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Welcome to the first volume of The Rejectonomicon, a cursed repository of knowledge centered on the dark arts of writing and submitting short fiction. In this column, I’ll answer your questions about submissions, rejections, writing, and everything in between. January kicks off with questions about publisher edits, contract red flags, and just what the hell is an alpha reader anyway? Let’s dive in.

When a piece has been accepted, what edits might you be asked to make? Have you ever been unhappy with the proposed edits?
—Gill

Great question. Most of the time, a publisher will tell you what kind of edits to expect right in the submission guidelines or in their sample contract. For example:

The Publisher will make no alterations to the Work’s text or title without the Author’s written approval in e-mail or hardcopy. Author will be provided with the Publisher’s proposed version of the work prior to publication and given sufficient time to review text. The Publisher reserves the right to make minor copyediting changes to conform the style of the text to its customary form and usage.

In my experience, the clause above is how most publishers approach editing. If they make any changes to your work beyond formatting concerns and fixing obvious errors, you will be informed of those changes and given the chance to review and approve them. These changes are still likely to be minor. For example, the editor might suggest you use a different word or restructure a sentence or two, but you won’t see big structural edits. If a publisher is interested in a story that requires more involved editing, they’ll probably send the author a re-write request with editorial feedback.

As to the second part of your question, I wouldn’t say I’ve been unhappy with proposed edits, but there have been a few I didn’t agree with. In those cases, I opened a dialogue with the editor, expressed my concerns, and each time we were able to come to a compromise that satisfied us both. I’ve yet to find an editor who wasn’t amenable to reasonable requests on this front.

What are some red flags to watch out for in publisher contracts? What should a good contract look like?
—Maggie

An important question every author should be asking. I’ll kick off my answer with the disclaimer that I am not an attorney or an agent, so my advice is based solely on my experience with publishing contracts as an author. With that out of the way, let me answer the second part of the question first.

What does a good publisher contract look like? Well, good is a subjective term, so I prefer a term like industry standard, and in the case of magazine contracts for genre stories, I can’t think of a better place to start than the SFWA model magazine contract, which you can find right here: https://www.sfwa.org/2015/09/01/sfwa-releases-a-new-model-magazine-contract/. This example contract is widely considered fair to both writers and publishers, protecting both, and you’ll find that many pro markets (and plenty others) base their contracts on the SFWA example.

Now, what should you watch out for in a publishing contract? Again, I’d refer you to the SFWA example. When you receive a contract from a publisher, compare it to the SFWA model and see how it stacks up. Many publishers will provide you with a sample contract in the guidelines, so you can often do this comparison before you submit.

Though I can’t provide a comprehensive answer in this short space, here are a few things I look for first when examining a publisher contract.

  • What rights are they purchasing and for how long?
  • What edits will they make to my story after it’s accepted?
  • Where will the story appear when it’s published? Print? Online? Audio? All three? (Also, does this align with the rights they’re purchasing?)
  • When and how will I be paid?

Now, of course these aren’t the only things I look for in a contract, but if any of these are missing or unclear, that might be a red flag.

What’s the difference between an Alpha reader and a Beta reader?
—Tracy

To my understanding, an alpha reader is someone who reads the first, first draft of your work. I’m talking about that absolute train wreck of a draft you’ve barely proofread. Obviously, this is a trusted individual who can give you valuable structural feedback and overlook how many times you used the words “massive” and “just” and the fact you maybe don’t understand how a semicolon works.

Beta readers have a slightly different role, and in my experience, they’re often paired with another type of reader, the critique partner. A critique partner is another writer you trust to read your manuscripts, someone who can give you feedback from an authorial perspective. A beta reader, on the other hand, is usually not a writer. They’re someone who can give you that every-person, general reader feedback that can be incredibly valuable. In both cases, these readers are reading a more refined draft than the alpha reader.

Personally, I don’t use an alpha reader, but I do use beta readers and critique partners. I just can’t bear the thought of someone reading my first, first draft. I’d die of shame.

How many times do you resubmit a piece before you give up on it?
—Paulene

Tough question. Opinions vary wildly on this topic. I know writers who give up on a piece after a few rejections and some who NEVER give up on a piece, even if it receives fifty rejections. I lean toward the latter, but I will trunk a piece if it’s truly getting nowhere. That said, the question I most often ask myself after a rejection is not if I should give up on a piece, it’s if I should revise it. Here’s a quick and dirty formula on how I decide based on the type of rejection the story last received.

  • Form Rejection: Form rejection don’t tell you much, especially in the first few submissions, so I almost always resubmit the story. If the form rejections start piling up, and I’m not receiving any feedback, I might consider revising.
  • Personal Rejection: Most of the time, the personal rejections I receive contain a few words of praise for the story and explain it was rejected for fit or some other reason not related to the writing. In this case, I’m definitely going to resubmit. If the personal rejection contains actual feedback on the piece, where the editor tells me what they didn’t like about the story, then I’ll think about that feedback for a day or two, and if it resonates, I’ll pull the story and revise. If it doesn’t, I’ll submit it somewhere else.
  • Hold/Shortlist Rejection: Kind of a rider that attaches to other rejections, but if a story of mine is held or shortlisted and then rejected, I’m more likely to resubmit it, especially if the rejection is a form letter. Often, you’ll get personal notes with shortlist rejections, and in that case, I’ll evaluate it like any other personal rejection.

Got a burning question about rejections, submissions, or writing? Fire it off to questions@rejectomancy.com, and maybe I’ll answer it on the next volume of The Rejectonomicon. Submission guidelines:

  1. Put REJECTONOMICON in the subject line of the email.
  2. Write your question in the body of the email. Try to keep it relatively brief.
  3. Please let me know if you’d like your first name published along with your question or if you’d like to remain anonymous.
  4. Please restrict your questions to the subjects of writing, submissions, and rejections. Those are pretty broad categories, though, and I’d be happy to field questions about my past career as a TTRPG game designer/editor and media tie-in writer.