“Thank you for your interest in Zoetrope: All Story,


We are a staff of two, assisted by a small team of brilliant and generous volunteers, who are collectively dedicated to reading and responding to the 12,000 submissions All Story receives annually…

…All-Story does not accept submissions via e-mail. Send stories to:…”

The above guidelines come from Zoetrope: All Story, one of the top tier literary magazines of today. My response:

Dear Zoetrope,

Your submission guidelines are fucked up. Snail mail had a purpose…once. There are better options, and the time is now.

The list of deservedly established writers published at your magazine is formidable: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Roberto Bolaño, Robert Olen Butler, Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Kathryn Harrison, Ha Jin, Jonathan Lethem, Yiyun Li, Naguib Mahfouz, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut, & David Foster Wallace. Many writers would love to join this crew, do not mind submitting, and hope to be “discovered” on the slush pile. Yet how do the majority of your authors submit? I doubt Woody Allen stuffs an envelope and drops it in the mail, fingers crossed, hoping Zoetrope will make his proverbial day. But that’s what you demand of the regular scribe, and while all writers are not stereotypical “starving artists,” they would love to save a dime or two, unlike ol’ Woody, who can afford the postage. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Woody’s earned the privilege, but then why bother taking submissions from the masses? No matter how good an unknown’s story is, Woody and friends aren’t gettin’ bumped. Fetid grapes aside, The New Yorker now accepts E-subs, but even The Diddle Ass Review should. And so should Zoetrope.

Electronic mail or submission managers are no longer science fiction, and function more efficiently than snail. E-subs might create an overflow of stories, but there are solutions: short windows for submissions or charging nominal fees (not writer friendly, either, chief sinner Narrative Magazine, charging nasty clam so they can pay all the writers they solicit, but that’s another rant). Here’s the analysis:

Estimated annual cost of 12,000 nine-page stories plus cover letters:

  • $ 600 12,000 8½ x11 envelopes 120 x $5 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $14,040 $1.17 Postage for 12,000 submissions
  • $ 240 12,000 4×9 envelopes for SASE 120 x $2 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $ 5,280 $0.44 Postage for 12,000 SASE
  • $ 1,200 120,000 pages @240 x $5 per 500-page ream
  • $ 960 Printer ink cartridges @10,000 pages per cartridge = 12 x $80

Total = $22,320 or over $1,800 per month.

  • Not included but should be considered wasteful:
  • Gas to deliver 12,000 submissions plus 11,998 rejections and two rewrite requests
  • At 3 inches a 500-leaf ream, a 60-foot tall tree of paper

Time at printer preparing envelopes, etc. @five minutes/submission = 100 hours (not to mention time spent by “brilliant and generous volunteers” who, with Bartleby-like futility, refine skills in a Sisyphean search for fabulous stories that will never be accepted by Zoetrope)

Fifty Zoetrope clones would push the cost over a million dollars. Smaller mags? Every 100 subs/month = $2,232/year. Yet as the smaller mags regularly publish from slush, the waste not as egregious.

Zoetrope, your guidelines continue: “Before submitting, non-subscribers should read several issues of the magazine.” What a deal! I’m sure you’re not intentionally trying to screw writers, but c’mon, this is way totally like effin’ really just absolutely too fucked up.
Certainly, writers should do their part, not waste editors time with inappropriate submissions, and buy, read, and support literary magazines; that’s yet another topic. Bottom line: writers might buy more magazines if they had more money, and they might read more if they had more time. Right? If one writer has ten stories and submits each story twenty times that’s over $350 a year a writer could spend on food, rent, books, and subscriptions to literary magazines. Sure, Zoetrope, you are not the only guilty party. Those lovable stalwarts over at The Sun, despite their concern about social issues, environment, and poverty, refuse to evolve. Others? The list includes The Atlantic, Crab Creek Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Texas Review, Zyzzyva, etc., not to mention the publishers and agents that postpone electronic. The cost rises into millions of dollars, a forest of paper trees, and oodles of wasted hours. So Zoetrope and cohorts, big and small, agents and editors and publishers, take heed: Stop the snail. Or be fucked up.


