This weekend, Becky Tuch posted a question on her LitMag News Substack looking for comments on what it means when a submission is out at a magazine for a longer period of time. I responded with my experience as editor of Poetry South and as a long-time submitter to magazines. I don’t want to reiterate that comement here, but the upshot of the comments seems to be that there’s no way to tell what it means if your submission has been at a magazine for a long, long time. It might be good news (they like it and are still considering it) or it might be bad news (they don’t love it but haven’t sent submissions back yet). No one likes being in limbo, but that’s the reality of submitting to literary magazines.
What we can gather from the comments seems to be that there are so many different magazines, each with their own review process, that no general rules apply to a case like this. Some magazines respond quickly, and some don’t. Writers can consult sites like Duotrope, ChillSubs, or The Submission Grinder to get some insights on the practices of individual magazines, but even then, the sample this data relies on is limited to the users of each platform who actually report their submissions (and the accuracy of those reports). There’s still a lot of guesswork.
Writers can also rely on magazines to tell them, via their websites, what their typical reading period looks like, so they have a more realistic idea of response times. At Poetry South, for instance, we try to indicate that from July through January our response time will likely be very slow. We’re happy to let you submit, but we are busy with production. So a response in six months or even more is not uncommon. But in January, we try to catch up, bringing our response time closer to 1-3 months. If you submit in July, we will try to respond in 1-2 months.
But when are your odds better? When we read that big batch of submissions, starting in January, we are actively looking for good work to fill the magazine. We are selective, since we know we’ll have six more months of submissions, but we also are excited about the good work we find that we know we want to use. We usually accept quite a few pieces right away, mark quite a few more as “maybes,” and keep reading. After working through a month or two of submissions, we’ll likely go back through those “maybes” and accept some more. We’ll also probably return some of them that don’t generate quite as much excitement the second or third time around. And we may save a few for the next round of selections, as we continue to read in the next month’s submissions, etc. We don’t wait until the bitter end to make final decisions, but we also don’t make all decisions on a first read.
If you know our reading habits, then you can know that if you submitted in July and it took six months for a response, this is likely because we didn’t start reading right away. If you submit in January and it takes more than three months, we held onto your work, and someone liked it. Once we get caught up, our typical response time is 1-2 months. If we held onto it longer than that, we like what we see, but we may need to weigh it against other poems that we also like and take a little more time with our decision.
Does every magazine operate like that? Obviously not. But if you research a magazine to see what their typical response time is and what their reading schedule looks like, then you can have a better sense of how to interpret the response you ultimately get. In the end, your submission will either be accepted or it won’t be. The magazine will send you a response, and from that you can judge whether they were interested or whether they are simply behind in their submissions.
I’ve stopped sending to magazines who took forever (over a year) to reply and still returned my submission without a personal note. I’ve submitted again to others whose response indicated they had been very interested in my work. If I feel a magazine is disorganized and doesn’t communicate well about submissions, they may not be worth my time. If I feel a magazine is overwhelmed with more submissions than anyone could possibly handle, I am sympathetic, but I might still decide they’re not worth my time. If it’s a top-tier magazine, though, I might decide it’s worth it if I want to be in that world.
The advice to forget about pending submissions (as long as you keep good records) is probably wise. Tracking your submissions also means occasionally checking to see which have been under consideration for a long, long time. A query might be worthwhile, though Submittable and other platforms at least can show you if your submission is “In Progress.” I wait to query longer if I know the submission hasn’t been lost, and I rarely withdraw a submission unless it gets picked up somewhere else. Because you never know. But I’m not surprised or even too upset when those finally come back to me. As long as I can simultaneously submit the same piece elsehere, it doesn’t hurt me to let a magazine consider my work for as long as they need.
Want to know what that response letter means? You might look it up on the Rejection Wiki to see whether it was a form rejection letter or a more personalized one. Not all magazines are listed here, and not all form letters may be up to date, but it is a good place to start, if you really want to go down that rabbit hole.
My advice is not to dwell too much on returned submissions, but to pay attention when you get a personalized letter so you can submit again soon. Keep your work in circulation at a number of journals, and try to be patient until it comes back to you. Keep track of the magazines that take a long time or that have quick response times, and use that when deciding where and when to submit. But don’t take the response you get too personally. Almost all magazines get thousands of submissions that they can’t accept, and they return far more good work than they can use. That’s just the reality of submitting these days (and it wasn’t ever a lot better). The ease of submitting (and writers’ reliance on simultaneous submissions) means there are a lot more submissions in everyone’s slush pile. But that also means more writers have access to literary magazines, and there’s some really great work being published.