In an earlier article, I covered how writers can find venues for their work, and I recommended 10 (free) places that list, post, or aggregate submission calls from journals. Any clearinghouse of submission calls will yield dozens (or even hundreds!) of potential journals, and can easily be overwhelming. How do you figure out where to actually submit? In other words, how do you know if a journal is reputable, and if it’s a good fit for your work? This is where you need to research and evaluate journals in order to whittle things down to a shortlist of places that are actually worth your while to target.
Some of the submission nuts & bolts are pretty easy to research. Things like reading periods, submission fees, themes, deadlines, electronic vs. postal submissions, and simultaneous submission policy will usually be clearly stated on the website. (And if they aren’t, perhaps it doesn’t reflect well on the journal?) If the reading fee is too much (I’ve seen journals that charge $15 for regular, non-contest submissions) or the journal’s theme or focus area isn’t a good fit for you (e.g. journals specializing in politically engaged work, or religious/spiritual themes, or the environment & ecology), then you can cross those journals off your list. Some people avoid journals that forbid simultaneous submissions. Other people have a strong preference for print journals over electronic ones. This sort of technical information can be easily gleaned from the journal’s website.
After the initial assessment, let’s say you have a longlist of journals. Now comes the harder and more time-consuming task of researching & evaluating journals for reputation and fit. Let’s look first at reputation. Here are some things for the savvy submitter to consider:
Where is the journal based? Is it housed in a university, perhaps in an English department or MFA program? Is it part of a literary, arts, or community-based organization? Or is it free-standing, without any institutional affiliation? There are pros and cons to each, of course. An institution or organization confers a kind of prestige, but the journal may be stuffy or academic. A free-standing journal might have greater independence in its editorial vision, but may operate on a tight budget and be in danger of shutting down anytime. You’ll have to decide, based on your own personality and priorities.
How long has the journal been around? An older journal might have a kind of gravity by dint of its decades that a strapping newcomer lacks. On the other hand, it might be exciting to be part of a new venture whose vision or mission resonates with you. A younger journal may be more writer friendly, but it might still be figuring out its literary identity. Conversely, an older journal already has a track record—it’s proven itself in the literary arena.
Who are the editors, and who are the writers they publish? Are the editors academics, or outside the ivory tower? If the editors are MFA students, they may be open to more risky or boundary-pushing work; on the other hand, they may be too transient for writers to build a relationship with over time. Does the editor’s bio look professional, or does it focus excessively on their pets and other minutiae of their lives? Also, who do they publish? Are the writers published in the journal ones that are well-known, or up-and-comers, or a mix of both? Are they mostly local/regional, or do they come from all over the US and/or the world? All of these things can give you some sense of whether it’s a good fit for you or not.
Even when we know rankings don’t mean much and shouldn’t matter, it’s hard to let go of them completely, whether it’s college rankings or literary journal rankings. This is one index of the journal’s impact, reputation, and prestige. A journal that regularly lands work in the Best American or Pushcart anthologies (and similar enterprises like Best of the Net and Best New Poets) is obviously worth aiming for. Writer Clifford Garstang compiles an annual ranking of literary magazines—with separate lists for fiction, poetry, and nonfiction—based on the number of Pushcart Prizes garnered. You could also look up a recent issue of the Best American series (in your genre of interest), and see which journals earned a spot in it. As a poet, I particularly like the search function at the Best American Poetry website which allows you to search by journal, so that you can find out, for instance, how many times a particular journal has had work selected for BAP. Keep in mind, however, that award anthologies and rankings are not foolproof in their selections or methodology, so this is a rough guide at best.
What’s it called? No, really, what’s the name of the journal, and does it sound serious or silly? Personally, I’m probably too stuffy and strait-laced to be enticed by names like The Angry Enchilada Review or Albino Okapi Quarterly. (Don’t worry, I made those up.) It makes me worry that the editors don’t take the work seriously. On the other hand, maybe weird or whimsical is exactly your cup of tea. Perhaps you actually like the idea of having Rat’s Ass Review or Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet or Critical Bastards Magazine in your byline. (Yes, those are all real). Hey, whatever rocks your boat!
All right, I’ve saved the most important item for last, and if you’ve heard/read this a hundred times, it’s because it’s true: the best way to research a journal for quality and fit is (obviously) to read it. That’s the best way to get a sense of a journal’s aesthetic style and range, their editorial vision and values. Ideally, you should subscribe and support the journals you’d like to appear in, or at least order some back issues.
But if you’re a starving artist, you probably don’t have the dough to subscribe to a dozen journals. For instance, my own grad student budget allows me to subscribe to maybe 3 journals at a time. So, how do you research the rest without breaking the bank? I’ll cover that in Part II. See you soon!
Being a savvy submitter can’t necessarily save you from rejection. Find great content on dealing with declines here.