We Used to Wait

The Arcade Fire song, We Used to Wait, got me thinking about how electronic submission has changed the way we live our lives from day to day. The sweet anticipation has gone missing!

When I first started submitting stories for publication in the 80s, there was a fun element of suspense to the proceedings, once I got four or five stories in circulation. Everything was done by mail. The top publications, like Asimov’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s, Ellery Queen’s and F&SF maintained turnaround times of a few weeks with a maximum of around six weeks. Everything quickly settled into a rhythm, where I was averaging about one response per week. With 10 or 12 stories circulating at any given time, very few weeks went by without getting some sort of response in the mail. Slower publications – usually high end literary magazines and small press magazines, could take as long as six months. Very few publications had longer return times than that, and my stories usually sold before I got to the really slow responding markets.

Checking my mailbox for responses was the high point of my day. All day at work, I would anticipate it, and it quickened my step on the way home. Sure, nine times out of ten it was not good news, but there were just enough acceptances in the mix to keep it exciting. 

When submissions became almost all electronic, the whole dynamic changed. I could check for responses ten times a day.

But a peculiar thing happened at that point; responses gravitated to the extremes. In the 2010s, if you don’t hear back within 48 hours, then it will likely take a month. If you don’t hear back within a month, then it will probably take six months or more. Without sending simultaneous submissions to anyone, you can get rejections from all five top markets, within the first two weeks. Once you hit the second tier though, responses slow to a crawl, often taking six months or a year, if you’re lucky enough to get a response at all.

The mechanics of this puzzled me for a long time, until I realized that as it gets cheaper and easier to submit, all the paying markets are completely swamped with submissions. One and two person operations or juried markets that require four or five people to each read the stories get completely overwhelmed. Many rejected writers are standing by to fire off their next story, the instant they get a rejection…creating a sort of perma-submission situation. So the number of stories or poems in the queue never decreases, and even the one and two day turnaround markets get behind and start taking a week or ten days - until they close to submissions for awhile and catch up.

When you’re waiting two days, it doesn’t seem like a wait at all. The response is in your inbox before you even think of checking. When it takes six months to a year, then checking even once a day is a recipe for frustration. And there’s not much in between. 
Which is why looking for an agent hit a nostalgic note, with me checking my e-mail daily to see if I got a response. Then reality settled in – when the first rejection took two days and I found myself still waiting on the others, several weeks later. Maybe this process will be identical to submitting short stories to publishers. If the answer isn’t in your mailbox within a day or two of hitting the send button, then I’d might as well forget about it.

At least the good old fashioned waiting left something to look forward to.

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