Thursday, July 8, 2010

How to limit submissions without looking like a dick

You've probably all heard by now that Tin House announced a new submission policy: You must include with your submission a receipt showing that you bought a "real" book in a "real" bookstore. The point, apparently, is to "save bookstores." And e-books, or even books ordered online, apparently, don't count:
Writers who cannot afford to buy a book or cannot get to an actual bookstore are encouraged to explain why in haiku or one sentence (100 words or fewer). Tin House Books and Tin House magazine will consider the purchase of e-books as a substitute only if the writer explains: why he or she cannot go to his or her neighborhood bookstore, why he or she prefers digital reads, what device, and why.
There was a big shitstorm thread on HTML Giant about this, of course, but I'm not bothering to read it. (News of the shitstorm comes via Moby Lives, via Matt Cozart.) The ML post claims there's but one "sane" comment among the noise, by Andy Hunter of Electric Literature:
The thing that I think many here are missing is the incredible volume of submissions Tin House must get. EL is not half as well known, but we get thousands of submissions every issue, and even with 35 readers, it’s very hard to keep up. Especially because everything is read twice. Sometimes we regret our open policy, but it was the policy we wanted to see when we were on the other side, as writers. Now that we’re on the publisher side, it gets a little rough [...] There are many, many writers who are scanning duotrope and submitting to magazines they’d never fit in. The majority of these writers don’t seem to read enough, to be honest. They really ought to buy and read more books. [...] There has been a lot of wondering, here and elsewhere, if emerging writers do enough to support the institutions which they wish to support them (i.e. ever buy a literary magazine). Tin House decided to playfully push the issue, and lighten the slush pile for themselves at the same time.
It seems like editors at big fancy lit mags (BFLMs) don't know what to do with all their submissions. Look, I read for a BFLM (Ploughshares) for many years, I know the sheer onslaught of mediocre to lousy or even good submissions is pretty tiresome. But there's a really easy way to limit the number of submissions you receive and ease the burden on readers: Just close submissions for most of the year. Some magazines only read submissions for one or two months out of the year (No Tell Motel and Pool come to mind). This practice is a bit annoying/frustrating for writers, but here's what it's definitely not:
  • Elitist and condescending
  • A self-congratulating attempt to "save" an entity that will die anyway (The current business model of brick-and-mortar bookstores is obviously unsustainable; coercing a tiny subset of the population into proving they've bought books won't help; this subset mostly consists of the people who are already buying real books anyway)
  • Encouraging an approach to reading that is consumerist and environmentally unfriendly (one can read books without buying them)
  • Needlessly complicated (If for some reason you can't or won't buy a book, you can write an impassioned 100-word plea or a haiku to that effect; won't this just increase the burden on Tin House's readers? Now they have to read regular submissions in addition to haiku. Also, submitters will wonder if the title they purchase or the store they purchase it from has any effect on consideration; it probably does, just as cover letters tend to have an effect.)
  • Easy to cheat
So I have to disagree w/ Moby Lives that the editors of Tin House are "doing their best by readers and colleagues dedicated to mother literature." It's a silly, messy policy and there's an obvious better alternative.

46 comments:

  1. oh. well, i just thought it a nice, lighthearted thing to do.

    i really hope you're wrong about bookstores dying!

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  2. I don't think bookstores will die entirely, but I do think they need to change their business model. Same goes for some online "businesses" -- newspapers and magazines like Salon doesn't seem completely sustainable through ad revenue alone.

    I wouldn't submit to Tin House anyway (or Ploughshares for that matter) unless you know someone; it's like playing the lottery.

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  3. actually i wouldn't care that much if *new* bookstores went out of business. but as long as there are old books floating around, there will always be used bookstores, the only kind i buy from (mostly).

    (i wouldn't submit to any magazine, period.)

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  4. I prefer used bookstores too. I hardly ever buy new books, though John buys enough for both of us.

