On Submissions [We're Not Phone People]

I’d like to talk a bit about submissions.

Because I’ve had a very stressful and involved week of cataloging, catching up with, and responding to every single submission Open Letter has received since essentially July of last year, I’m a little on the edge right now when it comes to submitters repeatedly asking about their translation samples. And by on edge I mean I had a few minutes of snapping this morning, and thus decided that a nice, public rant about the whole submission process was wholly appropriate. And by appropriate I mean god damn necessary.

The ideal situation would be for people who submit to our press, or to any other press, to understand a little something about the process behind it and how the world does not revolve entirely around their samples. It’s so much more than one person with a questionable fashion sense and a warm carton of orange juice sitting in a back room with stacks upon stacks of “slush pile” material to sort through. At least for us it is.

Open Letter is not unlike many small, independent presses in that we are, essentially, a three-person operation (this not including semester- or summer-long interns). As editor, it falls into MY duties to receive every single submission sent to Open Letter. It doesn’t matter if you address an email or envelope to Chad, or to Nate, because it’s all going to end up on my desk and in my inbox. And I get to look at every single one of them. And because I am, surprisingly, a polite and considerate person by nature, I reply to every. Single. One of them. And because I am, surprisingly, just ONE person, it’s going to take me a while to get back to every query.

So, first and foremost, if you’ve ever submitted—not just to us, but to any press—and have yet to receive a reply to your query: BACK. OFF. Seriously. Take 20 deep breaths, count to 10, go for a walk, make yourself a sandwich, a tasty one. But honestly, please just back off. We’re working on it.

In my case, I get the feeling there are people who think that all we do is sit around playing round after round of Bejeweled, waiting—nay, PRAYING—for a new submission—THEIR submission—to come in so that we may finally be freed from our shackles of boredom and finally, thankfully, do some real work around here.

NOPE! SURPRISE! I actually play Bingo Bash.

We receive, on average, 10 submissions a week. That’s 30 a month. Each submission generally consists of a 20-35 page sample—let’s average that to 30 pages. At the moment, I have approximately 186 emails flagged that contain submissions. If 15 (which is a generous number) of these emails are only inquiries, meaning they had no actual submission attached to them, this leaves 171 submissions I have to get through.

In turn, this means that I have approximately 5,130 pages of translation sample submissions to read. Throw in the hard-copy submissions for good measure and that number jumps up to almost 6,000 pages of text. And then I have to prepare around 200 responses, one for each submitter.

Now, if I were to read even 100 pages of submissions per day, I would have them all done in 60 days. Before I branch out to the next part of my rant, I’d like to take a quick moment to point out that I ACTUALLY READ THE SUBMISSIONS. With the exception of the ones that I know won’t work for Open Letter within the first five pages of the sample, I ACTUALLY READ WHAT YOU SEND US. This may not be the most time-effective way to do things, but as a, I don’t know, human with a heart, I figure that people have spent time working hard to make these translations into something that a publisher might be interested in—and I at least owe it to them to legitimately look at the text and make a proper assessment of whether or not it will for our press. So, even though it may take 1000 times longer than skimming pages or simply pretending to read whatever comes across my desk, I’M SORRY FOR DOING MY JOB AND FOR BEING THOROUGH.

You may think: Hell, reading 100 pages a day is nothing in the grand scheme of things, and what is this Kaija person doing? Clearly not editorialing, or reading my submission, or responding to it. And I bet she’s super bad at bingo, even though it’s a game of pure chance and has nothing to do with skill.

GUYS! I get it. You submitted your samples and it’s been days/weeks/months and you have yet to get a response. And for that I’m sorry, I really am. I’ve been wanting and trying to catch up with submission responses as best as I can since the first day I started working at Open Letter. But things happen, things come up, things have to be put aside for the time being.

Maybe what I need to do is lay out some of the things that I, personally, have been doing the past six months instead of reading 6,000 straight pages of submissions and being helpful and polite and responsive and getting back to people about their translations within 24 hours of their sending them:

-Open Letter recently (and once again) moved its offices on campus. Something that required a few days of packing, and moving, and having everything in boxes while we were able to rustle up (read: able to steal) enough furniture for everyone. And during which time my work computer completely broke. The computer that has ALL THE THINGS ON IT.

-Foreign rights catalogs. I look at every last paper-cutting one of them. Both the print and electronic versions. The latter of which are less paper-cutty. While one part of finding new authors or works is about receiving submissions, the other part is in doing our own research, be it at book fairs, editorial trips, from the MA in translation students, or, yes, in the catalogs.

-I translate as well. No joke! That means that I’m well familiar with battling my own literary demons, so to speak, and am working on translation projects of my own—both as a requirement of my employment contract with Open Letter, as well as independently.

