3 Reasons This Anthology Editor Doesn’t Give Feedback on
By Rachel Kramer Bussel
March 04, 2011
Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in authors asking for a critique of the stories I’ve rejected from my anthologies. Most of them ask politely, and I send back the shortest reply I can explaining that I have a rule against giving any sort of critique. This latest round of requests made me wonder if perhaps I was being too harsh, but then I realized that there are very good reasons for me to refuse. Here are the top three:
I work full-time, edit about 6-7 anthologies per year, co-edit a cupcake blog and do freelance writing. Currently, I’m in the process of accepting and sorting submissions for four anthologies (details for the three erotica collections can be found on my website, and for the nonfiction Best Sex Writing 2012, on the Erotica Readers & Writers Association site). I could tell you a ton of other reasons why my time is limited, but trust me, it is. I simply don’t have the time in the day to get my work done, and tack on an added, unpaid task. I wish I had more time (don’t we all?), but the fact is, I don’t, and I need to use my time in the most advantageous and responsible ways and providing unpaid critiques just doesn’t fall into that category.
That being said, if someone’s submission is formatted improperly, or isn’t on topic, or under the word count (basically, if they haven’t followed my very specific rules), I might write to them and simply tell them that this is the reason. But what the authors are asking for, it seems, is a way to crack the code, to tell them how to improve for next time. As I elaborate on below, as an editor, I’m just not the person to do that (I’m not trying to speak for all editors, just for myself).
I get about 100-200 submissions for any given anthology, and my job is to winnow them down to 20-25 to include in the final book. I’ve gone through the process 38 times since I started editing anthologies in 2004, and over the years, I’ve learned a lot about organizational strategies and working efficiently to cull the best stories, in my extremely humble, subjective opinion. And that is the one of the most salient points: I am one lone person. No matter what I decide regarding a story, it’s still just my opinion. Yes, I hold the power, in this instance, to select or not select a story, but I do not have the power to dictate whether your story is Good or Not Good. I don’t know, because I think taste is subjective. There may be a story that I love but another editor wouldn’t, and vice versa. I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling an author something that might steer them down a path that wasn’t authentic to their writing or the story. I don’t have all the answers, and can’t magically steer them in the right direction.
Additionally, I am not just looking for the “best” stories (and I put “best” in quotes because, again, it’s subjective), but the best stories that work together as a whole to create a book that will appeal to the widest array of readers possible. I try to balance points of view, gender of characters (and, to a degree, authors), settings, character’s ages and backgrounds, as well as including some authors I’ve never published before.
I try as hard as I can to include the stories I think are the best, but even then, I can’t always do so, because an anthology has to be a cohesive unit. Each story has to be linked to, yet different from, the others in the book. Sometimes, there’s a story that is excellent, but overlaps too much in content with another story I also want to include. That’s why it’s important to think outside the box, as it were, when submitting to anthologies. When I edited an anthology on female nudity, Smooth, I got a lot of stories featuring strippers. I love strippers and stripper stories, but since that wasn’t the theme of the anthology, most of those I simply couldn’t include. It doesn’t mean they were bad, it just means that to include all of the stripper stories I liked would have created an imbalance in the anthology as a whole. What else made the final cut? “The Sushi Girl” by Anika Gupta, about a woman employed by a restaurant to lie naked while customers eat sushi off her body, as well as a naughty Adam and Eve retelling (“Eden” by Molly Slate), a tattoo story (“Ink” by Jennifer Peters) and a tattoo removal story (“Clean Slate” by Lisabet Sarai), among others (you can check out the table of contents here).
This somewhat encompasses the first two points, so I’ll try to differentiate it. To me, my role when reading submissions for a given anthology is to select the stories that best suit the purposes of my anthology. That is my sole purpose. Sometimes, I’ll read a story that I like but that doesn’t work for that particular book, either because it’s not on topic or repeats a theme I’ve already selected, and I may ask the author if I can consider it for another anthology, since I’m contracted for several at once. But beyond that, even when I appreciate a story, if it doesn’t work for the anthology, I reject it. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. It doesn’t even mean I’ve necessarily made the “right” decision; surely if someone else were editing that anthology, they’d make different choices. I’ve seen plenty of stories I’ve rejected turn up in other people’s books, and I think that’s great. Maybe on a different day or different week, I’d have made another decision. Be that as it may, that decision ultimately rests with me (and my publisher), and I do the best I can to select stories that are arousing, on topic, diverse and unusual.
