Why the Submissions Numbers Don’t Count

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.