Jaxton Kimble

Jaxton Kimble

- making stuff and rambling about it -

Ghosts From the Publishing Machine

Two people with cardboard boxes over their heads standing in a mostly empty room.
Photo credit: Karolina Grabowska

The other day, I did something I rarely have before: I withdrew a story from a market where it was still ostensibly under consideration. I can hear the screams of everyone who’s ever had a publishing dream at this particular horror: The odds are so small in the best of circumstances. Why on Earth would you scuttle a chance that’s still sitting right there?

Maybe you aren’t screaming and it’s the you’re missing out! voices in my head. In this particular case, I had soundproofing to shove between me and the internal FOMO assault. The publisher had recently fundraised to increase the pay they were offering authors. Then, after collecting their money on the promise of paying more for stories, the publisher decided well, actually I have better ways to spend. They may well have; their initial strategy could totally have been poorly thought out for sustainability.

I found, though, that I couldn’t bring myself to trust a publisher who would fundraise on the backs of paying authors, then make the ethically dubious (at best) decision to dismiss his obligation to both his subscribers and his potential authors. If the promises they made while fundraising weren’t important enough to follow through on, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if even the presence of a contract would be an obligation they felt.

Given the nature of things, I could have left the story sitting there, and not had to face any kind of decision unless the statistically-small outcome of an acceptance happened. I can enjoy an ambiguous ending in fiction. In real life, I need a more definitively shut door or I’m a puddle of goo. And honestly, I’ve been on the receiving end of too many ghosting publishers to feel good about leaving things in limbo like that. 

Yeah, this is one of those entries.

In no specific order, a list of publishing ghost stories, capsule edition:

I’ve had at least one publisher never respond to anything from me. No submission confirmation. No response to status queries. It’s possible I went into a spam folder despite specific “if you format your subject like so we will be sure to get it” guidelines. I will say, the lengthy period of holding the story back from sub trying to figure out one way or the other definitely gave me a healthy appreciation for submission confirmation email and submission management systems.

Which is not to say work can’t get lost there. At least one market I submitted to and got a bright and shiny confirmation from wound up making a public announcement that actually, their system wasn’t working like they thought and they needed folks to resubmit (If you scream into the void, does it scream into you?).

There was the publisher who put out a special call for a planned anthology asking for more marginalized voices to add to their submissions pile. After a while I tried to follow up on my submission. I’d had that ‘maybe I went to spam’ problem before, so I even tried a couple different avenues, including the contact form on their site. Nary a peep. Even better, both the original public call for marginalized voices and the solicitation for the antho they wanted to add them to evaporated without comment.

I had a story in a long queue at a publisher who decided they weren’t sure they wanted to continue publishing, so after months of sitting about, they dumped everything in the queue back into the wild.

Before I give anyone the impression that ghosting is limited to submission queues, I should come clean that, while rare, sometimes contracts are haunted, too. I’ve signed contracts on a few stories now which ultimately never saw the light of day. Some cases I was paid, some I wasn’t, but in all cases, the stories had to sit untouched until each contract’s rights reversion clause triggered.

Which is a good time to remind folks to make sure their story contracts have final publish-by language! I’ve had some that didn’t. If I hadn’t asked for it, a lengthy wait could have turned into the mournful forever-wail of an unending wait. Even if you get money from a publisher, that money doesn’t buy your words forever. It may buy a very lengthy term, depending on the venue and the money and your own tolerances. But there should always be language in place that protects your precious from being lost forever in the bottom of the well in case things take a dive. Maybe by then you won’t want to do anything with the work, but do FutureYou a favor and let them worry about that.

These are just my stories, of course. I know others, and I’m sure you either have or have heard some, as well. Of lightning-response markets taking years to reject a story. Of editors offering acceptance only to be overruled by publishers or acquisitions committees. Authors directly approached to contribute to anthologies whose work is rejected after multiple revisions. Chances are, the absolute Bestest Market Who Is Your Hero has at least one author with a story to tell about a disheartening moment.

Believe it or not, this isn’t meant to be a total downer. It’s meant to point up why writers should keep their eyes open, why ‘time to query’ reminders matter, and why they should plant their inner Gandalf on the bridge to you shall not pass any contract that’s missing one of their personal dealbreaker clauses (everyone’s limit is different. Learn yours!). And why, ultimately, despite the anguished cries of your inner FOMO gallery (and with apologies to Le Guin), sometimes it’s best to walk away.