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  5. It's the logic of the rule, as noted in bullet point #2, that confuses me: I believe that they get some crappy submissions, but do they really think that the problem is that people aren't buying books? Their submitters are probably the only people buying books. Plus, buying a book does not a good writer make.

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  6. I think the big chain bookstore model is unsustainable, but well-run indies and used bookstores will probably survive in some form. I'm surprised you haven't gotten any pushback on the "environmentally unfriendly" comment yet, given that paper-lovers usually like to point out that e-readers have metal in them, etc--it's a disingenuous argument most of the time because they try to make it into a one book = one e-reader comparison, which is bogus.

    What I imagine happened at Tin House is that they came up with this idea and didn't think all the implications through--they just had it, fell in love with it, and then ran it. And I think there's something to the notion that we writers are not good about supporting our own industry, especially the journal side of it, but that's no reason to crap on internet sales of books.

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  7. Right, maybe they're just buying shitty bestsellers and genre fiction. Which is no slight on genre fiction per se, but I'm sure that's not what the editors are hoping you'll buy/read. I feel like TH will immediately dismiss a sub accompanied by a receipt for, like, The Sword of Shannara (which was once my brother's favorite book, btw). Or, I dunno, a Rachael Ray cookbook.

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  8. E-readers are NOT the only alternative to buying paper books ... there's old-school libraries and borrowing from friends, which is more what I was referring to. Lots of people have given up buying books, not in favor of e-readers, but in favor of libraries.

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  9. a world where people read e-books instead of paper books is not a world i want to live in.

    recycled paper: problem solved.

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  10. i haven't been to the library in 8 or 9 months. such a depressing place. and mediocre selection!

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  11. Used books are also greener than always buying new.

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  12. I've said for a while now that I think paper books are going to become a niche market--I compared them to vinyl LPs last week--and used books will only last so long before they crumble. I read an article on the state of book paper a month or so ago and the nut of it was that publishers are using crappier paper today. It disintegrates within twenty years.

    The changeover is really going to take effect with the first generation of kids who grow up with e-readers, and they're coming sooner than I imagined. It could be that the kids born today will learn to read on an e-reader, and if that happens, they won't be as attached emotionally to the paper as we are.

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  13. That's sad about the crappy paper ... but yeah I think you're right, the next gen won't be sentimental about books and bookstores like we are. I'm already not at all sentimental about physical newspapers, but know people just a few years older than me who are.

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  14. i just read something about how people feel more relaxed reading a paper book than an e-reader.

    when baseball games started to be played on the radio, team owners protested because they thought people would no longer pay to come to the games when they could listen on the radio for free.

    i feel really sorry for kids these days. they're already drowning in electronics. such a bullshit time to be alive.

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  15. It is a little gross how we're constantly in the presence of radiation-emitting electronic devices. Cancer, man. Cancer.

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  16. Certainly, Tin House could have come up with a more worthy beneficiary of the writer's desperate need for publication than Barnes & Noble.

    And few things bug me more than literary publications with no quality control. They misspelled "accompanied" on their news page ("...as long as each submission is accompanid by a receipt for a book from a bookstore.")

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  17. I don't get the outrage at the Tin House policy. It's a policy that helps a community (in theory, at least) as opposed to the much more "dickish" submission and contest fees. On the flip side, it's also in Tin House's best interest to support independent bookstores, because that's where many of their issues are distributed/sold. The "free market" people don't really get it -- in a true "free market" few of the print publications they want to appear in would be able to exist.

    While there's certainly nothing wrong with buying used and I'm not discouraging that, do so occasionally myself -- somebody HAS to buy new for there to be a such thing as used. For any publications/presses to exist, a majority of buyers need to buy new.

    Many people can meet Tin House's requirements (both afford a book and have access to an indie store). Those who can't, still have the opportunity to submit with an explanation. Those who have a problem with such a policy simply don't have to submit.

    The truth of the matter most people who can, don't support indie stores. That's why they're endangered. Tin House clearly believes indie stores are important and are trying to do something tangible to help a help a situation.

