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Will Entrekin on professionalism issues related to editor/writer correspondence.

Wil Shetterly links to the article and offers his views.

A discussion follows.

Nicked from slapfights, your online source of energetic discourse.

I am a little baffled by "If an editor rejects you, the only proper response is to send that editor another submission." That's a response but what if it's clear that that the set of things you will ever write does not overlap with the set of things the editor will ever buy? What are you accomplishing by sending them more work? It just ties the material up for the duration of a rejection cycle.

Digression: How does ownership of the words in letters work again? IIRC the physical document belongs to the person who receives it but who owns the actual words? I know how it works in the UK because of the Diana letters but not how it works in Canada or the US.

[Added later: and how does this apply to email, where there's not really anything physical involved, aside from the medium on which the email is stored?]

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I am pretty sure that the actual words belong to the person who wrote them, and publishing them without permission technically violates their copyright. Someone with actual legal knowledge may wish to correct me, though. (As you say, the letters as physical objects belong to whoever the letters were sent to. Things might get a little dicy if the letter was sent electronically.)

Of course, if anyone wanted to complain about their letter being published, they could send a DMCA takedown notice. Hasn't happened yet, and there is a fair-use argument that could be made (the publication is non-commercial, generally speaking partial, and serves a critical/educational purpose).

That said, while people have been plenty happy to send me death threats and lawsuit threats, nobody ever told me, "Hey, take down my letter." (Which of course I would have, even if the correspondence was Burtian in its sloppiness.) Working assumption: some people love any sort of attention.

Do you know that the people whose letters you use read your LJ? Or if the ones who do are aware of their legal rights?

So far, as my LJ is very widely read and linked to and people have even sometimes made specific reference to the LJ and to the pratice (both before and after their letters are posted), I'd say that most of them do read my LJ or quickly become aware of my LJ during the course of the struggle.

As far as how aware they are; I suspect they aren't all that aware. At least the guy who threatened to sue me for "libel" for rejecting his story in the first place didn't exactly strike me as a legal eagle. Nor did the three characters who tried to get me to buy first rights for stories whose first rights had already been expended.

My general take since you started doing it is if they're submitting to you, don't read the instructions, and respond badly then it's their fault. I'm not a writer seeking publication, and I'd have heard of you by now even if I didnt read your journal.

If you're submitting to an online pub with a named editor, a quick Google would be a plan. If you don't know your market you're never going to sell in it anyway.

It seems to me risky to depend on all of the people whose letters you quote being legally inept. All it takes is one cranky lawyer/writer (and lawyer/writers aren't exactly unheard of in SF: I can think of at least three, at least if I include ex-lawyers) to cause a lot of havoc. Granting for the moment that "there is a fair-use argument that could be made", how much money are you willing to spend to make it?

Obviously, the same issues come up when other editors quote (e)mail so if it's incorrect for you to do it, it's incorrect for them as well regardless of how long they've been in the field.

I have no idea where you got the idea that I "depend on all the people whose letters you quote being legally inept." You asked me about a group specific individuals, and I answered with a few specific examples from amongst that somewhat larger group.

Obviously, the same issues come up when other editors quote (e)mail so if it's incorrect for you to do it, it's incorrect for them as well regardless of how long they've been in the field.

Incorrect on what level? On the professional level? Transparently not -- professionalism is a bundle of common practices, not some unarticulated ideal only known, amazingly enough, to people not engaged in the profession. Politeness is also a moveable feast. (See how handwritten mss were handled a century ago versus fifty years ago versus today, for example.) Copyright infringement? As with any other human endeavor, there are costs and benefits, risks and rewards, precautions and chances. If you're sufficiently worried about legal defense funds, feel free to donate to the magazine.

Edited at 2008-05-22 03:38 pm (UTC)

If you're sufficiently worried about legal defense funds, feel free to donate to the magazine.

I am concerned about not being able to say "you know, I wondered if this would ever be an issue way back in May of 2008 and here's the proof."

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I was making specific reference to the question asked in the post. As far as polite and professional I've found that the ideas people have in their heads about either tend to vary fairly widely and often hae only different intersections with actual practice.

Pretty much anyone who reads slush for the first time, for example, thinks that the polite and professional thing to do is to read every story all the way through -- how can you have an opinion on something without reading it from beginning to end? (Over the years I've broken in about thirty different slush readers for a number of different projects and in different fields: short SF, poetry, essay contests, etc.)

After a few days, they either give up or adopt to actual practice, because what is actually polite is to get the work done quickly rather than make everyone wait and what is actually professional is to focus one's attention on that material the readers actually want.

With e-subs (and email in general), there is increased tendency for marginal figures to submit stories and then argue back or threaten -- the anger that would disappate over the time it would take to write a letter, print it out, and stamp and address an envelope is still ripe when it comes to firing back a quick email.

