Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] Querying stories, and the etiquette of withdrawals

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.

Tags: process, writing
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