Eric Melbye, who edits Segue magazine (which doesn’t accept poems that have appeared anywhere on the internet, including personal blogs and online workshops) very kindly responded to my harrassing him on the “blog-posted poems” question with this thoughtful response, reproduced here with his permission. Eric raises some very interesting issues and (hooray!) promises to clarify Segue’s submissions guidelines in this regard. If you’re a poetry magazine editor and would like to guest-blog here on this same topic, please email me at nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.
The seemingly simple question of whether or not Segue accepts submissions from blogs and personal web sites raises other issues I think are worth exploring. I can’t explore them all here, unfortunately. However, I hope I can provide a few thoughts on the issue from the perspective of an editor of a fairly large, academic, online journal that might spur some productive discussion of it. Here goes:
Why doesn’t Segue accept work previously published on blogs and personal web sites?
Journals with a small circulation and readership (usually created by individuals, often writing outside of the world of academia) accept previously published work regardless of where it originally appeared much more frequently than large-scale, academic/commercial journals do. I can only guess at why this is so, because I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the small-scale editing experience. But I’m guessing smaller journals accept previously published work because they don’t typically receive enough submissions to fill an issue, or because they simply don’t care if work has appeared elsewhere. I’m guessing editors of such journals are in love with being editors and with the seeming authority that comes with that title, or they’re interested in sharing literature with the world regardless of whether it’s already been shared or not. Again, I don’t want to presume to know; Segue was born in a different culture (see below). Regardless of the reason, I’m thinking that editors of small, free (or low–overhead), nonacademic journals have the luxury of not having to answer to a more powerful authority, be it a board of trustees, the respect of peers in the academic/professional world, or the almighty dollar. They can arbitrarily decide to publish previously-published work or not–who cares? Either way, there’s no harm to the editor.
That’s not the case with large-scale, academic and commercial journals. Journals with large circulations/readerships (usually created by small groups of people, often existing within the world of academia, or with close ties to that world) operate by different standards. I can’t presume to speak for all of them, of course, so I’m going to offer some sweeping generalizations, here. Publishers of large-scale journals either have to uphold an existing literary standard that is recognized by respected peers in their field, or they need to challenge the literary status quo with a compelling, innovative, smart, and ultimately respectable publication. In addition, such journals also have a financial bottom line to consider and/or the reputation of their university to maintain. Considering all this, it behooves these journals to offer readers literature that readers can’t find anywhere else. Especially in the Internet Age, if readers can find the work somewhere else (especially if it’s free), they may not bother with the large-scale journal. And without a readership, there’s no profit, no funding, no respect, and eventually, no journal. Conversely, the small-scale journal whose editor is its highest power can operate quite happily with a tiny readership.
I don’t want to paint the large-scale journal as a profit-driven or reputation-driven entity that doesn’t care about the power of literature to express human truths or challenge humanity to grow. Quite the opposite is true, I believe. I’m only saying that these journals have issues to consider that many small-scale journals may not, and that those issues often dictate the large-scale journal’s publication policies.
So where does that leave Segue? Segue is something a fringe-dweller, with a foot in both the small-scale, nonacademic world of publishing and the large-scale, academic world. Like most small-scale literary journals, I created it myself, and run the entire operation myself (with occasional help from a student) with no operating budget whatsoever. As a writer, I love how the job of editing allows me, among other things, to read and learn about the craft of writing from both new and established writers, and I love being part of the larger, ever-evolving literary conversation. So I’m interested in participating in that conversation by sharing literature with the world. But I’m also a creative writing instructor at (a regional branch of) a large university, and I’m interested in what a literary journal can do for students of writing at Miami University and abroad. Segue’s dual mission is to serve as literary publication and an educational venue; consequently, I have to publish with a certain readership in mind, and work to keep that readership growing. My mission to serve the literary and academic communities will fail if I don’t. And republishing creative material from any venue simply won’t work with that mission. (The only exception is that I occasionally allow our featured authors to submit previously published work, though I strongly advise them against it–only one has in the last five years.)
