Marcia Parlow is the managing editor of New England Review. Founded in 1978, NER is published by Middlebury College in Vermont, which also runs the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Among the many renowned writers who have been published in NER are Natasha Trethewey, Kathryn Davis, and Charles Baxter. Marcia lives in Weybridge, Vermont, with her two Italian Spinone and the frequent company of her three large sons. I recently interviewed Marcia about how she got into publishing and got an insider’s look at NER‘s publishing process.
Asta: Tell us about your background in publishing and how you came to join the New England Review.
Marcia: Even having been the requisite English major, I was very lucky to graduate to a job with the legendary Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow Books at William Morrow in New York. I learned some of the most important lessons of my life from her—to trust my own judgment, to treat people with great dignity, and to have a party every time we published a book. I left Greenwillow to return to my hometown of Boston, where I worked at Houghton Mifflin with Robie Macauley, who had deep roots at the Kenyon Review and put literary magazines on my radar. After a child-rearing hiatus, I was looking at a changed publishing landscape—book publishing could no longer so easily champion the emerging literary writers with whom I loved to work. I had moved to Middlebury a few years ago, happy coincidence the home of New England Review, and soon began reading submissions for them. And then, in a stroke of complete luck and timing and alignment of the universe, the managing editor position opened up for the first time in a decade.
Asta: What’s your day-to-day job like as NER’s managing editor?
Marcia: There’s a bit of triage in my day-to-day, but that’s not unique to publishing or to me. For instance, today I walked in focused on getting our next digital original ready to post—but first met with a former intern who’s about to graduate. Next, I helped two authors and a translator figure out the secret of uploading tax forms, unjammed the copier, and tried to figure out what to do with a piece of cover art we haven’t been able to use as we had hoped. I had vowed that I would get back to wrapping up that digital piece for our Confluences series, but then found myself updating our letterhead (sorry, Sean Warren, your piece will get posted!). The next couple of weeks will be an inDesign marathon as we build the next issue; we will proof tables of contents against pages, design the front cover, make sure all the contracts have been signed. The best description of my job came from Michael Nye of Missouri Review last year at AWP, describing managing editors as the Swiss Army Knives of lit mags.
Asta: How does your submissions process work?
Marcia: We read year round, accepting submissions during the academic year—our submissions period will end on the last day of May. We spend the summer doing our best to make sure that every one of the year’s submissions has been read and responded to. The day we reopened last fall, September 1, Submittable logged 181 submissions. Boom, day one, we’re feeling behind. But we have an ever-improving system that is working well. Our college interns review each cover letter and point it in the right direction—flagging it as poetry, fiction, nonfiction, existing NER authors, etc. We have a wonderful stable of reliable readers who are assigned twenty pieces a month. They put their comments in Submittable and pass it on to the next level, often our poetry editor, Rick Barot, and our associate editors Janice Obuchowski, Jennifer Bates, and J.M. Tyree, who say such insightful things about the pieces from sentence level on up, that I know we cannot possibly be paying them enough. We often get queries from writers about where a piece may be in the process, and often it is the work that generates the most positive in-house response and garners the most consideration that takes the longest for us to respond to. The truth is that a response can range from a few days to a few months.
When the final pieces have been selected, our editor Carolyn Kuebler strings them together into the whole. I wish each reader would start at the beginning so that the intentional juxtaposition of the pieces remain in tact, and hear how the end of a poem, for example, can deliver us to the start of the following essay with strengths and relationships that might not reveal themselves if a piece were read in isolation; at its best it becomes almost a relay, or a conversation.
Asta: How do you use Submittable?
Marcia: I remember standing in a small and windowless room at Houghton Mifflin, looking at three walls of shelving, floor to ceiling, of manila envelopes filled with novel-length manuscripts and SASEs and a distinct mustiness. That Submittable can log, date, order, and maintain those records along with our editors’ collective notes is miraculous. I love that we can click a button and see all submissions over time from a particular author, because being able to finally publish the work of someone who has been determined to work and revise and submit newer and better pieces to us is as exciting to us as it is to the author. (Well, very close.)
This year, we used Submittable to create an e-contract for authors, translators, poets, and artists. Kenyon Review was already doing this, and it really motivated me to see if NER could jump out of the mailing-paper-contracts phase to emailing them—tax forms included. So I read up on the Submittable form designer, e-mailed Submittable approximately 27 times, and built a contract one text box at a time. Now, instead of over the course of weeks, we receive signed contracts back with very short turnaround time, sometimes even on the same day, and we have in one document all the data we need—name, title of the piece, address, e-mail, contributor’s note, completed tax form, and a Word upload of the work. Magic.
Asta: Are there any exciting developments coming up for NER?
Marcia: We’re thrilled to have just launched e-versions of NER for every platform, and we’re working hard to re-design our website. We have a rich backlist of work that we bring out as “Classics,” and a wealth of audio from Bread Loaf authors reading at the writers’ conference, and we’re trying to design a site that will make it easy for readers to jump in and enjoy this incredible content.
Asta: Any advice for readers who want to submit their work to you?
Marcia: The advice is the same for NER as it is, I’m sure, for all journals. First, know who we are and submit to us if you love the idea of seeing yourself tucked into the Contributors’ Notes among the kinds of authors we tend to publish. Second, keep at it. No one is happier than we are to see a name that’s been before us a thousand times finally appear in our table of contents. We’re publishing a piece in our next issue that started down the NER path in 2012. Also, when you submit to us, educate us. If you’re writing about an area of your own expertise, tell us (briefly) just that; for fiction, too, just a brief intro. And if you’re an emerging writer, don’t hide it, celebrate it. You only get to publish for the first time once, and then you’ll always be “ours.” I made sure to get our first-time authors their galleys in time for Thanksgiving last year so that they could lord it over their siblings.