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What does the future look like for literary magazines?

Subscriptions are down. Submissions are up. What do modern journals need to do to survive?

What does the future look like for literary magazines?
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3. Submittable: Part salvation, part tribulation

Editors will tell you Submittable has been the biggest game-changer in literary magazines during the past two decades. It’s also been the biggest headache.

Submittable, if you aren’t familiar, is a cloud-based system where you submit work to magazines. You register for a Submittable account and then use your login to submit to any publications that use the platform.

Editors will tell you Submittable has been the biggest game-changer in literary magazines during the past two decades. It’s also been the biggest headache.

For magazines that once received submissions via email, Submittable has been a godsend. Editors still have nightmares about losing stories in overstuffed inboxes. Submittable tracks submissions and allows editors to assign each one to an initial reader, making acceptances and rejections way easier.

“Submissions at EVENT have increased dramatically in the past few years as a result of our beginning to accept work online through Submittable,” says Shashi Bhat, editor of EVENT. “Prior to that, we accepted only snail-mail submissions.”

But there’s a tradeoff for this service – money, of course, and as we’ve already established, most lit mags don’t have much of it. A number of editors told us, on background, they’re reeling from recent Submittable fee bumps.

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While magazines could save money by leaving Submittable, they also lose the orderliness and ease of the submission process, which would demand more time from editors – who are often volunteers.

For many magazines, Submittable charges an overall fee, then takes a slice of submission fees as well. Not all magazines charge one (see: “The great submission fee debate”), and Submittable limits unpaid submissions, which it doesn’t earn anything for.

Yet walking away from Submittable is a double-edged sword. While magazines could save money, they also lose the orderliness and ease of the submission process, which would demand more time from editors – who are often volunteers.

Editors frequently discuss the issue at conferences, throwing out alternatives and new ideas. Some magazines have experimented with submission software that works only on their site and find it less user-friendly for both writers and editors. Nothing has emerged to take Submittable’s place.

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“They’ve made a wonderful product,” one editor says. “Many of the things it lets us do, we could never do by email. We’re lucky enough to be able to afford those services, but most magazines can’t.”

For the short term, Submittable will remain indispensable. For the long term – well, it’s just another one of the unknowns in the literary magazine world.

On the up and up: Submission numbers at a glance

Why have submission numbers risen? Editors say it’s a mix of many things. Submittable, certainly, has been a big factor – it’s easier to submit through a digital manager than via snail or even email. Longer open submission periods, more outreach to writers through conferences and social media, and, yes, frustrations with the current presidential administration that manifest in creative output have all increased submissions.

Several editors say the number of publications objecting to simultaneous submissions has also decreased, so writers can send the same stories to multiple magazines. (Sidenote: One editor whose magazine accepts simultaneous submissions said she saw a story she’d recently rejected published in another literary magazine. The author apparently didn’t read the simultaneous submission policy. The story was identical, except in the published story, a character was a skunk; the one submitted to the editor, it was a raccoon. Writers sure are creative.)  

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How much have submissions risen? A few magazines shared their numbers:

SmokeLong Quarterly

2016: 60-75 submissions per week

2019: 100 submissions per week

Tahoma Literary Review

2014 (first year): 4 submissions per day

Most recent 12-week reading period: 13 submissions per day

Kenyon Review

2016-’17 six-week reading period: Just over 6,000

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2018-’19 six-week reading period: 7,200

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