I have heard that the the editor of F&SF (Finlay) is the only one who reads all the submissions. Yet he always responds within a week! (With detailed comments on each story.) Clarkesworld is another example. They have only a few people reading and yet they respond within two days! So why do other (lower tier) magazines, which presumably don't receive as much submissions, take so long (several weeks or months)?
I've never submitted to a magazine but I've submitted to plenty of agents and the reading times are similar.
Agents have told me that the reason they take so long is because they have a day job that takes up their entire 9-5. In the case of a magazine, that will be the day-to-day running of the magazine itself.
Reading submissions is generally expected to be done in their spare time. Most agents who have responded to me have read over the weekend, on flights to holiday destinations, and so on.
So, when it comes to hundreds of subs, unless the organisation pays for them to read on company time, which seems to rarely be the case, they need time to fit it in with their personal lives.
I don’t see that a magazine would have anything to gain from soliciting submissions, and purposefully sitting on them for months at a time. So it’s most certainly a matter of resources.
It’s not uncommon for employees to wear many different hats at smaller companies. And the lower-tier magazines that you’re referring to may simply not be able to afford a dedicated staff member who would read all submissions. Reading submissions isn’t a revenue generator, and therefore any number of other tasks will likely take precedence over it, when the survival of the publication is at stake.
Conversely, larger magazines may be flooded with submissions, the same way agents and traditional publishers are. Those routinely take weeks/months to respond as well.
Either way, it’s a matter of too many submissions and not enough staff on hand to read through them. You can easily imagine that if a magazine only receives 3 submissions per week, but can only dedicate 1 man-hour to reading them, then sooner or later a backlog is going to build up.
Keep in mind that many small journals are staffed by volunteers that have to fit their manuscript reviews into their lives along with everything else. Some of the bigger magazines, which get more submissions, have paid staff. You may be comparing apples to oranges in terms of staff size, etc. Also, some magazines have multiple layers of review, so if the first reader likes something, the manuscript will be passed to a second reader. This obviously takes more time. I look at the average response time for a magazine (via Duotrope) as part of what makes me decide to submit to a specific magazine. Also, with many magazines accepting simultaneous submissions, it's less of an issue, as long as I keep track and let folks know if my submission has been picked up elsewhere.
Based only on my own experience as a reader for a literary journal:
- The pieces go through a few rounds of review, not just one. So if you're waiting a longer time it might mean it's made it pretty far along.
- The first couple rounds are with volunteer readers who have limited time for this. I have a day job that's completely unrelated to publishing. I typically do my readings on the weekend, at a bar or coffee shop.
- There are a lot of submissions.
- We leave comments on the pieces we read. This takes time. The editors send a selection of those comments if your piece is rejected after a couple rounds. I understand that this is unusual.
Some reasons for magazines having a large backlog:
- They don't have enough staff to cope with the volume of submissions
- They are in the business of making money and commenting on submissions does not generate revenue
- Not every organisation is as adept at juggling priorities as F&SF and Clarkesworld
- It's just policy, and that's that. And why do companies have policies like that? See above.
In addition to what GGx and robertcday have mentioned, it is because the submissions you are talking about, the over the transom submissions, are their lowest priority. Publishing houses, agencies, and magazines would much rather deal with people they know, people referred by people they know, people they have met at conferences and struck up a rapport with, people, in short, with a higher probability of producing publishable stuff. If they could generate enough content from just these sources, that is what they would do (and many of the larger publishing houses and magazines can generate more than enough by these methods and have therefore nailed the transom shut).
Reading the stuff that comes in over the transom is like fishing in the Sahara, so they only do it when their time cannot be spent in any more useful way. And only publishers at the low end of the totem pole who can't get all the usable content they need any other way, will do it at all. So if you are unknown as a writer, and don't have a relationship with anyone in the industry, you are stuck waiting for someone to have time to read the slush pile. And it can be a long wait.
The wonder is not that most markets take a long time to respond, therefore, but that there are any that respond quickly.
I would chalk this up to common human nature, and F&SF and Clarkesworld as uncommon expertise and/or resources.
On the common side, without being pejorative, what is not punished (financially, legally, or socially) becomes the accepted standard; we humans tend to do what is easiest to do in order to succeed without getting yelled at by people that matter. All elements of that formulation do count, and are intentionally broad: "succeed" is in the mind of the human; for some success is measured in dollars, for others in items produced or social impact or scientific relevance or patient outcomes.
Zeroing in on "success" for a magazine: Reviewing submissions serves a short term purpose (filling the next issue) and a long term purpose (encouraging submissions do not stop).
As is the case in most human enterprises, short term missions get prioritized much more heavily than long term missions, at the expense of long term missions. Focusing on filling the next issue would not surprise me in the least. Due to the iron law of limited resources, this necessarily leaves less time and energy to devote to not alienating the authors of rejected manuscripts. This is damaging to their prospects as an enterprise, but only in the long term, in the sense that the best authors that can get published will submit to magazines with quicker and better rejection service; if they are going to get rejected they want to know quickly, and would prefer a cogent explanation of why they were rejected.
Enterprises that succumb to their human nature and give short shrift to their long term missions (because they are always focused on the short term) tend to descend into the common pedestrian muck: In the case of a magazine, the quality of the stories they receive will decline on average, because better authors don't have to waste their time there. Lower quality results in less subscriber enthusiasm, which forces the magazine to compete on price, which lowers their profit margins, advertising budget and general resources, which puts more pressure on them to not fail in the short term mission of filling the next issue!
I'd draw an analogy to an eating disorder: If all I ever focus on for food and exercise is what would make me feel good this hour (a very short term goal), then in just a few years my body will be a ruin and I'll be miserable. But maybe some chocolate cake will help... For a more long term success, say a decade out, I have to compromise between my short term goals and long term goals, even at the expense of my short term goals. I don't want to starve, but I don't want to be a hundred pounds overweight either.
Thus, if I were reviewing manuscripts for a magazine, my personal compromise between the short and long term would be to set a quota for myself of review that fits my other duties, and review that many manuscripts with notes. From those I reviewed I will pick the best six (or whatever) and those become my next issue. Of the rest, I may take a few salvageable ones and ask for revisions, but they all get returned immediately with my notes.
Contrast that to just reading quickly to find six acceptable stories, and leaving all the other "cleanup" (notes and returns) until a later date that gets done hastily and slowly, if the "notes" part gets done at all. This approach might produce slightly better stories in the short term, but collapses under the weight of postponed and shirked duties in the long term, as quality declines.
I think you're holding magazines to a very high bar here! F&SF and Clarkesworld are pretty amazing, but there are so many reasons for submissions to get replies more slowly than that -- and what they are will be different from magazine to magazine.
Some options include:
Batching reading windows. If an editor reads submissions on Thursdays, then nobody submitting on Friday is going to get a response the next day. If they do their reading in big batches every couple of weeks, the wait can be longer.
Holding submissions. Magazine submissions are graded relative to other submissions in the same period. It can make sense to hold a submission for months, seeing if stronger material comes in, or hoping a window will open, or waiting for an issue where it will fit well.
Limited submissions windows. Some magazines only open for submission sporadically -- so all their submissions come flooding it at once.
Then, there's also an extra consideration: once you start sending out acceptances and rejections, eord will start getting out, and people will try to guess (fruitlessly) why they haven't heard back yet. So it might make sense to send responses in batches...
Do remember it wasn't all that long ago that electronic submissions and responses weren't a thing. Submissions and responses would take months. A lot of magazines still operate on that schedule -- some for very good reasons.