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Jay Lake
Date: 2008-08-22 17:46
Subject: [process] Querying stories, and the etiquette of withdrawals
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing

It’s been a while since I’ve been doing process posts, but calendula_witch asked me a question via email the other day which bears a bit of consideration. So herewith let me talk about querying old submissions, and the process of withdrawing stories from consideration.

This is a touchy subject with both writers and editors, and rightly so. Approach with care. There are some writers out there who will query the day after the response time they expect, then bombard an editor with repeated queries until something happens. Don’t be one of those people. That’s rampant insecurity, and being a pinhead. Response times are not contractual, and while an editor owes their submittors professional courtesy, they are also without exception very busy people.

There’s several things to consider before you do send a query. Stated response time is one of them. Another is actual response time, if known. I have made enough submissions in my career to have pretty good records about how long most major markets take to respond. The Black Hole does this same tracking based on publicly-submitted data. So you might have the following information about a market:

  • Stated response time: 90 days
  • Known actual response time: 124 days

Do you query at 91 days? Hell no. Do you query at 125 days? Again, hell no.

Here’s my rule of thumb: don’t query until six months, or double the response time, whichever is higher. For this example market, that’s 248 days, which is about eight months.

Here’s why. Querying bothers the editor, and gives them a reason to say no. By definition, it’s an interruption. If your perspective is that the story is being held too long, write another story and send it somewhere else. Likewise, if long response times bother you unreasonably, don’t submit to markets or editors known for their long response times. But you don’t gain anything by poking an editor. It doesn’t matter whether or not that editor is being unprofessional by your lights, they’re the editor. The relationship between writer and editor is not symmetrical by definition, and they don’t owe you anything except the eventual courtesy of a response.

(Bear in mind I say this as having been an editor on a dozen different anthology projects, as well as being a writer.)

So when do you withdraw a story? I don’t actually recommend doing this unless you’re pretty sure a market is dead or seriously comatose. I’ve sold stories which were out for well over a year, and I’ve had far more queries spark rejections than acceptances. I don’t think I’ve withdrawn stories from consideration more than a handful of times in the past decade, and always under unusual circumstances.

It also helps to know something about the editor and market. Some markets are notoriously slow, years-slow, but they do respond.

If you must joggle the editor’s elbow, here’s my suggestions:

  • Query on the six month/double response time rule, and inquire about the status of a story. A simple business letter inquiring about the status of your submission will do the job.
  • If you’re feeling your oats, very politely say that you would really like to hear from them, but you will consider the story rejected and withdraw it from consideration if they don’t get back to you within thirty days.
  • Otherwise wait at least thirty days from the query to send a second note saying this.
  • After thirty more days if you receive no response, send the editor another very polite note stating that effective that date you are withdrawing the story and will be submitting it elsewhere at your convenience.

Like I said, I don’t actually recommend doing this, but if you’re going to do this, it’s the path I’d follow.

What are your experience with querying and withdrawing submissions? If you’re an editor, how do you feel about this, and what would you tell writers?

Originally published at jlake.com. You can comment here or there.

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Michelle Muenzler
User: mmuenzler
Date: 2008-08-23 02:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So far, I've only officially withdrawn one story, and that was three months or so beyond when the exiting editor told me I probably out to just resubmit for the new incoming editor (market kind of seemed to be dying).

I have done a number of editor status queries, though, and for the most part I agree with you, except I don't time it by six months. I time it on www.duotrope.com worst reported times plus some extra time (by worst reported time, I mean whichever is slowest--acceptance or rejection--since they vary by market). So far, it seems to have worked okay, with only one odd snafu from a market that promised on their webpage if you hadn't received notice by the time their next issue was out and hadn't queried, they would have no record of your submission. Yet several months after their last issue, I received an actually rather sweet rejection.

Annnnnd that is pretty much my experinece at this moment. :)
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2008-08-23 03:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My policies are generally similar to yours, but in recent months I've had two separate experiences where I queried after six months and was told "we have no record of ever having received your submission -- you should have queried sooner." Yes. Two different editors (well, one an assistant editor) told me I should have queried sooner. So I'm being a little quicker to query, and so far it hasn't caused any ill effects. In one recent case a query knocked loose an acceptance, which is something that I don't believe has happened to me before.

As far as withdrawals... I've withdrawn stories several times for several different reasons (got tired of waiting, accidental simul-sub, story was requested by another market) and in just about every case, I eventually received a rejection anyway (in one case it came two years later, on a story that had been out for almost two years when I withdrew it). So, as near as I can tell, withdrawals don't actually work. However, it is very important to send that withdrawal letter anyway (and keep a copy) so that you can cover yourself in case the withdrawn-from market and a subsequent market both want to buy the story.

Consider that any market that's slow and/or disorganized enough to require a withdrawal because they're taking too long is probably also not going to be able to put your withdrawal together with the story you're trying to withdraw.