It’s your job as the author to decide what to do with a rejected story, not mine as the editor to guide you. What I do when I’m in that situation is take another look at the story and ask myself if it’s strong enough to submit elsewhere. Sometimes I do just that, sometimes I shelve it for a while, sometimes I tinker with it, or take it apart and create multiple stories from it.
All that being said, when I want to use a story, I’ll either revise it lightly myself and consult with the author as to my proposed edits, or ask them to make some changes. I did that with the gay male story “Missing Michael” by M. March in Peep Show: Erotic Tales of Voyeurs and Exhibitionists. It involved being “watched” by a lover who’s passed away, and I wanted the author to bring out the sense on the part of the protagonist that he felt looked over and protected, to gloss on the category a bit more than the original had.
I might ask an author to add more detail or clarify something I don’t understand. I’m often working right up to my deadlines, so I don’t have the luxury of asking for extensive revisions that I may or may not get, and that may or may not work. I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for a huge rewrite on spec (my publisher has final approval of all manuscripts), and generally, with the anthologies I edit, this isn’t something I’m forced to ask of people because there are other, suitable, completed stories at the ready.
It’s why one of my pet peeves is when an author sends a submission, then a few days letter sends a “better, revised” version (and I explicitly state not to do this in my guidelines). I may very well have already considered the version they’d already sent and even started editing it for inclusion in my manuscript. It’s disrespectful of my time and, to me, indicates that they didn’t care enough in the first place to go over their story with a fine-tooth comb. Everyone makes mistakes, and one tiny typo is not going to disqualify you; if a story works, I’m willing to work on it and smooth out the kinks, as it were.
I can’t speak for other anthology editors, but that is how I work. As harsh as this post might sound, I truly welcome and look forward to submissions from authors I haven’t worked with before, and authors who are new to writing erotica. My recent anthologies and upcoming ones all feature writers whose work I haven’t published before, and I’m excited to add new voices to the erotic conversation created by my books and my colleagues’. Publishing those pieces is an honor, and new voices, writing styles, and topics help my anthologies to be more well-rounded. So please, submit away, just understand what services I, as an editor, can and cannot provide.
then again, in a dom/sub relationship, the arbitrariness of the rejection is an essential feature of it, no? There is no “ask why” there is only “do?”
I wouldn’t expect an editor to give me any tips on how to improve my writing. Nor would I ask them to do so. An editor isn’t a college professor. They’re not getting paid to teach. It’s their job to produce a product. Anything else they give you beyond an acceptance or rejection is above and beyond their call of duty and should be appreciated as such. That’s not being slavish; that’s just recognizing a job description.
It’s a writer’s job to develop his/her style and voice. It’s a writer’s job to find crit partners and beta readers who can provide feedback. It’s also a writer’s job to know the market, to read what an editor’s previously published, and to follow guidelines for submission to a particular line or anthology.
My guess is that such requests are on the increase because writers don’t want to be bothered to take the time to do *their* job properly.
I understand why someone would ask, but I think what people don’t seem to realize is that one request would perhaps be feasible to reply to, but not ten of them, or even five of them, as well as the other issues I addressed. I used to feel guilty about it but I’d much rather focus on being able to keep putting out anthologies and giving authors more opportunities to submit their work.
I also think there’s a lot of “I know it when I see it” to my selection process, so it’s hard to say what might have worked. But I do get the impulse to ask and want everything to be wrapped up in a tidy “fix this, fix that, then you’re all set” bow, I just don’t think that’s realistic, certainly not for me.
I guess this means my piece didn’t make the cut, huh?
But seriously, I was astounded when I found out you work fulltime. You seem to be constantly working: writing, editing, posting, blogging, hosting lit events, promoting, etc. It’s sort of mind-boggling. I don’t know how you even have time to eat cupcakes, let alone teach a de facto short story workshop every time you put out an anthology.
I’m good at looking busy. And at writing short pieces. But in all seriousness, I a) think everyone’s busy and b) I’m a little neurotic. I also think that even if I weren’t busy I wouldn’t feel comfortable critiquing someone’s work. I fear this piece came across more harshly than I meant it so I’m glad most of you get what I was trying to say. I think critiques are wonderful but they are better suited to someone who’s invested in you and your work in a way that an editor who doesn’t know you isn’t (speaking only for myself in this situation – I’m sure there are others who feel differently).
