Why the Submissions Numbers Don’t Count

March 6, 2012 | by | 13

Whenever VIDA publishes a Count, or shares its pie charts, readers observe that men and women submit to magazines, journals, and publishing houses at different rates, and that this might inform the gender ratios we observe. While it makes sense to wonder about what’s going on behind the scenes, I’d like to offer a few notes on why submissions numbers don’t actually hold the answers we’re all looking for.


1. Some editors seem quite pleased when the ratio of women to men published turns out to reflect the gender stats in their submission pool. Why? In these numbers conversations, we often cite the importance of editorial free rein. We aren’t interested in quotas or outside review boards, and we haven’t gotten on the peer review bandwagon with our academic counterparts, so why would we want editors want to bind themselves so tightly to the demographics of their submissions piles? This suggests that an editor is a fairly passive machine, an inbox that receives and selects writing, but doesn’t actively seek out good writing.

I’m an editor myself, and I know we’re anything but passive. I’ve worked with a lot of literary journals over the past decade, large outfits and small indies, poetry publications and mixed genre mags. I’ve never worked for one that published solely from the slush pile. Some publications have staff writers, and all publications solicit. Of course, solicitations have their own numbers trouble. Editors anecdotally note that men are more likely than women to respond to solicitations, and some say this ties their hands with regard to the publication ratios. Here’s an easy fix for that pickle: we editors might increase the number of women we solicit. For every ten men, solicit twenty women, and we’d find our books balancing. Historically, an editor’s job has been to actively engage writers, to search out the new, bring the under-acknowledged into the light, remind us of those talented souls who’ve fallen off the radar, and discover the next big thing. It’s one of the perks, it’s fun. 

Beyond our ability to craft an issue via solicitation, editors have a great deal of influence over who submits cold to our publications. We write the submissions guidelines and bits of advice that go into the CLMP reference guide, the Writer’s Market, and other such resources. We give interviews and panel presentations, write the About pages of our publications’ websites, make the rounds at AWP, and (most importantly) publish work that sets a standard for what we’d like writers to send us. Should we find ourselves disappointed by our numbers, or by the range of work in our publications, should we want to change what or who we publish, we’re going to have to make that clear. We cannot expect writers to do the legwork for us.


2. When we suggest that the submission ratio is important, we assume that the quality of each gender’s submissions will be identical. Few writers have strong backgrounds in quantitative methods, but when it’s time to crunch numbers, we know where to turn for help. Social scientists, for instance. I married one, I teach alongside a bevy of them in an interdisciplinary program, and I’ve noticed they’re delightfully careful with numbers. VIDA’s been in touch with other social scientists and methods experts because, like so many of you, we want to conduct our research precisely. We want our data to be informative and useful to everyone who cares about literature. A colleague of mine recently brought her methods class VIDA’s 2010 Count as an example of how they might apply the skills they were learning to an issue they felt invested in. We’re proud of that.

As a member of VIDA, an editor, and a woman writer, I appreciate the call for accuracy, but let’s be sure we know what we’re asking for when we request more information, and that we know how to read the data we’re collecting. Say we’re a group of anthropologists trying to figure out what the submissions numbers mean. Tallying them quantitatively the way we do contributors’ numbers would give us blunt and unwieldy data. Unlike contributions, there are no agreed upon standards work must meet to become part of the slush pile. With all those outliers, we’d have no sense of what we were asking editors to tend to. To make the data mean, to determine its relevance to the final product, we’d have to establish a qualitative framework through which to read that quantitative data. We might, for instance, create a rubric for evaluating the quality of each individual work submitted, create a system for applying that rubric, and determine the ratio of publishable-to-unpublishable work in each gender’s submission pile. There’d be a lot of math involved, margins of error, etc. We’d apply for a nice fat grant to conduct this study, get paid to count stuff, and perhaps feel less grouchy about the time it takes. We’d still be left with gray areas and contradictions! We’d also have to remember that submissions data is proprietary, and not every publication would be willing to share.