In my experience, and to my surprise, the large professional markets do not appear to keep detailed records of which stories have been rejected (this is not an excuse to resubmit a rejected story; editors tend to have good memories), and often submissions in the slush pile are not even opened until just before they are considered. I get the impression that queries to the effect that "is this story still under consideration?" are answered (if at all) by pawing through a physical pile of unopened envelopes -- if the envelope is found, the answer is yes, and if it is not, the answer is "we have no record of this submission, it was either lost in the mail or rejected." This also implies that including a postcard for acknowledgment of receipt won't help -- the postcard will not be seen until just before the manuscript itself is rejected (or, if you're lucky, put in a pile for further consideration).

From reading jedediah's blog I believe that Strange Horizons actually does track every submission and can respond to a query with a database lookup. Other 21st-century markets may be equally well organized.
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Leah Bobet
User: leahbobet
Date: 2008-08-23 04:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Whereas my recommendations would be almost exactly opposite, both as a writer and an editor. If I say 30 days, query me on day 31. Because maybe your sub went down the pipe -- and then I can know that and get right back to you, and not waste both our time and then feel guilty about you sitting there waiting six months for a simple yes or no.

Or maybe? I'm being slow. And if I'm being slow, I deserve a (courteous and professional) poke in the head, because it keeps a body honest. Yes, I'm a very busy person. But querying me isn't being somehow insecure or pinheaded. It's reminding me of the promise I made in my guidelines, and that's a perfectly fair thing to do. If I'm so busy I can't read my slush when I say I'm gonna read my slush, I need to revise my time management and my commitments, not project anger onto submitters who remind me of those commitments.

Please not to feed the idea that editors are mystical powerful beings who will crush you utterly at your slightest wrong breath, which they will judge as wrong or right by the arbitrary standards of their breed. I don't know that it needs much more feeding. :p
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User: kzmiller
Date: 2008-08-23 07:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I love Clarkesworld's guidelines because they include when to query. That makes things clear and easy for everyone. But for just about every other market that doesn't have that guideline, there are lots that have editor blogs or forums or you can Google and sometimes get news about slushpile depth. I would try that first before a query. Luckily, so far I've had reasonable response times. The couple of exceptions have been times when I got close or because the slush had overrun the poor editors and I found out about it on the web before querying.

I'm glad you posted about this because it's good to know! I try not to assume editors are touchy and capricious but I do fear being a pest. Good stuff to know, and great balancing info in the comments!
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User: selfavowedgeek
Date: 2008-08-23 12:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Although I think mileage may vary on the when-to-query issue, I also consider it important to wait a month after the stated response time is up. Yes, editors are busy folks. Yes, things get lost by the USPS or are sucked through the wrong tube of loosely connected paper towel rolls we call teh intarweebs. I have gotten overall good results from polite queries along the lines of whether the sub in question was ever received in the first place and if not, I could always resend at the editor's convenience. Again, lots of mileage for me with that one. I've only made a couple three withdrawal requests, and in each case it was either three to six months after I'd made one query and received no response whatsoever to the query.

At this point with my writing and subbing, though, I'm in a totally different place. My output is double what is was only two or three years ago. I don't have all my eggs in one tiny basket, so to speak. Since I'm always writing rough drafts of stories and revising little piggies to send to market, having some subs kept past response times doesn't bother me as much as it did when I was floating only a bare minimum of stories. Now I feel as though I need more baskets 'cause I gots me some mo' eggs. Just my two cents.
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Michelle Muenzler
User: mmuenzler
Date: 2008-08-23 12:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah, the more stories circulating on the submission track, the easier it is for me to wait a bit longer on a slow one. It helps to not be super-focused on a single piece, checking your Inbox/mailbox fifty times per hour.
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User: selfavowedgeek
Date: 2008-08-23 13:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Absolutely. It helps me avoid the one-baby syndrome. But, still, so much truth to the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song: "The waiting is the hardest part. . ."
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calendula_witch: pentacle-moon
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2008-08-23 17:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks!! This is very helpful--and everyone's commentary as well. This particular one was a submission call for an anthology. I had some friendly back-and-forth emails with the editor both before and after I submitted, at which point he indicated it would be late June before we'd hear anything. So on July 30 I sent a polite follow-up...and still have heard nothing. Hence my question. I was assuming it was dead in the water but maybe it's just hibernating. I'll wait a while more and query again.

And, yes indeed, write more stories and send them other places! That I do.
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Tim W. Burke
User: timwb
Date: 2008-08-24 18:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Mr. Levine and I must submit to the same places. I've also had two pubs tell me they never received my submission.

When I inquire, it's in the vein of "did you receive my submission. Just checking."

I have withdrawn once, from a non-paying site that was going to take fifteen months to publish the story. I have often been told that if you want to be a professional, act like one and don't sell yourself short. My story deserved better, and I was polite about the withdrawl.
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jeffsoesbe: yeff yahoo avatar
User: jeffsoesbe
Date: 2008-08-24 23:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:yeff yahoo avatar
If your perspective is that the story is being held too long, write another story and send it somewhere else.

I like this statement. If you have a bunch of stories out, then any one submission doesn't have your entire heart and soul invested in it.

Mileage on this one may vary, depending on one's story production rate...

- yeff
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