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Assumptions in queries

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I could have sworn I'd written about this recently, but I can't find it. Apologies if this is a repeat.

Roughly once a week, we at Strange Horizons receive a query from an author who sent us a story three or four or six months ago, and hasn't heard back from us, and has clearly gotten pretty impatient with our lack of response. Often, they're polite about it, saying things like (not an actual quote) "I know you're busy, so I'll understand if you're not ready to respond to my story yet." About as often, they're either not polite or barely polite about it, often in stiffly over-formal language: (also not an actual quote) "I must insist that you make a decision about my story as soon as possible and inform me as to its disposition."

But in most of those cases, regardless of politeness, the person querying makes two mistakes:

  • They wait much too long to query. We essentially always respond to stories within 70 days. It's true that we take a little longer than that on about 0.3% of stories (that's three stories out of a thousand), but we never intend to, and we would prefer that authors query at the 70-day mark even if it turns out that the story is one of those rare exceptions.
  • They assume that the problem is that we're taking a long time to consider the story. Whereas in almost every case, the problem is actually that the rejection we sent (usually several months earlier) got lost in email.

I think part of what goes on here is that people still tend to assume that email is completely reliable. But in fact, experimental evidence seems to suggest that roughly 1 rejection in 100 that we send never reaches its intended recipient.

Which is why we explicitly say in our autoresponse that submitters should query at the 70-day mark. But I think writers are used to response times being longer than claimed by editors, so they assume that the 70 days thing is just a guideline or a guess, when it really is (effectively) an absolute maximum. And because of the editor/writer power dynamic, most writers don't want to do anything that might annoy an editor, so they don't want to query, because that might be seen as pushing the editor to make a decision quickly, and it's widely (but mistakenly) believed that querying always causes the editor to reject the story.

Note: there are certainly writers who query without making the above mistakes, and we appreciate that. But a large majority of the queries about missing responses to stories fall into at least one of the above two categories.

As usual, it's probably silly for me to post this; I imagine most of you who read my journal already know it. But I always feel bad when we get this kind of query, because in addition to getting a rejection, they're hearing that they've been sitting there waiting to hear from us for months when they could've been sending the story elsewhere. So maybe some authors who are frustrated about waiting for months to hear from us will do a web search for something like [Strange Horizons response time], and maybe this entry will come up and they'll find out that they should stop waiting and send us a query.

7 Comments

The general advice for inquiring about a submission's status that I've heard is to wait at least 90 days. I've heard other people say that you should wait longer.

That's highly dependent on specific publication, but unfortunately a lot of new writers tend to latch onto advice given by professionals and take it as Gospel, even if it's situational. :-\

With that said, if it's something in your auto-response message? Jeez, people! Learn to read.


it’s widely (but mistakenly) believed that querying always causes the editor to reject the story.

Well, yeah! Because before they queried you were considering it; afterwards the rejection is just lost in the mail.

*nods*


I think Jackie's on to something. It's the Copenhagen interpretation.


(Seriously, why do people write if they think editors are that crazy?)


Nonny: Yeah--I could be wrong, but I think most publications these days tend to say in their guidelines how long to wait before querying, but that's generally a minimum wait time rather than a maximum. Authors can also base their wait time partly on the Black Hole response time tracker and the Duotrope's Digest response time tracking system; if the average response time from a given venue is two weeks, and the longest response time shown is six weeks, and you've waited two months, then chances are pretty good that you don't need to wait another month before querying.

Jackie and David: :) Good point.

My serious theory is that a query (for a piece that the editor actually hasn't responded to yet) is somewhat likely to get an editor to send the response they were already going to send, but to do so sooner than they otherwise might have -- for example, it sometimes takes us a couple weeks after we make a decision to send out the response. And since the vast majority of all responses to submissions are rejections, the vast majority of responses-spurred-by-queries will also be rejections. The mistake comes in thinking that the decision to reject is spurred by the query.

