The new year brings fresh opportunities and projects. New magazines and anthologies are being launched, and some of them are embracing anonymous submissions in what has become somewhat of a trend lately. “We want to democratize the submission process,” those editors and publishers say. “We want the new authors to stand a better chance against headliners. We want authors from historically disadvantaged groups and backgrounds to enjoy an equal playing field.” All of those are worthy goals. Problem is, anonymous submissions accomplish none of those things.
Once upon a time I, too, was a proponent of anonymous submissions, but that is no longer the case. When I started editing UFO anthologies, I used semi-anonymous submissions for several years. The reasons were generally good ones — to judge each story purely on its merit, and not to let the Big Names and shiny publication credits sway my readers one way or another… but the more experience I gained as an editor, the less I liked anonymous subs. My reasons sounded good but the logic behind them didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Every editor must make their own decisions on this, but here are just a few reasons why I’m glad to no longer use this system (from least to most important.)
1) I trust myself more.
Early on, I was worried that publication credits and other accolades might sway me as an editor, but I quickly discovered that none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the story. An amazing writer whose work I’m a huge fan of can write a story I won’t like and won’t publish, while someone with no impressive credits whose submissions I’ve been rejecting for years might craft a tale I instantly fall in love with. Moreover, I’m far more excited about submissions from brand-new, previously unpublished writers than from almost anybody else, because I want to be the one to discover the next big talent in our field. I suspect most editors worth their salt — whatever their position on anonymous subs — feel the same way.
2) Anonymous submissions do not truly level the playing field.
Many (though not all) of the stories from Really Big Names published in various magazines are solicited directly from the authors or their agents. Most of those magazines do not anonymize submissions. The ones that do, tend to be newer venues, still looking to make their mark, and authors seeking to be published there probably won’t compete with too many Big Name writers anyway.
3) Neopro writers don’t like them.
Some of the writers who actively submit their short fiction but are good enough to be at least a little picky about their venues tend to push venues that require them to reformat their document in any way further down their submission hierarchy. Creating an anonymous version of the story file doesn’t sound like a lot of work, and it isn’t, but when you’re shuffling a lot of submissions around you tend to want to just send the same file out until someone buys it. Venues that require anything non-standard may become overlooked or at least left for last, thus somewhat lowering their chances at acquiring a good story because other editors will get their chance at it first.
4) Anonymous submissions can actually disadvantage stories written by minorities, foreign authors, and especially translations.
There are certain liberties an author that belongs to a community might be able to take that another author probably shouldn’t. My copy editor once sent notes asking James Beamon to tone down the Ebonics spoken by a magical sword in one of his stories. James responded by e-mailing her a photo of himself. 🙂 There was at least one other time where my team (which is pretty diverse) pointed out a somewhat-insensitive use of a racial stereotype in a story that I might have missed as a reader, and that at least one of them wasn’t super comfortable with since in this case, the author’s background did not align with that culture/background. We discussed the situation at length and I made the author aware of the team’s findings. The author was able to make the necessary changes and we accepted the story.
When we read a story in a vacuum (as we do with an anonymous submission) we’re missing out on what might be important cultural context. A Native American author writing a Native American character should be trusted more with their portrayal of such a character than an author of another background. It doesn’t mean that someone else can’t write a great Native American character, but I feel that, if an author has a close personal relationship to something they’re writing about and wishes to let us know this in their cover letter, we should take this information into consideration when evaluating the story.
This is especially true of translations or stories written outside of the traditional Western culture. Russian stories, for example, tend not to open with a strong hook. The Russian writing style wasn’t influenced by Hemingway nearly as much as English writing has been. Most stories tend to take their time, immersing the reader in the setting of the story rather than dunking them into the tale in media res. So if I want to ever publish Russian translations that aren’t intentionally written to imitate an American story, I should probably know that I’m reading a translation and make certain allowances. I’m also willing to make allowances for how well the story flows before edits, if it’s a translation or a story by an author for whom English is a second language.
As an author, I have no problem with making anonymous submissions (beyond the minor inconvenience factor described above.) If an editor feels the system is helpful and works for them for any reason, that’s fine. But as an editor, I don’t foresee using them again in the future, and I encourage other editors to consider their reasons carefully before electing to utilize this method of reviewing submissions.
In a fairness, it was a G ass sword tho…
Thanks for a really interesting and thoughtful post. I enjoyed it.