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  18. On a side note, for No Tell Books, next year I'm considering doing a call for book manuscripts for NTM contributors (people whose work I know I already like--anybody can submit work to NTM during the open reading period). If I do, one requirement would be that manuscript submitters buy (or have recently purchased) a NTB book (with the 'if you can't afford it, let me know exception'). Why? Because people should know the kind of work the press does -- and also, I don't want to work with someone who's OUTRAGED by being asked to support an indie press -- a press they hope will spend a lot of $$ and time promoting their work! If that makes me a dick, then don't submit to No Tell Motel or No Tell Books, because I'm a RAGING DICK.

    word verification: dingesse

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  19. Reb, I don't think Tin House's policy really is tangible though. Or perhaps I should say coherent. It seems like a way to limit the number of submissions they receive, while still getting to claim that they have open submissions, and while looking virtuous because they're supporting the indie bookstore cause. (Although they don't specify that it has to be an "indie" bookstore.)

    My feeling is that huge lit mags like Tin House and Ploughshares are basically wasting a lot of people's time by pretending to have open submissions. Less than 1% of those submissions ever make it to the magazine. And most of what is published comes from the well-connected.

    Here's what I'd applaud Tin House for: closing off open submissions, and donating all the money they save on reading and responding to those open submissions to a local bookstore.

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  20. Also, as an aside, I'm not outraged by any stretch, I just think it's a silly policy, as stated in the post.

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  21. I don't think that requirement would make you look like a dick, because you're more open/honest about what you do and don't have time for and do and don't care to bother considering.

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  22. Well, I don't claim to know Tin House's true intentions -- if it's more to limit submissions while "looking noble" in the process, or if it's a more sincere approach to take care of two "problems" at once.

    And I know you're not outraged -- but I've read a lot of comments elsewhere that were -- and those comments seemed much more "dickish" than Tin House's policy, flawed or not.

    I agree that magazines that take so little from their slush piles, should probably either not have them or dramatically modify how they do them--because it is a poor use of resources.

    What I like is lit publishers coming up with ways to address problems, instead of sitting on panels, or writing lame articles moaning and bemoaning the "state of publishing" or the "death of bookstores" (or whatever). Every idea may not be hugely successful, it may not even be 100% pure and selfless, but at least it's a new way to approach it.

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  23. cheers to reb. people should save their outrage for BP.

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  24. I am very cynical about intentions when it comes to hot-shot lit mags, I admit, but it's a fairly informed view.

    I just have a problem with people putting the onus on consumers when a business model fails. It reminds me of bloggers or website owners asking their readers to occasionally click the ads to keep ad revenue up. I don't blame the public if bookstores can't stay in business. Begging the unwilling to buy shit they don't want isn't any kind of long-term solution.

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  25. Sitting around being outraged doesn't clean up oil spills either.

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  26. well, the key is not to sit around, but actually do something.

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  28. Well, maybe if these outraged writers wrote shit somebody wanted to pay to read, we'd be able to sell these magazines and bookstores. Hah!

    As for the oil spill, being outraged is necessary to frighten the government and the politicians into making necessary change and laws and holding corporations accountable -- the problem in the past was that there wasn't enough outrage when laws were being changed to permit such things.

    But editors and publishers aren't elected, so the pitchforks and torches aren't especially effective. Especially in the hands of folks who aren't subscribers/consumers/supporters/promoters or in any way contributing to their existence.

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  29. Matt: Like what? What, for example, can you do or are you doing? I'm actually curious.

    Reb: Enough outrage may make a difference, yes. It's a pretty indirect and inefficient way to get shit done. I think the massive costs are a far greater motivator than avoiding future outrage, though.

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  30. Massive costs and greed are what drive corporations to cut corners, ignore safety and pollute. Corporations are short-sighted motherfuckers. They think quarterly report to quarterly report.

