The rituals involved in submitting work to literary magazines are almost as precise and complicated as those of the writing process itself. Most writers take great care in signing cover letters, applying proper postage, self-addressing their stamped envelopes, even patiently centering binder clips as if dressing a child for the first day of school. But a growing number of magazines are switching to an online submission process, making those rituals—not to mention the U.S. Postal Service—unnecessary.
Proponents of online submissions say the process saves money on postage and paper and cuts down on response times, since it curtails much of the administrative work involved in logging, assigning, and distributing manuscripts once they are received by a magazine. It also reduces the chances of submissions being lost. Online submission systems usually notify writers once their work is received. After setting up accounts, writers can also log on to the journal's Web site, determine whether their work is still under consideration, or review what they have previously submitted.
Last August, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) unveiled Submission Manager, an online software system that makes submitting manuscripts a cheaper, less protracted process for writers, while offering greater efficiency to literary journal staffs. Designed by One Story webmaster Devin Emke, the software allows writers to submit electronic manuscripts and enter their own contact information directly into a journal's database—in effect, logging their own submissions. A number of magazines, such as A Public Space, Fence, jubilat, and Ploughshares, are using the software. Others, like Glimmer Train Stories, use customized online systems.
Jeb Livingood, the faculty adviser to Meridian, a literary magazine produced by MFA students at the University of Virginia, says his online submission system provides a level of access that "gives our submissions and contests an amount of transparency they didn't have before." Using Submission Manager, a journal editor can also access previous editorial notes to see whether an author's past submissions have shown promise. "This way authors can develop a relationship with a magazine," says Hannah Tinti, the editor of One Story.
Emke originally designed Submission Manager for One Story in 2002, but over time he recognized a demand for "an off-the-shelf, commercial product." After CLMP offered to market a more generic version of the software, several of the organization's member journals began beta-testing the software in late 2005. The software was finally made available to all of CLMP's members last summer. Prices range from three hundred dollars to five hundred dollars, depending on the journal's operating budget.
Online systems like Submission Manager can have glitches, however. An early problem with the software resulted in a batch of manuscripts at jubilat being inadvertently deleted. (Since Submission Manager keeps a complete record of submissions, however, jubilat's staff was able to e-mail writers and ask them to resend their work.) The majority of problems, such as writers uploading their work in improper formats, are relatively easy to fix.
Those editors reluctant to convert to online submissions have expressed concerns about economics and eyestrain. Printing out thousands of electronic submissions is not feasible for most journals, and the alternative—asking readers to stare at screens—does not appeal to editors like Stephanie G'Schwind, whose staff members at the Colorado Review consistently tell her "they don't want to read submissions on-screen." Michael Czyzniejewski, the editor of Mid-American Review, agrees. "Sitting at a computer terminal for so many more hours than I already do seems like a complete nightmare."
Many editors do recognize the benefits of online submissions, however, and don't want to miss out on the trend. "I don't want to lose submissions because good writers are sending their work with a click of a button instead of wasting postage, stationery, and a lot of time," says Czyzniejewski.
Before Glimmer Train switched to an online system several years ago, shouldering the stack of submissions was more than coeditors Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda Swanson-Davies could handle. "We'd come back from a three-day weekend and there would be eight mail buckets leaning against our office door," says Burmeister-Brown. While not all writers and editors agree that the time has come for an exclusively online submission process, most would agree that eight mail buckets can hold an awful lot of paper—and in this time of heightened awareness of limited natural resources and green initiatives, the days of binder clips, SASEs, and slush piles may be numbered.
Matthew Pitt is a writer and teacher currently living in Brooklyn.