Caleb “The Mad Writer” Powell

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CALEB POWELL's argument with David Shields about art and life, I Think You're Totally Wrong, is forthcoming from Knopf in 2015. He blogs at Arguments Worth Having and Notes of a Sexist Stay-at-home Father.

15 responses to “Dear Zoetrope: Your Submission Guidelines Are Fucked Up”

  1. dwoz says:

    I’m going to start a literary magazine.

    I’m going to require submission query letters to be written in the snow on a hillside. A photo will suffice.

    On Kodachrome.

    That’s right.

    you have to find some new-old-stock film, take your picture using an SLR, find some way to process it.

    It must be matted.

    You must get sufficiently up in the air to prevent keystoning of the text.

    Sans serif will do.

    It is snow, after all.

    Your address must be in the watermark of the photo paper.

  2. Aaron Dietz says:

    I once started a literary magazine that ONLY accepted submissions by email. (In fact, it WAS an email-distributed literary mag, so that seemed appropriate.)

    I should probably get back to that.

    Lovely piece by the way, Caleb. Hilarious, as it should be. And seriously, why the no email, Zoetrope? You think 20th century publishing is going to last forever?

    • Caleb Powell says:

      In defense of snail, it’s easier to read, and I can understand why editors, especially the old school, might prefer not to look at a computer for hours on end. But Zoetrope uses their submission policy more as a marketing device to get submitters to buy, or it has that appearance, and thus there lacks a reciprocal benefit to the writer. Call me a cynical son-of-a-bitch.

      Another thing, of the writers I listed, if you want to read them buy their books, who cares if Zoetrope publishes them. For example, I tend to gravitate away from the “Joyce Carol Oates/Sherman Alexie” Literary Review, another beef. Oates & Alexie are good writers, so why are they solicited by the small mags? To give editors an ego lift? How many reviews boast they’re publishing these authors? Who cares…and that’s just one more rant.

      But still, the snail needs to be the exception, not the rule. I interviewed Lidia Yuknavitch, and it came out decent, and two of the places I queried told me to snail mail. I told them to “eat shit.” The interview’s forthcoming next year at the Southeast Review. I’m done with snail, for the most part.

      Also, I’ve been rejected by every place mentioned, but have had work in the Texas Review and Zyzzyva. I respect the lit mags, always. I respect even more the ones that reject me, as they must have taste, and I suspect the ones that publish me, somewhat. Ha ha.

      Just a few more thoughts, and glad you saw the humor, because, despite my vitriol, this was a chuckle to write. See you ’round town.


  3. Jeffro says:

    I tend to side more with Zoetrope. By opening up the submissions process to e-mail, you’re inviting more slush. It takes more courage to put a stamp on an envelope and walk to your local post office than it does to hit send from an e-mail account. I respect that they are staying old school.

    • Caleb Powell says:

      I’m not sure courage has anything to do with it. Perhaps “ambition.” At 1,000 submissions a month is a lot of slush, and there are ways to avoid that, as said above. If a magazine is going to read 12,000 manuscripts a year, there are ways to minimize submissions.

      As one editor I know said, there are a lot of lazy submitters who would not otherwise submit, they figure what the heck, there’s no risk to hit send, why not? And that’s not fair. Snail has advantages, no doubt.

      If you think Zoetrope is going to honor your submission by giving it a fair read, go ahead and submit. But if they’re not, then they should let the reader save the trouble of posting snail.

  4. Art Edwards says:

    As valid as your criticism is, I feel like I have a better chance (slim, I know) at the places that accept only paper. Many simply refuse to lick a stamp anymore, and my hope is that cuts down the competition.