As a writer, I think it’s VERY rude that writers who are rejected would ask you (or any editor) for notes on why you rejected it. If an editor wants to take their (precious, as is all of ours) time to make comments on a rejected manuscript, that’s very cool of him or her. But for a writer, post-rejection, to ASK for a critique is unprofessional and rude. And annoyingly entitled. Editors are not an editing service. Interesting that you say this happens often, Rachel, and that it’s on the increase. Sad. Thanks for posting this–hope it helps slow the trend of such behavior.
I absolutely, completely don’t understand how or why you come to this opinion.
Is it “rude” to ask your doctor to explain a diagnosis? Is it “rude” to ask a chef what was in the wonderful meal you just ate?
Yes, it’s rude to ask a doctor to look at your off-color itchy skin patch at a cocktail party. Yes, it’s rude to expect the chef to write out the recipe.
“editors are not an editing service”. er….WHAT???
Now, expecting an editor to explain their reason for passing your work by, is very different than asking that editor to suggest line changes. finding out that the editor dislikes first person is quite different than asking her to fix your dangling participles.
an “annoyingly entitled” writer that wants to perhaps send a more appropriate submittal next time would seem to me to be HONORING the editor by attempting to save them time. Why submit a short story written in first person if the editor hates first person? You annoy the pig.
What, are you supposed to GUESS? Maybe it’s not the essential core tone of the the author’s voice that was at issue, but some mechanical craft aspect that is easily remedied? The editor likes more elaboration in the characters, vs. more attention to the plot line? Fine then! vice versa? FINE AGAIN!
Editors as inner temple priests is a piss poor model. Editors as working partners, that’s a model.
just my two cents.
I don’t think I was suggesting editors are “inner temple priests.”
But, as to how I come to this opinion? Over 20 years working in the field and understanding the etiquette of the publication process (on both side, as a writer and editor).
An editor you submit a piece of work to is not YOUR editor. They are not your partner. An editor is only a “working partner” IF they ARE your editor (which is what they become when they say “yes” to a manuscript).
No, you’re not supposed to guess why an editor rejected a manuscript if they didn’t leave a comment. Your job as a writer is to accept that rejection is part of the deal, and send the manuscript to another magazine/anthology or press. If the editor who rejected it gave a reason why, that’s great. But if they didn’t, then asking them to give one is a pretty sure-fire way to insure that they won’t publish you in the future.
Editors, even at the smallest journals, have hundreds of manuscripts to go through to find the material that suits the vision of whatever project they’re doing. If they take the time to explain why they are passing, that’s very cool of them. But if they didn’t do so when the work was rejected, a writer is being a pest to then prod them as to why the work was rejected.
The writer/editor relationship is a great one–I’ve been very lucky to work with a number of wonderful editors. But an editor is NOT the writer’s editor UNTIL the work is accepted. There is no partnership until both parties have agreed to work together. And if an editor said no (for whatever reason), they have no obligation to the writer to run down the reasons why. And, I’m sorry, if no comment was offered IN the rejection, yes, it is rude to ask them.
Going with your analogy, if you are asking your doctor to explain a diagnosis, you are PAYING that doctor to provide a service. To ask an editor (who you have NOT paid) to explain why you were rejected is hardly analogous.
Editors of magazines/anthologies or presses are not an editing service. I stand by that. If you are PAYING an editor, then you deserve to get their detailed opinion on where the piece works and where it doesn’t. But if you are simply sending to a journal/anthology/press and expecting them to go into why your piece doesn’t fit for their project, yeah, that’s rude.
If an editor takes time on their own to critique a rejected piece, that’s very generous of them. But to expect them to do it seems to misunderstand the nature of the relationship to me.
But, it’s cool. You disagree.
I’m just having a real hard time with the “rude” word.
Rude is when some idiot pushes his way onto an elevator before letting those who are disembarking go out. Rude is asking if your kids were conceived naturally or did you use in-vitro? Rude is talking on a cell phone in a theater.
Asking an editor, a gate keeper in between you and success, why they made the choice they did, is not rude. FORWARD, perhaps, but “VERY rude”?
