WRITER’S EYE: The Flip Side of Rejection

For those of you who don’t know: When I’m not doing my own writing, I’m the Editor-in-Chief of a Literary Magazine. And today, I experienced a very common writing conundrum: the rejection. But it was also entirely different than any rejection I’ve ever received.

I read a story from a gentlemen in the UK. He had submitted at around 5:45 am, and had been contacting me since roughly 6:00 am with questions. The Washington Pastime doesn’t really “open” until 9:00 am EST. But I understood, and I made sure, even from my bed, to respond promptly and address his concerns.

He also purchased Skip the Slush, which meant his story was reviewed immediately. He received a submission decision of acceptance at around 12:00 pm EST — just six hours after his submission. That’s pretty good, by anyone’s standards.

It started off how you might expect: I offered publication and a price for his story. He accepted graciously. I had our standard publishing contract sent to him for review.

Timeout.

So, publishing contracts can be tricky beasts. They’re tricky in the normal, big-publishing world. But they’re even trickier in the free-for-readers-and-we-barely-make-money world.

Our publishing contracts are pretty straight-forward. Since we deal in mostly short stories, we ask for first world print rights for digital and print publication.

Let’s talk about the digital publishing first:

“First world rights” can seem scary because no one can publish the work before us once we have your signature. So if we hold off or decide against publishing, that would stink.

BUT — In those rare situations, an author would probably ask to be released from the contract, and we’d most likely agree.

So, in essence, we’re just making sure you don’t submit it to some other place, and get it published there before us. Because there’s real value in being the first guy on the block to publish a story. After the story’s published, we just retain standard publishing rights (we can publish it again if we want without paying the author, but the story is also theirs to submit elsewhere).

Then, there’s the print rights.

We don’t publish print all the time. There’s a once-a-year collections anthology, and that includes the stories that do the best in our publication, literary contest winners, and some select non-fiction.

So, we ask for exclusive first world print rights for 2 years from the original digital publication date. That way, your story will have (theoretically,) 2 opportunities to be published in print. After that, our rights just convert to standard. (Same rules as digital here).

Finally, if you ever re-publish the story, the new/additional publishers have to mention The Washington Pastime as the OP. But it’s just giving credit to the people who published it first. Remember what I said about the value of being the first people on the block?

Anyway, those are pretty much the only matters that concern the writer. The rest is academic — we aren’t responsible for claiming the work is yours if you’ve plagiarized, if there’s a lawsuit resulting from your story (Why would there be, unless you’ve plagiarized), you’re responsible, etc. Nothing sketchy or unexpected in any legal document.

And, what’s more, we have changed part or the entire contract in the past for writers who have felt uncomfortable with things like the length of our first world rights.

The object of The Washington Pastime isn’t to screw writers. That’s the LAST thing we want to do. We just want to get them published, or help them if we can. We are all about helping writers.

At the same time, though, we also want to try and make it at least an almost profitable endeavor to pay you for your work. Not profitable like a large corporation publisher, but hopefully, to at least get a little something out of it. (A period of exclusivity, recognition, readers…you know.)

And I don’t want to seem like I’m some out-of-touch crazy person with a holier-than-thou attitude. I’ve read (and applaud) the words of caution from writers like John Scalzi. And that’s what made today more puzzling.

Because after an acceptance for publication, and a review of our very standard contract, there was no negotiating or dialogue. Just a simple sentence saying “…After reviewing the contract, I have decided not to publish with The Washington Pastime.”

Now, I admit that we don’t offer much. But then again, we also generate almost no money. So, I had people send out a feeler e-mail to see if there was anything we could do to sway his mind. And there was no reply.

What did that feel like? Well: a rejection. The same kind we’re all so familiar with as writers. General, non-specific declanations with no time for dialouge. And not to bash the writer, but he isn’t anyone that anyone’s heard of, nor was his story the next great literary thing. It was nicely written, and it was marketable.

But this post isn’t about the merit of his writing. It’s about the realization that writers can reject publishers. Because up to this point, I’ve personally offered publication to over 20 stories, and no one had done that to me without good reason.

Most writers are eager and professional in their working with publishers, and I know that personally, I’d never go back on a publication acceptance without at least first trying to negotiate terms that seemed undesirable to me.

I’m left here with no follow up to our inquiry into his decision, no story to publish (though I’d even gone ahead and made a cover for the story already), and with the thought that maybe I’m not as viscous in my writing career as I ought to be.

THAT’s an interesting idea. I’m going to expand on it.