Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The numbers game

A lot of people I meet are interested in what it's like to run a literary magazine, and some of the questions I'm asked most often have to do with the submission process--how many we get and how they're handled. This year, upstreet received more submissions than ever before: 295 short stories, 92 creative nonfiction pieces, and 820 poems. This was a lot to read and, no, we didn't do it all at once--at least, we tried not to.

The submissions came to me--either by e-mail or to the upstreet P.O. box--and I gave them an identifying number, logged them into an Excel database, removed the cover letters, and sent the mss to the appropriate editor (fiction, poetry, CNF). Let me use fiction as an example. I sent the very efficient upstreet 3 fiction editor, Robin Oliveira, 14 batches of short stories, the first one on October 21, 2006, and the last on March 6, 2007. These batches ranged from 12 to 25 short stories, depending on how many I received and how quickly she was able to read them. The volume of submissions gets larger as the deadline approaches, and the final batch consisted of 53 stories. What I did with creative nonfiction and poetry was similar, except that there were fewer nonfiction pieces (about half) and many more poems (about 8 times).

Robin had never done this before, so she had to develop a system for what to do with all these stories. Based on what she told me, I know that she read each story once, and made brief notes in a notebook she kept for the purpose. Based on the first reading, she decided if it should be read a second time. After the second reading, she decided whether to put the story on her short list for further consideration, or recycle the manuscript. She reported to me on each batch, giving me the numbers and titles of the stories she was keeping on the short list, and frequently including comments on what she liked or thought needed work. I also read all of the stories myself, and a few times (very few times) added a story to the short list, but in the vast majority of cases I told her to go ahead and dispose of the stories she didn't want to keep. Our level of agreement was very high. I kept a record of all the shortlisted stories on my computer. I knew the names of the stories' authors, but Robin did not. From time to time she thought she recognized the style of a writer whose work she was familiar with, but she wasn't always right about that. (We received a number of submissions from fellow alumni of the Vermont College MFA in Writing Program.)

Robin also was able to place some of the shortlisted stories roughly into categories: cats, death, illness, high school sex, etc., which frequently helped her decide among them (i.e., which of the two cat stories is better?). Once we were finished, she narrowed her short list down to 38 stories, roughly in order of preference, 17 of which she labeled Yes, and 21 Maybe. The top 13 stories (102 pages) made it into the book. I made this decision based on her choices and the choices of creative nonfiction editor Harrison Fletcher, who gave me a similar (although much shorter) list, which ended up with 10 CNF pieces (52 pages) in the book. Because, due to family issues, poetry editor Jess Greenbaum didn't finish reading until much later, I left her 33 pages, which ended up with 22 poems by 16 different poets. My involvement with the creative nonfiction selection process was not as close as it was with fiction, and I read very few of the 820 submitted poems, most of them at the end of the process. The Wally Lamb interview, conducted by me, takes up 17 pages, one of which is a photo page.

I believe this process has resulted in a good balance among the different genres. I purposely increased the proportion of creative nonfiction in this issue, which was made possible by the improved quality of the submissions. upstreet has now reached 224 pages, and I'd like it to stay that size. I'm increasing the price from 10 to 12 dollars to accommodate the larger number of pages, which I didn't do last year. I believe that the more submissions we get, the better the journal will be. This also means, of course, that it will become more competitive, harder to get accepted. I have already begun receiving submissions for upstreet 4, and Robin can't wait to get her hands on them, but we won't begin reading until after the current issue comes out, which will be around June 15.


Tory said...

It looks like hard but interesting work! Thanks for sharing the process. And great good luck!


Robin O said...

When I read Vivian's latest entry, I marveled at how well she intuited my process. We did communicate a lot, mostly about t how best to do justice to each story. But Vivian and I live about 2500 miles apart, and I must never have been clear about how obsessive I became. Not wanting to miss the gem in the pile, I read each story at least twice, and sometimes three times before I made up my packet-by-packet short lists. I wanted to make sure I wasn't influenced by what I had for breakfast. (My previous suspicion of how things worked at lit mags.) Now I know that editors are as careful and as thoughtful as they can be, wanting to do justice to writer and reader both.