to acquire crappy credits so that the editors of better venues will take you seriously. If your work is good, editors will pay attention to it. You can’t trick editors into buying your work by filling your cover letter with previous publications. And, in fact, when you’re trying to get a credit, just any credit, to toss into your cover letter, you may really be achieving the opposite of what you hope.
1) At PodCastle, as I’m sure at every magazine, we read everything we receive. We’re happy to find exceptions. I’m only relaying the observations I’ve made from reading slush so far.
2) PodCastle, being a reprint market, has an abnormal slush pile. I don’t know to what extent that affects the contents of the post, but it’s always a factor to bear in mind.
3) We do not buy based on cover letters. No one does. However, writers who believe they need to get a credit for their cover letter so that editors will take them seriously are sculpting their career progression around the half-second subconscious impact that cover letters actually make. Given that they are so worried about this relatively small effect — which makes sense; as a writer, I am too; I think it’s natural to focus on the aspects of the business that are under our control — I think it’s only fair to discuss what that impact actually looks like.
4) This is tangential at best to the subject of the post, but the best way to improve your reception in the slush pile is to write better. My suspicion from looking at the slushiest slush stories is that these authors need to A) engage with their material more deeply, and B) revise more.
5) It is not my intention to condemn all for the love markets and the writers who write for them. Like Scalzi, I’ve written for the love when charity was involved. Unlike him, I’ve also done it when someone asked me to and I knew it wouldn’t take much time. There are legitimate reasons why someone may publish for the love. However, gaining credits so that you can later publish somewhere “better,” is not one of them.
6) Nor is it my intention to take on the entire Black Matrix debate in this space. Scalzi’s criticism of Black Matrix is, perhaps, too pay-rate-focused. For most short story writers I know, pay rate is one of several factors which they consider when they decide where to submit. In her post, Ann proposes three considerations which I broadly agree with — pay rate, audience size, and reputation. There are several markets, such as Electric Velocipede and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which have small audiences and low pay rates, but which I consider worth publishing in because of their reputation. As far as I can tell, Black Matrix does not qualify as one of these markets.
7) I named Tim Pratt and Greg Van Eekhout because I think both of them may have sold us flash stories that were not previously published. That’s because we pay competitive rates for flash.