Submission Etiquette and Tiered Submissions

I had an email exchange with a student the other day about magazine submissions, and I thought that it would be good to come back to here. My student’s had the good fortune of being accepted at a small, student-run publication with a small distribution, and it caused her a bit of a dilemma, since the same submission was still out at a number of other journals.

The etiquette for simultaneous submissions is to let the first magazine who accepts your work have it, and to withdraw it from other places where you’ve submitted immediately. Unless you have serious qualms about the magazine that accepted your work, that is what you should always do. For my sutdent, this is a lesson that you should research magazines well before submitting and send to ones that are of similar caliber, so you don’t have any qualms about an acceptance when it comes.  

To be frank, though, my student’s odds of getting this piece accepted at most of the other magazines she sent to aren’t that great, so she shouldn’t feel bad about it. I haven’t read her submission, so this comment is no reflection on her or her writing. Top magazines can take a long time to turn you down, or they might accept the same piece eventually, but you’ll never know because you need to make a decision about the acceptance right away. The more well-known a magazine is, the more submissions they will receive, so the harder it is to get accepted, and the odds of getting the same piece selected by two different places are always going to be slim.

That’s no reason not to submit to top journal, but it can be a good reason to rank the places you’d like to submit and then send the same piece to places with similar rankings first. This is often called tiered submissions. Start with the magazines you think are a good fit for your piece and that you would die to get into. Then if none of them accept your submission, move on to the next level of magazines that you’d love to get your work in. Eventually move on to those smaller, quirky magazines that you’d be proud to be in but aren’t top on your list.

If you do want to withdraw a submission from a magazine after it’s been accepted, you need to do that immediately and don’t wait for someone else to accept it, which would be incredibly bad form. Withdrawing after acceptance is bad enough, but you should never wait to do that, and I would only withdraw my work after it was accepted if there was something in their terms that I couldn’t agree to, which rarely happens. You should have a good idea of a magazine’s terms and of the magazine itself so that you’re willing to see your work published wherever it gets accepted first.

Once a piece has been accepted by one magazine, you should always withdraw it from everywhere else. If you submit poems or flash and have multiple titles in one submission, it is okay to inform the magazine which title you’re withdrawing and ask them to keep considering the rest if they allow that. If you submit fiction or CNF, then you will likely need to withdraw the whole submission. Maybe the magazine will allow you to submit something else, if their deadline hasn’t expired, though your submission will probably move to the bottom of their pile. Occasionally, when you withdraw a piece, the magazine will ask if you have something else they could consider, though simultaneous submissions have become so ubiquitous and withdrawals so common, that that doesn’t happen very often anymore.

Using tiered submissions sounds good, but can also be a collossal waste of time. If you always send to the top journals first, that’s one or two rounds of submitting where you have very poor odds of getting in. That’s why I would suggest a tiered submission practice that is also targeted to the specific works in the submission packet. In other words, I consider where I think are the best places to send each packet and start there. I want each place I submit to be roughly equal in terms of how I will feel if my submission gets accepted, but I don’t always start at the top of my list of magazines. Some submissions are just more appropriate for that quirky little ‘zine that I want to support with my writing. Others seem to be more appropriate for a more mainstream audience.

And of course, the reality of submitting is that magazines have different reading periods and deadlines, so you can’t always send to your top magazines all at once. You will likely send to a mix of places that have open reading periods. Just make sure that you will be happy enough with any magazine that you won’t regret it if their acceptance comes first.

It’s never wise to sell yourself short, but it’s also unwise to always shoot for the moon. Be thoughtful about when, where, and how you submit, and you will always be thrilled (and rarely have regrets) when your work is accepted.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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