November Fools & Our Selection Process

On April 1st of last spring, UC-San Diego’s communications office accidentally sent every single applicant — 46,337 of them — acceptance emails.  “We’re thrilled that you’ve been admitted to UC San Diego, and we’re showcasing our beautiful campus on Admit Day.”  A half an hour later they sent another email, saying, “Oops!”

Last night, I did the same thing on a slightly smaller scale.  Rattle just went live with a holiday promotion, where all new subscriptions receive a free copy of our slam issue, and all week I’ve been sending out mail-merged emails, letting everyone know of the deal.  As I set up the very last group I had to do — people who’ve contacted us for some reason but never subscribed, last names W through Z — I clicked on the wrong template, and accidentally sent them all rejection letters instead.

Oops!

And what a mess of confusion…  That group was full of people who had submitted poems in the past, sometimes years ago, sometimes last week — some of them who’d never submitted at all, and don’t even write poetry, but had purchased an individual copy of an issue in the last 10 years.  A few of them even had submissions open currently, which made it even more confusing.

Of course, I sent an apology 10 minutes later, and all I can do now is blush, and wipe the egg off my face.

But the responses reminded me that no one really knows what happens to submissions once they send them in.  I made a post a couple years ago, outlining our procedure for the Rattle Poetry Prize, but I’ve never thought to do the same thing for regular submissions — which is strange, because the vast majority of our time is spent logging and reading submissions. We receive 200 submissions every week of the year (and with 4 or 5 poems in each that’s almost 1,000 poems a week), and on busy periods we’ve received as many as 500.  Logging, reading, and replying alone amounts to a full time job.  Here’s how we do it.

Email Submissions

If you’ve ever sent an email submission, you know that 1-5 days later I reply with a slightly-personalized stock response:

Thanks for letting us consider some of your work. We’ll get back soon, typically takes about a month. Looking forward to the read.

Best,
Tim

I copy and paste in that reply, then add your name, and answer any questions you might have in your cover letter, or respond to anything interesting you might have said.  But for most people, cover letters are canned, and my replies are canned, too.

After I send the reply I read your poems right then.  Unlike with contest entries, where we’re contractually obligated to pick at least 11 winners, all we’re looking for with regular submissions are poems that interest us, and that we think might interest our readers.  So where contest reading is like fishing with a pole — pulling up every fish and examining it individually, giving it a specific rating — regular reading is like throwing out a net and pulling up anything that sticks.

What I really do here is just skim through the poems.  If a line or the content seems interesting to me, I reread the whole poem, but I don’t hesitate to move on at the first sign of trouble.  Any email with a poem I want to read again gets moved to a folder called “Possibilities.”  Most, probably 90%, are moved to a folder called “Submissions.”

Enter Megan.  Everything in the Submissions folder, she reads closely, line by line like I used to when the volume was low enough that I had time for that.  Megan is the last line of defense — you already had a chance to catch my eye, now you have a chance to catch hers.  Everything she doesn’t like is moved to the “To Be Rejected” folder.  Everything she likes joins the others in Possibilities.

About once week, Megan clears out To Be Rejected, and enters all the poets and their contact information into a group within our database.  (Yes, this is so we can contact you with promotional material in the future — as far as I’m concerned, an interest in being publish by Rattle implies an interest in reading Rattle, and if you don’t like it, don’t ask us to read your poems in the first place.)  When she’s done, I send them all form letters.  The whole process takes about a month, hence the “typically takes about a month” line.

This leaves us with the Possibilities.  Several times a month I open up that folder, which is full if poems that have already been read and bumped up to round 2 by either myself or Megan.  I read everything in that folder carefully, sometimes over and over again, sometimes days apart, and move poems I don’t want into “To Be Rejected” and print out those that I do.  Everything printed out goes to our monthly editorial meeting, where Megan, Alan, and I argue about which poems we should publish.  About half of the poems that make it to that meeting end up in the magazine.  Everything that doesn’t gets the form letter — and since you can’t add a PS or post-it note onto a mail-merged email, none of that is commented on individually.  Anything that makes it to the meeting but doesn’t get published gets a real email directly from me, saying which poem(s) came so close, and often why they just missed the mark.

