Expecting the (Un)expected (by Janet Hutchings)

Ever since EQMM changed from monthly single issues to double bimonthly issues, a lot of my reading for the magazine has been concentrated in the “off” months, when there is no issue to release. This presents a challenge. No matter how much anyone enjoys reading—and I enjoy it a lot—when you read only fiction (indeed, only certain types of fiction) for many hours a day, day after day, it can be difficult to come to each new story unfatigued by what can come to feel like a sameness in themes, content, and styles. Fortunately, the crime-fiction field comprehends a vast literary space; the strength of the Dell mystery magazines, it seems to me, is precisely that there is so much variety in what we offer. But variety in the subgenres into which our submissions fall doesn’t necessarily result in a complete change of pace for us as we evaluate those submissions.

Even the most voracious readers have their favorite authors. I’m no exception. There are authors who brighten my day when their names appear in our submissions queue. Nevertheless, all authors have themes and types of characters and plot motifs that they revisit from story to story (or, for that matter, from book to book), albeit in ways that may not at first be apparent. When I am first becoming acquainted with an author’s work, it may take a while before I spot the elements that will be repeated in future submissions. It can be something as large as a type of plot—an author is irresistibly drawn to conspiracy stories, for example. Or it can be something as small as a descriptive element—such as always mentioning the specific height of each character (as one of our award-winning authors often does). In between those big and small preoccupations, there are innumerable ways in which the things that absorb a given writer shape the story. I recently listened to an audiobook by an author I’ve read before (and like) whose approach is mostly realistic, with the exception of a slight slant towards what seem to me to be unrealistically dark outcomes. 

There is nothing wrong with such preoccupations or predispositions. They’re necessary, I think: Good fiction derives from concerns that are deeply absorbing to the creator. But for a professional reader it can be a challenge to put expectations based on an author’s previous work aside and see each new submission in a fresh light. When I’m feeling a little daunted looking at a particularly long list of submissions, I’ll often start by reading those that come from authors whose names I don’t recognize. My hope, I suppose, is to encounter a new voice, and to see a plot unfold without any preconceptions on my part as to how it’s going to play out. If I find something new that’s right for us, it gives me energy to delve into more of the queue.

Of course, as just about any editor at any magazine will tell you, the majority of the good submissions we receive are from established authors, with whose work we are already familiar. A lot of anthologies in our field accept only blind submissions and require that authors not employ series characters who might be recognizable to the judges. I always felt that this would be an inadequate precaution against bias if I or any of my colleagues at the Dell mystery magazines were asked to serve as an anthology judge. I was pretty confident that I would recognize the work of many of EQMM’s regular contributors even with the names stripped from the manuscripts and no series characters appearing. Yesterday, however, a misclick on my computer resulted in the opening of a submission that I believed was by one of our regular authors (whom we’ll call Author A) when it was actually by someone else we often publish (Author B). I recall thinking, as I was reading the story, that it was something of a departure for Author A. However, I happened to know that Author A had an interest in the world in which this story was set and in the subgenre to which the story belonged, so I didn’t question that it was, in fact, by Author A. It was only when I returned to the submissions list that I saw my mistake. It occurred to me, then, that it might be more interesting to read submissions if one did not know who the author was. One would be reading from a fresher perspective. In this particular case, had I realized who the author really was, I might have seen where the story was headed—because I’d have remembered how other stories by Author B had unfolded. And as I mentioned above, all authors (at least all that I’m familiar with) repeat or reuse, consciously or unconsciously, some elements of their earlier fiction.

My point in sharing these reflections is, in part, to suggest a strategy to writers in making fiction submissions. EQMM allows multiple submissions, and we truly appreciate every author who thinks of EQMM as a potential market. We try to give careful consideration to everything submitted to us. But we receive a lot of stories, and if you want your work to be read with a fresh eye, it really is best to try to space your submissions out a bit. A number of unpublished authors make a new submission to EQMM every couple of weeks, and in such cases it is nearly impossible, after many have had to be turned down, to open the next submission with the anticipation of finding a story we can use. Even established authors risk having their submissions not stand out as much as they otherwise would when a large number of stories are submitted in a short period of time. It’s sort of like binge-watching a TV series. Do you remember each episode as clearly when you watch that way as you would if the episodes were spread out as originally aired? I don’t, and the same thing holds for me with multiple story submissions from a single author.

Of course, the problem from a writer’s perspective is that there are so few good markets for short stories. How can you avoid submitting too frequently to a given publication when there are so few alternatives? I don’t have a good answer to that. All of us in the mystery community need to figure out how to generate more readers of short crime fiction. If we could crack that tough nut, a proliferation of publications would likely follow. —Janet Hutchings

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14 Responses to Expecting the (Un)expected (by Janet Hutchings)

  1. Lou manfredo says:

    Terrific and refreshingly honest piece, with an insight or two passed along to we EQMM hopefuls. I’m re-reading in search of further clues to help me win you over with one of my future submissions. Thanks!

  2. Josh Pachter says:

    You’ve made excellent points here, Janet. The most important thing, in my opinion — and this is surely preaching to the choir here at “Something Is Going to Happen” — is that people in the community really need to step up and support the marketplace. If you don’t already subscribe to EQMM and AHMM and BCMM and MM, folks, please do! If you can afford them all, subscribe to the ones you *can* afford. Give subscriptions as holiday presents. Encourage your family and friends and readers to subscribe.

