Back in the dark ages, like ten years ago, most stories submitted to magazines travelled on paper, with a stamped, self addressed envelope included.

These days most magazine editors are accepting e-mail submissions from local and overseas writers, which makes it a lot more efficient for everyone. Plus it gives us a glow of virtue knowing we have shrunk the size of our own global footprint (all that jet fuel saved, all those forests spared).

But editors of women’s magazines are taking longer and longer to make up their minds.  Are they drowning in submissions, or are they just reading more slowly? Many of them with large circulations used to have an army of readers who patiently sifted through the chaff, but perhaps some of them have been laid off in the tight economy.

My guess is editors are being overwhelmed. In the past two years, several magazines stopped using fiction, which means there are more writers looking for fewer markets.

(My Weekly, a stalwart in the short story market who feature two stories each week, announced last year that they will only accept stories from writers they have used in the past.  They’ve slammed the door on all that new writing talent out there, something they might regret later, but are probably receiving more than enough submissions from writers whose work they are familiar with to bother with anyone new)

There has also been a proliferation of writer’s websites, providing dozens of names and e-mail addresses of magazines accepting fiction. Novice writers, who maybe never considered submitting their work once they’d shown it to their writer’s circle, could now just click ‘Send’.

Five years ago, almost without exception, editors answered your submission  within a week, with a “Got it, will read ASAP” kind of email.  Or an auto-reply saying the same thing. So at least you knew it had arrived and was sitting in their files somewhere. And you could expect them to read it and accept or reject within three months, tops.

These days very few of them even bother to tell you it’s arrived and you just wait hopefully for some sort of acknowledgement.  If this eventually comes in the form of an acceptance, then you are so happy you immediately forgive them this oversight.

Then there’s the environmentally unsound editor in America, one of the few who still demands paper, who keeps your snail-mailed story for five months, and then returns the whole six pages in an expensive airmailed A5 envelope. This is the story which you sent with a covering letter suggesting she should just email the rejection to save money.  No sense of economy! (But there is also the five-star editor in America who reads and decides within a month, so I’m not pointing fingers at our American cousins, you understand. I’m just mentioning it.)

Julie Redlich, fiction editor of Woman’s Day in Australia, doesn’t acknowledge receipt but always sends a “Yes” or a “Thanks, but not this time” within three months. Unfailingly polite and gentle in dealing with submissions, she receives many unsolicited stories a week – sometimes from children whose mothers think they are good writers, or from readers who just want to share their memories.

“I probably get about 40-50 unsolicited submissions a week, either by snail mail or e-mail and yes, I do read them all. No one helps me.”

No editors ever gives feedback beyond a short, “Nice story, didn’t work for me though” kind of remark.

Fast Fiction of Australia, the quarterly short story magazine which is part of That’s Life, sometimes acknowledges with an auto-reply and sometimes doesn’t. The editor has been known to send out a “You’ve been shortlisted” email after a couple of months.  At first I thought this was a hopeful sign but five months later I began to think it had been dropped into some sort of editorial black hole, never again to see the light of day.   So I re-subbed the same story and it was shortlisted and then accepted a week later, which sort of confirmed my black hole theory – if it isn’t near the top of the list, it slides to the bottom and disappears forever.

But the That’s Life weekly fiction editor Mary Gillespie explained things from their side:  “‘Shortlisted stories do not receive a rejection. They are held indefinitely.”

You are free to try the story somewhere else in the meantime, and they just ask that you let them know that you are withdrawing that story.

Then there is the editor who also never tells you she’s received your story, and never officially accepts or rejects. But sometimes, months later, a complimentary copy of the magazine arrives in your postbox, along with a cheque.  This is a difficult one, because of course you are pleased with the money and the fact she has shown such discernment in buying your story. But meanwhile, you’d given up hope and subbed this story somewhere else, so you have to quickly email and withdraw it. Which I suspect earns you a fat red X in that particular editor’s black book.

And this also leaves you in a quandary. Do you assume the other three she is sitting with, and failed to mention, have been rejected?  Did they ever arrive in her In-box? Are they still being considered or have they moved to her Trash file?

And what about the editor who cheers you by writing, “Thanks, got it, will read this ASAP.”  You think, goodie! And then there is a long, long silence.  The record for this particular editor is 17 months, after which she accepted the story. By then I’d subbed elsewhere and sold, but luckily to a magazine on another continent.  (One story published by two magazines on the same continent is the ultimate no-no for writers).

Of course there are some lovely, sensitive, well-organized fiction editors out there. We all know who they are.

But they don’t realize the power they have?  Do they understand the deep gloom their rejections bring? (This is pathetic, isn’t it, but show me a writer who doesn’t head for the chocolate when her story is turned down.) Or, on the other hand, the thrill they generate by a simple “Yes”?

But maybe, worst of all, is that editors don’t seem to realise that being ignored hurts the most.  We short story writers need closure!

About the Author:

Ginny Swart started writing short stories in 2001, and to date has sold over 600 short stories to women’s magazines all over the world. Her more serious work has appeared in literary publications in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and on the Web. In 2003 she won the esteemed UK The Real Writers Prize from over 4000 entrants. Ginny tutors the Short Story Writing Course at SA Writers College, NZ Writers’ College and UK Writers’ College.

Photo Credit: Flickr.com_insEyedout