This year, I decided to take the “100 Pitches a Year” challenge – which I keep hearing about in my various online writing groups – whereby I would submit pitches and/or completed pieces to 100 outlets. I discovered why it’s such a good exercise pretty quickly: For one thing, it encourages me to submit to places I might not otherwise – not because they aren’t a good fit, but because I tend to decide, with all the clarity of someone who has no idea, that the outlet couldn’t possibly want what I write. You don’t have the luxury of this kind of victimhood when you must conceptualize, write, revise, and send two pitches every single week. I also realized the sting of rejection is a lot less painful when I have several pitches circulating.
If you, too, are attempting to up your freelance game, then you might be wondering, as I did, whether certain bylines are more likely to lead to other bylines or opportunities. For the answer, I decided to go directly to the sources: writers who have been in the freelancing game for a while, literary magazine editors, and a literary agent who represents a wide array of genres, including memoirs, novels, YA, middle grade, and business books.
So: Do bylines matter? The short answer: It depends.
Not every outlet pays attention to where you’ve published in the past when considering whether to publish your work. The conventions change depending on whether you’re seeking to publish in literary journals, work for journalistic media outlets, or secure an agent for a book deal.
When asked how The Sun selects stories and essays, Nancy Holochwost, assistant editor, says that author bylines “don’t influence how seriously we consider a submission or whether we accept it. That decision is based on the manuscript itself.” Previous publications, she says, “are of interest to us in terms of learning more about the author” but don’t figure into the selection process.
Susan Kay Anderson, poet and author of Mezzanine and Please Plant This Book Coast To Coast, reads poetry for the journal Quarterly West. “There could be wonderful publications next to a poet’s name, such as The New Yorker, POETRY Magazine, Orion, etc.,” she says, but she does not look at these credits upfront. “I want to get right to the poem itself to see if it is interesting.” She adds that although there may be an enviable credit beside a poet’s name, the poem still may not make it into the journal. Simply put, “the poems might not be that great” or fit with the journal’s taste or liking.
“I haven’t ever paid attention to anyone’s byline when I’ve read for a journal,” says Kris Whorton, English professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and assistant coordinator of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. Whorton has read for Driftwood Press, Indianola Review, and Cheap Imitation.
While there may be exceptions to the rule, all four journal editors/readers who responded to my question, as well as a number of articles I uncovered on the subject of cover letters, indicated that a writer’s work is considered independently of their credentials. So, don’t stress if your bio is light on publications – or non-existent, for that matter. Your cover letter probably won’t get a once-over until after a journal has decided to accept your work, and you won’t then get rejected for lack of impressive creds. Moreover, many editors say they like discovering unpublished or under-published voices.
This is not to say that your literary journal publishing credits can’t help you score other opportunities. It’s possible you’ll be nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which, if you win, can help open other doors. Anderson says her publications in the journal Caliban helped her get a teaching job in graduate school and to get into an MFA program. The poetry-publishing world is small, she says, and as such, accomplishments in one area can lead to opportunities in another.
While a writer’s credits mostly don’t matter when being considered for publication in a literary journal, says Whorton, they definitely do matter when being considered for an invitation to teach or present at a writers’ workshop like Meacham.
“We require that visiting authors have at least one book published. We’ll read some of their work online and look at a bio. The publishers that make me take notice are Milkweed Editions, Persea, Red Hen Press, Tupelo Press, Coffeehouse Press, Black Lawrence Press, etc. As for literary journal publications, I’m impressed by The Sun, The Southern Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, New England Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and Georgia Review, to name a few.”
Not sure which journals to aim for? See Clifford Garstang’s 2021 Literary Magazine Rankings for a comprehensive list of literary journals broken down by fiction, nonfiction, and poetry (cliffordgarstang.com/2021-literary-magazine-rankings). Be sure to read how he determines the rankings.