Editors Are People, Too: Five Things to Consider Before Complaining

The Worcester Review, the annual literary journal where I am managing editor, has just reopened for submissions. Our editors look forward to reading the works we receive, but there is one thing we don’t look forward to: Angry emails from submitters.

Thankfully, we don’t get too many of those, but after a challenging exchange with one poet this weekend, I feel that a glimpse into the glamorous life of a journal editor might help writers understand why journals do things the way they do. Here are five things you may not know about journal editors:


1. We’re not in it for the money.

Most small, independent literary magazines are labors of love. The Worcester Review is run entirely by volunteers and is not affiliated with any university. We are supported by our endowment, by the membership of the Worcester County Poetry Association, and by sales. None of our staff are paid; to the contrary, we all must maintain active WCPA memberships, which essentially means we pay dues to be part of the editorial board.


2. Did I mention that we’re not in it for the money?

We operate on tiny budgets. In the case of The Worcester Review, we put out a high-quality, full color, perfect-bound book (offset type, not digital print-on-demand) every year on a budget of around $5000. Every December I hold my breath and pray we finish the year in the black. Journals would love to be able to pay you — or pay you more — but sadly, there’s no money in poetry and little in literary fiction. At The Worcester Review, we manage to send contributors a small honorarium, a token of our appreciation that is no reflection on the value of the work. I dream of a day when we can offer more.


3. We’re in it for the lit.

Even small journals get a lot of submissions. We accept about 5% of what we receive. Usually we receive between 400 and 450 poems and between 30 and 50 stories a year. We accept about 20 poems and 2 to 3 stories. And we’re only an annual with a circulation of under 300! Imagine how many submissions better-known journals get!


4. We feel your pain.

I know it may not feel this way when you’re getting rejection letters from us — but the people who run journals love great writing. We are lovers of literature and are often writers ourselves, so we understand firsthand the misery of the rejection letter and the annoyance of having to reformat our work to meet the submissions guidelines of various journals.


5. We have feelings, too. 

The editors of journals are human. We get into behind-the-scenes work because we believe that it is important to bring our readers new, exciting voices, and because we want to better understand the process of publication. The downside of what we do is that we have to say “no” a lot, but most of us understand that literature is subjective, we know that what we accept, others may not love, and vice versa.

So when a disgruntled contributor contacts us to complain about how long it takes us to respond, or about the fact that to send us work via Submittable they must pay a $3.00 administrative fee, or because it places a burden on them to format their poems to our specifications, it makes us sad. We see reading your work as an honor, we see publishing it as a tremendous privilege, and we are doing the best we can with the limited time and resources we have. I don’t think that’s only the case for us. I think that’s the same at any small journal.

A sad reality of the Internet is that it’s where people go to complain. As a result, we seldom hear from people who are happy. We hear from people who are upset. But what does it accomplish when a submitter sends an irate email to an editor? It certainly doesn’t make us want to work with that submitter. 

I have gotten emails with the subject line, “I demand a reply.” I have gotten emails berating me for my lack of empathy for poets. I have gotten emails stating that if I don’t change my guidelines, the submitter will badmouth me all over the internet. And these weren’t even people who had gotten rejection notices.

Unfortunately, we writers may sometimes be our own worst enemies. Writers write. When we’re angry, we sometimes write emails. And then it’s just so easy to hit send. The best possible outcome in that case: The editor ignores the email. The worst case scenario: The editor forgets that you are also human and responds in kind. 

One of my goals as editor is to foster good relationships with contributors. I want writers to feel respected whether or not we choose to publish their work, because I know how hard it is to write and to send work into the world. As a result, I’m just crazy enough to respond to those angry emails, although I aim to do so professionally.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’ve had a good experience with a literary magazine, thank that editor today. If you had a bad experience, by all means say something, but do so politely, because editors are people, too.


Diane Mulligan is the author of two novels, Watch Me Disappear (2012), which was a finalist in the Kindle Book Review's Best Indie Book Awards in the Young Adult category in 2013, and The Latecomers Fan Club (2013), which was named a 2014 IndieReader Discovery Award winner. She is the Managing Editor of The Worcester Review, the annual literary journal of the Worcester County Poetry Association.

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