Australian literary journal Overland recently changed their submissions process. The submissions guidelines now read:
Overland relies on its subscribers for survival. For that reason, the editors prioritise submissions by subscribers. While all work will be read, we cannot guarantee response times to submissions by non-subscribers.
When queried about this, editor Jeff Sparrow was happy to clarify: ‘Obviously, we still read everything that’s sent to us… but we make a point of getting to subscribers first, both because we appreciate their subs and because we think they’re more likely to be on the same page.’
Overland, like many Australian literary journals, works with limited staff numbers and pressing deadlines, so it’s not surprising that the magazine has implemented a system to ensure subscriber submissions are read and replied to in a timely manner.
Such arrangements relating to submissions, if not commonplace, then at the very least have some precedence in the Australian literary community. For years, Australian competitions such as the Josephine Ulrick Prize and residencies offered by Varuna have charged entry fees at least equal to the cost of a year’s subscription to Overland, so how is this any different?
Acquiring funding, be it government based or self-generated, is a necessary task for most Australian literary journals. I’d like to say the Australian government leads the way in aiding such funding, but the truth is that both our current government and the one preceding it have gradually reduced funding in the sector. Add in occasional concerns over the relevance of the Australia Council (voiced most notably in Ben Eltham’s 2010 Overland article) and you can appreciate why most journals are looking at alternate funding sources. Personally speaking, I have been fiction editor for page seventeen, dotdotdash and [Untitled] Magazine, and in each case, barring dotdotdash, the journal would never have been published were it not for the submissions fees generated from affiliated short story and poetry prizes that ran alongside each journal’s production cycle.
But how to retain an efficient, effectively transparent submissions process in the face of such restrictions? Editor Jeff Sparrow sees Overland’s new process as working to eradicate such self-interest. He argues that, ‘The distinction was made to remind writers that Overland depends on their support. Some writers – not all, but some – don’t really think about the journals except as vehicles for publication.’ Such possibilities were present to a lesser extent while I worked in journals; for Overland it’s been a full-time job separating those writers well suited to the journal and those seeking only to be noticed in one of the nation’s oldest and most respected literary journals.
As a writer, I received my first Overland response under the new submissions policy just over a week ago. It arrived a month after my initial submission date. I evaluated this against other recent submission response times and found that most other publications took at least three months to respond, with many taking nearer to six to eight months to reply. Experience with an earlier Overland submission prior to the new process was also much quicker than that, so perhaps I’ve had more luck than most writers in this respect. I’ve also worked on three journals wherein said journal was the editor’s life, and to this end, we were able to respond to submissions perhaps unrealistically quickly and with meticulous detail.
During my most recent Overland submission, I was similarly acknowledged and responded to. As a subscriber, I’d been given a window into how, rather than hindering a writer’s goals, their new process could instead facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between Overland’s editors and those writers already invested in the journal and its ongoing success.
Such a positive experience had me wondering if I’d be willing to subscribe to Australian literary journals that could guarantee an equally quick response, which then had me wondering why in some cases I haven’t received a reply, whether quick or detailed, or even one personal enough to include my name on the rejection slip or email.
The traditional argument has been that in managing submissions, the sheer legwork means journals will always take a certain amount of time to respond. But commit they must, if they are to continue to grow. And if they dictate that writers must wait an at times undisclosed length of time for a response, then these journals have already created a submissions process far more restrictive than any proposed by Overland.
While Overland has not explicitly stated that one must be a subscriber to be considered for publication, the implicit message is clear: if you believe in this publication and want to be supported by this publication, then the least you can do is support it. Jeff Sparrow puts it more succinctly: ‘Overland has a particular project – we’d like at least to prompt writers to think about that and whether they’re willing to support it.’
While it’s natural to query the precedent set by Overland’s subscriber-led hierarchy one can’t argue as to its effectiveness, both in encouraging collaboration and in creating an efficiently run, continually viable journal. The name of the particular journal is irrelevant. What’s important is the willingness of writers and publishers to be on the same page when it comes to win/win relationships.
Thanks to email submissions and online management portals such as Submittable, the technical side of submission has been made simpler, so now all that remain are questions regarding collaboration and the desire to create an innovative, adaptive publishing industry.
Personally, I would be more than happy to continue my subscriptions to any number of literary journals if it meant they could improve their submissions process. In point, not all writers need ego boosts, wish fulfilment or extensive detail on each and every reply. Sometimes all they need is to feel respected, appreciated, and replied to in a reasonable amount of time.
I currently subscribe to a number of Australian literary journals, and am increasingly impressed with their adaptation to new and emerging publishing technologies; I would love for their submissions processes to be equally adaptive, inclusive and professional. Or, to put it bluntly: if, as an Australian literary journal, you’re so keen for writers to support you, then why aren’t you meeting them with a similar level of support?
Laurie Steed is a writer, editor and Killings columnist. He is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia.