Here’s how the submission process goes when you’re an unknown and the publishing industry hasn’t yet realized that you’re a writer. You spend hours online, or sifting through The Writers Market looking for places where you have a chance of being published. Everyone has their own strategy, their system, and when you talk to other would-be writers you share tips and strategies like old men pouring over the Daily Racing Form in the bleachers at Santa Anita.
You settle upon The Toilet Paper Review though you’ve never heard of it before. It’s published out of some small university you’ve never heard of before. Northeastern Southwestern Nebraska State A&M Vocational School or something.
Everything is promising until you read the editor’s comments. “The ‘Toilet Paper Review publishes only the very best in contemporary fiction,” the note begins. You hear John Houston’s voice, or maybe John Houseman. That guy who used to lecture that Smith Barney made their money the old fashioned way, they earrrrrned it. “Please familiarize yourself with our publication before submitting and please, submit only your very best work. Due to the enormous number of submissions we receive, we cannot offer individual criticism on your piece.” And the editor’s note drones on in that highly-intellectual, patrician, George Plimpton voice. No simultaneous submissions, no emails, no phone calls. “Every piece of correspondence must be accompanied by a self-addressed-stamped envelope.” So at this point, Mr. Editor, the self-proclaimed Maxwell Perkins of Northeastern Southwestern Nebraska State A&M Vocational School is pretty intimidating. Maybe The Toilet Paper Review isn’t the right place for a young writer looking for publications. But then you glance at the circulation for this magazine that publishes only the very best contemporary fiction. Three copies sold. And the editor’s mother probably buys two of those. How difficult can it be if they sell such a tiny amount? You make a note of their response time, nine months since they have to deal with so many submissions, stuff your envelope and send it off.
Six months go by and then seven, then eight, then nine, ten, eleven, twelve, and even thirteen, you get married, honeymoon at the Mammoth Cave park in Kentucky, return home and start grading the first set of research papers of the new school year, and finally, you just forget about the submission that you sent to The Toilet Paper Review. Maybe 16 months after submission, a tattered and dirty envelope with your own handwriting on it appears in the mailbox. It seems Mr. Editor finally got a chance to read your story, which he roundly rejected with a form letter, due, of course to the incredible amount of submissions he receives. Typically, you re-use your manuscript and submit it to other magazines but that’s not going to happen now because your story looks like Mr. Editor changed the oil in his Buick with it. It’s nice to know it was read, some of your workshop classmates employ tricks like inserting upside-down pages in the middle of the manuscript or using weird paper clips to discern if the editor read it, but still, what in the hell was this guy doing with these pages? There are coffee stains, boogers, and ink splotches all over it. He can’t provide comments but he can use the manuscript to kill a mosquito as evidenced by the carcass mashed into page three.
There is something else inside the envelope and you reach inside and pull out another form. It seems that Mr. Editor has undergone a Kafka-like metamorphosis. The John Housman voice, deep, sonorous, and full of gravitas has now changed to the pleading whine of Jessica Simpson when she begs her husband for something and draws out the one syllable “Nick” to a length of ten seconds. It seems that Mr. Editor is now stuck on his back financially and is having a problem rolling over. There is a subscription card with a plea that “since it is so very difficult to publish only the very best in contemporary fiction and this country is inhabited by ignorant brutes, could you please find it in your heart to spare some change for us, please, pretty, pretty please.” You understand his quandary, you really do wish The Toilet Paper Review could reach the circulation of Maxim or Sports Illustrated, but your sympathy doesn’t extend to hijacking your postage for his marketing materials. After all, you didn’t stuff your fiction submission envelope with a classified ad for the 1987 Korean-made Les Paul knockoff you’ve been trying to sell.
You toss the rejection into your manila envelope that is already bulging and think of Larry Brown’s Leon Barlow who said, after receiving a rejection letter in the mail, “I wish I had you down here. I’d whip your ass. I’d stomp a mudhole in your ass and walk it dry.”
You decide to buckle-down and redouble your efforts. Look harder for that opening, talk to everyone you know, research the internet until your hand aches and your eyes blur like when you were a kid and you stared at that pop art, black-and-white, checkerboard painting at your wealthy neighbor’s house, and pour through all the entries in The Writers Market. You search for accessible magazines like a biblical scholar looks for the location of Noah’s Ark.
At the bookstore, you meet a guy who says his neighbor is starting a literary journal. They’re anticipating a circulation of 5 copies, no payment, not even contributors’ copies. “But, dude, send him some stuff. The issue closes tomorrow and my neighbor said that he hasn’t received any submissions yet. You’re basically guaranteed.” You check the submission guidelines, bundle up your story and send it along. It comes back a month later with a form rejection letter. Stunned, you search the bookstore to see what magazine they were able to produce with no material, no submissions. The clerk tells you the store isn’t going to carry The Neighbor’s No-Submission Review, that you have to special order it and the editor will go down to Kinko’s and make a copy for you. You slap down your five bucks and say you’ve gotta have it. It arrives a week later and features a story by Joyce Carol Oates.
The literary business is difficult, and very few people make a good living, much less get wealthy. And so you understand the competitiveness and how every writer is trying to get as many publications as possible. But The Neighbor’s No-Submissions Review? Joyce Carol Oates? You respect the writer and admire her productivity, but how about giving some space to the new folks? Last week, you drove across county lines to Open Mike Night at the local bar. You drank a beer and watched an evening consisting of some high school kids playing The Strokes, a couple of drunks trying to rap Eminem songs, and a folk guy strumming an old dreadnought. But now, after your experience with Oates in The Neighbor’s No-Submissions Review, you walk around the corner and expect to see Open Mic Night at the local bar in Jameson County taken over by U2, REM, and Metallica. Their bodyguards and roadies, clad in black, barring the entrance to the backstage area.