Now, I FULLY AGREE that it’s just petulance if you get your nose out of joint because the editor didn’t respond back to your query. Pick up and move on. But “it’s rude to even ask?” I just think that perpetuates an unhealthy attitude.
In my view, it’s the anthology publishers that are enjoying the largess bestowed by willing writers, and not the other way around. It’s tempting to use the direction of money flow to trace the benefit, but I find it more accurate to use the BENEFIT flow. Economics 101, supply/demand be damned. Your statements, to me, perpetuate a notion that the channel is far more important than the content, and I think that’s exactly opposite. At the very least, they’re at parity.
“Now, I FULLY AGREE that it’s just petulance if you get your nose out of joint because the editor didn’t respond back to your query. Pick up and move on. But “it’s rude to even ask?” I just think that perpetuates an unhealthy attitude.”
Just to be clear, the situation I am talking about is NOT an editor who “didn’t respond back to your query” I’m talking about writers who have submitted a piece to an anthology (or journal or press) and who have received a rejection notice. An editor who NEVER responded is being rude. But that isn’t the situation that Rachel raised, nor is it the situation I’m talking about.
What I’m saying is if a writer gets a form rejection, it’s time to move on. Not time to ask the editor why they didn’t take the piece.
And, again, I am a writer–and I there are PLENTY of ways I think the publishing industry disrespects writers and takes them for granted. But this simply isn’t one of those situations where the writer deserves anything from the editor. I’m on the writer’s side and I agree that anthology publishers need great writing to have great books. I FULLY agree with you that content is the most important issue in writing. And anthologies would not exist without writers, yet writers can do just fine without anthologies. But that’s not the issue that’s being raised by a rejected author asking why they were rejected.
And while the many things you list are quite rude, indeed…and MORE rude than the situation we’re talking about, that doesn’t mean that asking for an explanation for a rejection from an editor ISN’T rude.
I’m sorry you don’t like the word “rude”. If you like, feel free to substitute unprofessional in its place. Or substitute disrespectful in its place. Because that’s how the behavior is viewed by all the editors I know (and they’re not being power-loving jerks to have this view–they are offended that a writer is taking THEM for granted and asking for a professional service without compensation–and that, to me, shows an attitude of entitlement that reveals a lack of respect to editors and their profession).
It shows a writer who isn’t at all considerate of the difficult and time-consuming job of being an editor. Being a writer is a tough gig…and the whole publication process can be very depressing and rough. But I also think when a writer enters a profession, they should know how the process works. An editor doesn’t owe anything to a writer until they accept the work–which is when they are in a partnership.
If I apply for a professor position at a university and the head of the creative writing department has (as they do, sadly…it’s a competitive gig and one filled with rejection, just like writing) 200 applications, and I receive a letter that I got rejected for the gig, I know the head of the department would find it rude (and unprofessional and naive about the process) if I sent a letter saying, “why didn’t you choose me?”
Also, an editor is not a gatekeeper to a writer’s success. A writer is the gatekeeper of a writer’s success. I think your view gives way too much power to editors. Editors don’t control a writer’s career. A writer who does the best work they can do and is relentless in sending their work out in the world is in charge of their success.
If I send a story out and an editor accepts it a month later, the story did not get better in the month it sat on their desk. It didn’t get better because they accepted it. It already was good. And, as a writer, I did my job in finding a home for it. The story didn’t GET successful when it got accepted. It already was successful (or the writer shouldn’t send it out)–it just hadn’t been accepted yet.
As Doris Lessing once said, writers are the only part of the publishing industry who don’t need any of the other parts of the industry. Agents need writers to exist. Publishers need writers to exist. Editors and publicists need writers to exist. Writers don’t need any of them to exist (though a good editor, once the work has been accepted, is enormously important).
But the whole publishing industry is a collaborative business. And I think all the various people involved in it should know what the other people DO. And they should be respectful of the job that others perform. And if I expect that an editor should tell me why I was rejected (again, if they didn’t choose to say why in their rejection), I’m revealing myself as someone who is self-centered and doesn’t really respect their job and doesn’t understand what it entails. And THAT, in turn, makes many editors resentful of writers and, as a result, is a behavior that’s bad for writers. So, a writer pestering an editor in this way actually contributes to making the relationship between writers and editors MORE contentious. It’s bad for everyone.