    And if you think the clean-up is a clown show now, imagine how much less they'd be doing without all the outrage and pressure.

    There wouldn't be massive costs without the outrage.

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  31. Of course there would be massive costs. Even if nobody cared about the environmental damage, they'd still be losing all the oil. They'd still need to repair the leak.

    Anyway I'm not saying we shouldn't be outraged! I'm just not sure I agree that outrage is helping a lot. Anyone can rationally see that the leak is hugely damaging on all kind of levels, whether or not they feel genuinely angry about it. A well-designed robot could see it.

    Wow we are really off topic.

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  33. I think writers should buy books, new books, from publishers and independent bookstores. That is how publishers - we like them, right? - and bookstores - which we also like - stay in business. It's BS for writers not to support the literary industry they strive to become successful in. Everyone who wants to publish a poetry book should buy poetry books. Everyone who wants to be published in lit mags should buy lit mags.

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  34. I like bookstores, and books, and lit mags, some of them anyway, and I agree that people who submit to lit mags *should* be reading and buying lit mags and books. But I don't think this policy is an effective way to save bookstores or force people to read (or read the right things).

    Asking consumers to chip in and save the bookstore industry feels as useless as asking them to save the VCR industry or the adding machine industry. People who still want books are still buying them.

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  35. FTR: The vast majority of the poetry books I buy, I order online or buy directly from the writer or publisher at a reading or event like AWP. Those receiptless transactions are in support of writing and literature, and in particular small and independent presses. The local bookstores in Boston (a large, literate city) just don't meet my needs as a reader/buyer. The poetry selections unilaterally suck. I think that's a failure of the bookstores, not my tastes.

    I would love for good, well-stocked independent bookstores to be able to stay open ... when I visit those stores in other cities, I often make a purchase. But just buying any random book from any random bookstore doesn't seem to me to support any particular cause or change the fact that most consumers are finding different ways to read.

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  36. No argument with you on the crappy selection of poetry at most bookstores...or even literary fiction...

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  37. everybody: move to new york. best bookstores east of the rockies.

    in fact, i'm looking for a roommate...

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  38. I do want to move there! Although, I want to get rich first.

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  39. my goal, officially as of today, is to get "rich" by halving my expenses. off to okcupid! got some serious dating to do.

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  40. Break a leg!

    Although, someone told me a long time ago that couples spend more than two single people ... that may not have been including rent, however.

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  41. in that case, i'll just have to find someone whose income is multiple times more than mine. a lawyer, perhaps. even secretaries make twice as much as i do.

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  42. At first glance, the idea of requiring a receipt for a book purchase seemed like an interesting idea, though I agree with a lot of the comments about the holes in the idea. (Not least, for instance, that I also buy a lot of books hand-to-hand, at readings and book fairish events, and receipts often aren't part of the transaction.)

    Another idea that comes to mind, that might be worth a try, would be to require all submissions to be accompanied by a list of, say, 10 poets or writers (depending on what kind of writing the submission is) whose work the submitter likes to read and has found important in shaping their own work. The list could be included in the cover letter (for those writers who think to include one).

    Whenever I get into a discussion of electronic vs. print books, after a few minutes my head wants to explode. I'm with Matt, that a world where people read e-books and not print books is not a world I want to live in. Talking about this, I sometimes feel like Charlton Heston, at the end of the movie, desperately crying out "Soylent is people!"

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  43. My worry about a list like that is that it's just another way to pre-judge the work. "This guy only reads sci fi, there's no way his short stories are going to be good, etc." I don't believe that most writers literally aren't reading anything -- I think they just aren't reading what book snobs and MFA people think is good. And I don't think crappy work should be favored just because the writer is reading all the "right" people. My feeling is basically that if you're going to have open submissions, they should be open. If you don't want to read a lot of inappropriate crap mixed in with the good stuff, don't open submissions.

    Just in case it wasn't clear, I don't have an e-reader. I don't even have an iPhone! Can you imagine?

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