-Another of my responsibilities is to attend several day-long, out-of-office, and at times out-of-state conferences throughout the year. Like MLA. And AWP. And BEA. And sometimes book fairs, like the ginormous Frankfurt Book Fair, to name one. And, heads up, the 2013 ALTA conference is right after Frankfurt this year, and you can bet your ass that instead of having time and steeping myself in submissions, I’m going to be dragging my exhausted, jetlagged self to Indiana to get my literary translation panel on. And I should mention we planned ALTA 2012 in Rochester. This ALTA. The one that took us an entire year to put together.

-Have I mentioned Open Letter publish books? Like, ten of them a year? This may not seem like a lot, but hear me out. Since I started at Open Letter in September, I’ve edited or helped work on six Open Letter titles (this is not counting the two titles I helped input edits and proofs for in the final layout stage). This means that, over the last six months, I’ve read, edited, and helped work on over 1,000 pages of (awesome) Open Letter titles that will be coming out soon. And you can safely multiply that number by at least four to get 4,000. Each book gets an average—AVERAGE—of at least four passes before we send the final copies to print. Meaning I’ve been reading the same six books four times over for the past six months, and then keeping up correspondence with authors and translators in order to meet deadlines and keep the editorial calendar rolling.

Those things aside, we’re also responsible for our own mailing. Every envelope, box, whatever that you receive with an Open Letter return label on it has been lovingly prepared by our own hands and dragged to the campus post office. Yeah—those stacks of subscriber and review copy envelopes don’t move themselves, and USPS sure doesn’t do us any favors.

And people submitting samples are upset or annoyed and wondering why they’ve yet to receive a response from me?


No—but really?

And just in case people are starting to entertain the thought of “Why don’t Chad or Nate help out with reading the submissions? Couldn’t they help?”

No. No they could not. That’s not to say they don’t have any input on samples, or that I don’t pass samples I think may be worth looking more at on to either of them for a second opinion, but trust me. Their lists are probably a shitton more complicated than mine.

“Then what about the interns you sometimes have? Can’t they help?”

No. No they could not. That’s why they’re interns.

Kidding in that regard. We do ask interns and students to do reader’s reports for us all the time, but still, I have to look at all of them and consider or reject them. The interns and students are not the final step to that process.

Yes, it’s incredibly exciting and exhilarating that Open Letter receives so many independent submissions from translators, in the same manner it’s great to hear about new projects from agents and publishers, as it solidifies the fact that there are other people out there like us who are madgeek obsessed with literature and want to maximally share with everyone the books they think are awesome, and we get to learn and find out more about literature from around the world (FACT: something everyone should be doing more of).

But—and I’m sorry if this hurts your heart—all too often there are myriad things on our plates that are far more pressing and at that given moment more important than being able to get through every single translation submission and responding to them. If I have a manuscript due to layout in a week, I’m going to spend that entire week working on that and, yes, not responding to every email and postal delivery marked “submission.” A monkey dressed in a fairisle sweater and shitting bricks of gold couldn’t get me away from my desk a week before a due date—so don’t think your submission will.

(Sidenote: but make that a [non-golden-brick-shitting] pony in a cardigan and all bets are off. Just look at them.)

But what if your submission is the next great book? It would be our loss that we didn’t get to your submission in time, right? Sure, why not! Go with that. Things happen, or rather, don’t sometimes. And they either work out, or they don’t. Again, in our case, I do what I can to get to these submissions when I can. I’m not ignoring them, I’m not putting them off, I’m not pointing and laughing at them; I just can’t get to all of them as fast as you or I would like me to. On that note, calling the office and asking What’s Up and Why Haven’t I Gotten a Response is not going to help anyone. It’s not going to help me respond faster to the 20 email reminders you’ve sent in the last three months. It’s not going to make reading your submission any more pleasant, or pleasant in general. Don’t be that submitter. And please don’t expect me to stroke your ego and send you emails every week reminding you that I remember you (because I do) and saying how sorry I am that I have yet to get to your submission, but that I’m sure it’s great and I’ll let you know ASAP. You get only one of those ever. ONE.

One of the last things I supposed anyone could say is that I’ve wasted however much time I had to waste to throw down this post about being on the edge and dropping F-bombs all over the office this morning. But a) I’m justified in my actions; b) I feel better now that I’ve gotten this off my chest; and c) don’t be like that. Of course, I don’t mean to discourage anyone from submitting their translation samples, truly. Keep submitting en masse, please. It’s fun. For real. I like reading new things. If your submission isn’t for Open Letter, that’s very unfortunate, but I do appreciate the time you’ve taken to prepare and submit your hard work. If it’s possible for me to make a suggestion for a more appropriate press you should consider submitting to, I’ll try. But, most importantly, I’ll read your submission. I promise.

So—I look forward to hearing from you.

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