5 Signs You Shouldn’t Submit Your Work to a Publication

Finding the right place to send your work can be a challenge, especially if you want to avoid getting a big stack of rejections. But finding a place that will accept your work is only half the battle. Acceptance might seem like the ultimate goal, but you also want to make sure the acceptance is worth something. And it’s always best to figure that out before sending out your work.

Not all publications are equal

There are thousands of literary magazines out there that are open for submissions right now. Many of them pay contributors. Many of them get good traffic and treat their writers well. Many of them are quality publications that would make a great home for your best writing. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of bad publications out there.

I’ve dealt with my fair share of bad editors and crappy publications, but the point of this post isn’t to name any names. Rather, I want to equip you with the tools to identify those bad places so you can avoid ever having to deal with them in the first place. Here are 5 warning signs to look for before submitting to a publication:

1. They charge for all submissions and don’t give you anything in return

There are a lot of arguments to be made for why publications charge reading fees: it decreases junk submissions, it helps offset costs, etc. But it’s also a practice that gives nothing to contributors and can even make the submissions game into an elitist institution. To use less extreme language, always charging for submissions doesn’t benefit writers in any way.

Now, I’m not 100% against submission fees. But there has to be some incentive behind them. I’m totally on board with “tip jar” submissions that allow you to throw a few bucks to the publication to help support them (provided they also have a free option). Same goes for accelerate responses or personal feedback submissions that require a small fee. Great. Charge writers all you want (again, as long as there’s still a free option).

My main problem with magazines that always charge submissions: they give nothing back to the writers. They often don’t pay their contributors anything at all, which means the end result is that you paid for your acceptance. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

When to avoid submission fees: When you get nothing in return and there’s no chance to get anything. Keep in mind that most publications reject over 90% of the submissions they get. Do you really want to pay for a rejection when there’s no chance to even get your money back? Acceptance for exposure isn’t worth paying for.

2. They don’t offer a free contributor copy

If a literary magazine publishes a print or PDF version of an issue that contains your work, then you should be getting a copy on the house. I understand that not every publication can afford to give out a free print copy. At the very least, they should give you a PDF version and a print version at cost.

I’ve had my work accepted by several publishers that required me to buy my own PDF copy. Do you know how much it costs to email someone a PDF? Zero. Zilch. Nothing. (Okay, it takes a few seconds, so I suppose there is a slight opportunity cost.)

Now, I’m certainly not against supporting a magazine that’s publishing my work, but this is clearly a scam. They’re profiting off their own authors. These are the types of editors that aren’t going to give you anything in return. It’s likely the only exposure you’ll receive is the other 20 authors published in the issue that were also suckered into paying for their own copy.

How do you spot this? They should make it clear in their guidelines what you get if your work is accepted. Look for a line like this: “All writers who appear in the issue will receive a complimentary electronic copy.” If you don’t see something like that, don’t submit.

3. They don’t tell you who they are

Before you send out your work, you should know who you’re sending it to. You have the right to know who is reading your work and what they plan to do with it. Names and bios are great. It’s nice to see exactly who is responsible for a publication and what makes them qualified to run it.

Now, there are some great publications out there that don’t have a masthead with all the editors’ names clearly spelled out. I get that some people want anonymity. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you can still learn a fair amount about the publication through their website and social media.

Publications to avoid: The ones that don’t tell you anything about who they are or what they’re about. It’s fine if they don’t have a masthead as long as they have a clear “About” page that details their mission. Skip the ones that seem like a complete mystery operation.

4. They don’t have any social media presence

You aren’t just in this for an acceptance. You want people to actually read your work. If your story or poem gets accepted and no one reads it, you might as well have not had an acceptance at all. In fact, no readership is worse than an acceptance because it means you might as well have not even written that story.

You need a sign that they know how to get your work out there. The easiest way to tell these days is by looking at what they’re doing on social media. Do they actively promote work? Do they have a large following? More importantly, do people engage with them? After all, engagement means a lot more than followers.

Don’t submit if their last social media activity was 18 months ago. Look for publications who are clearly putting in the work to make sure the authors they publish get real readership.

5. You don’t like the work they publish

This will always be the number one sign that you shouldn’t submit your work to a publication. If you don’t like the work they publish, then don’t waste your time. For starters, they probably won’t publish you if you don’t like what they publish. Secondly, if they do publish your work, then you won’t be satisfied with the outcome. You’ll either have a print copy of an issue that only contains one story you like, or you’ll have an online publication credit that you don’t like telling people about because you don’t want them to read anything else the magazine has published. No one is going to read your story and think, “Wow, this is the best thing this magazine has ever published. This author is amazing!” It’s much more likely they’ll look at the magazine and say, “Eek. This publication is really bad. I can’t believe this author stooped to this level to get a publication.”

How to tell if you like their work: It’s simple. Read some of the stories and poems they’ve published. If you like them, then great. Send everything you have! If you can’t find anything you like, then this publication obviously isn’t for you.  

Where to send your work

If you’re proud of your work and want to get something out of an acceptance, then focus on sending it to viable publications that you like. Doing anything else will make you regret your work was ever accepted.

What are the warning signs you look for when deciding whether or not to send out your work? Share your thoughts in the comments.


4 thoughts on “5 Signs You Shouldn’t Submit Your Work to a Publication

  1. I agree with all your criteria, although I do think it’s fair to ask for a nominal online submissions fee – say $1 (or £1) – because not only are you paying for the editor’s time and consideration of your poem, but also you’d spend at least that in paper and postage if you had to submit by mail. I imagine that thanks to the ease of submitting online, editors are getting more submissions than in the days of snail mail. What I really don’t like is when you’ve paid your submissions fee and then they don’t even bother to contact you – no acknowledgement, no rejection, nada. Other than that, number 3 is my particular bugbear. People setting up journals with a fancy website, stipulating all their rules for submitting (in as condescending language as possible), but not telling us who they are. That just seems rude and conceited. Good post, thanks!

    1. Robin, thank you for reading and sharing your own opinion here. Back in the snail mail days, it was easy to spend almost $10 on a manuscript when you considered the ink, paper, envelope, postage, SASE, and gas to get to the post office. I’m glad those days are over! I’m with you on those submission fees. If a publication charges, they better have the decency to respond to your submission.

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