At a recent writer’s meeting, I participated in a discussion group about the relations between editors and unknown freelance writers. A retired editor on the panel, who had served as managing editor of a large city news magazine, explained things from his perspective.
In summation, he said, “Any writer who sends an unsolicited manuscript [or query letter] to any publication has absolutely no right to complain, whatever follows. The editor is an autocrat. He does not ask these people to write for him. He rather wishes they wouldn’t. He can always get such material as he wants from people whom he knows.
If writers send editors their unsolicited materials, the proper thing for them to do is to quietly wait. Examining, repacking, and returning manuscripts and responding to emails entails a lot of time and expense in labor. We are doing them a favor. Seldom are they grateful.”
In other words, a writer not yet “arrived” has no rights which an editor is bound to respect. The return of materials or a simple reply to an email is a concession or an act of gratitude on their part. The editor’s position is absurd as it is cruel and unjust.
Waiting aimlessly for a reply
Unless distinctly stated in the publication’s writer’s guidelines — that they do not accept unsolicited material — every publication is in the position of asking for contributions. Both the publisher and the writer benefit conjointly. The publisher receives a continuous stream of fresh material, and the writer has an opportunity of getting published and paid.
The writer either sends a full manuscript or a query letter by mail or e-mail. He might have spent hours, perhaps weeks and months, of study and work to complete his article or novel. Then he spends additional hours or days crafting a cover letter or query letter. Now his submission awaits somewhere in the publisher’s office (or in a special folder in his e-mail account), where it may, and often does, lie hidden in a slush pile (physical or digital) for weeks at a time. Meanwhile, the writer eats his heart out in suspense.
Not all editors acknowledge the receipt of a manuscript or query letter
If the writer, after waiting beyond the response time, inquires about his submission, then he risks incurring “editorial wrath” and his submission is returned, unread.
Many editors and publishers request that writers do not send out more than one copy of their submission at a time. This is ridiculous. An editor may take (or wait) three months or more to respond, during which the writer’s article or novel loses its timeliness. In some cases, another writer with a similar idea gets it into print, thus rendering the first writer’s work valueless.
This delay is always the result of careless business methods or indifference to the rights of unknown writers. Every large publication or book publisher has staff members who “sift” through the slush pile. These people soon acquire facility in getting at the gist and style of an article or novel almost at a glance.
Unfortunately, they quickly dispose a large proportion of it. Proved by the invariable practice of our leading magazines (or most of them), they examine and read the remaining submissions. Within a month, at the very least, they reply with an acceptance or rejection.
Examples of bad practice
One of the largest magazine publishers in the U.S. decides the fate of submissions within ten business days. It is true that writers feel leery about such prompt reply — some writers assume that the busy editors never read their submissions at all. But even so, this is fairer treatment than keeping a poor writer in suspense for weeks (or months), and then replying with a one sentence rejection.
I once had an editor return my manuscript with spots of smeared peanut butter & jelly sandwich on nearly every corner of the page. Another time I had an editor return my manuscript with particles of cigarette ash on the cover page. Every page, especially the inside of the envelope, smelled of smoke.
In one instance a popular magazine held a writer’s article for several months (after the editor had accepted it). When the writer inquired about its publication date, the editor informed her that he could not locate her submission, nor did he remember accepting it. Later the editor found her submission, and returned it, folded and defaced.
The sticky note on the first page, in poor handwriting, said, “Sorry, one of our readers had taken it home to examine and had misplaced it. Because of your article’s [timely] topic, we can no longer use it.”
Imagine the writer’s frustration upon receiving back her defaced article with a rejection. Because the magazine paid on publication, not acceptance, and offered no “kill fees,” the writer had no luck in getting paid for anything.
This situation would never happen if editors and publishers regarded manuscripts and submissions as “real property,” often of more value than what the “reader” perceives.
Payment only on publication
This brings me to my next complaint: the practice of publications paying for accepted articles only on publication. “Payment on publication” — a common statement in writer’s guidelines — can indefinitely prolong payment to the writer. The result is the writer can never depend on his earnings; he can make no plans; he feels hampered and embarrassed and forced to incur debts. He is kept in a state of irritation and suspense that makes work hateful and life a burden.
One of my friends, a writer by trade, had an article accepted by a major magazine. She waited for months for the magazine to publish her article (as scheduled) so she could get paid; unfortunately, the magazine folded before it published her article and she never heard back from the editor or any staff member.
If a publication pays on publication, you are out of luck if that publication discontinues, folds from bankruptcy, or passes ownership to a new publisher. Do not expect the publication to notify you about any of these changes.
What can a writer do?
But what, you ask, can a writer do about it? Nothing. The writer is helpless. He suffers like the farmer or mechanic, from over production. Yes, the farmer may at least burn his timber to cook his unsold produce and prevent starvation, and his wife and daughter may spin and weave his wool and flax into clothes. The mechanic, out of a job at his own trade, may turn his hand to some other work.
The aspiring freelance writer, no matter how great his talents, has no such refuge. He unwillingly subjects himself to humiliations and unfair treatment. He swallows his “humble-pie” like a man. On occasion, he can boast about his infrequent successes and conceal his frequent failures. And, on occasion, he may decide to flame “bad” editors on Facebook and Twitter with negative comments, but will this “negative” feedback come back to haunt the writer? Who really knows.
Like all writers who want to succeed, the aspiring writer will need to keep his eye on that “place at the top.” Someday, the writer believes in his heart, he will dictate his own terms to eager editors scrambling over each other in mad haste to offer their contracts to him.