Literary magazines play a fascinating role in the writing world. They’re often described as magazines published by writers, for writers (i.e. no one, besides writers, reads them). But they’re also where many famous writers first gain exposure.
After moving on from picture books as a kid, I usually read novels. I’d maybe borrow a short story collection like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark from my elementary school library, but that was about it. When I later realized my inclination to write, and began identifying myself as a writer, I thought I’d just write novels. So that’s all I cared about at first. I had an entire, possibly blissful, naiveté that a subculture of short story writing and literary magazines even existed.
Upon studying writing in college, though, I was soon exposed to the wonders of short stories. That statement probably calls for a separate blog post devoted to short stories (which I’ll make sure to get to one of these days). The gist here is that I quickly saw that short stories are just as exciting, inspirational, and important, as novels, and that the best places to find them are in short story collections and in literary magazines. It was my friend, Nick Sweeney, who encouraged me to keep writing short stories after college and submit them to print and online literary magazines (for the inevitable form rejection letters, of course).
Nick is now on the other end of the writer/literary magazine relationship, sending out lots of rejections, and sprinkling some acceptances in there as well. He’s an assistant editor at the online literary magazine The Summerset Review. I asked Nick some questions on what it’s like to work for a literary magazine, especially one that’s only online, hoping he could shed light on his experience in editorial, and on the quite mysterious process of lit mag acceptance and rejection.
In conjunction with The Summerset Review‘s new Spring 2014 issue, released last weekend on March 15th, below is my interview with Nick. If you have any other questions about literary magazines, please feel free to post in the comments section, or send me an email at grossman.stephaniem (at) gmail.com.
SMG: What’s your role at the Summerset Review?
NS: As one of the assistant editors, I review forthcoming books, maintain our social media presence, and read the fiction submissions for my editor. I have also attended a workshop with my editor at a college to discuss the inner workings of a literary magazine and the submission process. The staff members at The Summerset Review wear all kind of hats, as the saying goes.
SMG: How did you go about landing that position?
NS: You know that piece of advice “if you want something, just ask?” Well, sometimes it actually works. I read The Summerset Review when I was in college. I came across it during my search for magazines that looked like they would want a story of mine. I actually got rejected a few times submitting there, with a little note encouraging me to try again. After a few tries I decided to email Joe, the editor, and ask if I could join the staff and see how the other end of the publication process works. A little bit of the can’t beat ‘em, join them attitude. It’s been all uphill since there. It’s actually helped my writing.
SMG: Can you think of a story that made it out of the slush pile and into the publication? If so, what made the story stand out?
NS: Well, we really don’t have a slush pile. All submissions are objectively evaluated. We do not solicit, and we take pride in that. Submissions that stand out for us are those with some narrative flair to them or those that involve some uncommon and sometimes quirky element as to their content. Though we judge each story on its own merit, we often find that when a writer proves to us in a cover note that they are familiar with the magazine, by saying something specific about a story they liked that appeared in Summerset, the submission is usually more compatible with what we are looking for than the average submission.
SMG: What are some of the biggest struggles facing literary magazines like The Summerset Review today?
NS: For print magazines, I think the biggest struggle is keeping the magazine going financially, as print issues do incur considerable cost and many universities are questions the value of the investment. For typical online magazines, the biggest struggle cost-wise would usually be tech staff to produce and update the web site. Specifically at Summerset, we’re fortunate that our editors have enough tech-know-how to maintain a very simple site, which is all you really need. It’s the content that ultimately matters. So for us, the biggest struggle is to try to attain the level of readership and reputation that has thus far only been attained by reputable print magazines. Very few online venues have been recognized by the major annual award collections such as Pushcart, Best American Short Stories, and O Henry. We believe the work we are putting out is consistently of the same caliber, and constantly struggle with how to accomplish a seat at this award level.
SMG: Any exciting plans for the magazine, or interesting stories coming up in the next issue?
NS: We have some stories coming out for our next issue that are very…different. 2013 was a good year for us, submission-wise. We found some real gems. Erica Sklar’s essay, for instance, really sticks with you. I can’t speak highly enough for the treasure we got last year. So, I would suggest reading all of last year, if you can. And it’s only going to get better this year. That’s a bold prediction, I know, but I stand by it. Put March 15th on your calendar.
SMG: How has working at a literary magazine influenced you as a writer?
NS: It has made me appreciate the efforts of creating and maintaining a literary journal. The independent journal operates solely on the love of writing and reading. The staff (all unpaid) at Summerset have full-time jobs and still have time to read submissions, discuss what pieces we believe have a chance at awards like the Pushcart Prize, and brainstorm ways to make a better experience for our readers. As a writer, I work harder now on cover letters and making sure my submissions are in line with the type of stories that a magazine would contain. I’ve been exposed to some really cool writers found only in the depths of online and small print journals. If you truly love literature and stories, be a book reviewer, a reader, or an editorial assistant for a few issues. Being part of the Summerset has allowed me to really see the commitment of the literary community and to help make bigger. I’m glad to play a role in it now.