While writers are, arguably, the most important part of the equation, an editor does not owe them anything UNTIL they take a piece. If they don’t take your piece, they are not YOUR editor.
But, we simply disagree on what’s generally considered profession behavior on the part of a writer. You think that a writer asking why they were rejected is a “healthy” attitude (given that you say my view that a writer shouldn’t do it being an “unhealthy attitude”). I think it both shows a lack of respect for an editor and their time, while it also grants them far too much power over how a writer defines his or her own success.
A story isn’t good because an editor says it’s good. Quality finds its way into the world if the writer is relentless and has done good work. If a writer gets a form rejection, their job is to keep sending that piece out until it finds a home. Or be part of a writer’s group where you get good critiques. Or take a writing class–where it IS correct to believe you should be told where your writing works and where it doesn’t.
But, to ask an editor why they reject a piece is tacitly saying to that editor that they should be available to explain EVERY rejection (of, if the writer asking for the explanation doesn’t believe that the editor should respond to EVERYONE who asks, they reveal themselves to be someone who thinks they are special and the rules don’t apply to them…also not an attractive quality). And to think that an editor should take their time to explain, to every writer, why the work didn’t make the cut is saying that you think they should send out (potentially, given 200 submission) 185 explanations for the pieces they didn’t pick out of the 200 submissions.
That, simply, is not their job.
But we clearly disagree. And that’s cool–all of us writers are in the same lifeboat.
I have spent WAY too long on this when I should be writing 🙂 And I’ve said all I probably have to say on this topic, so if I don’t respond from here on out, dwoz, please know it’s not because I don’t respect that we have a simple difference of opinion. It’s just that I’ve said pretty much all of what I think about this issue, and any more posts would probably just be redundant on my end.
Well, Rob, we’ll just have to move on to debate something decidedly more important in the grand scheme of things, such as “pentode vs. triode?” or “output transformers…an essential mineral?” or “class D switching power supplies…sign of the antichrist?”
Ha! Pentodes! Though I did just do the pentode/triode modification (a switch, so you can have either) on a pal’s 6l6 amp and it sounded kinda cool. Class D? Out of my league…I’m a tinkerer on 50’s and 60’s tube amps…so all I know is Class A and Class A/B…
Email me (as I’m sure amp geek talk is off-subject here)…what is class D used for? Bass? PA’s?
Hah. I wondered who might pick up the pentode/triode thing. I decided not to do it although I too am a 50’s and 60’s tube amp (and radio transmitter) vet.
You don’t want to know about Class D, Rob. It’s that new shit meant for people who don’t understand the degree to which excellent sound requires:
enormous power transformers
capacitors the side of coke bottles
rectifier tubes with caps
glorious smell that emanates from all those components merrily simmering in a heavy metal crackle-finish cabinet.
What this has to do with writing is, ah, well, once I wrote a letter to the Editor of the magazine High Fidelity.
I’m grateful just to get the “no,” form letter or not. Three quarters of the time, you don’t even get that. But I’d never expect critiques from a potential editor. Hell, I don’t even expect it from my friends.
just to clarify, I’m not saying I’d EXPECT a critique or reason…just that I don’t think it’s RUDE to ask.
IF the selection editor then FEELS THE LOVE and decides to shoot back a brief answer, be that “don’t give up your day job” or “couldn’t shoe horn it into our theme” or “too close to another story we’d accepted”, or whatever…that’s great. If not, then I am not advocating that said editor be the target of a voodoo ceremony involving chicken parts and invocation of pestering demons.
Now, if you, the author, CONTINUE to ask…then yes, you’ve gone over the top onto uncharted thin ice, and you deserve to be set adrift in the North Atlantic during killer whale mating season.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling an author something that might steer them down a path that wasn’t authentic to their writing or the story.”
Rachel, your logic preceding this conclusion is exemplary and welcome! I’d never thought of it and am delighted to have encountered it.
I agree with you, Rachel, and I expect no comments whatsoever. But I do expect an editor to possess the good manners, regardless of how busy, to send a rejection notice, no matter how terse, even a form letter.
A writer who does not want to burden an editor, and rightfully so, should not have to: 1) research the publication status of an anthology; 2) locate said anthology; 3) search its table of contents to determine if their story has been included.
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the link to cupcakes at the end of the author’s bio cannot work—wrong format. cheers.