On Blind Submissions

Image by Wiertz Sébastien

This week, one of my readers asked about blind submissions and whether they’re an effective tool for editors to ensure that a magazine or anthology contains a good mix of authors and content.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a “blind” submission involves a publication stripping an author’s identity from their manuscript before an editor evaluates it for publication. The idea is that if an acquiring editor doesn’t know who wrote any of the pieces he or she is reading, he or she can’t be swayed by things like an author’s apparent gender or professional reputation. So the idea is that all submissions get a fairer evaluation than if the editor goes in knowing who wrote what.

Do Blind Submissions Really Prevent Biased Evaluations?

Blind submissions can prevent overt cases of bias against or favoritism towards individual writers —assuming an editor doesn’t recognize a writer through his or her style. And they do put new, unknown writers on a more level playing field with their published peers.

However, blind submissions don’t really do much if unexamined or unaddressed editorial biases are at work. If, say, a horror editor is primed to think that a quietly creepy ghost story focusing on a toxic mother/daughter relationship is inherently less interesting and worthy of publication than a story where the only female character has no depth or agency and exists solely to be graphically tortured to death … a blind submissions process won’t fix that.

I’ve encountered a few editors who claim that their taste is what it is and they can’t possibly change it. And that’s simply not true. People’s tastes change as their knowledge and experiences change. Literary taste is in no way, shape, manner or form some static, immutable trait. Good professional editors strive to develop their own tastes and work to interrogate their own biases.

Calls For Submissions Shouldn’t Be Blind

There’s also the issue of where and how calls for submissions are posted, and how they are phrased. If a call is only posted to places that aren’t frequented by women or nonwhite writers, or the text (or subtext) of the announcement leads women, LGBTQ or nonwhite writers to think that they’d be wasting their time submitting … it doesn’t matter how blind the submissions are. They’re going to have a hugely white-, straight-, male-penned pool of manuscripts to select from.

I see some editors just sort of throwing up their hands: “Well, we used blind submissions! We can’t print what we didn’t receive!” They flail around as if they’re helpless instead of saying, “Hey, maybe we’re not actually doing all we can to connect with and attract a broader pool of submissions.”

Or, they say, “Hey, 25% of our submissions were from women and 10% were people of color; that statistically fits with what most publications like ours get, so things are fine,” instead of saying, “You know what? Those numbers are symptomatic of industry-wide underrepresentation, and we could do better.”

For instance, one of the things that could very well discourage submissions is if a call lists the “name” writers a magazine has published … and all those names are white, or most are men. That automatically signals editorial bias. The same thing can happen if a prospective writer looks up past issues or anthologies from a publisher and sees that the contributors are vastly white and male. So, if a publisher has recognized that they haven’t done well in the past, they need to acknowledge or mitigate that in some way in their new calls for submissions.

Publications with a focus on certain genres may be inadvertently signaling that they’re not interested in submissions from underrepresented groups. Take pulp fiction, military SF, or Lovecraftian fiction, for instance. Those genres have a lot of baggage associated with them (and for good reason). Nonetheless, there are many women writers, LGBTQ writers, and writers of color who do work in those genres … I have written entire books of Lovecraftian fiction the past several years, largely due to invitations, and I’ve run with it. But even I approach new weird fiction markets with a mix of interest and skepticism, and in a call I’m definitely looking for signs that the market is aware of and is interested in mitigating the racism and sexism etc. that used to be endemic in Lovecraftian writing.

The Importance of Invitations

Blind submissions can create marketing problems. It’s a wonderful thing to publish new voices, but if your ToC is composed of entirely new writers, that generally makes sales a lot more challenging. If gaining exposure and readers is a goal — and it typically is — new writers seldom benefit from appearing in publications entirely stocked with other unknowns. Having at least one or two “names” in an anthology or issue can make a big difference.

A way to strike a good balance is to craft a submissions announcement carefully, spread it widely, and employ blind reading of submissions (if you feel that’s helpful) … but also supplement that by directly inviting the writers whose work you want to see to contribute to your anthology or magazine. Don’t just assume (or hope) that they’ll see your call posted on your site or a market list; send a direct invitation.

Open calls for submissions (whether they involve blind evaluations or not) are going to miss a lot of working professional writers. Why? We stay really busy responding to anthologies and other projects that we’ve been specifically invited to write for. Writing purely on speculation takes extra time. And without an invitation, we don’t have any guarantees that the whole thing won’t be a waste of our time and effort.

I just don’t spend a whole lot of time looking over the open calls pages because I already have a lot on my plate at any given time. With an invitation,

  1. I definitely know about the project, and
  2. There’s the implication that the editor will work with me or give me another chance if my submission isn’t what he or she wanted.

(Editors who invite me and then send me a form rejection after I’ve taken the time to tailor a story to fit their project end up on my “do not work with” list really fast.)

And that’s assuming the project in question pays a decent professional rate. For three cents a word I can offer you a wide array of reprints; I’m not writing an original for you, sorry. And I’m not a diva outlier there – professionals generally expect pro rates because we do this for a living.

And women, LGBTQ and nonwhite writers are likely to be a bit more concerned about the financial end because demographically they have less personal wealth than white male writers. Expecting good writers to give new work away for free (or to pay reading or contest fees for the privilege of being considered for publication) has some classist assumptions built in, and a lot of working pros aren’t onboard with that.

The upshot is, an open call (read blind or not) often won’t result in an ideal submissions pool because you’re going to miss a lot of pros who would really elevate the quality of your publication. So invitations are important, and the key to making effective invitations is to have read widely and be aware of who’s writing what. (If, off the top of your head, you can only think of two black writers you might invite? That’s your cue to gain greater awareness of who’s working.)


Image courtesy Sébastien Wiertz.

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