One Year Out: An Editor Talks to Submishmash About His Experience With the Application

08/02/2011

Chris Chambers is the editor of the New Orleans Review, a biannual journal that has published the likes of Walker Percy, Pablo Neruda, Ellen Gilchrist, Nelson Algren, Hunter S. Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, Julio Cortazar, Joyce Carol Oates, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Chris teaches at Loyola University, New Orleans, with which the magazine is affiliated. He has edited the NOR since 2000. Before that, he was editor of the Black Warrior Review. The New Orleans Review was one of the early adopters of Submishmash. We checked in with Chris recently to ask him about his experience with the application.

Submishmash: Can you tell us a little about your editorial vision and goals for the NOR, Chris?

Chris Chambers: My vision for the New Orleans Review has always been to honor the history of the magazine, its tradition of publishing an eclectic range of good contemporary writing, with a particular interest in writing that is unconventional, writing in translation, writing by undiscovered writers, and writing by people we feel deserve more recognition. I have also always believed that good writing deserves good typography and book design, and I hope to see the magazine continue to thrive as a publication that features good writing presented in an aesthetically pleasing object.

SMM: How did you decide to switch from paper submissions to Submishmash?

CC: I decided to try Submishmash in the spring of 2010 based on the recommendation of a friend who knew the folks who developed it. I had been reluctantly considering online submissions. Reluctantly, because I’m something of a Luddite. I tend to distrust technology, and have a real affinity for things like paper and books, paper clips, stamps. I like getting mail and I like the Postal Service. But it was becoming clear that the mountains of manuscripts coming through the mail, the SASEs, the rejection slips, all added up to a lot of wasted resources. It added expense for the writers, and it was a logistical nightmare for us.

The other factor for making the switch when we did was financial. Our budget was cut by Loyola University, our sponsor, by almost a third after Hurricane Katrina, and six years on, it has yet to be reinstated. I am committed to publishing a quality print journal, and one of the things that Submishmash allowed us to do was to charge a fee for submissions.

This was not a decision I made lightly. I polled my staff, other editors, writers. And I did the math, calculating what a writer spends on a typical mailed submission: paper, printer toner, envelopes, postage, a trip to the post office. And I figured that the $3 we ask for an electronic submission is no more than a writer would spend to mail the same manuscript to us.

SMM: Have you met with any resistance in your shift to a fee-based submissions model?

CC: After over a year, we have had only a couple complaints from disgruntled writers, and I have actually received quite a few responses from writers who like and support the new system. With Submishmash, the money they spend to submit their work goes to support the magazine in which they hope to publish, and not to the Post Office. And that support has in a very real way allowed us to continue to publish a print journal without sacrificing quality or pages or frequency.

SMM: What about submissions volume? Has that changed since you began charging a fee?

CC: We receive about 2,000 submissions a year, and I’m guessing that is approximately where we were before Submishmash. With the online system I can track exactly how many submissions we get on a daily, monthly, and annual basis, by genre, and so forth. But with mailed submissions, it was more of a guess, weighing or measuring the pile occasionally.

SMM: What about efficiency? Has Submishmash helped you streamline your operations at all? Can you give us some examples?

CC: Before Submishmash, our managing editor sorted the mail, date-stamped the submissions, and put them in plastic mail baskets (property of the Postal Service): one each for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I would go through each day’s submissions, looking at the first page of each submission. Anything that grabbed me right off went into a smaller basket to be read by all the staff.

Of course this meant that each submission could only be read by one staff member at a time. Other staff members had to wait for it to return from whoever had it, so that it sometimes took weeks or even months for all of our readers to read a single submission. And here we’re just talking about the submissions that I cherry-picked from the start.

Those manuscripts that I hadn’t pulled out of the stack in this preliminary way were likewise farmed out to our readers, each of whom always had five to ten submissions. They would either reject these and return them to the author or reassign them to another reader, for another look.

When we had six or so manuscripts that had made it to the small basket and been read by all the staff, we would schedule a meeting to discuss and vote on them. I encouraged everyone to reread those manuscripts in advance of this meeting.

SMM: Wow. Okay, that sounds like a lot of logistics.

CC: It was definitely a time-consuming and cumbersome process. And there was always the risk of manuscripts being lost or misplaced. I remember a former intern coming to me six months after she’d finished her internship with a pile of manuscripts she found in the backseat of her car.

SMM: And how has this changed with Submishmash?

CC: When I fast-track promising submissions, I can assign them to all of our staff, and all of us are able to read and comment on them simultaneously from wherever we are. This means we can read, deliberate on, and make decisions on manuscripts much faster. The system also makes it easier to respond to writers, and I find myself jotting more comments to those whose work came close. Obviously, we don’t lose any submissions anymore.

SMM: Anything else you’d like to say about your experience with Submishmash?

CC: The system is intuitive, easy to use, and seems to anticipate most all of our needs as a literary magazine. And we’ve gotten prompt, friendly, and helpful support from Submishmash whenever we’ve had a question or a problem.

The bottom line is that as reluctant as I was to go to online submissions, after a year with Submishmash I am sold on it, and more importantly, my staff and the writers who submit work to us have embraced it as well. Submishmash is functional and well designed and has become an important part of the machine here.