In just a few short years, the criteria for such a distinction have changed radically. Hardly any writers would toss down the blanket judgment of just a few years ago, i.e., that no online journal was “worth” being published in. Three simultaneous developments have made that once clear line between print and online journals nearly disappear. First, many once print-only journals have transitioned to online content. There is no such thing as a major journal that doesn’t at least have a website, and many very good journals have quite a bit of online only content while still maintaining a regular print issue. Second, there are also many journals—very good ones—that exist exclusively online, either because they started that way or because they abandoned the print format in favor of going digital. Finally, and this is the point that I don’t see enough people making, printing a very good looking paper journal has now become so easy and affordable that many people out there are doing it in vast, unregulated numbers. The guarantees hardcore print enthusiasts once associated with paper are no longer valid. A paper issue doesn’t necessarily mean you have the backing of a university, an established editorial board, or even a small press. It also doesn’t mean that you have a guaranteed readership—in fact, your work will probably be read by many more readers if you publish it online. A print issue can mean all these things, but it can also simply mean that someone has a good computer and has been visiting blurb.com.
So how do you decide where to send your work? Depends. If you have some kind of reputation you want to build or protect, you probably know how to answer this question better than I do. If you’re like me, however, you’re going to need some criteria, so here goes:
1. Forget the print/online distinction. It is no longer valid. There’s good and bad on both sides of the great divide.
2. Look at the number of issues. While it might be more challenging to get into an established journal, understand that a fledging one is a risk. Sadly, the market for readers is poor, and largely swallowed up by the big publishing houses. There’s little money to be made in keeping a journal going, and many of them go under in less than a year. If the journal is less than five years old, it’s a risk.
3. Look at the title. If the journal doesn’t take itself seriously, why should you? Many times, you hear about a CFS (Call for Submissions) from a new journal or one you haven’t heard about. If it’s called Uncle Bob’s Dear Johnnies, that’s a joke, not a journal.
4. Look at the editorial board. The better the journal, the more people will be involved. Usually there is an Editor in Chief, and separate editors for separate genres (Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction Editor), followed by one or more Assistant Editors. Sometimes there’s one or more Guest Editors. Don’t recognize any names? That’s what Google is for. Someone who has fewer publications than you is not likely to make a good editor.
5. Evaluate any university connection. Sometimes it’s a good thing—a university connection means a reputation is at stake, and there’s financial backing, which together make for good work and possible longevity, especially if there is a creative writing program attached. However, be wary of those pop-up schools you’ve never heard of. These here today, gone tomorrow phlebotomist factories have nothing to do with academia and everything to do with commerce, so they’re not likely to put out a journal with good intentions. Luckily, these places don’t often do so. But there are also university-affiliated journals whose main focus is undergraduate work. Unless you’re an undergraduate yourself, you probably want to keep looking.
6. The deal breaker is just like it was in high school. How did you decide whether to go to a party in high school? You remember. Your first question was, who else is going? Read the last issue of the journal you intend to submit to. If the writing is subpar in any way, don’t submit. You really want to be caught at the party full of geeks and dweebs? I don’t think so.
What I’m talking about here is respect. Respect your work, or no one else will. Sometimes, we’re so freaking desperate to get published that we feel it’s “publish or perish” even if no one else is breathing down our necks but us. Cave in to this desire, however, and you just might find yourself doing the literary equivalent of getting caught making out with the flute player at band camp. What’s the value of being published in a venue that no one will read and no one will appreciate? You might as well hand your writing out at the stop light along with the flyers for quick lube jobs and cheap divorces.
Speaking of respect. I don’t know about you, but I’m also not into submitting to places that are going to treat me like dirt, even if they are reputable (it does happen). I don’t expect to be paid—crappy as that situation is, I accept it as a problem with the market. But I do expect to be told if my work is rejected in a timely fashion. If I send some work out to a journal and six months go by with no reply, they’re dead to me. I don’t care how good they think they are—they have no right to keep me hanging on that long, even if I’m some nobody from the slush pile. There are many things editors can do, including closing submissions, if they’re swamped. Treating the writers who make up the pages of their journal like dirt is never an option.
I’ve written here exclusively about journals, but these thoughts could just as well apply to any venue for your writing. Submissions to anthologies and publishers are similar. Don’t send your work to a contest called “Uncle Bob’s Belly Picks.” You may stand a good chance of winning, but would you want to?
Choose the places you submit to carefully. If you’re not willing to read an entire issue, no one else will be.