Thoughts on biases and manuscript reading from the other side of the Atlantic

Via one of the blogs I follow (Amatopia), I found this interview with veteran author Paul Clayton. He talks a bit about his life and work and then he is asked about where he believes publishing is going and how his late works, most of them self-published, tie with that.

Clayton claims traditional self-publishing is too slow and that the selection process has become incestuous, compromised by what I guess could be described as either identity politics or just a very homogenous editorial class.

But I was never one of these dominant, mega-selling, white males. I was a “mid-list” author, as my first agent told me. But now, anybody that looks and sounds like me, is, in my opinion, wasting their time trying to get past the 20-year-old female, or feminized male, junior acquisition editors and interns. Especially if they write about what I would describe as “traditional America and Americans.”

But along came eBooks and they have given my writing career, such as it is, new life, although not as vibrant and visible as traditionally published books. You CAN publish without waiting five years, but so can everyone else.

The part in bold is mine and also the focus of this post. When I read that, my first thought was, ‘why would any acquisition editors know, or have the need to know, how you look?’ I know that’s a very literal reading of what he is saying, but bear with me because that’s something that has puzzled me these past years as I waded through the editorial and acquisition processes of the English-speaking literary world.

If Clayton had just said “that sounds/writes like me” then sure, that might be a bias, but of content—quite simply, the editors don’t like, for whatever reason, good, bad, or irrational, the type of stuff he writes. But he (and other people sharing similar stories) usually add something like the highlighted part, about how they look. Meaning: name, gender, race, etc. Their identity or, rather, the one they are assigned (e.g. ‘white male’.) But here’s the question: why would any slush pile reader, or even the top editor, have to know that?

If you send a paper to a scientific journal, the people who read it to know if they accept it don’t (or shouldn’t) know who the author is. Why should stories or books be different?

I don’t know how traditional publishing works in regards to books, but when I look around for markets for short stories (magazines and the like) I’m always amazed by how many flat-out ask me to tell them something about me, even asking for a cover letter and my publishing story. And that’s the first thing they will read. Or they ask you to follow the “standard manuscript” template, which has your name at the top of every single page. What kind of blind review process is that? They may as well ask you to show them your entire social media presence and perhaps your social security number.

The reviewers should know absolutely nothing about the authors they are reviewing. Like authors (usually) know nothing about the reviewers. This naturally won’t eliminate the content bias against, let’s say, “traditional America and Americans” or whatever personal dislikes the editor may have. There’s not much you can do about that, at least not in the short term, but it should remove personal, perhaps unconscious biases or ingrained preferences.

I have seen magazines with about 80 to 100% of their material published in each issue being written by women, with nothing inherently feminine about the genre (unlike, let’s say, sword & sorcery stories about buffed up barbarians, which I assume will mostly pull in stories by men.) Now, it could be that men and women write differently and the editors just prefer how/what women write. Sure, but since these magazines also happen to have notably non-blind submission processes, I’ll go with the hypothesis that they happen to have a weakness for female names at the top of their manuscripts and that that’s the first thing they notice.

And here’s the question: why should any author put up with this? Why are editors or manuscript readers even given the chance to know anything about you? Unless you are cobbling together an anthology by writers of a certain kind or type, who cares? Let me tell you how I believe this entire process could be better done.

Unlike in the United States, the Spanish-speaking world doesn’t have a strong tradition of literary magazines, certainly not in genre literature. There may be a few small indie magazines but there’s no equivalent to horror, fantasy or science fiction magazines like Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and so on. However, there’s a strong tradition of literary awards, especially in Spain, but also in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, etc. There are tons of them. Even business, from hotel companies to wineries, sometimes make up their own small literary awards and the reviewing process is pretty much standardized, and it’s a strict double-blind process.

All of them ask you to send them your story as an attached file, but this file should contain absolutely no information about you. If somehow they can glean some information about you, you are immediately disqualified. In fact, some are so extreme they will disqualify you if your name or gender can be known thanks to your email address. Then there’s a second, separate file attached, with your contact and personal information. This second file is only opened if your story is chosen as a winner. If not, the reviewer will never know anything about the authors of the rejected stories. There are no rejection letters, by the way, which are another subject that confuses me.

Why should there be any rejection letters in the first place? It should be explicitly set out in the submission guidelines that if you don’t get an affirmative response in X (ideally weeks, not months,) it is assumed your story has been rejected. Why would you need a letter telling you that you didn’t win? These letters never give any useful advice anyway and most of them are clearly template letters so it’s a waste of everybody’s time.

These two things I have mentioned may also fix the problem some indie editors have when making acquisitions: that they may know the authors that send the stories and they don’t really want to write rejection letters to people they know (or to anybody.) If the reviewing process is really double-blind, then you won’t know who sends what, and if there are no rejection letters, you’ll only know the identity of the chosen stories when you open the second file to discover who the author is.

I don’t believe this system is complicated and I’m surprised it isn’t used more (I believe Writers of the Future does something like that and a couple magazines I know too.) It has been in use for a long time, even before the Internet, but then it was done by mailing two envelopes instead of attaching two files. It’s simple and it makes everybody’s job easier and less stressful, and with good (i.e. fast) manuscript readers you can empty the manuscript pile in days, not months like seems to be the current norm (I’m still waiting for an answer about a story I sent to a magazine like a year ago.) Honestly, set a deadline and just read the first two sentences or first paragraph and a few sentences at random if you still harbor some doubts, and that should be enough to disqualify at least more than half of the manuscripts. This may seem unfair or even cruel to the writers, but it really isn’t: this way they will know in days that they didn’t get accepted and they won’t have to wait an eternity, their stories frozen and unproductive because they are waiting for an answer that will be negative anyway.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, all of this won’t fix preferences or biases in the content of the stories being selected (which may or may not be related to gender and other things) that’s human nature and a long battle to fight if you are into that sort of stuff, but it will make outright biases harder to appear and, with some extra improvements in the way manuscripts are processes, make the circulation of stories run faster.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on biases and manuscript reading from the other side of the Atlantic

  1. Two things are pertinent in my opinion. In the 21st century and honestly even in the 20th marketing departments and publishers did not depend on just selling a good book but a total lifestyle brand. When you pick up NKJemison you are picking up a brand and making a statement. It’s not just about the book but the brand itself. Tor now prides itself in being the progressive leader and Baen’s marketing gimmick is the libertarian mil-scifi anti-Tor. It’s lifestyle brands. Publishers don’t want to be in the background, they want to be Apple.

    Second, I agree with you that we follow some ridiculous business conventions. The one I can’t stand is when magazines refuse to accept simultaneous submissions. I say fuck that, I always submit to everyone at once. I’m selling a product, you either want it or not, and I will sell it to the best offer. I’m not bowing and scraping for the fucking pitiful pay. Magazines aren’t doing me a favor, we are engaging in a mutual exchange.

    Liked by 2 people

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