I’d be quite surprised if my hypothetical study found the quality of men’s and women’s submission piles to be equal. In my experience—which amounts to: 11 years, 5 journals from micro to major, online and hardcopy, across the aesthetic spectrum, plus a few book/poetry contests and some anthology assistance, amounting to let’s say a fair grand total estimate of 25,000 submissions read—in my experience, then, I find women submit more consistently publishable work with regard to quality and appropriateness for the given venue. Men are more likely to submit unfinished work and work that doesn’t suit the publication for which I’m reading. All editors complain of having to wade through distinctly subpar and inappropriate submissions. We certainly don’t want to punish women for following the guidelines that explicitly ask writers to be familiar with the publication before submitting.

Here’s a word problem:  I’ve got a stack of 100 submissions from women, and 40 of them are publishable. I’ve also got a stack of 200 submissions from men, and 40 of those are also publishable. The journal has room for 20 contributors. How should I choose which pieces make it into the issue?


3. This brings us to overconfidence. Any number of sociological studies demonstrate masculine overconfidence. We know that our culture initially rewards that overconfidence. Teachers reward boys for shouting out the answers in class, and coaches reward them for taking risks on the field. Men are more likely to ask for raises (and to receive them when they ask). Men are more likely to take primary credit for collaborative work. Men and women both overrate men’s contributions, in quantity and quality, at work and at home. If it sounds like I’m saying men are jerks, please listen closely: I’m saying we teach men to do this. Culturally, we’re the jerks who tell them time and again, make sure everyone knows you’re the best. When I look at my own dear little boy, I think, what a brutal task we’ve set you. How can each guy be the best guy? So, while in some respects overconfidence can work to men’s advantage, it’s ultimately prone to hurt them, and not just financially.


4. No one reads gender-blind. Though most editors claim to read for the quality of the work, not the gender, we know that we code the subject of a text feminine or masculine (domestic or important, for instance), and that the language itself can scan gendered. Though most of us will fail to determine the author’s gender from just a paragraph, as VS Naipaul claimed he could, with a bit more text we will often make correct assumptions about whether we’re reading work by a man or a woman.

Whether or not we acknowledge our reading biases, demonstrating that our publication ratios reflect our submission ratios accurately suggests that we are indeed reading gender. Either consciously or unconsciously, we’ve always already divided out our submissions into those by men and women. As an editor who relishes the creative control she has over a publication, I’ve got to ask: why not own and direct that tendency, rather than trying unsuccessfully to suppress it? Are we just too embarrassed to do so? Are we afraid of what our publications will become if we cast off some of our biases? Let’s be brave, friends!


5. The suggestion that it’s fair and reasonable to publish work in the ratio that you receive work baffles me. Why? There aren’t any laws about this. The very editors who cry no quotas when the pie charts boldly declare the disparity then insist they’re tied to a quota system determined by their own slush piles. Look: if you’re an editor who’s happy publishing 80% men, 20% women, fine. Own it! You make the decisions, and the rest of us are welcome to critique or celebrate those decisions. Call you a badass rebel, call you a tool of the patriarchy, subscribe to your journal, or cancel a subscription. If you’re on the other hand disappointed by your ratio, blaming the submissions pool isn’t likely to improve the situation in any immediate, effective way. Unchain yourself from those submissions numbers, and you might find a more vital mode of editing.


6. Whether you work for a major journal that receives 20,000 submissions a year or a small one that receives 2,000, you are likely receiving more good work than you can publish. Just a hunch: in the women’s pile alone, there’s probably enough good work for a fabulous issue—and we needn’t even call it our Special Edition on Lady Business. Between cold submissions and solicitations, most publications can easily find themselves rolling in riches. Unless one feels bizarrely beholden to run a conceptual journal whose primary mission is reflecting the demographics of its submission pile, this slush-pile-ratio point becomes a rather dull distraction from the real issues (and possibilities!) at hand.


7. When the group in power puts the onus back on the marginalized group, it always leads to bad feelings. Frankly, it’s rude. Instead of telling less powerful, less privileged others how they can fix the problem that we editors have had the largest hand in creating, let’s ante up. Let’s tell readers and writers what we’re going to do to change the numbers and lead by example. And since we’re all quite embedded in a system that bakes the same stale pies every time, editors, let’s support and hold each other to it.


An earlier version of this piece originally appeared on Montevidayo.

13 Comments to 'Why the Submissions Numbers Don’t Count'

  • Stephen says:

    Danielle, this is magnificent. It says it all. As a small time editor myself I can attest to the observation about male submissions; men do tend to submit work that is practically non-sequitor to publishing standards and guidelines. Your closing observations are keen but I fear they will not sink in with most. Am I pessimistic about that or realistic?