David: Your presumably rhetorical question has sparked an extended exegesis (below); all stuff you know, but I'm writing it anyway for the benefit of any beginning authors who may stop by.

I think a lot of the issue has to do with power dynamics and transparency.

To a beginning author (from whose viewpoint the rest of this paragraph is written), the editor is The Gatekeeper. The editor wields all of the power. The author can produce the most brilliant work ever (and usually does), but the editor can still arbitrarily and capriciously (or just stupidly) reject it anyway--in fact, "everyone knows" that most editors don't even read most of the stories that come in (because if they were really judging stories by merit rather than some arbitrary and unknowable secret criterion, then they would buy my stories!). "Everyone knows" that editors are only interested in publishing big names that will bring in lots of money; "everyone knows" that the deck is hugely stacked against beginning writers. "Everyone knows" the stories of beginning writers who made it big by being in the right place at the right time and happening to catch the powerful editor in a good mood. And "everyone knows" that editors will not hesitate to permanently blacklist any author who annoys them in any way. Also, selling one story to one magazine will immediately launch any author into a life of fame and riches.

So if you're dealing with an all-powerful, capricious, and easily angered entity who holds the entire key to your future in their hands, then it makes sense that you wouldn't want to risk coming across as nagging them, which might annoy them, which might cause them to fail to consider your story on its merits.

And I think editors tend to encourage some of those misperceptions. Not all editors, and not all of those misperceptions; but certainly it's to an editor's advantage to keep the author feeling that the power is all on the editor's side. And certainly editors complain a lot (as do I) about the misbehavior of authors; sometimes we complain loudly about pretty trivial misbehaviors, which may lead authors to feel that they might piss us off without even meaning to, by accidentally breaking some rule they don't even know about in their query. Also, editors are often not very polite or very communicative when interacting with authors (partly due to number of authors to be interacted with).


This is off topic, having nothing whatsoever to do with queries, but I just wanted to respond to your characterization of Beginning Author as being supremely confident in the merit of her or his writing. I've seen several editors make this generalization lately, and it's starting to bug me. In my experience as an undergrad taking creative writing courses, no one walks into a workshop thinking that their story is the best thing since sliced bread. Many of them walk into it hating their story and wanting to never have to look at it again. I've got about two dozen friends who've been writing for years, and hardly a handful have ever been persuaded to submit their writing to a magazine. And out of those handful, most needed serious prodding. Among my friends, the prevailing sentiment isn't that the all-powerful editor is going to turn down their work of supreme genius, but that the editor will rightly think that the story is unworthy of publication in such a grand venue. The idea that someone, somewhere, might actually pay for one of their (to them) crappy stories is a pretty outrageous one.

Maybe if you define "beginning author" as someone who's already submitted stories, that would skew things a little in favor of your characterization, since it often takes a pretty confident writer to submit something to begin with, but I still feel that editors' view that self-righteous outrage is the average beginning author's response to rejections can't possibly be correct for the majority of us.

Sorry about the rant. I really enjoyed everything else about this post, and agree with the other elements of your characterization. There really is a prevailing view that the entire publishing industry is so closed off from new writers that it takes luck and "connections," not talent, to break in.

Also: I made my first sale in March. When can I expect my fame and riches? Because so far, I've got nothing.


Thanks, Elena. Good point, and I apologize for conflating a few different things into my satirical description of "a beginning author"'s point of view. It's certainly true that a fair number of beginning authors are quite convinced of their own genius (or at least don't hesitate to tell us how brilliant they are in their cover letters, which could be false bravado but is a bad idea regardless of whether the author believes it or not); but it's also true that plenty of beginning authors don't feel that way, and many if not most are deeply insecure about the quality and value of their work.

At any rate, I think I can rescue my paragraph that was supposedly from a beginning author's PoV by just cutting out my three overly snide parenthetical notes about authors' self-perceived brilliance; I think the non-parenthetical parts of that paragraph stand up pretty well.


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