By Sarah Sasson
Three years ago, I embarked on my maiden voyage as a literary anthology editor. As someone who had studied both English literature and medicine, I had a longstanding interest in the interface of healthcare and the arts. I was interested in exploring how experiences of physical and mental illness and incapacitation change a person’s body, who they are and how they see the world, and also how these events affect the people closest to them. Signs of Life was a medical humanities endeavour; writers were asked to submit fiction or memoir from the point of view of either a patient, caregiver or family member. As part of the project, I contracted and worked with illustrator Melanie van Kessel and copyeditor Kate Goldsworthy, but much of those early stages—of idea conception, promotion on Facebook and Twitter and through writers’ centres, and setting up the Submittable portal, I did on my own. While I had some plans to pitch to traditional publishing houses, I also went into this process open to exploring self-publishing options.
I was also a writer of the emerging kind. I’d completed my first literary fiction manuscript and was in the process of submitting to agents and publishers. I could see that any road to publication would be long, and so part of my motivation for creating the anthology was the simple desire of making a book. I must admit I was plagued by the (somewhat outdated) label of self-publishers as ‘vanity presses’; to counter that idea I decided that if I were to self-publish, I would do it as part of a collective, and that the writing would have a strong social message. Continuously submitting my novel and other works for publication, I also became interested in what happened through the submission portal, on the editor’s side of the process. How did successful writers pitch their work? What made a piece stand out? When did an editor know to hit that rare forest green ‘Accepted’ button in Submittable?
After reading nearly 200 submissions from around the globe and whittling them down to 26 for publication, here’s what I learned as a first-time editor:
1. Put down the scattergun
When submissions opened, I was flooded with entries which, confusingly, had no discernible link to the anthology theme of illness and caregiving. I scoured their cover letters looking for any hints as to how the stories might be a good fit. After a few entries I realised that some writers were taking a scattergun approach to publication: they had a completed piece and had taken every opportunity to submit it with a generic cover letter.
In no uncertain terms: don’t do this.
It’s very confusing to editors trying to figure out why the submission was made, it wastes production time and it will not endear you to publications in the long-term. Also, it’s misspent energy for the writer. I must admit I’ve made an analogous error with a poetry submission early in my writing journey, where I submitted a several-page poem to a major Australian literary journal. It was rejected. Later, when holding a physical copy of the journal in my hands, I realised that most of its selected poems were quite short: usually only a couple of verses. This appeared, at least in part, due to the design of the print journal; the poems were located in the corners of the layout and surrounded by the text of longer-form work. My poem might well have not been up to standard, but there was probably also little chance the journal would publish such a lengthy poem. My advice, then, is to have a very clear understanding of why you are submitting a particular piece to an anthology or journal. Buy physical copies of publications to get a feel for their tone and layout—arming yourself with this knowledge will increase your overall hit rate.
2. Make your cover letter count
I was gobsmacked by how many writers discarded the opportunity to orientate the editor to their work and to place their piece in a broader context via the cover letter. Some of the more memorable ‘letters’ typed two words into the submission form field, for example ‘read it’ or ‘it’s good’. I always looked at a cover letter before the piece; I used it to inform me about what subjects would be tackled. It was a mental whetting of the appetite—akin to finding out the genre of a movie before seeing it or to watching the trailer. The cover letter primed my expectations during the first viewing, so that I could read with an editorial eye from the outset; it allowed me to think such things as If accepted, the author might elaborate on this section. In general, the cover letter facilitated my engagement with the work more effectively.
I was also interested in the writer biography. Were they telling this story from first-hand experience? Did they have a meaningful link to the theme?
Again, there were some two-word offerings: ‘utterly handsome’ (again: don’t do this).
While I was curious about a writer’s publication history, this was not a prerequisite. In fact, one of the standout cover letters mentioned that ‘if accepted this would be my first publication’. In looking for vulnerable honesty in writing, you can’t really trump that authenticity of voice (that piece was accepted). Omitting or rushing the cover letter is a lost opportunity. While it doesn’t have to be exhaustive, use the cover letter to orient the reader, pique their interest and share a bit about yourself and your relationship to the publication.