    Thanks for this, brilliant.


  • Jim says:

    I think that submission comparisons are the place to start to understand publication biases. We know, for example, that sex ratios at conception are very close to 50/50, but by age X, there are fewer men than women. Many things contribute to this skewed ratio, and they may be worth investigating. We know, too, that many medical studies are on men (especially white men) and we know (even from the preceding point) that men and women have different medical trajectories in their lives. This is worth looking at – one approach would be to include more women in studies or have studies just of women, and then see where the remedies occur.

    The same approach could be taken with publications. By knowing the number of submissions by women and men (or, better yet, the number of writers who are male or female), we can determine whether there is a skewed pattern. Assuming that there is, we might determine why, and then address those issues that can be remedied (some biases can’t be fixed – women will always have the babies…).

    This approach had had major impacts on graduate education in science and engineering. When I started graduate school there was one women out of 55 students. Now, the number of women exceeds the number of men in many fields. This changed for a number of reasons, but a big factor was priming the pump, filling the pipeline with capable women and letting quality sort things out at the end of the pipe. This is way too glib, but that is essentially what happened. While there is no way to know this, I’m fairly certain that the average, overall quality of research has improved significantly.

    This has happened throughout history. There was a time when commoners were not even allowed to read books, much less write or publish. As we become more egalitarian we’re slowly (over centuries) picking off the remaining thorns in out societal fabric. Let’s find out for sure where the bottlenecks are and be more proactive about dealing with them.

  • Jane says:

    Sorry, but I find your essentializing of gender problematic. The idea of “male overconfidence,” by proxy, insinuates an innate female meekness. I understand you are situating your argument as a societal construct. Still, the very nature of this project undermines that assumption.

  • I love this post. I love everything about it. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had, especially about #4, but I’m proud that at Quarterly West, under my tenure as a Poetry Editor, we’ve published more poems by women than men, and we receive far more submissions by men than women. The point that we get far more submissions of quality work than we could ever publish is spot on. We could publish all women or all men or all trans* folks, and the poems would all be top-notch, so it’s important to keep an eye on numbers and make sure it’s not only the main making the cut.

    Thank you for this post.

  • Oops, forgive my typo. “Not only the MEN making the cut.”

  • Neil in Chicago says:

    Please take a course in elementary statistics.

  • Angela says:

    I am on the editorial panel of a poetry journal which anonymises submissions before selection. We find that we publish at least as many women as men, and more in some issues.

    I don’t know and can’t know whether women submit to us more because we select anonymously or whether the anonymous selection removes any bias and we are receivig the same numbers as we would otherwise. I do know it makes a difference.

  • Shannon says:

    I love this. What always shocks me is how completely ignorant anyone is especially of point #7. More so in America. In what universe does it ever make sense or actually work to put the onus on the marginalized to knock down the door when the majority is holding it closed?

    Also as I’ve talked about myself, a big part of the problem is that working to change how people are represented in magazines/other publications big and small, requires a lot of work and frankly a moment of honesty on the part of editors and others in power. It is a long hard road to admit that your publication has a bias and operates on an unstated rule so to speak. It takes more than lip service to diversity if there is nothing behind it. Honestly at times given what I’ve seen people say about the issue, I get the impression that a lot of people are not as open as they think they are.

  • Anon says:

    I’m sorry, Ms. Pafunda, but some of the arguments presented here are really quite confusing, and appear to contradict the entire premise of the exercise they are meant to defend.

    Starting in #2, you are offering your own personal, subjective, and experienced reading to attest to the quality and propriety of submissions by gender. If a male counterpart made precisely the same argument yet reached the conclusion that the work women submit is far more often “unfinished”, “subpar”, and “inappropriate” than men’s, would you accept it? I would not.

    Is your expertise exemplary of the gendered reading mentioned in #4, and did that lead to the conclusions above? Or are you approaching pieces with adequate objectivity that you haven’t personally discriminated against some huge volume of male authors in your eleven years of work? In other words, in your capacity as a reviewer have you proven to be capable OR incapable of assessing the literary merits of a piece fairly? Whichever it is, we must assume the same is true of (at least some) other reviewers. This is a material question.

