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Why don’t they simply judge each story based on its own merit? Why do they want your publication history? Of what relevance is it to the story itself?

I ask this because a suspicion has been growing in my mind for quite some time that many of these magazines, especially the ‘elite’ ones, are not really as open to submissions by new authors as they pretend, and that the ‘open submissions’ thing is mostly a promotional gimmick. Articles such as this appear to support my suspicions.

Let me give a concrete example of the sort of thing that makes me to wonder about this: I once wrote a novella (just below 20,000 words) which was a horror story with elements of science fiction. To be clear, I am not the only one who believed that it was a pretty entertaining and well written story. In addition to beta readers, a certain editor and book publisher that I sent it to said that he and his staff loved it.

Now, here’s the interesting thing: At the same time, I sent the same novella to Asimov magazine, but with a different title. To my surprise, I got a form rejection email a few days later. No explanation whatsoever given.

Note that I have a tendency to write extremely brief cover letters when sending to magazines. I don’t bother to include bio - unless requested - or publication history (even though I have some) because I see them as irrelevant.

The only explanation I can think of is that once the editor of the magazine saw the length of the story, she immediately decided that there was no way she was giving that much magazine space to an unknown author with no publication history, and so she ditched it. I doubt she actually read it.

Because of things like this, it is hard not to suspect that many of these magazines tend to overwhelmingly favor submissions by people with strong literary pedigree, to the detriment of new authors, in spite of their pretenses to the contrary. Perhaps because it helps them cut time, and because such people tend to have a ready-made fan base, which these magazines tend to value. And that is why they demand these cover letters. Otherwise, why do they need them?

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You're only half right. You seem to have forgotten these people are in business to make money by selling works, so the cover letter does two things for them that have nothing to do with your story in particular: They help them filter out submissions that have a lower probability of earning money.

A cover letter given short shrift can put them off, they expect a description of the story, not

I wrote a horror / scifi story of 20,000 words. I can't explain it, I'm not good enough to write a compelling pitch for it, and I think it should stand on its own merits anyway. May I send it?

Of course that is exaggerated, but it sounds like the message they will get.

An author with no publication history really is a bigger gamble, and you are correct: A magazine that publishes 50,000 words is not going to devote 20,000 words to a newbie without a compelling reason, and if you are too haughty to give them one in the cover letter, they throw you in the assistant's pile of things to reject.

These people get about 100 times more inquiries than they could possibly represent, they have to manage their time. I've heard some say they will toss an inquiry into the reject pile at the first typo they see. They use your cover letter to judge whether you are a good risk. Your publication history IS relevant, to them. Their job is not to coddle artists, their job is to find art that will sell and make them money; and the more difficult you are to work with, the less forthcoming you are, the less they want to work with you.

Understand your place in the world; only proven commercial successes get to be prima donnas, the ones that have sold millions of dollars worth of books.

The agents and publishers do not have the time to read every story submitted, but they will at least start to read your cover letter, and if you can't write a good one of those, that's where they stop, because they may have to sort through dozens of cover letters to get to one that grabs their attention and makes them think "this could sell."

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    +1. The thing to remember is that publishing is a business, and that means they're looking at their ROI. Cuthroat and disheartening as it may be, that's just how it is – Thomo Aug 11 '18 at 22:32
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    @Thomo That, and the sheer volume of work that agents, publishers and producers must reject tends to make them numb and callous to the feelings of the rejected; just like venture capitalists. Sure, the applicants may have spent years on their work and labored over every word, but so what? They have to reject 98% of queries anyway! So they take shortcuts, those years of work get judged in two minutes of reading the query letter; they are busy people. And "difficult" unknown clients are just not worth the time they cost, until they prove they can sell hundreds of thousands of copies. – Amadeus Aug 13 '18 at 13:31
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Asimov's is one of the best-known, most-respected magazines in the SF genre.

Their volume of submissions is immense (I don't know precise numbers, but e.g. F&SF very recently got 192 submissions in a two-day span, after a one-month submission freeze).

They publish six issues a year; with usually one novella, maybe two in an issue.

Your cover letter might be a factor, but... the only explanation? That's pushing things a little far. "This was not one of their ten favorite novellas that year" seems like it should merit some consideration.

It's important to understand the following things:

  • This is an uphill battle. You have a vast array of competition. That includes a great number of skilled, beloved pros who became skilled pros by learning how to write things that work really, really well -- at least for some readers. It's not a surprise that it's tough for newcomers to break in -- they're up against the best, new and old.
  • Each editor's taste is different. One editor loving your story doesn't mean another will too. (One editor hating your story doesn't mean you shouldn't send it right on to the next one!) This isn't just about who's "best", it's about a particular taste, a particular sensibility -- and even just what else that editor has in inventory, or what kind of mix of styles they're trying to collect together.
  • Magazines are not going to give you feedback. Some will, and that's awesome. Most won't, because that's not their job. Because they get hundreds of submissions and can't respond in depth to more than a few. Sometimes, because if they do try to offer feedback with their rejections, then they'll get complaints and crankiness in response.
  • At the same time, it's in a magazine's best interest to nurture newer writers, because that's how a magazine keeps itself alive and vibrant. A magazine that's courted a great writer nobody else has, an author who submits to them first, is a fantastic edge. And in the long run, today's popular authors may wander off to longer fiction, or retire; magazines want good writers tomorrow, too.

As for cover letters, certainly they can be a factor. Some authors are famous enough for their name to have cachet, and yes, that can be worth investing in. (You still don't want to buy bad stories from popular authors, though; people won't stay subscribed just for the impressive covers.)

Perhaps more to the point, just knowing that an author has been published a little encourages a little more trust, a little more leeway. A confusing opening from a complete novice might feel incompetent -- from somebody more accomplished, hey, maybe it's intentional, maybe they're building up to something. An ending you can spot a mile away, might be worth reading on a bit to see if a competent author has a trick up their sleeve. So, yeah, you might give an MS another few pages if you know the author's qualified for the SFWA.

But ultimately, it's the story that readers are there for, and that's what the editors and readers are trying to find. There's no need to disparage them on account of one incident -- or not to listen when they speak about their considerations and what things look like on their side.

Expect rejections. Expect many rejections. That makes sense -- and if you keep on, you'll get past 'em, too. All the best :-D

  • Another point along similar lines: don't assume that because the turnaround time was fast, nobody looked at the work. When Jim Baen's Universe was just getting started, they used to have a process (I don't know whether they still do or not) where, if you requested it, the editor would give a (brief) reason why they rejected a piece. For the story I submitted to them, the reason was that the second sentence that I'd hoped to provide a hook had struck the editor as self-contradictory, and that pulled them out of the story and they stopped reading. So they read 20 words out of 7,000, total. – Jules Aug 15 '18 at 17:52
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I read submissions to a literary journal. I never look at the cover letters. They probably matter to the editors if the piece gets accepted, but not to us, the initial readers. Keep them brief. Mention a couple other stories you've published or someone you studied under or a place where you took classes, and that's it.

As for your suspicion, every journal is different and some prefer established writers and others focus on new writers. The best thing to do is to look at some back issues. Were the writers previously published? Are they famous? It's always a good idea to get to know the journals you're submitting to and see if you're a good fit.

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