    Your piece hit home for me, Caleb. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one out here wasting time and resources trying to break into these markets.

  5. I don’t know that the argument is even snail mail or e-mail. I heard one editor of a respected journal say this year at AWP that 90% of the work they accepted was agented submissions. And a reader from another respected journal told me that the editors there didn’t even read the “pass-ups” the readers recommended from the slush and just published whatever they’d solicited.

    • Caleb Powell says:

      Good point. A friend of mine, some 20 years ago, read for the Seattle Review. He had no power, none of the stories he passed up got in. I think readers do it to benefit in the process and participate in the magazine, and weigh in on the stories/essays that the editor deems appropriate.

      This same friend, years later, submitted to Zoetrope, but he had no publication history. The story came close enough that one of the editors who liked it published it in an anthology with Jennifer Egan, David Foster Wallace, Dorothy Allison, Steve Almond. It was a good story. My friend has accumulated some respectable bylines over the years, including a Distinguished Essay in Best American Essays. Though he didn’t get in at Zoetrope, his submitting benefited him, but if the same story was submitted by an established writer I’m certain it would have been accepted.

      That being said, writers who are published in these mags have earned it. As well, the mags earn their reputation.

  6. dwoz says:

    My take on the overall problem is that we’ve entered the age of “zero barriers to entry” writing.

    Anybody can do it. I can do it.

    In the past, you had to have the stones and determination to pass a ream of paper through a typewriter, and to edit a second draft, retype it AGAIN. Just the physical act of writing was enough to keep the pool small.

    Today, I can speak toward my computer screen, and words will show up in the document. I have to touch it up…but there’s nothing to stop me posting up whatever mental diarrhea I’m excreting this moment.

    This vast wall of noise hits the editors. What to do?

    In the past, you were fighting against maybe 1000 of the very best writers in the world. Today, you’re fighting against 5 million of the very worst writers in the world.

    • Caleb Powell says:

      True. I feel for editors, and they do and give so much to writers. Unfortunately, they have little readership, yet they don’t want to alienate writers – who are their main readers. So they have to accept submissions from everybody, and a lot of writers don’t consider the problems of editors.

      Still, the math on Zoetrope indicates they accept and publish established writers primarily, and thus why not have brief windows for electronic submissions, allow submitters one submission per year, and so forth? As is, it’s a marketing tool thinly disguised as a submission policy, and a waste of time and effort for writers and Zoetrope interns.

      The Atlantic, and even Granta, ask for snail, but they don’t go on about “buy our magazine”, and it’s obvious (or should be) to the submitter that chances are slim, so I don’t have as big a problem with it. Needless so say…is. So any magazine that hammers in to submitters the necessity of buying their magazine really is on the redundant side of redundancy.

      If I were an editor I would probably go nuts having to weed through all the mediocre submissions, and would try to devise a plan. I can understand snail mail, I think the more serious writers would gravitate this way, and thus the submission quality is higher. The small mags that have circulations of about 1,000, but are edited by diehard people who read and take pride in “discovering” a fresh voice, have a legitimate claim to request snail.

      Also, get rid of the SASE. Just have a deadline i.e. “If you haven’t heard back from us in six months, assume we have passed.”

  7. Erika Rae says:

    Caleb. You have spoken my heart’s true desire in this post. e-submissions. *sigh*

  8. Peter Marcus says:

    Personally I prefer to mail my stories, and submit electronically only of that’s the only type of submission the magazine will accept. Different strokes for different folks, and I don’t see why magazines as a rule shouldn’t accept both.

    I prefer to send a hard copy because I don’t have to worry about software incompatibility making my submission hard to read (happens with different versions of .doc, .pdf etc.) and because sending submissions electronically takes up more time than hard copies, especially when you factor in entering a credit card number when magazines charge a fee to submit online.

    As to online fees, I simply will not pay to submit a story. If a magazine only allows online submissions I will do that but I will not pay.

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