    In #4 you assert, “…demonstrating that our publication ratios reflect our submission ratios accurately suggests that we are indeed reading gender.” I’m sorry, that’s false. What if a publisher was handed one thousand pieces to consider without the authors’ biographical information, and the number pieces developed out of those candidates were proportional to the gender of the submitters? Attach numbers if you prefer: 790 submissions by women, 210 by men, 100 book/article/review slots. If 79 of the publications were by women,, then even if gendered reading is taking place, the determination to publish was not prejudiced against the fewer male submitters, despite their relative under-representation in the final product. If, as you seem to indicate, publication ratios are actually consistent with submissions, it seems that you are actually conceding the point this article mas meant to dispute. So then is the objective of this piece actually to obtain disproportionality in publications relative to submissions, rather than to say that it is immaterial?

    The point is, it’s unclear what you think is actually appropriate and equitable, because there are several arguments here, but none seem to dispute the possibility that female authors are being published equitably according to the number of pieces for review. Whether it’s quantitatively or qualitatively equal representation, what do you want to achieve? Per #1 and #6 it seems the editor should determine the best pieces from each gender and present them equally because an abundance of excellence is available. Very well, but the reasoning justifying equal representation is either universal or it’s just special pleading; one deprecates equal opportunity or equal outcomes. Here, it appears VIDA is most interested in outcomes, and that’s alright.

    To put a bow on it- either numbers matter or they don’t. I admit I think they do, which is why VIDA’s Count and the pie charts are significant and illuminative. It appears at the very least evasive to claim that a more detailed analysis is impossible due to qualitative constraints (#1), that is has a predetermined conclusion due to the inferiority of a gender’s work in this context (#2), that proportional representation and equality are disconnected (#5 & 6), or that one party’s gender identity disqualifies one from the onus to do so (#7). If you believe in data, you have a forum from which to broadcast it. The community can parse it if it is warranted- qualitative rubrics in the social sciences often are incredibly subjective, and would like be more obfuscatory than enlightening. Let the public see.

    On the other hand, ff the submission vs. publication data is disconfirmatory, i.e. shows evidence of proportionality, then just ask publishers of all stripes for more works by female by different means. They will acquiesce to a principled argument far more readily than a statistical one that they know to be false.

    If you want 50-50 publication irrelevant of the materials submitted, please say it! After all… “As an editor who relishes the creative control she has over a publication, I’ve got to ask: why not own and direct that tendency, rather than trying unsuccessfully to suppress it? Are we just too embarrassed to do so? Are we afraid of what our publications will become if we cast off some of our biases? Let’s be brave, friends!”

  • @ Anon
    I am heartened to see such a close reading of this important post and such thoughtful concerns. I will do my best to assuage these.
    There are two themes running concurrently in this essay:
    1) Submission numbers do not carry the weight that editors are claiming they do.
    2) Editors have much deeper control over the content of their journal than merely being slaves to the slush pile.

    It seems as though the numbers were being pushed to the side because some believed that further data was needed in order to fully realize the disparity. While I am wholly an advocate for more data, (more, more, more) I understand that the numbers VIDA calculates speak volumes on their own.
    The Count has subsets that can plainly be reduced to Reviewer, Reviewed, Microreview, Byline. One subset that is entirely at the discretion of the journal is Book Reviewer. Reviews are solicited. In addition to this, many bylines are also solicited. Periodicals are making conscious choices about the content and character of each issue.
    As per reading gender: societal gender and biological gender are two very different things. The issues relegated to each societal gender can be seen in ones writing, and lead the reader to deduce the gender of the author (whether this create a fallacy or not). The issue at hand is whether or not one societal gender’s concerns are given more weight or viewed with more universality. Are editors more likely to relate with or give importance to one gender’s implied metaphors, imagery, or topic?
    Lastly, subjectivity is the means with which we connect to the world. In the individual, lies the universal. In this essay, as in most writing, the author has offered you her experience in hopes of reaching those who sought answers. It is because of and in spite of the numbers that women continue to put their individual out into the world, hoping to tap into the universal. Let’s continue to be brave, friends.

    Jen Fitzgerald
    Count Director

  • It’s okay if you don’t publish this comment out of moderation… but I believe you should change “free reign” at the beginning of the article to “free rein.” :)

  • Thanks for finally talking about >Why the Submissions Numbers Dont
    Count | VIDA: Women in Literary Arts <Liked it!

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