A couple things. First, when you've got a hammer -- and especially when you want to make sure other people go get their own hammers, everything tends to look like a nail. Or, in other words, when you've got an online submission management system, the challenges your system is meant to deal with will probably tend to look like the biggest, most important issues in publishing. I don't mean to pick on Submishmash -- they provide an incredibly useful service, for free, with tech support that's downright aggressive in its attempts to help (I've gotten e-mails from them making sure I'm comfortable with the program, etc., simply by virtue of using it), and I appreciate that tremendously. But when they say that dealing with the problem of too many submissions is on par with the problem of attracting readers, it seems to reinforce the publisher-centric model advanced (unsurprisingly) by most people in publishing. In this mindset, it's the writers' and readers' faults that this oversupply has what sometimes feel like distressing results. It's not that publishers need to do their job better, it's that writers and readers need to this. This mindset leads to exploitative relationships with writers and a failure to attract readers.Submishmash would add only that “the basic capability” to publish is itself no longer so basic, thanks also to oversupply. The surplus of choice that afflicts audiences also afflicts publishers. There is an oversupply of writing both published and unpublished, an ever-present risk that as readers both amateur (in the bookstore or on the internet) and professional (trying to filter our submission stacks), we are missing the good stuff amid the surplus of output from (often charming) eight-year-olds.Navigating the twin challenges of oversupply—how to attract and maintain an audience with too many choices, and how to filter an ever-expanding mass of submissions effectively—constitutes the central struggle of the publisher in the digital age. It will take inspired curators, certainly, to thrive under these conditions. It will also, we believe, take new technological tools and ways of thinking.
Secondly, I don't know how anyone who's read slush can seriously worry that great writing is being passed over because of a surfeit of crappy submissions. If there's a remotely decent piece of writing that fits the aesthetic priorities of the magazine I'm reading for, you'd better believe I find it. All the other stuff? The stuff I don't care for? It makes me that much more grateful for the good stuff when I find it. I will seize instantly on any clue that there's a piece I like in the pile. Every time I see a title I like, a writer whose work I've enjoyed in the past, a competent opening sentence, a strong first paragraph, I get excited. I think, Maybe this is the one! If you're sending us good work, you can be sure there are at least three or four seconds of joy in the reading of it. Does everything good get accepted in any one place? Of course not. But it's not because of the lack of quality work. When that happens, it's because of a surplus -- if I can afford to turn your great story down, it's only because I've got thirty more great stories right over here that I like even better.
To be sure, there are some places where I think mediocrity holds sway, but even there it's not the excess of submissions that leads to trouble, it's the poor taste of the editors. If, meanwhile, you're convinced your own work is in this category, let me propose a few possibilities: 1) You haven't been doing this long enough. I've written six novels and dozens of stories. Only recently have I started to find publishers receptive to my work, and some of my favorite material seems unlikely to ever find a home. It takes a long time to get good enough! 2) You're not being fearless enough. If your work is easily mistaken for bad work, it's a good sign you haven't found a unique voice yet. The pieces most likely to be buried under mediocrity are mediocre -- they're imitators of Raymond Carver that don't have the courage to be something more than that. They're poems written in pursuit of trends rather than greatness and passion. 3) You're just having bad luck. The math is on nobody's side. Personally I think it's exciting to live in a time with so many great writers doing great work -- a period that I think students of literature will look back on with something like awe. And I'm fairly certain this energy comes from the increased accessibility of community, education, and publishing.
Honestly, I suspect most good work is finding a home these days. There's such a broad range of venues sharing such a wide variety of work. Sometimes not as quickly as we might like. Sometimes, maybe, never. But I think the biggest reason this happens is that writers give up. They fail to keep chipping away at their work, they fail to learn as much as they could learn from each story. My advice then would be not to give up as long as you still love writing. But this advice will, of course, if followed, lead to more "bad writers" persisting to swim amid the slush. That's fine by me, of course, and I wish we could accept it more generally.
Some seem to find it more comforting, though, to blame their challenges in running a publisher, or their challenges in finding a publisher, on the writers who only want to be a part of their world. It must be those "bad writers." Who are these bad writers? Not me, of course. Not you. But they're out there! And it's all their fault.