Hard Copy Submissions

It’s uncanny — exactly half the submissions sent to us come through the mail.  This has always been the case, and I’m not sure why the breakdown is so even.  I keep expecting the number of email submissions to overtake the old fashioned route, but that never seems to happen.

I open up every submission that comes through the mail and check it for anything unusual — a weird request, an essay, a question, a subscription check, etc. — then everything gets thrown into a box.  When the box gets full, which usually takes less than a week, Megan stays home from the office and reads each one carefully, writing Yes, No, or Maybe on the back of the envelope, and sorting them accordingly.  When she’s done, I read the Yeses and Maybes myself, sometimes several times, often at a laundromat or in some waiting room.  Everything I like is sent to our next editorial meeting, everything I don’t is thrown back with the Nos.

Back at the office, the pile of Nos is filling up the top drawer of a filing cabinet, and about once a week Megan empties it out and adds those poems to a group in the database.  When she’d done I print out a large set of rejection letters.

You might have noticed that at this point I haven’t read anything but the slim percentage of what amounts to Possibilities.  So I spend the next day reading through all the poems as I match them up with their rejection letters, pulling out anything that catches my eye, to be re-read, and maybe taken to an editorial meeting (at which point, I’d toss out that rejection letter).  With hard copy submissions, I sign the rejection letters myself, and it’s easy to add any notes that seem worth including — sometimes detailed suggestions about a specific poem, sometimes just general encouragement, or a note about an upcoming special issue that the poet might want to keep an eye out for.  Then I stuff the letter back into its SASE, and drop a big box off at the post office.

Strangely, both forms of submitting get a unique kind of service that has nothing to do with the medium itself, and are only consequences of our reading process.  All email submissions receive an acknowledgment of receipt.  Hard copy submissions get no receipt, but may be commented on.  Sometimes I wonder if that’s fair, but then I ask what different does it make and stop worrying about it until it’s time to write a post about our procedure.

The Philosophy

If you’re still reading it this point, you’ve probably noticed that three editors are attacking these poems from three different angles:  I’m reading everything lightly, waiting for a good poem to ensnare my attention, and then reading it many times.  Megan’s reading everything closely once, and passing along what she finds worthy.  And Alan is only reading the cream of our crop, fresh from the field, one shot one kill.

Although it developed organically, over several editors and a period of 15 years, this result is no accident.  When you’re reading this many poems, the biggest problem is burnout.  Read too many poems too often, and they all start to sound the same — it’s surprisingly easy to lose even the sense of our own feelings; your taste buds become overwhelmed.  These three different layers of attentiveness, I think, allow for the most comprehensive and consistent judgments three people can make.

And the key is really Alan at the top.  Having never read over 1,000 poems a week, he’s confronting what we’ve chosen as an actual reader would — eager and untainted, ready to love or hate with impunity.  In the end, it’s his opinion that’s most important — not because he founded the magazine (nice as that is on the resume) — because he’s our tabula rasa, the voice of real people who don’t have to read so damn much and still do it for pleasure.

So that’s why we roll the way we roll.  I’m not sure why I’m posting this, but I think some might be curious, and I’m also wondering what you might think of it.  There are other ways we could do this, of course — hire interns, have more meetings, uses little card-paper rejection slips, and so on.  But there’s only the three of us, one full-time, one part-time, and one some-of-the-time, and given the amount of material we sift through, this is the best system I’ve found.

5 thoughts on “November Fools & Our Selection Process

  1. I’m completely fascinated by the way other journals do their selecting. We have three readers too, but we do it differently than you — I divide the submissions equally between us and anything one of us deems a possibility gets forwarded to the other two for comments. It’s more or less a democratic process for us.

    Thanks for the inside look.

  2. Yeah, this is mostly only interesting to other editors, I guess. I’m always dying to know how other magazines do things. Lots of isolation and reinventing of wheels in this business…

  3. We should have an editors support group meeting (i.e. drinks somewhere) at AWP. I’m sure we can find other editors to join in. Then we can swap stories on how we deal with the deluge and discuss such interesting topics as Most Psycho Cover Letter.

  4. That’s an enormous amount of material, Tim, for anyone to have to wade through.

    I don’t think it’s only of interest to other editors. Or maybe it is, but it shouldn’t be. If writers had a greater understanding of the amount of work an editor like yourself (or my wife) has to do, they might be a little more polite to, and appreciative of, editors.

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