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Simultaneous submissions vs. exclusive submissions

Flickr user tnarik

So, you’ve written short fiction and you’d like to see it published. You have an idea of where you’d like it to be published, but can see that what you’ve written may have broad appeal. A list of magazines, journals, and websites that are possible homes for your work pop to mind (or your search engine). Then the submission guidelines butt in, and you must choose between them due to their submission policies.

In contrast to simultaneous submission policies, which encourage writers to submit one piece of work to multiple places at the same time, exclusive submission policies say that if you’re sending a submission to be considered for publication, the manuscript cannot be under consideration elsewhere and it cannot be sent elsewhere for consideration until it has been returned. Both are prevalent among short fiction markets.

Earlier you were just writing a story. Now what you do with that story feels like a moral and political stand. You could abide by the editors’ no simultaneous submission guidelines and send your story to only one publication, then wait for a response before sending it to another. You could find markets that read simultaneous submissions and send copies of your manuscript to them all at the same time, and wait for their responses. Or you could send your manuscript to the publications in which you would like to see it published, regardless of their simultaneous submission policies. Each choice has its own pros and cons.

But why do you have to make such a decision, in the first place?

Easy. Editors, like writers, don’t want to waste their time.

As editors read through the many manuscripts they receive, they look for those that not only work as standalone stories, but can also get along with others in such a way that they act like parts of a story family. The house, or publication, only has so much space, so they don’t want to find a head of the family and spouse and children to fill it to capacity only to be informed that the time they spent reading and trying to set up the family they’ve devised was for naught because one of its members has found another family to join, another home. It’s not personal. It’s business. Loss aversion. Risk prevention. The story families that editors try and put together are supposed to make money. Wasted time equals possible losses of profit, because once a son runs away or a husband leaves, editors are left to put their families back together. And the odd thing with story houses is that they must be filled, otherwise visitors sense the loss in the family and think something’s wrong. Editors must refill the gaps with a stepfather or an adopted son, which could leave houses filled with such dysfunctional families that fewer visitors come knocking after an initial visit, a bad taste left in their mouths. Knocks equal sales. Editors love knocks.

When accepting stories, most short fiction markets buy “first time rights.” Unlike newspapers, short fiction audiences buy according to interests rather than locale. But because of this, each story is treated like a news editor’s scoop, and no simultaneous submission policies ensure that it will be a scoop, since it’s not out being considered by multiple markets at the same time. If it was, it could create competition, and competition among short fiction markets catering to overlapping audiences could disrupt the editorial selection process. It would create a first-come-first-served editorial atmosphere that could hasten editorial decisions and possibly lead to less put-together collections. It might even place writers in a position to negotiate to whom they’d be willing to sell their stories, if multiple markets express interest enough to haggle for the scoop. It would put editors on the spot.

No simultaneous submissions polices are in place for other reasons, too. They create barriers to entry. Writers are averse to sending stories to editors, if the editorial turnaround is lengthy. This, it seems, is intended to create a talent pool of writers who are dedicated enough to risk letting a story linger unproductively while they continue writing more and, hopefully, better material.

What’s more, markets’ no simultaneous submissions policies are intended to make prospective submitters read their magazines well and thoroughly, so that submitters can understand what’s likely to be published and can justify the risk of sending stories out for extended periods, since they’ve honed their works to fit. The policies, in this way, save time for both editors and writers -- editors don’t have to read types of manuscripts that their publication doesn’t publish, and writers don’t have to send stories to places where they aren’t likely to appear. Win, win.

But there are unintended consequences of no simultaneous submission policies. Works lose their relevance the longer they’re in editorial circulation, and become stale. Writers spend time tweaking small aspects of well-travelled stories just to see if a change will make a difference to a different editor, instead of writing new material. Workable manuscripts get rejected simply because editors have committed to certain formats into which they wouldn’t fit. In short, writers get turned off to editors.

To many writers, no simultaneous submission policies are like job postings that tell you to send your resume to them and to no one else in the meantime.

Simultaneous submission policies are more writer-friendly, though they have their own pitfalls.

With simultaneous submission policies, in the time it might take to get one response to one manuscript, say, three months, a writer can get responses from all the markets in which he/she wants his/her fiction to appear. It’s a kind of temperature taking -- how amenable is a particular set of markets to what and how I write?

Worst/best case scenario with simultaneous submissions: multiple markets want to publish a particular story, and the writer must be judicious about to whom he/she will sell it. That means either playing favorites (I’d like my story to appear here more than there) or playing dibs (whoever got back to me first gets what they’re after). If, god willing, such a dilemma occurs, it means, in the least, that good work was done by the writer and the story had broad appeal. On the other hand, such a dilemma means that a prospective publisher will be let down and could become wary of the writer’s future submissions, despite the fact that the writer’s work was and might continue to be good enough to grab the attention of multiple, disparate editors.

If simultaneous submission policies are abused, however, and writers go about manuscript submissions via the grapeshot method, sending out each of their new stories to every market, both writers and editors lose. Rejections pile up for writers. And editors get turned off to writers who clearly haven’t done their research and seen what they’re publishing.

In the case that simultaneous submissions policies are ignored outright and submissions are sent wherever writers want, there are pitfalls, but only, it seems, if a submitted work is good enough to draw the attention of multiple editors at the same time and cause them to butt heads. The chances of such a situation occurring are slim, but if it occurs and even one of the editors has a strictly no simultaneous submissions policy, the consequences can be grave. That market may close to offenders or, in the least, its editors may become wary of further submissions from the offender. Worse, the offended editors may talk to other editors about how they should watch out for the same flouting of the rules. Editors, like writers, have long, deep memories. The offense could spread, even if the story that sparked the offense was good enough for multiple editors to want to buy it.

Those are the choices. Those are the consequences. Now, write and submit.


  • Roberta Baxter Eugene, OR. Dogs Examiner 5 years ago

    Thank you for the solid points to ponder. Well stated and presented with good info for choosing.

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