Paper vs. electrons: Submitting stories in 2009

Some intelligent and articulate people have been discussing the merits and demerits of editors refusing to accept electronic submissions for their publications. I first noticed the discussion when John Scalzi made some salient points about the submission policies of the ‘Big Three’ genre magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF), essentially pointing out than in 2009 you have to come to terms with electronic submissions if you want to be a credible editor/publisher (read what John has to say – it’s better than me attempting to summarise).

Speaking as someone who has been editing for nearly 20 years, and has been handling paper submissions through that entire period, I have no affection for them. When I was involved with publishing Eidolon (1990-1999) we ended up refusing to accept returnable manuscripts because they were such a pain to handle.

When I held an open reading period for Eclipse Two last year almost all of the submissions were electronic (about 400 on a month) and I found it a simpler, easier and more manageable thing to do. It was also a lot faster for me and for authors. I did not get the oft-mentioned (and feared) flood o’ crap. I did get more repeat submissions, simply because the turn-around gave writers the chance to send a second or third story during the submission period if they chose to, but that was manageable. It would have unquestionably cost me more money, more time, and involved more stress if all of those subs had been printed and sent via the post.

Right now I am currently editing or co-editing seven anthologies of original fiction. Without hesitation, the biggest and most complicated pain I’ve had working on those anthologies has involved the single print submission I received (one of only two I’ve dealt with in the past two or three years). If I credibly could, I would refuse to handle print subs at all. I can’t and I won’t because some people have perfectly legitimate reasons for needing to send printed submissions, but I would if I could.

People have discussed the various reasons for refusing electronic submissions and they seem to come down to:

(1) I’m afraid of the flood o’ crap and
(2) I hate reading onscreen.

    I sympathise with (1), but honestly my experience is that it does not happen. There is a slight increase in sub-par submissions (maybe), but they are very quickly slushed (good stories stand out pretty easily, and poor ones do too). I don’t, however, have much sympathy with (2). Setting aside people who have very real medical issues that make reading on screen a significant problem (and this is a real thing), there is little excuse for not reading onscreen in one form or another. It is, simply, a basic 21st century skill you need to acquire. My solution was to buy an e-book reader, bump my subs onto that, and read them using the wonders of e-ink. It’s slightly imperfect, but it does the job.

    By accepting electronic submissions you increase the range of writers will to submit stories to you. You increase your submission period by removing postal-time restrictions (a number of terrific stories I’ve published have come in on the deadline that I’d not have been able to consider if they’d been sent by post). You decrease your costs. You simplify management. You have faster, more immediate communications with your writers. All in all, I think the positives about accepting e-subs far outweigh the negatives.

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    10 Comments

    1. I came over here via Cheryl Morgan’s post and just want to say thank you for talking about this issue.
      I’ve been frustrated by the issue of “snailmail-only” policies in SF ever since I moved to China 1 1/2 years ago. I’ve ranted a bit on my own blog about the near impossibility of sending a ms via postal mail to the US from here and I am so glad to see other people talking about the sheer backwardness of insisting upon such a policy in the 21st century.

    2. When I was trying to break in as a writer — this goes back to the early 90’s, when electrons were new — when given the choice to submit electronically or via paper, I always chose paper, on the (probably mistaken) assumption that paper was easier to read, and my stories didn’t need anything else to make them more easily rejectable.

      By the way, somebody mentioned the Scalzi piece on the F&SF forums, and Gordon responded that he sticks with paper, largely because of the sheer volume of submissions he gets:

      “…there are several reasons and the biggest one is that there are *many* people submitting manuscripts and few of us here reading them. I remain unconvinced that we could install an electronic system that would let us handle our volume of submissions effectively.

      “At least once a year I speak with an editor who does take e-subs and ask them about their system, what they like about it, what they don’t. Most of them don’t accept submissions that are longer than 5,000 words. None of them say the volume of submissions they receive matches ours. None of them have convinced me that we could make e-subs work for us.”

      http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/blog/forum/topic.php?id=330&replies=24#post-3923

      I’m not trying to stir the pot or anything, but it’s an interesting discussion.

    3. Jonathan—

      No offense intended, but your experience does not include running a magazine the size of F&SF or ASIMOV’S. Your generalizations are, in my opinion, incomplete and inaccurate. I’m glad e-subs work for you and I’ll be happy to listen to you tell me sometime about all their virtues, but I think that if you spent a month working in my office or in the Dell magazines offices, you’d go back and revise the fifth and sixth paragraphs of your post.

      —Gordon V.G.

    4. Good to hear from you. I deliberately didn’t want to address my comments at the Big Three. I think they have their own issues, and I’ve not done what they do. As always, I have enormous respect for Gordon, Sheila, Stan and their teams.

    5. Gordon —

      I’m not offended at all, and there was no offense intended by my post. In fact, looking back at it, my post addresses what happens at F&SF, Asimov’s and Analog much, much more directly than I’d intended.

      It was my intention to address electronic vs. paper submissions outside the context of those three publications. As you quite correctly say, I’ve not worked for any of the Big Three and no-one in the field deals with the volume of submissions that you do. That makes an enormous difference.

      I’d also happily concede that the effect of an x% increase in submissions due to shifting to electronic submissions would be far more difficult to cope with when you handle the volume that you, Sheila and Stan do. I would say that for most everyone else – who deal with far, far fewer subs – the case is harder to maintain.

      I do think there is a case to be made that electronic submissions can lead to an improvement in management, rather than a deterioration. I also think you can deal with reading onscreen. So, while I most likely would revise what I’ve said if I had that experience, I would say that there are benefits to be had, though they very well may not be sufficient to justify a change at the offices of the Big Three (something I’ve not advocated).

      — Jonathan

    6. Gordon–how many submissions do you get a week?

      Ann gets about 250 to 300 a week for Weird Tales and has no problem with electronic submissions.

      Jeff

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