I've seen Ellen Datlow post emails she's received -- both on the old board and more recently in other venues. There are regular "Tales from the Slush Pile" in which funny cover letters are read for the entertainment of the panel-goers at cons, and there's even been correspondence as regards who submits what and how (and responds how to rejections, including snippets of stuff like cover letters) in the old lettercol of Realms of Fantasy. (At one point, even Gene Wolfe got involved in that debate.)

The current dustup has little to do with actual norms of professionalism as seen in the publishing industry and rather everything to do with a author -- one who does not believe that editors are even the slightest bit necessary -- successfully playing an angle. Secondarily, as I was not an editor when most of the current cohort of people subbing short stories to SF mags started editing, there is some notion that I am not as "real" an editor as Datlow, van Gelder, et al. Thus, if I do X, that's awful, who do I think I am, etc.. If Datlow had been doing X for years, well then people just lower their eyes and say nothing, even if they think anything of it.

I never said editors are not even the slightest bit necessary; I merely asked, in this day and age, do writers even need editors? You seem to believe that it boils down solely to distribution, which is fine. Me, I tend to feel that the short-form writing marketplace is largely broken lately, and I thought, well, I could either get a dime a word and let someone put it on their online zine, or I could put it on my blog and offer a collection as a free download that people can purchase as a paperback if they'd like to. Since I don't write "fantatwee" or othersuch, I chose the latter option, and I've been rather pleased with the results so far.

I've never read Datlow's (or anyone else's) tales from a slushpile. I've mainly read the Nielsen Haydens, whom I've mentioned, and whom I've never seen do anything like it.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's as commonplace for sf/f editors to ridicule their prospective contributors, as maybe it's commonplace for editors of literary magazines to tell their actual contributors to "eat shit and die."

Also, perhaps it's a difference in background; I was an editor in the trade publishing industry, which is markedly different than the commercial publishing industry, and while refraining from discussion of slush may commonplace in the latter, I think it pretty rarely occurs in the former.

Finally, I'm not sure who doesn't think you're a "real" editor, but I've never claimed such, certainly.

-Will Entrekin

I never said editors are not even the slightest bit necessary; I merely asked, in this day and age, do writers even need editors?

Don't be coy. The question is no more an actual question than "What kind of fool do you think I am?"

You seem to believe that it boils down solely to distribution, which is fine.

Rather explicitly not, since I mentioned a number of other things in our previous discussion, some of which were tied to distribution.

I could either get a dime a word and let someone put it on their online zine, or I could put it on my blog and offer a collection as a free download that people can purchase as a paperback if they'd like to.

Interesting use of the word "or" there, but hey, it's your career or lack of the same.

Maybe it's as commonplace for sf/f editors to ridicule their prospective contributors, as maybe it's commonplace for editors of literary magazines to tell their actual contributors to "eat shit and die."

Well, it's certainly commonplace for you to frame arguments in silly ways. So tell me, is someone who responds to a rejection with, "You're going to die and rot in a grave!" or "Fuck you faggot!" or "Well, the last editor who bought this story understood it," actually a "prospective contributor"?

Seriously, in your experience in trade publishing, how many articles did you see published from people who sent in death and lawsuit threats to the editors who ultimately published them?

Enjoy the rest of your fifteen minutes.

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When you break in slush readers, don't you tell them to start reading, stop when they're bored or convinced the story has serious problems, then skim a little or check the ending only if they think it might be worth more work? I'm pretty sure that was one of the first speeches I got at Ace when I was hired.

Yes. And, generally speaking, they insist on doing it their way, or have a very high threshold of boredom initially because they want to "give writers a chance", or are "stuck" on a story because they don't know "why" to reject it, and it takes several conversations and a lot of slush to convince them that the usual method is actually usual for a reason. It takes a few days, sometimes even a week for some.

and in your most case, outing noobs to ridicule them.

Is the word "recent" missing here? At any rate, as has been explained several times, few people are "outed" (that is, named) and not everyone whose mail was posted is a "noob." At least one person has himself been an editor for most of a decade, and another had been widely published and had been harassing people after rejections since email made it easy to do so.

But within the profession, it's, well, exceptional. I'm pretty sure I also got a speech on hiring day about responding politely to all correspondence.

Yeah, I'm also pretty sure that Ace actually got rid of its slushpile due in part to the volume and nature of that correspondence. As did most book publishers and, increasingly, even agents. You're arguing for a method that is not only not sustainable in the days of email, but that indeed has NOT been sustained.