OK, fine, so you have your reasons for not accepting previously published work. Why don’t you (and other journals) post specific information about what qualifies as “previously published” in your submission guidelines?
To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t mind publishing work that appeared on a blog, or was previously published on a personal web site, especially if it was published years in the past. The problem is that that policy would create a slippery slope I simply don’t have time to navigate. I don’t have time to consider, on a case by case basis, whether a submission should count as a previous publication–I receive far, far too many submissions for that. I also don’t have time to maintain a list of venues that I would count as previously published–that would get complicated in a hurry. If I publish work that previously appeared on a blog, I probably would not want that work to have been published recently. But what’s “recent,” especially on the Internet? And with new and innovative venues and technologies constantly emerging, I would have to constantly rethink and update that list. I just can’t do it. So I simply don’t accept any work that’s been previously published anywhere. It’s an issue of practicality.
However, thinking through this issue has led me to see that Segue’s submission guidelines could easily be made clearer by simply stating that “previously published” includes any and all venues, including blogs, personal web sites, etc. I’m going to do that, and I believe all journals would benefit from clearer guidelines in that regard. But maybe they’re hedging their bets a little, and don’t want to exclude The Next Great Work from appearing in their journal just because it appeared two years earlier in an online workshop. I don’t know.
Why didn’t you think of making this change to your submission guidelines before? Why don’t most journals make their submission guidelines more explicit in this regard?
I can only guess at this, because I don’t have hard evidence for it, but even in the simpler, pre-Internet age of publication, journals rarely if ever printed specific criteria about what “previously published” meant. (One fairly common definition was that a work was considered published if the journal had a circulation of at least 500, and that included newsletters and even self-published material handed out on street corners.) I’m guessing that has to do with the fact that Back In The Day, the number of large-scale literary journals was so small, and the circle of editors and writers involved in them so select, that such a definition of “previously published” simply wasn’t necessary. Everyone understood. Also, given that the gap between large- and small-scale publications was enormous in those days, a large-scale journal editor might not have had cause for concern if a writer’s work had previously appeared in a small-scale journal–the large-scale journal’s readership wouldn’t know the difference, and if the work is spectacular, it could only help the large-scale journal.
These are only hunches; it’s very late, I’m very tired, and shouldn’t be attempting coherency and insight right now. My point is that, whatever the reason was for not providing definitions and criteria for “previously published” so many years ago, that culture has continued right into the Internet Age (and as an academic myself, I’m guilty of blindly adhering to that culture). I think there’s still an assumption, especially among large-scale academic journals, that writers simply understand what “previously published” means. This illustrates the sometimes wide, often frustrating gap between the academic and commercial publishing worlds and the private publishing world that the Internet has made so widespread. They’re very different worlds in many respects, with different practices, philosophies, standards, and expectations. But since we’re all on the Internet now, writers often don’t see them as separate worlds, and get frustrated when they move from the private to the academic/commercial world. They send editors emails asking if the editors accept work published on blogs, and the editors think, “Of course not. Didn’t you read the submission guidelines? Why would you even ask?” (Joke.) Later, these writers withdraw their submissions because they were previously published on a blog, and the editors think, “Why didn’t they include that information in their cover letter? I just don’t get these writers.” (Another one.) Likewise, editors from both worlds often don’t quite understand each other’s “cultures,” either, which sometimes leads to senseless animosity and ridiculous battles of ego. But I digress.
I hope this isn’t too incoherent, and I hope it both addresses your question and raises some issues for further discussion on your blog. Attempting an investigative answer has been very worthwhile for me. Thanks for asking. If, after my brain wakes up again, I have something more useful to add, I’ll send it along.
A gazillion thanks, Eric!
If you’re a poetry magazine editor and would like to guest-blog here on this same topic, please email me at nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.