3. Learn how to handle rejection
I was fortunate that no-one had a dramatic reaction to not being selected for publication. I did receive negative feedback from some writers whose submissions were rejected prior to the closing date. They expressed it had made them feel like their work was easily rejected or not under serious consideration for inclusion. From the editorial side, that process was affected by the long submission window of six months, and the fact that I didn’t want to hold on to pieces that I had decided not to publish for longer than required. However, the responses I received conveyed that this process was particularly gutting for writers. Given those reactions, I would reconsider this process in future projects, as it is not my intention to unduly demoralise writers.
But rejection does happen: both before closure dates and after—so what is the best way to handle it? Firstly, there is no need to respond to the editor at all. The editor or publication will be sending out far more rejection letter than acceptances and they will not expect a reply. If you do respond, it’s always best to be somewhat gracious (despite nursing the inevitable ego-bruise of rejection). I received multiple emails from writers whose work was not selected expressing they were looking forward to reading and supporting the anthology, regardless. These emails often came from writers in caregiving roles who felt that they were not heard or represented in literature (or in general). Which is to say, even when a writer is not accepted in the short term, there is an opportunity in that space to open a dialogue. Publishing is littered with stories of initial setbacks that led to new associations and subsequent, related successes.
Finally, it’s important to take note of and understand your rejection letter. Generally, there are three kinds of rejection in publishing: first, a form rejection which is basically a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ sent to a large number of people. The second is a ‘tiered rejection’, where there is an indication that the work stood out and was under serious consideration. For the anthology I longlisted 50 stories prior to the final selection and I was sure to let the authors know if they had made this longlist. The third is a personalised rejection, where the editor has clearly sat down to write a specific communication to a writer.
In my experience, I had a situation where two longlisted and excellent pieces were about the same quite specific medical condition. In an anthology of 26 pieces covering the breadth of physical and mental illness, there just wasn’t room to publish both in a balanced collection. It was difficult to decide between them, and when I did I wrote a personalised rejection to the unsuccessful author explaining the situation so they could understand that the editorial decision was made at the level of the anthology’s composition and not solely based on the merits of the individual work.
As I progress as a writer, I’ve received personalised rejections from major unpublished manuscript programs; somewhat surprisingly to me, these rejections have actually been career highlights and also sources of motivation to persevere with a manuscript. Which is to say, if you receive a personalised rejection, try to take it in the spirit it was likely sent: it means your craft is strong and you are on to something.
4. Build your writing community
When I committed to writing seriously, I imagined that there might be a moment, through signing with an agent, or landing a traditional publishing deal, or making a shortlist, after which I would feel like a bona fide writer. Instead, what I’ve found is that encouraging and lasting relationships in the literary sphere have often come in quieter moments. Meaningful support and encouragement within writing and publishing have come from: enrolling in courses, forming a writers’ group, finding beta readers, working with professional editors, and interacting with authors on social media and at writers’ festivals. When I conceived Signs of Life, my literary relationships were few. Now, as a direct result of it, I have a new network of scribes across multiple continents, and we have continued to support and champion each other’s work. So far, following the anthology, we’ve had four contributors sign traditional publishing contracts (including two who were winners of the Australian Penguin Literary Prize) and one author who was longlisted for the 2022 Richell Prize. So while you might have the ambition to sign a multiple book contract with a Big Five publisher, consider being open to other possibilities along the way, such as smaller grassroots ventures, which might result in new and inspiring connections.
Sarah Sasson is a physician-writer living on Gadigal and Bidjigal land in Sydney. Her editorial debut Signs of Life—an anthology (MoshPit Publishing, 2021) explores first- and second-hand experiences of physical and mental illness and caregiving, and was included on Kirkus Reviews’ 2022 list of 28 Indie Books Worth Discovering. Sarah’s debut literary fiction novel is forthcoming with Affirm Press in 2023. Follow Sarah on twitter @sarah_sasson and Instagram @sarahsassonwrites.
Cover image: Scattered lights shine in a myriad of colours. Photo by Sarah Sasson. Used with permission.