As far as what is exceptional, yes here are a couple other things that are exceptional: email submissions, no form rejections, no hierarchy of slush readers only sending up the best stories for a final decision from the editor. Slush piles look great if one has a "professional shit-eater" that takes care of 98% of it for you.

I've said many times, if enough people don't want editorial comments, I'd be pleased to other shut down the slush pile entirely -- the magazine can be stocked indefinitely with solicitations -- or go to 100% forms. The choice, as always, belongs to the pool of would-be submitters. The only thing asked, and explicitly in the guidelines, is that people do not argue with rejection slips. Well, the overwhelming majority of submitters who have spoken up have been pleased with the methods used so far. (If I posted all the grateful correspondence, I'd post three-five a week, as opposed to twenty over the course of two years.) Only a author who sees no need to submit and get paid for his work, and you, who doesn't seem to have sent me any stories either, are taking specific exception.

Why speak on behalf of a group of which you are not a part, and whose ideas you don't share?

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I'm sure that ending the slush pile was a pure business decision.

Yes -- it didn't pay to be polite in the face of the sort of correspondence they were getting (and politeness generally includes a timely response), so better to end it all.

Also, I love publishing, and I love new writers. I think it's bad for both if editors follow the examples that Will Entrekin was wondering about.

Well, I don't think editors should tell their actual contributors to "eat shit and die", regardless of whether or not they are "new" writers, but if you want to actually help writers -- new or otherwise -- I'd recommend explaining ever more carefully that in these days of email, it's a really bad idea just to fire back in response to a rejection.

Frankly, the way to recommend it be handled, it becomes a not very bad idea, and thus there is no reason for anyone to stop. No surprise that at least two of the people I've dealt with were writers/editors with a decade or two of experience who engage in the practice regularly because nobody ever stood up to them before I did.

Finally, hen I speak for groups of which I am not a part, I do try to make sure that the sentiment I express is itself expressed by at least some significant political or numerical faction of the group, and not virtually exclusively by people outside of the group.

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Like I said, politeness is part of the problem with slush, and you even acknowledge it when you allude to the model of "gentleman's publishing." Opening the slush is a matter of politeness, as is responding to it in a timely manner, which would involve paying someone to do it or opportunity costs surrounding intern time, etc.

And as I said to you in another venue, form letters get angry responses as well, albeit ones that are generally more inexplicable because forms don't really say anything.

Indeed, speaking of new writers, one publisher for whom I worked used a form letter that read, in part, "We only want to support new writers, but we cannot publish everything we receive" (I didn't write this form, btw.)

The most common responses to this form were, "But I am a new writer! Yeah, I listed a bunch of publications in my cover letter, but I still feel new," and "Only new writers, eh? That's ageist and stupid and I should sue. Veteran writers who master their craft are important too!"

Then, as I mentioned to you already as well, was the guy who responded to the form rejection by comparing the publisher to Hitler.

When I was slushing, I figured out very quickly how little of a story you need to read to know if it's worth reading more (With really special stories, the title alone is enough.) I frequently would keep reading long past that point (sometimes for the whole story, but I read quickly), just to see if I was wrong. I never was--bad stories stay bad the whole way through.

I also went with a generic more-or-less form letter--something like "Thank you for your submission, "X". Unfortunately, it's not quite what we're looking for, good luck placing it elsewhere." If I liked the story, even while it wasn't good enough to get past me, I might throw some suggestions in there as well, but I went with such a generic letter specifically to avoid having people argue with me about the rejection. Of course, this didn't always work--I once rejected the same guy three times in a row, and he wrote in with a snit because he ran an online magazine, and really he deserved to be rejected by the editor-in-chief, not just a slush reader.

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I can remember when netiquette forbade publication of private email, but I've never seen any justification given for the taboo.

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If it's private, keep it to yourself instead of sending it whizzing out across the global information network where it can be read by anybody who has admin privileges on the mail servers involved or runs a packet sniffer.

Allow me to quote an authority:
Miss Manners is sorry but people really must learn that e-mail, convenient as it is, is not a proper means to communicate things that you do not want repeated. Nor, for that matter, are letters. In pre-e-mail days, one was always hearing about letters falling "into the wrong hands," either because someone snooped or the recipient passed them around.

The standard advice then was, "Don't put it in writing unless you want everyone to know." This applies even more to e-mail.
In Nick's case, the people sending him the email are themselves violating his editorial guidelines, and those are clearly posted on the Clarkesworld site. For them to then expect him to adhere to some unwritten net etiquette -- for them to be rude to him and then expect politeness in return -- is ridiculous.

The 'diciness' I was thinking of in that last comment was along the lines of whether you're allowed to print out copies of the email (which I would imagine would be OK) and what you can do with those printed-out copies (which I guess would be whatever you can legally do with a letter mailed to you). So, maybe not so dicy after all.

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