  3. Katherine Page says:

    Much food for thought here! Bravo…


  4. Janet Hutchings says:

    Thanks, Lou, Josh, and, Katherine for your comments. Josh, I’d like to make a suggestion to all writers who want to see the mystery magazines you mentioned survive: If every writer took the money they saved when submissions went electronic (and became free) and put it toward a subscription to at least one of the mystery magazines, the whole market would become more secure. Remember how much those paper submissions used to cost—and at today’s postal costs I’d guess that an average paper submission would cost close to $4.00 with SASE. If you average a dozen submissions per year, that saved money would more than cover a subscription to EQMM or AHMM. We take free submissions for granted these days, but there’s actually a cost to keeping these markets open, and that cost involves writers also becoming readers. Something to consider?

  5. Josh Pachter says:

    I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective, Janet, but of course you’re right. And don’t forget that you had to buy the 9″ x 12″ envelopes, and the typing paper. And then there was the *time*! If you messed up a page you had to type it over again — and then you had to go to the post office and wait on line until the clerk weighed the envelopes and pages and sold you the stamps! I spent *much* more money per year on submissions in those days than subscriptions to all of the major magazines costs me today.

    Of course the younger writers have always used a computer and submitted electronically, so I’m not sure this argument would work with them. All they’ll hear is some old guy yelling, “Hey, kid, get off my lawn!”…

  6. Dan Castro says:

    Thanks for the great article, Jan. Has EQMM considered placing a limit on the number of submissions from a single author (such as once every two weeks max)?

  7. Dan Castro says:

    Thanks for the great article, Janet. Has EQMM considered placing a limit on multiple submissions (maybe once every two months)?

  8. Janet says:

    Ha-ha!! So right, Josh. But nothing really comes free. If writers don’t support the magazines they want to have open as markets, some will no doubt end up in the position of small literary magazines, where they have to charge a fee per submission just in order to keep going. I can’t see the Dell magazines ending up in that position, but like everyone else, we’re faced with a difficult publishing climate these days. And historically, writers have not been good about subscribing. Years ago, we had a booth at Bouchercon—sent an extra staff member to the convention and had Michael Z. Lewin (a very entertaining guy!) helping to try to draw people to the table. Can you guess how many subscriptions we sold—at a convention that had (I believe) over a thousand people? Three per magazine! And it wasn’t because so many people at the convention already subscribed. (We asked!) So, I’d say that it’s in the interest of every writer who wants EQMM, AHMM, BCMM, MM, and The Strand to continue to exist as markets to subscribe to as many of them as they can afford—as you originally said!

    • J. R. Parsons says:

      Janet and Josh, well argued for subscription support. I’m still new to the mystery writing field and have yet to crack EQMM with a story; close once but no cigar as the hoary saying goes. But I subscribe to it (though I admit forgetting to renew promptly) and the other mentioned magazines. Not only do I enjoy reading short mystery/crime fiction (perfect for trains, planes, insomnia nights), but benefit as a writer by seeing the types of stories each publishes. It’s the only way I know to gauge editorial preferences—a bit like Janet’s ability to spot trends in a writer’s work. The cost of annual subscriptions is much less than a professional course and more beneficial, in my opinion.

  9. I love the perspective presented here, so thank you for this, Janet. I also wholly agree with Josh’s recommendation that, at the least, we have to support the publications that support crime/mystery writing. Beyond subscribing to the awesome publications cited in previous comments, I wonder how we can also encourage other readers to buy, subscribe, and support (in addition to continuing to write terrific fiction that readers will love, of course).

  10. Janet says:

    Thanks for all this great feedback. Dan, we really don’t want to have to restrict submissions in any way; we’d only do that if it got to the point where we simply could not keep up with the number of submissions. J.R. you make a good point: New writers would probably learn more that is pertinent to their submissions by subscribing to the magazines they want to be published in than they would from a writing class. Daniel, one thing we could all do to get more people interested in these magazines—something simple and cost free—is to pass our copies on to friends and family whenever we come across someone in our circle who might be interested. A lot of people, especially writers, say they don’t subscribe because they simply have no time to read the magazines and they pile up. That’s true for most people, at least now and then, I’d bet. But if you don’t have time to read a particular issue, why not lend it to someone who has more time. What used to be called “pass-along readership” was a pretty standard two-thirds of what many magazines once reported as circulation. I haven’t heard anything about that for a long time; in fact, I don’t often hear anyone mention lending issues to friends at all. Admittedly, sharing issues means that not all readers are paying for it, but the benefit of getting the magazines into more hands probably far outweighs any lost sales. These subscriptions really are not very expensive compared to most other forms of entertainment, so even if you don’t read every issue, having it available to pass along to others can be worthwhile. It helps to let people know we are there.

    • J. R. Parsons says:

      Janet, pass-along readership is exactly what I do with issues of both EQMM and AHMM. My copies eventually go into Little Free Libraries, most in my city, but a few end up in other cities when I’m traveling. Also several copies go to local youth and senior centers. And, if I’m looking for a gift for a mystery reader, I sometimes gift a subscription.

  11. Janet says:

    That all sounds great, J.R. I know a number of people who ended up subscribing after having occasional issues passed along by friends.

  12. Paul Scholz says:

    Always get my 2 issues of AHMM & EQMM from the Magzter app in Australia. Never tried Kindle.
    Hope that doesn’t change, but I’m on Magzter Gold for my Starburst, so it might go there, if anything.

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